Event—Scholarly Seminars

Jake Fournier, University of Chicago


The Poetics of Antislavery Violence, Jake Fournier, University of Chicago

In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s often overlooked second novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), a would-be slave insurrectionist takes inspiration from the “wild, inspiring poetry of the Bible” to prophesy the downfall of the Slave Power. Dred, a character closely modeled on the historical Nat Turner, has “elements in him which might, under other circumstances, have made him a poet.” By the late 1850s, the lives of revolutionary antislavery agents like Nat Turner and John Brown were broadly redescribed as poetic texts. These figures were “God’s handwriting on the wall of slavery”; or, as Henry David Thoreau put it, “almost any noble verse [might] be read, either as [their] elegy, or eulogy, or be made the text of an oration on [them].” The dissertation excerpt to be considered at the American Literature Seminar argues that the seeds of the Transcendentalist redescription of Turner and Brown as heroic poets were already sewn in the (largely Southern) journalistic record of the Turner uprising that took place in Southampton County, Virginia in late 1831. It was an age which, according to F. O. Matthiessen, placed special “emphasis… on the identity between poet and prophet.” Thanks in no small part to Turner’s self-stylization as a prophet, the excerpt argues, his revolutionary violence exerted pressure on the new ontologically expansive Transcendentalist accounts of poetry and the poet’s task that emerged most forcefully in the late 1830s and early 1840s.