19 October 2009

Port Gibson, Mississippi: Irwin Russell: Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #7

22 September 2009

The son of a medical doctor and a school teacher, Irwin Russell was born on 3 June 1853 in Port Gibson, Mississippi, in the Old Episcopal Rectory. He was a gifted child, and it is said that he could was reading John Milton by the age of six. Ten years later, he graduated from the Jesuit College in St Louis, Missouri. On his return to Port Gibson, he studied law under Judge L. N. Baldwin, and was admitted to the bar.

The legal profession didn't have much appeal to Russell, and he was soon selling his poems, first to local newspapers, and shortly to national ones. Scribner's Monthly published his 'Christmas Night in the Quarters' in 1878, and it was a great success. He left for New York at the end of the same year, but was dead before the end of the following year, at the age of 26.

The principal element in Russell's poetry was his representation of black speech after he had done a great deal of traveling and listening to black voices. But although he may have been to some extent sympathetic to blacks – particularly with regard to what he saw as their spontaneity and their originality – Jean Wagner notes, in Black Poets of the United States: from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes (Paris: Librarie Istra, 1962 (Les Poètes nègres des États-Unis); trans. Kenneth Douglas, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973):

'Russell, like the rest of his southern compatriots, will not grant the Negro any culture or civilization of his own. These, in Russell's view, could only come through eventual contact with whites. Nor does Russell seem to have the least notion that what he deems to be black originality and spontaneity – in short, whatever makes the black different – this religion, this poetry, and these traditions are actually the remnants of a civilization and culture from which the black was brutally torn to be transported into slavery and set down in a milieu and amid a culture to which he was refused access.'

Russell influenced the writings of Joel Chandler Harris (who compiled and edited Poems by Irwin Russell in 1888) and Thomas Nelson Page.

There was an Irwin Russell Memorial Library in Port Gibson, but now there is the Harriette Person Memorial Library, which houses the collection shown in the cases below.

The marker below marks the site of Russell's birth.

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