Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review--Galveston and the Civil War

Schmidt, James M. Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom. The History Press,  Charleston, SC. 2012. 155 pages, 129 pages of text, index, bibliography, notes, b/w photos, 1 map. ISBN 9781609492830, $19.99.

James M. Schmidt has earned a reputation for quality Civil War writing whether it be his medical column in Civil War News, his regularly updated blog Civil War Medicine (and Writing), his guest posts on various blogs, or his wide range of books.

In his new book Galveston and the Civil War Mr. Schmidt sets out three main goals: First is to provide readers a lively and well illustrated account of Galveston and the Civil War. Second is to add to the scholarship of Galveston by addressing subjects that have previously received little coverage. These include slavery, Unionist dissent, yellow fever, and the heroic actions of the Ursuline sisters. Lastly, to further add to the literature on the city by using previously unpublished primary resources. While I am far from an expert on the history of Galveston and admit to knowing little about the war there, I am convinced that all three goals have been achieved!

The book starts off strong with a discussion of slavery in Galveston and has Schmidt ably refuting the nineteenth century claims that slavery was not a major factor in the Galveston economy and also that slaves loved the island and did not want to leave. Just as the book starts strong towards one of the goals the ending (well, next to the last chapter) covers the yellow fever epidemics and the attempts of doctors to downplay the danger until it was too late. The period of 1837-1860 saw seven epidemics which left approximately 2,000 people dead. An 1864 outbreak left 259 dead with 117 being soldiers (more than double the number killed in the battle). Just after the war in 1867 more than 1,000 lost their lives to yellow fever with around 100 being soldiers.

Those who have read Mr. Schmidt's earlier book Notre Dame and the Civil War (IN): Marching Onward to Victory will expect nothing less than the expert treatment given to the Ursuline nuns, who despite potential danger to themselves treated the sick and wounded on both sides. While opinions were mixed their convent was offered to the Confederates to be used as a field hospital by Mother Saint Pierre Harrington, leader of the Galveston Ursuline nuns.

While these "overlooked" subjects are really the gem of the book in my view, the fighting is given good coverage. The island city was an important one for Confederates to hold. When the island was blockaded in 1861 by Union naval forces the Confederacy ultimately surrendered it in 1862. Almost immediately "Prince" John Magruder began making plans to retake the island leading to the New Years Day 1863 battle that returns Galveston to Confederate control. The land/sea battle produced approximately 150 casualties.

Mr. Schmidt has an enjoyable writing style that is easy to follow. The book is thoroughly researched and the notes and bibliography contain a nice mix of primary and secondary sources. As are most books from The History Press this one contains a large number of illustrations and photos. These are a nice mix of vintage and contemporary and help the reader visualize what is on the page.  This is a great introduction to the subject for those of us not familiar with the battle. For those with knowledge of the 1863 fight the seldom heard human interest stories are a great reason to pick up this book. Highly recommended!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

St. Augustine Slave Market Postcard with Racist Message on Back

Many of you will know I am working on a book dealing with St. Augustine, FL and the place/role of the city in the Civil War. I'm always on the lookout for photos I can use in the book. During a brief weekend shopping trip in St. Augustine to the outlet malls we went into the old city for a bit and wandered through some antique shops just to see what was there. 

I managed to come across a nice postcard from the 1930's of the "Old Slave Market". Now there is of course plenty of discussion to be found as to whether the structure was truly a slave market and some background history may be in order here.

St. Augustine was never a slave selling city in the way New Orleans or Charleston were. However there is documentary evidence showing that slaves were in fact sold in the city and that the market house area was used for auctions of humans. Historian David Nolan has uncovered advertisements such as this estate sale from 1834: "at the market House in the City of St. Augustine...A very prime gang of 30 Negroes, accustomed to the culture of sugar and cotton." He also provides evidence that the market was used as a place of public punishment for slaves as in 1840 slave Peter was "to receive fifteen lashes, in the market, on his bare back."

While Mr. Nolan does show that the "market" was used for the sale of slaves it is perhaps a bit dramatic to call it a "slave market". This term implies that was the major focus and that slave sales were a regular event. I have not seen evidence of such. The market was regularly used for the sale of meats and vegetables however. To not acknowledge the slave owning history of the city however does a disservice to the legacy of these men and women and also distorts history rather than face truth.

W. J. Harris
One of the main origins of the term "slave market" can be traced to photographer W. J. Harris. Harris was born in England in 1868 and immigrated to the United States in 1870 with his family. His early years were spent in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Around 1890 he began his career as a photographer. In the late 1890's he moved to St. Augustine opening Acme View Company which was located near the city gates on St. George St. Here he sold prints and postcards.  Perhaps his most famous card depicted the "old slave market"; a term which has stuck. In a later release of the card he included the following line on the reverse: "The old slave market in the east end of the Plaza is an interesting landmark of antebellum days. Called "slave market" by an enterprising photographer to make his picture sell." The Harris postcard is pictured below.
 State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

NOW back to the main part of the story. The postcard I discovered features "The Old Slave Market" on the front. What is most interesting about the card however is the inscription on the back.

Written July 10, 1939, postmarked in Miami Beach, FL, and being sent to Cleveland, OH the inscription reads: "We are wishing we had the skins of some of the slaves. It would be a little easier on us. Have done very little but loll & laze around. We are leaving Tuesday night for Havana. DZ & AH."  I was amazed but had to remember this was from a different time. For $4 I couldn't leave it.  Please see the scans of the front and back of the card below and make your own opinion .

Courtesy Christina and Robert Redd collection

Courtesy Christina and Robert Redd collection

Upcoming Posts--Books from The History Press

Thank you to my good friends at The History Press for sending along a couple of their new release books.

From author, blogger, educator, and Antietam park ranger John Hoptak comes an exciting new book on Gettysburg. Confrontation at Gettysburg: A Nation Saved, a Cause Lost (Civil War Sesquicentennial) is  best described by John himself.

From his blog:  As is stated in the book’s introduction, I set out on this project not attempting to pave new ground, nor to mine any new, undiscovered sources. From the start, I approached this more as a storyteller than a historian. Students of the battle will find nothing new here, for the intended audience all along was not those who already possess an understanding of the battle but those who are seeking a concise narrative; those who are seeking, perhaps for the first time, a general understanding of why the battle was fought, how it unfolded, and what happened as a result. My sources were by and large secondary, with the works of Coddington, Sears, Trudeau, Woodworth, Symonds, and especially Pfanz serving as my guides and providing the framework. Confrontation at Gettysburg is a short work, coming in at around 250 pages of text, with nearly 100 images and illustrations (including a number of incredible hand-drawn maps by my good friend Mannie Gentile, which will knock your socks off, supplemented by maps by Hal Jespersen), with a total of just over 90,000 words. . . retailing for $16.99. As with all things Gettysburg, the criticisms will surely come; for not focusing enough on the cavalry actions, for example, or perhaps my handling of Lee, Meade, Chamberlain and a host of others. But this, of course, is to be expected. My intention from day one was to write a clear and concise narrative of the campaign, a synthesis, with the hope being that I could both inspire further study and repay the faith placed in me by Doug Bostick and everyone at the History Press.

The Second Battle of Cabin Creek: Brilliant Victory (Civil War Sesquicentennial) is a new book from author Steven L. Warren.

From the publisher: The commander of the three-hundred-wagon Union supply train never expected a large ragtag group of Texans and Native Americans to attack during the dark of night in Union-held territory. But Brigadier Generals Richard Gano and Stand Watie defeated the unsuspecting Federals in the early morning hours of September 19, 1864, at Cabin Creek in the Cherokee nation. The legendary Watie, the only Native American general on either side, planned details of the raid for months. His preparation paid off--the Confederate troops captured wagons with supplies that would be worth more than $75 million today. Writer, producer and historian Steve Warren uncovers the untold story of the last raid at Cabin Creek in this Jefferson Davis Historical Gold Medal winning history.

Be sure to check out the Facebook page for the book. There are already a lot of great photos there.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Future of Civil War History

The Gettysburg National Military Park and Gettysburg College are teaming up for a March 2013 conference dealing with how to make Civil War history more engaging, accessible, and useful to public audiences particularly as the 150th anniversary passes. Scheduled speakers/panelists include David Blight, Scott Hartwig, John Hennessy, Brooks Simpson, and many more. Registration cost is $150.

Please visit the conference web site here.

A PDF of the proposed conference program can be seen here.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

UCV 1914 Reunion Video Available

Hemming Park in Downtown Jacksonville
illuminated for the 1914 UCV Reunion.
Photo from Kirby-Smith Camp 1209 website.
I personally have not seen this DVD but I came across this information today while doing research for my book.  The  Kirby-Smith Camp 1209 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is offering a DVD copy of the 1914 United Confederate Veterans Convention that was held in Jacksonville, FL. This is a silent film that has been transferred from newsreel film. I would imagine the quality is not the highest but it's only $13 and all funds go toward the camp's historical marker program.

The direct page for information on this DVD is here.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Upcoming Post--The Civil War in Color

Thanks go out to the good folks at Sterling Publishing for sending along a copy of their wonderful looking new book The Civil War in Color: A Photographic Reenactment of the War Between the States.

The author John C. Guntzelman has taken photos from the Library of Congress and as he says "These photos are no longer just dusty old pictures, but rather have become very real moments in time from our collective past, frozen forever in color."

Guntzelman has undertaken extensive research to try and make the colors as accurate as possible. He has really worked to get things such as uniform color, building colors appropriate to the era, hair and eye color of famous generals and many more details correct. While there is much to be said for the traditional Civil War era photos being in black and white this new book does look incredible at a first glance. With an introduction written by Bob Zeller, President of The Center for Civil War Photography this book looks like it has a lot of promise. I am looking forward to digging in!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Book Review: The Lincoln Letter

Martin, William. The Lincoln Letter. Macmillan Publishing. New York, NY, 2012. 448 pages, ISBN 9780765321985, $25.99.

Set against the backdrop of Washington, D.C. author William Martin has written what can be called a dual novel. There are two rotating stories going on and despite the fact that 150 years separate them the two stories are in a way intertwined.

During one of his frequent night stops at the telegraph office Abraham Lincoln loses a pocket diary that contains his inner thoughts and ideas. Some of these are his working through of emancipation. The diary is discovered by Lt. Halsey Hutchinson. Hutchinson is a former soldier who was shot in the throat but managed to survive and found himself unwittingly a trusted friend to the President. Despite his efforts Hutchinson is unable to return the diary to Lincoln and as might be expected it is stolen. In his attempts to find the diary Hutchinson is exposed to and by some of the seedy elements in the nation's capital. Eventually Hutchinson ends up back in the war and serves at Antietam. We meet memorable characters both good and bad, black and white who both help and hinder Hutchinson in his efforts. Readers are even introduced to John Wilkes Booth.

Flash forward to today and we have relic hunter/document dealer Peter Fallon and his on again off again fiance/girlfriend Evangeline Carrington who stumble upon a letter that leads them to conclude the mythical Lincoln diary is real and could be found. As with the Civil War portion of the story there are many others also looking for the diary with many different goals in mind. We again meet an interesting array of characters both good and bad, black and white who both help and hinder Fallon in his efforts.

Does Hutchinson find the diary before Lincoln's death? Does Fallon discover if the diary is actually real and does he ever find it? In a book that moves along at a pretty quick pace with vivid descriptions of both modern and 19th century Washington D.C. readers will likely find themselves rooting for the good guys as the stories move toward their conclusions.

While I personally preferred the 1860's storyline with it's descriptions of a world long gone, both stories worked well and while the premise maybe a stretch of reality this was a book that students of Lincoln will at least find entertaining. The thought of such a diary would whet the appetite of many scholars. Readers of thriller novels will surely enjoy the dual plot lines and the action that is in both. This is a good read that I can easily recommend!

Thanks to Sullivan & Partners for providing a complimentary review copy.

Discovery Channel to Recreate Hindenburg Disaster

Received in today's email. While off topic this looks like it could be interesting.

Photos courtesy of Discovery Channel


CURIOSITY Re-creates Hindenburg Disaster to Uncover the Mystery Behind What Actually Destroyed it

“What Destroyed The Hindenburg?” premieres Sunday, Dec. 16 at 9 PM E/P on Discovery Channel’s CURIOSITY series

(Los Angeles, Calif.) – Dozens of theories exist about how the Hindenburg went down during the night of May 6, 1937. Yet three quarters of a century later, there is still no clear answer. Many theories emerged immediately following the crash. Was it a bullet? A static electric charge? A fundamental flaw in its design? Or could it have been an act of sabotage with a bomb?

“What Destroyed The Hindenburg?,” airing Sunday, Dec. 16 at 9 PM E/P on Discovery Channel’s CURIOSITY series, conducts experiments never attempted before by building three replicas of the airship and putting the leading theories to the test.

Due to the scale and volume of the Hindenburg – along with the intricacies of its design – no one has been able to provide a satisfactory explanation of how or why the disaster occurred, until now.

In the most ambitious testing program ever undertaken, CURIOSITY attempts to crack the mystery by recreating the disaster. “We’re examining and testing every hypothesis in the lab, selecting those that are scientifically possible and taking them outside to test on our huge scale models,” said Steve Wolf, one of the lead CURIOSITY investigators. "Testing on this scale has never been attempted."

Few disasters have left such an impression on the world or had such an impact on a single industry. The end of the Hindenburg marked the end of the Golden Age of airship travel. And for the first time ever, CURIOSITY sheds new light on the mystery behind what really happened on board that night.

“What Destroyed The Hindenburg?” is produced by Blink Films for Discovery Channel. CURIOSITY is overseen by Vice President, Development and Production Howard Swartz and Senior Vice President, Development and Production Simon Andreae. To learn more, go to, on Facebook at and on Twitter @Discovery. Intel is a presenting sponsor of “What Destroyed The Hindenburg?”

About Discovery ChannelDiscovery Channel is dedicated to creating the highest quality non-fiction content that informs and entertains its consumers about the world in all its wonder, diversity and amazement. The network, which is distributed to 100.8 million U.S. homes, can be seen in 210 countries and territories, offering a signature mix of compelling, high-end production values and vivid cinematography across genres including, science and technology, exploration, adventure, history and in-depth, behind-the-scenes glimpses at the people, places and organizations that shape and share our world. For more information, please visit

About Discovery Communications
Discovery Communications (Nasdaq: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK) is the world's #1 nonfiction media company reaching more than 1.8 billion cumulative subscribers in 209 countries and territories. Discovery is dedicated to satisfying curiosity through 149 worldwide television networks, led by Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Science and Investigation Discovery, as well as U.S. joint venture networks OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, The Hub and 3net, the first 24-hour 3D network. Discovery also is a leading provider of educational products and services to schools and owns and operates a diversified portfolio of digital media services, including Revision3. For more information, please visit

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Poetry-Fueled War

Photo of Faith Barrett:
 Lawrence University
faculty profiles website
Thanks to the Poetry Foundation for alerting me to this interesting piece from their website.  The direct link to this interview is here. Author  Faith Barrett has published a couple of works dealing with Civil War poetry including To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave: American Poetry and the Civil War and Words for the Hour: A New Anthology of American Civil War Poetry. Faith Barrett is associate professor and chair of English at Lawrence University. You can read more about Ms. Barrett here.

During the Civil War, poetry didn’t just respond to events; it shaped them.

by Ruth Graham
A ‘Poetry-Fueled War’
When Edmund Wilson dismissed the poetry of the Civil War as “versified journalism” in 1962, he summed up a common set of critiques: American poetry of the era is mostly nationalist doggerel, with little in the way of formal innovation. On the contrary, argues scholar Faith Barrett. In her new book, To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave, Barrett contends that a broad range of 19th-century writers used verse during the Civil War to negotiate complicated territory, both personal and public. Taking its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson, Barrett’s book also argues that Civil War poetry was much more formally destabilizing than scholars have traditionally acknowledged.
The book explores work by Northern writers such as Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and black abolitionist poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, along with amateur “soldier-poets” and several Southern poets, including the so-called poet laureate of the Confederacy, Henry Timrod. Barrett devotes a chapter to Herman Melville’s little-read postwar collection Battle-Pieces, and another to the close connection between poetry and songs during the war.
Barrett co-edited a 2005 anthology of Civil War poetry called Words for the Hour, and her own published poetry includes a 2001 chapbook, Invisible Axis. She spoke with the Poetry Foundation from Appleton, Wisconsin, where she teaches English and creative writing at Lawrence University.

You write that the Civil War was a “poetry-fueled war.” What do you mean by that?
Poetry in mid-19th-century America was ubiquitous in a way that it just isn’t now. It was everywhere in newspapers and magazines, children were learning it in school…. Americans were encountering poetry on a weekly basis, if not a daily basis, in the Civil War era, and that’s a profound difference from contemporary poetry and its place in our culture.
There are so many accounts in newspapers of soldiers dying with a poem in their pockets, poems written on a scrap of paper folded up inside a book; so many accounts of songs or poems being sung or read to political leaders at particular moments. For example, after Lincoln announced the second call for a draft ... James Sloan Gibbons wrote this song poem called “Three Hundred Thousand More,” which he supposedly sang to Lincoln in his office one day. So there’s a kind of immediacy of impact, that poetry is actually, I suggest, shaping events, not just responding or reflecting on them.
How did these poems reach the general public? They must have traveled somewhat quickly since they’re responding to political events.
The technological development of the railroad and then also the increasingly affordable technologies of printing and reproduction had the result of dramatically increasing the speed with which poetry could move around. ... Harper’s [Weekly] featured poetry pretty regularly. It’s the equivalent of readers seeing poetry in a magazine like Newsweek or Time, or maybe even People magazine. ... Then also it’s a shorter genre, it can be more quickly written; it can be written in response to immediate events….

You say that it’s hard to find poetry arguing against the war; why?
There was very strong support for the war from both North and South. ... You do see, starting in 1863 and of course continuing through the last year and a half of the war, poems where people register horror and shock at the vast numbers of soldiers that are dying. Dickinson and Melville both register that shock in their poetry. But writers who were well known didn’t want to attach their names to work that was anti-war.

If we think of “Civil War poetry” as a genre, what did it look like formally?
There’s a lot of variety and a lot of range. One of the reasons why this body of work has been neglected by scholars until fairly recently is there was this assumption that the work is all formally so regular as to be monotonous: singsong, rocking-horse rhythms. Regularity of meter makes this work more difficult for us to approach.
But one thing I’ve noticed in my years of working on Civil War poetry is that there’s just phenomenal formal range. There’s lots of experimentation; there’s lots of variety in terms of the formal commitments the poets are working with. So you have lots of ballads, not surprisingly, lots of story poems, poems written with traditional commitments to the ballad form, and also elegies. You have poets experimenting with pushing beyond rhythmic and metrical patterns that are formal. ... I would actually say that maybe half the poets writing in this era are doing interesting and unexpected things with form even though they’re not yet writing free verse.
My friend and co editor [of Words for the Hour] Cristanne Miller has a wonderful new book called Reading in Time that analyzes Dickinson’s formal commitments by re situating Dickinson in her 19th-century context. Cris argues very persuasively that there’s far more formal experimentation happening in mid-19th-century poetry than we have previously acknowledged. … Cris cites Longfellow as one of the great formal innovators of this period, and in addition to Longfellow, I would also mention [John Greenleaf] Whittier, Herman Melville, George Moses Horton, George Henry Boker, Lucy Larcom, and Ethelinda Beers. These are all poets who are writing rhymed, metrical verse, but who are experimenting within that framework.
Do you see wildly different things coming from Northern and Southern poets?
The similarities between Northern and Southern poems far outweigh the differences. ... Both sides are arguing that God is on their side. Both sides—and this is particularly startling to us as 21st-century readers—are arguing they’re fighting for independence, although obviously they’re using that word quite differently with quite different meanings.

You write that popular song and poetry became closely connected in a new way during the war years. Are poets writing specifically with the idea that their poems would quickly be turned into songs?
It goes both ways. In some cases you have composers taking up poems and saying, “I like this a lot—let me set it to music.” And then in other cases, as in Julia Ward Howe’s case [with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”], you have a poet saying, “This ‘John Brown’s Body,’ that’s an interesting poem. Let me see if I could do a different kind of approach to it in my lyrics.” And it’s clear that Howe hoped that her lyrics would be sung, but also that she intended to circulate it as a poem. So its first appearance is in the Atlantic Monthly, where it appears on the page as a poem, but then it’s quickly put into sheet music so people can play it at home and soldiers can sing it.
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is such a fascinating case, because it’s still ubiquitous. How did that particular poem become the most lasting anthem of the Civil War?
Yes, it still has this huge cultural pull. Think about all the ceremonies after 9/11 where “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was performed. It’s a song that has extraordinary cultural staying power. ...
First of all, the song that she’s imitating, “John Brown’s Body,” is a very interesting song in which you have soldiers basically performing their bravado about how many of them will die in battle, and that’s all right. So the refrain of that song is “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.”
So it’s a very typical kind of marching song for soldiers, saying, “Many of us are going to die, and we don’t care!” Howe takes that tune and lifts the lyrics up to a more lofty, less graphic tone. ... [But] the overwhelming argument of that song, verse after verse, is that God supports our violent actions. That’s why I find it so deeply disturbing culturally that it’s in such wide use now.

You’ve talked about how lots of Civil War poetry is unfairly dismissed as overly conventional, but in contrast to that, you actually see Emily Dickinson as more traditional in some ways than her critical reputation suggests. Can you explain that?
The first scholars to approach Dickinson potentially as being a war poet—I’m thinking of the ’80s and ’90s—tended to read Dickinson as a poet who’s deeply skeptical about nationalistic ideologies and deeply skeptical about the rise of militarism and patriotic rhetoric in the Union. ...
I’m of the opinion that she does both things: that she thinks skeptically and quizzically about the war, the nationalist rhetoric and patriotic fervor that sort of drove the nation to war; but I think she also writes poems of grief and mourning that suggest that death in battlefield is a noble and good thing. In this sense I think she really belongs to her community of Amherst. She writes to and from that community, and these poems of grief and mourning that are supposed to offer consolation to herself, to her family, to others, not surprisingly share in some of the sentiments of that community. But it’s an unusual reading of Dickinson to suggest she’s participating in that kind of sentimental rhetoric.

Dickinson and Whitman are sometimes taken as the only “interesting” poets of the war years. Is the broad range of Civil War poetry under appreciated by contemporary scholars?
Edmund Wilson was very influential in dismissing this work as “versified journalism.” ... It’s also the case that scholars were reluctant to approach this body of work because the “But is it any good?” question persists much more strongly with poetry than it does with prose texts. If we pick up the dime novels that were written in the Civil War era, the political thrillers about female spies, we don’t expect those works to have the kind of narrative or linguistic complexity of Moby-Dick, but we still find them interesting and worthy of study.

You propose that mid-19th-century poets—beyond Dickinson and Whitman—influenced modernist preferences for things like skepticism, introspection, and fragmentation. But that influence, too, has gone mostly unacknowledged.
Another feature of Civil War–era poetry that has made scholars very uncomfortable in approaching it is all those national commitments writ large in the poetry. The fact that people took up their cause and proclaimed for it is something that has made critical approaches to the work more challenging, more difficult. ...
Undergraduates often find it very moving and powerful. They don’t have the whole trained scholarly apparatus to think, “Well, this is boring and uninteresting because of its formal regularity.” Instead, they read the poems on their own terms on the page and still find a kind of power in them that 19th-century readers found in them.

Do you see a way for poetry to get back to that point of engaging directly with political issues of the day, and being heard when it does so?
I don’t think that contemporary poets are disengaged politically. On the contrary. ... The issue is that the cultural position of poetry is quite dramatically changed. In a way, the readership of poetry is a much narrower segment of the reading population. These days I think we think—not me as part of that “we,” but a lot of people—if you asked people, “In what literary genre do you think the most important philosophical questions of the 21st century are being debated?,” people would say right away, “The novel. You have to go to that weighty, hefty, complex genre to really grapple with important political issues.” I don’t think that’s true at all. ... Myung Mi Kim is [a] poet I would cite as someone who is really thinking about global identity, about the political legacies of violence and nationalism, as an ongoing preoccupation for her in her work.
If you were tasked with naming an official national poet for our current political season, someone for every American to read, whom would you pick?
George Moses Horton. First, his life story is just so fascinating. The idea that someone who was an enslaved African American could have made a living [as a poet]—and that is what Horton did, made a living for himself a poet while still enslaved.
And then the work is just astonishing. Horton’s work has been unfairly dismissed as being imitative, as being facile. He does do all sorts of things stylistically. So he imitates Romantic poetry in some cases, he imitates neoclassical poetry in other cases. As a young man, he supports himself by writing love poems made to order for young white male students at the University of North Carolina.
I think the work holds up very well for contemporary readers. There’s such a mix of ideas and commitments. There’s this poem “Weep,” which is lamenting the downfall of the South, the devastation of the South, but it’s also just lamenting how deeply divided the nation has become, and the devastation of war. This is a poem that I think about in relation to our contemporary political context, where we have such deep divisions and so much anger on both sides, and so little common ground, seemingly, between the right and the left.
Originally Published: November 13, 2012