African American Writers and Classical Tradition

African American Writers and Classical Tradition

by William W. Cook, James Tatum


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Constraints on freedom, education, and individual dignity have always been fundamental in determining who is able to write, when, and where. Considering the singular experience of the African American writer, William W. Cook and James Tatum here argue that African American literature did not develop apart from canonical Western literary traditions but instead grew out of those literatures, even as it adapted and transformed the cultural traditions and religions of Africa and the African diaspora along the way.
Tracing the interaction between African American writers and the literatures of ancient Greece and Rome, from the time of slavery and its aftermath to the civil rights era and on into the present, the authors offer a sustained and lively discussion of the life and work of Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Rita Dove, among other highly acclaimed poets, novelists, and scholars. Assembling this brilliant and diverse group of African American writers at a moment when our understanding of classical literature is ripe for change, the authors paint an unforgettable portrait of our own reception of “classic” writing, especially as it was inflected by American racial politics.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226789972
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/16/2012
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

William W. Cook is professor emeritus of English and African and African American studies at Dartmouth. James Tatum is professor emeritus of classics at Dartmouth. They are both the authors of numerous previous volumes.

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African American Writers and Classical Tradition


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-78996-5

Chapter One

The Leisure Moments of Phillis Wheatley

The following Poems were written originally for the Amusement of the Author, as they were the Products of her leisure Moments. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

The poet history knows as Phillis Wheatley was born about 1753 in Western Africa, in today's Gambia or Ghana. Her first name came to her from the French slave ship Phillis that brought her as a young girl to Boston in 1761. As usual with American slaves her surname was given her by John and Susanna Wheatley, who bought her for domestic service. A few tantalizing references here and there in her poetry possibly refer to a childhood in Africa, but the world she actually wrote about was the English colonial city of Boston and its political and religious connections to London and her English patrons. She was taught to read by John and Susanna's daughter, Mary, and her range of learning quickly expanded beyond ABCs. With her first published poem in 1765 and a widely admired funeral elegy for the evangelist George Whitefield in 1770, she proved to be a precocious student of the Bible and the neoclassical poetry of Milton, Dryden, and Alexander Pope, as well as of Pope's translation of Homer and Dryden's Vergil. In the authenticating preface to Poems on Various Subjects John Wheatley reports that she was learning Latin. How much Latin she learned and how widely she read is a matter for speculation. As is often the case with poets, a scholar's expertise in the language did not prove to be of much moment. She lived in a time when detailed commentaries and literal prose translations as well as poetic imitations were available for all the major classical poets. With the support of Whitefield's English patron Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, Wheatley published her first book of poems in London in 1773. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral gathered new and previously published poems and opened with "To Maecenas," a bold imitation of the famous opening poem of Horace's Odes. With the coming of the American Revolution she shifted her political allegiance in the poem "To His Excellency George Washington," and some correspondence between them is preserved. These proved to be the high points of her artistic life. Within a few years after her return from London both Susanna and John Wheatley were dead, and she was free in fact if not by formal emancipation to marry the freed black slave John Peters, in 1778. She hoped to publish a second volume of poetry but never found the sponsors for it. Phillis was not able to make a living on her own; nor was her husband. They had three children and all of them died, with Phillis Wheatley Peters herself dying with her youngest child in December 1784. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Boston.

Wheatley's remark in the preface to her volume about her leisure moments is notable in two ways. Leisure is not something a slave should have. It is not appropriate or even allowable for such an economic entity to consider that she has such a thing as leisure at her disposal. More to the point of our reading of this neoclassical poet, the leisure time that literature requires recalls a familiar Roman scenario for the philosophical and literary pursuits of liberi, free people. When a slave in Plautus's comedies talks about his otium, his "free time," he is making a joke. Wheatley's "leisure" is the Latin otium, which could mean something pejorative, such as idleness, but when used in connection with poetry it has a positive sense: freedom from work, freedom to enjoy the fruits of a liberal education devoted to cultural pursuits like philosophy and the writing of poetry.

In this opening chapter we focus on three poems that show Wheatley's neoclassical poetics at its most accomplished, as well as some evidence for the way she refined and revised her work from earlier drafts to the final published version: the signature opening poem "To Maecenas," modeled after Horace's first Ode to Maecenas and Vergil's first Eclogue; her Miltonic treatment of the David and Goliath story from the Bible, "Goliath of Gath," which incidentally has a number of suggestive parallels with the boasting contests of the early West African epic Sundiata; and "Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo," a free imitation of Ovid also inspired by Richard Wilson's painting of the slaying of Niobe's children. Wheatley's "Niobe" transforms Ovid's story in the Metamorphoses into a miniature epic by an adroit appropriation of the opening of Pope's 1725 translation of the Iliad. The Wrath of Achilles and the pains thousandfold it brought upon the Achaeans become the story of the Wrath of Apollo that destroys Niobe and her children.

The texture of this first chapter is much shaped by the particular art it describes, the versifying of a young provincial poet of great promise, possibly even genius. Her poetry demands that we learn to think with her and, for the space of this chapter at least, read poetry like her, and that is no simple thing. The conventions of eighteenth-century English prosody can be as remote and unfamiliar to present-day readers as the most difficult contemporary poetry. As in the next chapter's discussion of the complexities of Frederick Douglass's periodic style, we believe nothing less detailed could do justice to their art.

The Color Black

Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help? Samuel Johnson to Lord Chesterfield, 1755

The first African American to publish a book of poetry with classical themes worked under severe limitations. It was widely believed that people of African descent could not read poetry or understand art, let alone create them. Thomas Jefferson conceded that blacks could deliver themselves of spontaneous bursts of emotion, but he did not believe they were capable of the intellect and concentration that great art requires. Phillis Wheatley had her defenders then and later, but Jefferson's passing comment remains the single most quoted passage in Wheatley criticism, simply because it was Jefferson who wrote it. Many of the poems in Poems on Various Subjects, Moral and Religious in fact confirm his comment about the sincerity of her religion. Her verse is nothing if not devout, and many of her poems celebrate Christian themes. We would expect nothing less of a beginner schooled in Puritan classicism, with models like Milton and his sublime blend of the classical and the biblical. Her best poems suggest a precocious talent for a twenty-year-old. Skill in versifying religious subjects was expected of a Christian poet. Engagement with classical myth and literature was every bit as important for her art as the Bible, but even then she could expect many of her readers to read something like her imitation of Ovid in "Niobe in Distress" strictly as a neoclassical moral narrative which employed a classic mainly as a pretext to teach Christian values like humility and obedience to God.

After Jefferson, the less religion counted in critical estimations of her poetry, the less Wheatley's standing even as a Christian. For much of the nineteenth century and nearly all of the twentieth, her reputation was not enhanced by her piety. To incredulous readers during the civil rights era and later she came to seem more and more a poet who had actually embraced slavery. The question of color and race was at the center of much negative criticism of Wheatley, not least because she seemed to deal with it so clearly in her poetry.

The most frequently anthologized—and certainly the most maligned—of her poems are two that seem to refer directly to race. "On Being Brought from Africa" is a tribute for God's grace in bringing her from Africa to America and the Christian's faith ("'Twas Mercy brought me from my Pagan land") and "To the University of Cambridge" (Harvard), where she speaks as an "Ethiope" determined to give moral instruction to the university's young students.

The problem with all this modern outrage at Wheatley's betrayal of the race is that her verbal signifiers for race did not center on the word "black" in its current sense. She limited her use of racial labels to those found in the Bible. The most frequent such markers in her poetry are "Ethiopian" and its variants and "African" in a variety of forms. She uses "black" not so much to refer to race, but as a sign of a depraved spiritual condition. Negative moral connotations of the word "black" are documented well into the nineteenth century, as in the work of Frédéric Portal and Paillot de Montabert. In his 1837 book on color symbolism in art, Portal observes:

Symbol of evil and falsity, black is not a color, but rather the negation of all nuances and what they represent. Thus red represents divine love, but united to black it represents infernal love, egotism, hatred and all the passions of degraded man. Symbolic of error, of nothingness ... black is the negation of light, it has been attributed to the author of all evil and falsity.

Wheatley rejects the argument of many of her contemporaries that Africans were soulless, that redemption was not intended to include them. "On Being Brought" places this argument in the mouth of seemingly nameless others.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye, "Their colour is a diabolic die."

And then she answers them. Her fellow Christians are responsible for this confusion about the color black.

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, May be refin'd, and join th'angelic train.

Wheatley wrote this poem in the midst of fierce contemporary arguments over the wisdom of preaching to slaves and converting them. Many of the opposition voices questioned the possibility that Africans even had souls. She does more than celebrate the boundlessness of God's mercy in this short lyric; she also clearly places herself on the positive side of the argument when she notes that her formerly benighted soul now understands its true nature. Rather than a poem apologizing for her African origins, these lines in "On Being Brought" are a confident rebuke to one of the major racist beliefs born of slavery. It is an example of the doctrine of the Fortunate Fall, which argues that what seems the most tragic experience may be transformed into a glorious triumph of redemption.

What a pre-Christian (pagan) imagination might perceive as tragedy is nothing substantial to a Christian's way of thinking. The end of life is not the end of the story, and mortality takes on a different meaning when the certainty of an afterlife beckons. The salvation of the soul, not the end of life itself, is of paramount concern. Unless Wheatley's religion is kept in mind, her verse is easily misread as temporizing, when in fact it was conceived as something that could not be measured by the notions of this world alone.

We can see the same moral and religious scruples in "To the University of Cambridge in New England," which reveals Wheatley as a participant in what Sacvan Bercovitch terms the American jeremiad, a sermon form characterized by an unshakeable optimism. Wheatley's poetry and especially her elegies are most often marked not by lamentation but by joyful resolutions. Movement in the poems almost always favors elevation both physical and spiritual. This is the voice through which Wheatley frequently speaks. Her scolding tone in her address to the Harvard students is the voice of a preacher delivering a sermon, a persona frequently donned by Wheatley. Her Afric muse is a bringer of light and the knowledge of light. As her first stanza demonstrates, her soul's journey has been the familiar Christian's progress from darkness to light.

    While an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,
    The muses promise to assist my pen;
    'Twas not long since I left my native shore
    The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom:
    Father of mercy, 'twas thy gracious hand
    Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.

That darkness is specifically "Egyptian" suggests a parallel between that progress and the experience of the Exodus of Israel out of Egypt. The second stanza reminds the students of their experience of light, both the light of earthly knowledge, where astronomy is conflated with heavenly wisdom, and the light of the redeemer. The jeremiad occupies the closing stanza and is firmly in grasp of the truth with its series of imperative statements that close the poem.

      Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
    By you be shunn'd, nor once remit your guard;
    Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.
    Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
    An Ethiop tells you 'tis your greatest foe;
    Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,
    And in immense perdition sinks the soul.

Her address to Harvard's future clergymen began in the sublime imagery of astronomy and Jesus; the poet, true to her mission as an eighteenth-century Jeremiah, closes with the counterfate toward which her listeners may be tending. Once again the horror of having been kidnapped into slavery becomes a kind of Fortunate Fall; out of that tragedy has come the superior knowledge of religion and the freedom which she now has also brings the assurance of Christian redemption. Even when she is concerned with a specifically classical theme Wheatley's poetry is never far from a firm linkage with Christian doctrine and the Bible. Her syncretistic readings of scripture and classics always trace connections between both.

Modern anthologists were not interested in this kind of stuff. Until Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Nellie Y. MacKay's 2003 Norton collection of African American literature, most of them ignored Wheatley's classical poems altogether and had little good to say about much of the rest.

Wheatley herself provides a better introduction to the real scope of her work with "To Maecenas," the opening poem of her volume. It is at once a gracious tribute to a patron and a sophisticated exercise in neoclassical poetics. While the elaborate prefatory testimonials of prominent Bostonians like John Wheatley and others are certain to be flipped past quickly by most of her readers today, they were essential for the publication of Poems on Various Subjects in 1773. We should not flip past them too quickly. "To Maecenas" is an implicit response to those very authenticating documents. It establishes Wheatley's own voice even as it confirms the claims those documents make for her art.

Wheatley as Neoclassicist: "To Maecenas"

    Mneme in our nocturnal visions pours
    The ample treasure of her secret stores;
    Swift from above she wings her silent flight
    Through Phoebe's realms, fair regent of the night;
    And, in her pomp of images display'd,
    To the high-raptur'd poet gives her aid,
    Through the unbounded regions of the mind,
    Diffused light celestial and refin'd.
           (Phillis Wheatley, "To Recollection" [Mneme])

"To Maecenas" is a free imitation in fifty-five lines of the thirty-six Latin lines of Horace's ode to his patron, which begins Maecenas atavis edite regibus (Maecenas, descendent of kings of old) and turns from praise of him to a declaration of Horace's ambitious vocation as a poet. Wheatley opens with a similarly direct address to her own Maecenas (1–6) but departs quickly from Horace's example to range through the classical canon of great poems whose power she also wants to recall: first to Homer's Iliad (7–20), then Maro's (Vergil's) Aeneid (21–26). But this is no epic poem, nor is she fi t to sing of her Maecenas in the company of such epic poets (27–36). She then makes a surprising move, away from the Augustans Horace and Vergil, to Terence "of Afric's sable race" (37–42). He lived a century before them and was famous for his elegant comedies, but in Wheatley's poem, he is invoked as her African predecessor poet. She ends by praising her Maecenas, whose protection she prays to enjoy as long as London's Thames and all attendant nature endures (43–55).

"To Maecenas" is the most recent poem of the volume, written after all the rest of Poems on Various Subjects had been composed, and those poems themselves are not arranged in a chronological order of composition, but with some attention to variation of tone and type. It is a recusatio, or confession of an inability to equal one's predecessors, in its claims that Homer, Horace, and Vergil are not enabling texts for Wheatley, that she is unworthy to be in their company.

    But I less happy, cannot raise the song,
    The fault'ring music dies upon my tongue. (35–36)


Excerpted from African American Writers and Classical Tradition by WILLIAM W. COOK JAMES TATUM Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One. The Leisure Moments of Phillis Wheatley

Chapter Two. Frederick Douglass and The Columbian Orator

Chapter Three. The Making of the Talented Tenth

Chapter Four. Genteel Classicism

Chapter Five. Invisible Odyssey

Chapter Six. The Pindar of Harlem

Chapter Seven. It Is Impossible Not to Write Satire

Chapter Eight. Rita Dove and the Greeks




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