The book: In 1860, 393,975 slaveholders possessed 3.9 million slaves in the United States, according to Monica Pelaez ’97, editor of Lyrical Liberators (Ohio University Press). During the American antebellum period, antislavery activists used free speech to challenge the institution of slavery. Abolitionist poets protested not only the slaveholders themselves, but the businesses, political figures, and religious leaders who defended human bondage. In this poetry collection, Pelaez organizes significant antislavery poems into 13 chapters, each centralized around a specific issue, from topics such as “Freedom” and “Slave Mothers” to “The Murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy.” The number of chapters in the book is also a reference to the Thirteenth Amendment, the culmination of the movement.
Sourcing from eight periodicals specifically devoted to the antislavery cause, Lyrical Liberators is the first comprehensive collection of American antislavery poems. The book covers the period between the inaugural issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s the Liberator in 1831 to the abolishment of slavery in 1865. Pelaez notes that poetry in the antebellum period served a role analogous to that of social media today, with poets-as-celebrities spreading the word about protests and using their words as a platform for ideological expression. Despite poetry’s effective dissemination of the movement’s message, it was often viewed as inflammatory. Pelaez writes that in 1835, the state of Georgia enacted a death penalty to anyone who published abolitionist tracts and describes how Elijah P. Lovejoy was murdered in Illinois while defending his press from a pro-slavery mob.When slavery was abolished in 1865, according to Pelaez, Abraham Lincoln acknowledged the efforts of anti-slavery activists before even the military. The poets of the antebellum period were crucial to the success of the abolitionist movement. The collection hones in on the climate around abolitionism from 1831-1865, and speaks to the era’s activism, racial justice and freedom … or lack thereof.
The author: Monica Pelaez ’97 is an associate professor of English at St. Cloud State University. She holds degrees from Princeton and Brown. Her publications on 19th-century American poetry include essays on Emily Dickinson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Allan Poe. She lives in Minneapolis.
Opening lines: “The problematic issue of slavery would appear not to lend itself to poetry, yet in truth nothing would have seemed more natural to nineteenth-century Americans. Poetry meant many different things at the time — it was at once art form, popular entertainment, instructional medium, and forum for sociopolitical commentary. The poems that appeared in periodicals of the era are therefore integral to our understanding of how the populace felt about any issue of consequence. Writers seized on this uniquely persuasive genre to win readers over to their cause, and perhaps most memorable among them are the abolitionists. Antislavery activists turned to poetry so as to connect both emotionally and rationally with a wide audience on a regular basis. By speaking out on behalf of those who could not speak for themselves, their poems were one of the most effective means of bearing witness to, and thus also protesting, a reprehensible institution. These pleas for justice proved effective by insisting on the right of freedom of speech at a time when it appeared to be in jeopardy. They helped recruit supporters through a program of moral suasion that often leaned heavily on religious rhetoric. This book recovers their best and most important poems, offering insight into the motivations and communications of a group that succeeded in rallying broad public support. Because the poetry section in abolitionist periodicals — as in most news and popular publications — often constituted readers’ favorite material, it is also a window into the predilections of its intended audience. This body of work merits closer consideration than it has as yet received. It presents us with voices whose protest helped further the cause of emancipation through a genre that was in many respects more influential than the essays and editorials that have received the most scholarly attention. It also offers an important illustration of the intersections across American literature, history, politics, religion, and news — all of which its authors address, frequently within a single poem. This collection thus presents a quintessential overview of the various discourses that shaped the seminal epoch of American history extending from January I, 1831, when the Liberator was first published, to January 31, 1865, when Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.
“Antislavery activists were frequently referred to as ‘agitators’ in their day, and for good reason. Although in most cases the term was intended to disparage their efforts, activists themselves nonetheless embraced it as an apt description of a role that without doubt did involve agitating a public they believed was insufficiently aware of the evils of slavery and the need to put an end to the institution. Two of the movement’s more prominent figures acknowledged as much in remarkably similar language: William Lloyd Garrison wrote in the first issue of his Liberator, ‘I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation’; and twenty years later his close collaborator, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, told a friend, ‘I have found it exceedingly difficult to speak and act with the moderation and prudence which should characterise the efforts of a Christian reformer.’ In their commitment to speaking out on behalf of the cause, abolitionists like Garrison and Whittier were both vehement and indefatigable as they endeavored to make themselves heard through every possible means: lectures, tracts, essays, newspapers, books, petition, bazaars, songs, children’s books — and poetry. They did so even in the face of — arguably because of — the constant hostility they encountered from proslavery opponents who often turned violent at their public appearances. They persisted despite multiple efforts to silence their initiatives, such as President Andrew Jackson’s attempt to persuade Congress to bar antislavery publications from the U.S. mail in 1835, and the state of Connecticut’s 1836 to prohibit antislavery petitions, which was not overturned until 1845. As a result, the movement’s proponents increasingly came to rely on the press as a safe resort for the right of free speech they insisted on upholding. Indeed, the movement came to be identified with this very right and succeeded in recruiting more supporters ‘because the violence of opposers had identified that cause with the question of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and civil liberty’ as abolitionist ally Catharine Beecher observed in 1837. In his seminal biography of Garrison, John L. Thomas argues that it was precisely by linking their cause to the issue of civil rights that abolitionists successfully ‘turned back the pro-slavery assault on free society.’
“The most effective vehicle for abolitionists thus became the periodical, where they published news items concerning the movement, editorials commenting on its progress, and poems that took into account actual episodes as well as the sentiments they aroused. In its pages they were able to openly combat their adversaries, at times by implying that their attempts to censor the abolitionists were analogous to the enslavement of black Americans. The popular author Lydia Maria Child, who faced virulent public criticism when she chose to devote herself to the cause, suggested as much when she proclaimed that she was committed to ‘refusing the shadow of a fetter on my free expression from any man, or any body of men,’ a comment which is furthermore indicative of the specifically feminist challenges of her advocacy. The press offered activists like Child a safe space in which to express such opinions, organize their followers, and recruit supporters. For Garrison, who insisted that ‘Slavery and freedom of the press cannot exist together,’ journalism was nothing short of critical to the movement because, as David Paul Nord observes, it ‘served the two great functions of social reform: agitation and discussion.’ These twin goals are particularly apparent in the poetry that editors like Garrison and Child selected for publication, which served as a persuasive expression of antislavery ideology by articulating a response to all matters transpiring in the course of the struggle -- events, legislation, opinions, and emotions -- through a medium that was both entertaining and concise.
“Poetry’s evident political impact stemmed from what Ingrid Satelmajer calls its ‘vital life in periodicals,’ which promoted poets as veritable celebrities whose compositions deserved high esteem, and which succeeded in exposing a wide audience to their work in print as well as through the oral recitation that was customary at the time. Faith Barrett recognizes the genre’s tremendous importance during an era when it not only pervaded the mainstream media — where readers encountered it on a weekly, if not daily, basis — but was virtually understood to be ‘a crucial means of engagement with political discourses.’ In other words, poetry served a role in many ways analogous to our modern-day social media. It is important to recognize as well that its far-reaching influence at the time stemmed for the most part from its appeal to the era’s prevalent sentimental sensibility. Poets were driven by the ultimate goal of moral suasion, which followed from the popular belief that reading material should provide some form of instruction. As Michael Bennett notes, ‘The conception that art should act directly in the world undergirded the abolitionist’s faith in its power to bring about cultural transformation.’ Because art had the social responsibility to serve moral ends, and their poetry was intended to motivate the noble act of abolishing slavery, poets naturally relied on a didactic — and, one might even say, utilitarian — approach that helped further their aims. In this way they communicated a consistent ideological message that was intended to elicit the emotions and bolster the communal bonds that were believed to be integral to the pursuit of social justice. For nineteenth-century Americans, sentiment was indeed inextricable from politics in general. Joanne Dobson acknowledges, for instance, that sentimental writers were simultaneously political in their appeals to correct the ‘failure of society to care for the disconnected.’ Because strong emotion was believed to be the necessary precursor to any such advocacy, Jane Tompkins notes that in their texts ‘the very possibility of social action is made dependent on the action taking place in individual hearts.’ This was indeed Garrison’s own personal belief and primary goal; he hoped above all to reach his readers’ hearts in order to motivate them to change a flawed social structure. Besides public lecturing, which could reach only the limited audience in attendance, there was simply no more effective means of doing so than through the popular and ubiquitous genre of poetry. One scholar’s comment on the impact of Whittier’s poems in particular can be applied to the widespread influence of abolitionist poems in general: ‘Because of their topical interest, broad emotional appeal, and moral intensity, they affected thousands of common readers who were rarely touched by sermons or newspaper editorials.’ Since poetry was integral to the cultural, political, and emotional lives of readers, it offered a remarkably effective vehicle for mobilization.”
Reviews: “The abolitionist movement made powerful appeals to the hearts and minds of auditors and readers in their efforts to convert them to the cause of emancipation. But as the poems in this splendid anthology prove, the medium of poetry was most effective in creating an emotional empathy with the slaves and their yearnings for freedom.” — James M. McPherson, professor emeritus of history at Princeton and author of The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters