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2 - Antislavery Poetry in Public: George Moses Horton, John Pierpont, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2024

Brian Yothers
Affiliation:
St Louis University, Missouri
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Summary

The development of antislavery poetry in the United States brought together a cast of characters who might seem to share little aside from their opposition to slavery. When we look at poets as different as an enslaved man from North Carolina, a white radical Unitarian minister from Connecticut, and an irenic Harvard professor of languages whose poetry was wildly popular around the English-speaking world, we see the range of the community that developed under the rubric of antislavery poetry. Juxtaposing these very different figures suggests how the moral impulses associated with the antislavery movement could find expression in a variety of aesthetic modes.

In all three cases, we see examples of a poetry and a poetics that is unabashedly public in its aims: Longfellow gave voice throughout his career to this desire to write the kind of poetry that ordinary people could share around the fireside, a desire that is eloquently expressed in his frequently anthologized (and sometimes parodied) poem “Day Is Done.” Pierpont wrote for antislavery journals like William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, constructing a poetic dialogue with the headlines of his time as they related to slavery. Horton's aims are perhaps the most public of those of all three of the poets, as he draws attention to the affective experience of slavery and gives voice to his desire for freedom in the sorts of public forums to which most enslaved people were denied access, even as his status as an enslaved person limited the explicitness with which he could write on antislavery topics.

This chapter thus brings together one of the nineteenth-century's most celebrated poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and, arguably, one of its most marginal and marginalized, George Moses Horton, along with John Pierpont, a figure of considerable renown in his own time who has virtually disappeared from American literary studies today (aside from one recent essay by Virginia Jackson discussed in the introduction to this volume and Monica Pelaez's inclusion of Pierpont in Lyrical Liberators). Horton's status as a poet who published as an enslaved man pairs usefully both with the verse of one of the most famous and widely praised Americans of his time (Longfellow) and that of a celebrated antislavery agitator (Pierpont) whose work has only recently started to be recovered.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2023

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