American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘slavery

Provenance

leave a comment »

(click on the image for a larger view)

Not poetry-related, but I thought I’d share anyway. The story of a book…

In the course of doing some prep work for next semester, I learned that the Bangor Public Library owns an original printing of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1860), the classic slave narrative by Harriet Jacobs. I love to hold an original edition, and this one in particular called out to me, as the author herself arranged for publication. It’s entirely credible to me that Jacobs once held this very copy in her hands.

So today I stopped by the library to take a look.

Because the book is precious, it’s kept in what’s called the  “cage,” an unfortunate designation given what Jacobs writes at the christening of her daughter:

When we left the church, my father’s old mistress invited me to go home with her. She clasped a gold chain round my baby’s neck. I thanked her for this kindness; but I did not like the emblem. I wanted no chain to be fastened on my daughter, not even if its links were of gold. How earnestly I prayed that she might never feel the weight of slavery’s chain, whose iron entereth into the soul!

But then again, maybe Jacobs would have appreciated the irony. The sentences above come at the end of a chapter called “Another Link to Life” — the other link being that very daughter gifted with a gold chain.

(click on the image for a larger view)

You can see from the photo above that the book was rebound at some point, with an art deco motif on the cover. I’m no expert on cover designs, but I’m guessing that this binding was added several years after donation, since art deco is associated with the later twenties and the book was given in 1918, as the book plate on the left indicates. The Bangor Public Library has a fair number of nineteenth-century items, many of them with original bindings, so there’s no reason to think the cover would have been changed as a matter of course. The point matters only because it gives some sense of how often the book was handled. I’d like to think it was handled often — often enough to require rebinding.

The book’s donor was Mary R. Spratt, principal of a now-defunct school on State Street, a fact I discovered with assistance from one of the reference librarians. I was curious about the book’s provenance, and thought there might be a story in it. The slave narrative was a neglected genre at the beginning of the twentieth century, little relied on even by historians of the period. This made me wonder about the person who cherished the book, who thought it important enough to give it to her city. I found the answer in an old newspaper file, an article on Spratt from the Bangor Daily Commercial, May 29, 1920: Read the rest of this entry »

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

leave a comment »

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