“Human Tongue Cannot Tell”: Dialect, Lyricism, and Anti-Slavery Arguments in William Wells Browns' The Escape, or A Leap for Freedom (1858)

Jillian Fields


Examining the dialogue of the 1858 drama reveals a great deal about the characterizations within the play and of the society in which the playwright lived. The various characters utilize language that often indicates or challenges both their placement within society and the hierarchy of color within the play. Textual analysis reveals that the house slave Cato, a character easily recognized for his sense of self-importance, is consistent in his use of malapropisms, which contrast starkly with the delusions of grandeur Cato possesses. In contrast, the dialogue of protagonists Glen and Melinda reads poetically. They use dialogue that seems lyrical, reminiscent of Shakespeare. Conversely, the slave owners speak in colloquial and unsophisticated terms, thus placing them lower on the spectrum than their slaves. This reading can be applied to each of the characters in the drama, effectively placing them on a social spectrum within the work, which does not mirror that of society at the time. Instead, the sympathetic protagonists appear morally and intellectually superior to their antagonists – the supporters of slave society – indicating that Brown uses the changes in vocabulary as a vehicle to indicate not only the character’s social standing, but also their position on slavery.


William Wells Brown, Abolition, Dialect, American Drama, African-American Writers

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