American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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For a Commonplace Book 7

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I found this gleeful dirge while poking through Documenting the American South; it comes from Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-four Years a Slave (1857), one of four “Songs of Freedom” appended to the final chapter — an antidote to the tearful death scenes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

The Slave’s Song When the Tyrant Master Dies

Come all my brethren and let us take a rest,
While the moon shines so bright and so clear;
Old master has died, and left us all at last,
He has gone to the bar to appear.
CHORUS: — Brethren, hang up the shovel and the hoe,
Take down the fiddle and the bow;
Old master’s gone to the slaveholder’s rest,
He’s gone where they all ought to go.

He will no more trample on the neck of the slave,
His back he’ll no longer score;
Old master is dead and he’s laying in his grave,
He is gone where they all ought to go.
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.

I heard the old doctor say, the other night,
As he passed by the dining room door,
“Perhaps the old gentleman may live thro’ the night,
But I think he will die about four.”
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.

Then old mistress sent me, at the peril of my life,
For the pastor to come down to pray;
“For,” says she, “old master is now about to die;”
And I says, “God speed him on his way.”
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.

At four o’clock this morning the family were called
Around the old man’s dying bed,
And I tell you now I laughed to myself when I was told
That the old man’s spirit had fled.
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.

The children all did grieve, and so did I pretend;
The old mistress nearly went mad;
And the old parson groaned so that the heavens fairly rend,
But I tell you now I felt mighty glad.
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.


Written by Ben Friedlander

December 19, 2009 at 11:31 pm

The Birth of Poetry

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waldenA story too precious to keep to myself. I found it by way of Vernon Loggins, The Negro Author in America (1931), but it comes from the introduction to Walden’s Miscellanous Poems (1872).

But first some background.

Islay Walden was born into slavery in Randolph County, North Carolina; emancipated at age 22 at the end of the Civil War.

Critics have linked Walden to George Moses Horton (about whom I wrote briefly here), not only because both were born into slavery — in the same state — but also because both became poets before gaining literacy. Horton’s story is the more striking. He published his work in the South while still a slave — hoping, in fact, to earn enough money to buy his freedom — but Walden’s career is a worthy sequel. Unlettered at the time of Emancipation, he worked his way North, performing manual labor, lecturing, and selling poems. He had been a prodigy with numbers as a child, performing feats of calculation in public, and this must have made him an effective speaker. In Washington, he helped to organize Sabbath Schools, and later attended Howard University, his tuition paid by a church in New Jersey. Walden’s Miscellaneous Poems appeared while he was still a student.

The book is very evocative of Reconstruction, especially in its framing details. Dedicated “to the cause of education and humanity,” it begins with a letter from the War Department (commending Walden for his work on the Sabbath Schools), and follows this with a brief endorsement from Howard. Books in the slavery era used documents in the same way, but there the aim was abolition, hence the emphasis fell on the bare fact of a slave’s humanity. Here, humanity is taken for granted; the aim is improving conditions of life.

Apart from the poems, the book includes letters by Walden himself, especially in the second, enlarged edition of 1873 (text here). There is also a brief introduction (signed “C. C. H.”), which tells the story of how Walden became a poet. The story must come from the poet himself, and it makes me long for a full autobiography:

When about eighteen years old he was engaged at a gold mine in driving oxen. The owner was a very passionate man, and was so angry one day that he was about to strike an ox to the ground with a mattock. Walden remonstrated, saying, “The ox will die.” It fell dead in a few moments. They threw its body into a pit where a shaft had been sunk, and while they were standing over it Walden made and recited impromptu his first verses–

“Poor Old Dick,
He died quick!
He died all in a minute.
Here is a shaft thirty feet,
And we have thrown him in it.

He was red,
And he is dead!
The buzzards may forsake him;
For he is buried thirty feet,
Where they can never get him.”

After he had repeated this the man says, “Walden, you are a poet.” Walden asked, “What is a poet?” He replied, “One who writes poetry.” “What is poetry?” asked Walden. The man explained by asking him if he did not know what hymns are? &c.

From this time he was running over rhymes in his head, and longing to learn.

Isn’t poetry wonderful that way? Humble in origin, even doggerel can be its true spark.

After finishing his studies, Walden succeeded in bringing out a second collection, but critics have dismissed it out of hand. Joan R. Sherman calls it “uninspired and repetitious,” and Loggins goes further, saying “[it] proves that education had spoiled whatever poet there had been in Walden.” I haven’t seen this book, but I don’t doubt the judgments are correct. The thing is, Walden didn’t want to remain unlettered, and didn’t live at a time when he might have been both sophisticated and folk. Not in the manner of Langston Hughes, who managed to synthesize the two (and Hughes came from the middle class, a very different vantage on the problem). Absent that possibility, Walden’s only option was to be a different kind of poet after Howard than before. In effect, he had to start over.[1]

Of course, it’s hard in any era to be two kinds of poet, one on each side of a threshold. But Walden at least had the chance. Horton didn’t.


1 [Back to text] I discount here the later example of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who wrote genteel verses and dialect at the same time, as this way of being “both” would have still required Walden to be genteel. In effect, his output was very much like Dunbar’s, with the two aspects coming sequentially, however, instead of at the same time. And only one of the, apparently, successful.

Shakespeare in a Log Cabin (Random Thoughts from a New Semester)

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Production photo for The Gladiator

Production photo for The Gladiator

I’m teaching a class this fall with the inherited title “American Romantics.” I have no idea what that actually means, but I’ve never been a letter of the law kind of fellow, so I’m approaching this course as a mixed-genre survey, not limiting myself to any single period style. Assuming that Romanticism is a style — I find these kinds of terms perplexing. Myself, I like a course name easily explained on the first day of class. American Vulgarians would be just about perfect.

Anyway, even Romanticists now teach and write about the entire period, so my approach is probably more doctrinaire than antinomian, even for those who find the label “American Romantics” meaningful. Or still meaningful, since it did hold sway for a generation. But no longer than that! Nineteenth-century American literature has never had a stable syllabus. Which is one of the things I like about it.

My own tendency has been to shift focus from a small circle of writers to a small number of decades, though a 15-week semester is far too short to accommodate more than a few writers anyway. But I try. That is, I try to give “period” precedence over “author.” A very slight precedence, one that is hardly sufficient for overcoming the vast precedence authors assume in our imaginations.

To bring decades alive, without letting history crowd out every other consideration — it’s hard! But one method I’ve found productive is using my students’ own preconceptions as a guide. Basically, we start with a speculative model, then read and research with an eye toward improving it. This time, for example, my students volunteered that antebellum writers (as they imagined them) were an urban, educated elite out of touch with the rural and largely illiterate majority. A hypothesis we’ll be testing throughout the semester, so I won’t say too much about it here. But since I did point the class toward the University of Virginia’s Historical Census Browser (a useful site for following through on one’s intuitions), let me offer a small factual correction to their characterization. According to the 1840 census, the first to include data about education, the ability to read and write was far more widespread than my students guessed. Here are the figures for Maine, which is where I teach: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 13, 2009 at 3:22 pm