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3 - Witness against Slavery: John Greenleaf Whittier, William Wells Brown, and Lydia Huntley Sigourney

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2024

Brian Yothers
Affiliation:
St Louis University, Missouri
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Summary

Horton, Pierpont, and Longfellow offer a version of nineteenth-century antislavery poetry as an emerging genre: Pierpont did not have the national visibility of Longfellow; Horton wrote from within the confines of his enslavement; and Longfellow's quest for a broad audience meant that antislavery poetry played a relatively limited role in his career even as it provided the subject matter for one of his earliest collections of poetry. It was possible, however, for poets to be broadly popular and national in their appeal and to write and collect antislavery verse as a major component of their poetic mission, and in this chapter I will consider three examples of how popular poets and anthologists could be defined in meaningful ways by their antislavery sensibilities, and particularly, in Whittier's case, by writing poetry aimed directly at abolition in the years in which the abolition movement was gaining momentum.

In this chapter I consider two of the nineteenth-century's most popular poets, the Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier, known to contemporaries as “the slave's poet,” and the “sweet singer of Hartford,” Lydia Huntley Sigourney, along with a figure who is better known as a novelist (indeed the author of Clotel, Or The President's Daughter, the first full-length African American novel), William Wells Brown. I consider the array of poetic forms that Whittier and Sigourney used in their antislavery verse and that Brown anthologized in his important collection of antislavery poetry, The Anti-Slavery Harp, and I suggest that their antislavery verse can be illuminated by surveying broader patterns in their bodies of work. Notably, the positions that Sigourney and Whittier took on slavery were distinct, as Sigourney was an early supporter of the American Colonization Society, which advocated the emigration of enslaved people to Africa, and Whittier was a sharp critic of colonizationism, and the percentage of Sigourney's poetry devoted to slavery was relative low, while Whittier's percentage of poems about slavery in the antebellum period was notably high, but they shared a common emphasis on human fraternity and sorority and equality that mean that there are important continuities between the moderate from Hartford and the fierce abolitionist. Brown, meanwhile, writing as a formerly enslaved person himself, offered a heartrendingly personal version of the affective elements and calls for empathy that appeared in Sigourney's and Whittier's poetry.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2023

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