The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry.
Joan Sherman's The Black Bard of North Carolina joins the sorely limited list of authoritative editions of the works of African American writers--a sine qua non for further scholarly treatments. This volume, indexed by title, provides an ample selection: sixty-two poems, arranged in four groups, including one of previously uncollected poems, followed by selections from The Hope of Liberty (1829), The Poetical Works (1845), and Naked Genius (1865). The illustrations and photographs of manuscripts, some in Horton's hand, add special value, as does the thorough bibliography.
Horton's work has primarily been treated in terms of his biographical singularities. He was the "first American slave to protest his bondage in verse; the first African American to publish a book in the South; the only slave to earn a significant income by selling his poems; the only poet of any race to produce a book of poems before he could write; and the only slave to publish two volumes of poetry while in bondage and another shortly after emancipation." Getting beyond this is highly problematic: As Sherman observes, "Unfortunately the only sources of concrete information about his long life as a slave and free man are his autobiographical sketch in The Poetical Works (1845), a few of his letters, one long oration, and brief reminiscences by men who actually met him." Nevertheless, in the "History" section, richly derived from contemporaneous documents, Sherman gives us Horton's life and times, if not his biography. She evokes Horton's life out of scraps and remnants; with marginal and tangential odd materials around him, she renders him visible.
North Carolina history is sketched from the early milieu that was "markedly more liberal toward slaves than those [milieux] of other southern states" to the later period, after 1830, when the "legislature enacted the strongest restrictions on slaves and free blacks in the state's history." Sherman makes splendid use of the history of the University of North Carolina and the memoirs of alumni to illuminate this corner of Horton's life. The activities of other black "slave servants" at the university, "negroes, who in different ways contributed to the amusement and comfort of students," according to one alumnus, places Horton in a fresh social context. The account of the efforts of Freedom's Journal to raise funds to purchase Horton's freedom links Horton to another, albeit passive, context--that of the free black Northern abolitionist. In the end, we still do not know his wife's name, or where Horton is buried, but we do know more of the books he read, of his intemperance and later temperance, of the deceits practiced upon him, of the humiliations he endured, and of his extraordinary perseverance in defining himself as a poet.
The section "Criticism" consists of a dense review of the sparse critical material concerning Horton, followed by Sherman's rich general analysis, which calls our attention to the variety of Horton's verse forms and his several themes. Sherman first delineates Horton's conformity to "verse by white North Carolinians of his time who shared his environment and influence" through a comparison of Horton's "subjects, form, language and attitude" to a contemporaneous collection of poetry. Given that Horton "read the same books, from the Bible to Byron, and imbibed the same philosophic ideas and aesthetic standards [and] wrote poetry to please a white audience, the university professors and students who were the only possible buyers of his books," it is not surprising that "the majority of Horton's verses seem indistinguishable" from "that of white poets of his time and place." Sherman turns then to Horton's anti-slavery verse, discussing the ways in which his work differs from that of "the major African American p oets of the century" who were "free-born, living in the North."
Included here are not only the poems "concerned entirely with slavery and freedom" but those that "mention the bondslave, confinement, and liberty" as well. Most instructively and in fine detail, she includes among Horton's anti-slavery poems several "ostensibly on other topics, [which] may be read as allegorical musings on his own bondage." Sherman concludes her thematic treatment with the familiar love poems, largely but not exclusively among his early works, and the less familiar misogynistic poems of his later work. Lastly, she addresses a category of "folk" verse, "earthy verses on ... everyday activities."
My caveats are mere wishes for more. Sherman's focus is upon Horton's poetry, but given the unlikelihood that another edition of Horton's work will soon appear, I wished for a prose supplement. Certainly Horton's "Life of the Author," the fundamental source of biographical data, should have been made available in this edition as well as the texts of his limited correspondence (the letter to Horace Greeley appears in facsimile). I would have welcomed the full text of Horton's letter to the Raleigh Register (1849), as it appears to be a defense of a national literature: "I am for developing our own resources, and cherishing native genius," he wrote. And though a spirit of mockery attended the student transcriptions of Horton's 1859 "Address," Horton scholarship may have benefitted from more direct access to its "rambling, repetitive ... comments" for the "insights into Horton's heart and mind."
Lastly, I wished for a clearer picture of Horton's emerging literacy. The accepted wisdom is that "he could not write until about 1832," but Caroline Hentz, whom Horton thanked for "the correction of many poetical errors," speaks of his not having been "taught to write a legible hand." By Horton's account, he could spell and read "parts of the New Testament ... at random" and "verses, Wesley's old hymns, and other pieces of poetry from various authors" prior to his Chapel Hill days (see M. A. Richmond, Bid the Vassal Soar [Washington: Howard UP, 1974]). In any event, an author who can read but not write legibly raises unique questions about authorial control.
Students of African American literature are already deeply in debt to Joan Sherman for recovering, discovering, and uncovering the "invisible" poets of the nineteenth century with her groundbreaking and indispensable bio-bibliographical Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century and her anthology African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century, which added depth with the inclusion of full texts. The Black Bard of North Carolina increases our debt. Three interests are splendidly served by this work: the enrichment of the history of American literature generally, the forging of a link in the African American literary tradition, and the illumination of a particular poet.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1999|
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