George Moses Horton’s Recently Discovered Prose

Horton, George Moses-NCHHMP-H-108a

George Moses Horton was an African-American poet enslaved in Chatham County, North Carolina.  Jonathan Senchyne, a book historian at the University of Wisconsin, has discovered a previously unknown essay by Horton entitled “Individual Influence.”

Learn more about Horton and this new find in Jennifer Schuessler’s piece at The New York Times:

The essay, a roughly 500-word sermonlike meditation called “Individual Influence,” was found at the New York Public Library by Jonathan Senchyne, an assistant professor of book history at the University of Wisconsin. The document, which will be published in October in PMLA — the journal of the Modern Language Association — appears to be the first prose essay in Horton’s handwriting to come to light, and one of only a handful of manuscripts in his own handwriting known to survive.

Today, while Horton is still far from a household literary name, he has been celebrated in a growing body of scholarship; in a children’s book; and in Chapel Hill, where the university renamed a dormitory in his honor, as part of continuing efforts to tell a fuller story of its historical relationship with slavery.

Any new text by Horton, scholars say, is a welcome discovery. “We’re unlikely to find much more from him, given his enslaved status,” said Faith Barrett, an associate professor of English at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, who has written about Horton. “It’s really a wonderful find.”

“Individual Influence” is interesting not just for Horton’s lofty, abstract words about the primacy of divine influence, but for the context in which they were preserved: in a scrapbook of material relating to a prominent scholar who was forced out of the university after publicly opposing slavery.

Read the entire piece here.

Phillis Wheatley: “On Virtue”

Wheatley

Michael Monescalchi is a graduate student in English at Rutgers University.  Over at Common-place he reflects on Phillis Wheatley‘s poem “On Virtue” and her engagement with the theology of Jonathan Edwards.

Monescalchi writes: “Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can ‘guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul.”

Here is a taste of this piece:

In agreement with Edwards, Wheatley argues that Virtue is a divine and “sacred” quality (it is “array’d in glory from the orbs above”). Yet Wheatley additionally alludes to Edwards when she asks Virtue to “embrace” her soul and “guide [her] steps to endless life and bliss.” For in Freedom of the Will, Edwards also claims that one’s soul is capable of influencing the way one walks: “And God has so made and established the human nature . . . that the soul preferring or choosing such an immediate exertion or alteration of the body, such an alteration instantaneously follows. There is nothing else in the actings of my mind, that I am conscious of while I walk . . .” The reason that Edwards is conscious of nothing while he walks is because his newly converted soul has suspended “the actings of [his] mind.” By saying that his body only moves as a result of his soul’s and not his mind’s “preferring or choosing,” Edwards argues that when one undergoes a conversion experience and gives one’s self up to God, one no longer has complete control over one’s own body. Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can “guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul. 

This idea that one’s spiritual status is reflected in the way one walks recurs in black evangelical writing in the early-national period, most especially in Lemuel Haynes’s sermons. Like Edwards and Wheatley before him, Haynes, in his 1776 sermon on John 3:3, argues that a converted man “evidences by his holy walk that he has a regard for the honour of God.” Though she was not a minister, Wheatley was, like Haynes, deeply invested in Edwards’s theology and advanced his theory of conversion. Placing Wheatley’s “On Virtue” in dialogue with the writings of other evangelical ministers, black or white, is one of the many ways that scholars can begin to value Wheatley as a formidable theological thinker in the colonial era.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Author’s Corner with Eric Gardner

Eric Gardner is Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University.  This interview is based on his most recent book, Black Print Unbound:  The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture (Oxford UP, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Black Print Unbound?

EG: Most immediately, writing a chapter on the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s newspaper for my last book—Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (UP of Mississippi, 2009)—confirmed my sense that there were several books that needed to be written about the Christian Recorder.  For a host of reasons, I’m convinced that it was the single most important Black periodical in the nineteenth century, and its amazing stories—stories that can aid students of literature, culture, history, faith, and activism—have barely begun to be told.  I wanted to focus on the years during and just after the Civil War because most histories of Civil War print culture (especially literature) are lily white, and much work on nineteenth-century African American literature deemphasizes or even skips over the War and Reconstruction, to say nothing of Black periodicals and/or Black church print.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Print Unbound?

EG: While filled with specific arguments on diverse texts, individuals, and events, Black Print Unbound’s larger argument is that the Christian Recorder in specific and both faith-centered structures and Black periodicals more generally represented critical modes for African Americans to insert themselves in an often-hostile American print culture.  Black Print Unbound is thus both a call to and an example of the ways in which we might rethink American literary history to make room for voices, genres, and print venues that have been ignored, forgotten, dismissed, and willfully erased.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Print Unbound?

EG: As a study of a periodical of national reach among free African Americans, Black Print Unbound is at once a massive recovery effort of a publication by African Americans for African Americans, a consideration of the nexus of African Americanist inquiry and print culture studies, and an intervention in the study of literatures of the Civil War, faith communities, and periodicals.  At its most basic and as one of the fullest studies of an early Black periodical done to date, it shares information on a massive number of authors, texts, editors, and print processes that have much to say to our current moment and are ripe for further study.  The book also offers the most in-depth study of early Black periodicals subscribers (and likely readers) in existence—and does so in a way that attends to both broad demographic trends and the stories of several individuals.  The book pairs this kind of rich cultural and material history with close analysis of diverse and often unknown texts that were crucial to the development of African American literature and culture and that challenge our senses of genre, authorship, and community.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EG: This is a tough question, as my degrees, disciplinary home, and teaching are all in literary studies.  But, if pressed, I’d say gradually and partially in answer to the first part of the question and out of both love and necessity to the second.  I came to literary studies in large part because of a fascination with the past and with the stories we tell (and don’t tell) about our pasts.  The more I moved toward an emphasis on early Black print culture, the more I understood that careful historical work was and would be simply essential in helping correct the myriad misconceptions surrounding African Americans and print in the nineteenth century.  I spent a long time early in my career simply learning more, engaging with historians and cross-disciplinary scholars, immersing myself in archival work, learning to appreciate the craft of history more fully, and thinking about its intersections with literary scholarship.  When I call myself by the old-school term “literary historian,” I thus try to invoke the dance of disciplines and the necessity of dialogic approaches to our work.

 JF: What is your next project?

 EG: Another tough question, because there is so much work to do.  I’m currently engaged with three large projects: a study of the early Black press in San Francisco, further consideration of the Recorder during the editorial term of Benjamin Tucker Tanner (a kind of sequel to Black Print Unbound, if you will), and more in-depth study of women writers connected to church print (especially Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, but also Edmonia Goodelle Highgate and a range of other folks).  You’ll also soon see publication of a special issue of the journal American Periodicalsfocused on Black periodical studies that I co-edited with Joycelyn Moody.

JF: Thanks, Eric!