Last semester, I added selections from Philip Freneau and Henry Wadsworth Longefellow to my syllabus. We only read about 3-4 poems from each author and explored them in relation to the trope of the “Vanishing American,” defining American, and the issue of slavery. As I do with most classes, I assign questions to small groups of students, 2-3 typically, give them time to answer the questions, then we discuss their answers as a class. This semester, when covering Freneau and Longfellow, I started thinking more about selections from Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery (1842), and that is what I want to talk about today.
Constructing the questions for this session, I looked online and in some other materials I have to find some examples and ran into a particularly interesting question that I have started to think about more deeply.
As a bard, a poet who, like Virgil or Dante, would express the humanity and experience of a nation or a people, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sometimes describes African Americans or Native Americans from afar and sometimes imaginatively from within. Which approach does Longfellow take with “The Slave’s Dream”? What effect does his positioning of the narrative voice have on the poem and our reading of it?
“The Slave’s Dream” appeared in Poems on Slavery, and the poem details an enslaved man’s dream as he reflects upon his life in Africa before being sold into slavery in America. Here, Longfellow explores the man’s thoughts “imaginatively from within.” On the surface, this question appears to be a question about the poem’s point-of-view and the effects that point-of-view has on the audience; however, the more I think about it, we need to consider other factors when approaching the question.
To begin with, we must think about Longfellow’s interaction with abolitionism. First off, we have to recall his interactions (which we need to know more about) between him and John Russwurm, one of the editors of the Freedom’s Journal. As well, we need to consider his interactions with abolitionists both in America and in Europe. Notably, Longfellow came into contact with Charles Dickens in America in 1842 and he met the German poet and abolitionist Ferdinand Freiligrath during his European tour later in 1842. These moments, and his correspondence with Charles Sumner, led to the writing and eventual publication of Poems on Slavery.
On his way back to America, Longfellow penned seven of the eight poems that would make up the collection. As a storm lashed outside, Longfellow stayed in his cabin and wrote, for 15 days. Writing to Freiligrath in January 1863, he stated,
…thus ‘cribbed, cabined and confined’ I passed fifteen days. During this time I wrote seven poems on slavery. I meditated them in the stormy, sleepless nights, and wrote them down with a pencil in the morning. A small window in the side of the vessel admitted light into my berth; and there I lay on my back, and soothed my soul with songs.
Longfellow’s comments immediately made me think about one of the poems he wrote during those fifteen days: “The Witnesses.” The poem details slave ships, with enslaved individuals and crew, at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean and slave markets. I cannot help but have an image of Longefellow in a cabin as he writes about enslaved individuals encountering the Middle Passage. This is something that I think warrants some exploration. The refrain, for each scene in the poem, comes from the souls of the enslaved buried underneath the waves and those buried underneath the dirt. They cry, “We are the Witnesses!”
What strikes me with Longfellow’s poems, both with “The Witnesses” and “The Slave’s Dream,” is the point-of-view. It is not extraordinary for writers to take on the persona of the subject they write about. During this period, it would not be unusual for a white author to address the issue of slavery and take on, in some way, the voice of an enslaved individual: Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Lydia Maria Child, John Greenleef Whittier, etc. What caught me, though, when teaching Longfellow this time was when the poems first appeared in 1842.
At this point, the Freedom’s Journal, edited by Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, had appeared in 1827 and ceased publication in 1829. David Walker published his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World in 1829 and it went through subsequent reprints over the next couple of years. Activists such as Hosea Easton and Maria Stewart spoke on issues affecting Black Americans during the same period. However, Longfellow published his poems three years before Frederick Douglass’ narrative, ten years before Douglass What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, eleven years before Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave and William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter, fifteen years before William Wilson’s “Afric-American Picture Gallery,” seventeen years before Harriett Wilson’s Our Nig, and nineteen years before Hariett Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
I provide the above list to show the complicated manner by which we need to approach the question I present at the start of this post. In the first issue of the Freedom’s Journal, Russwurm and Cornish proclaimed, “We wish to plead our own cause! Too long have others spoken for us.” Thirty years later William Wilson expressed the same sentiment in the “Afric-American Picture Gallery.” We also get a similar assertion, to the truthfulness of slavery, in Douglass, Northup, and Jacobs.
Black Americans’ voices during this period, especially within the abolitionist movement and the slave narrative genre, became mediated through white lenses. Essentially, texts such as Douglass, Northup, and Jacobs sought to appeal to white readers, thus tamping the full thrust of the narrative and rhetorically working to persuade whites to fight against slavery. Wilson’s text, and the Freedom’s Journal before it, works from a different perspective. These texts, along with David Walker, focus on a Black audience, speaking on their behalf and to them directly.
Longfellow’s poems appeared within this milieu, and I do not totally know what to make of the ways he brings his audience inside the minds of enslaved individuals. He does not do anything different than authors I mentioned earlier, and I think this is a conversation that we need to look into in more detail. I have just started contemplating this, so I am sure there will be more as time goes on. I know that Dickson Bruce Jr. and John Ernest will help in this pursuit.
What other scholars or texts would you suggest I look at? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.