Attendees at this year's Jane Austen Summer program get an exciting "BOGO" of sorts - access to sessions of the biannual meeting of the International Society of Literary Juvenilia. We've already shared a peek at what's in store for the Elizabeth Barret Browning panel at lunchtime on Thursday (don't forget you can order lunch from Panera through this link. Orders due by noon, Wednesday, June 14), but that's not the only panel to which you'll have access.
At 10:15 on Thursday, Professor Eliza Richards will be speaking about George Moses Horton, and if you can arrive early enough, you don't want to miss this session. Horton was born into slavery on a tobacco plantation around 1798 in North Carolina; a transfer in ownership brought him closer to Chapel Hill.
Horton taught himself to read, at a time when it was illegal for the enslaved to be literate. In his autobiography, digitized here, Horton recounts the stratagems he employed in order to learn his letters. He was drawn to poetry in particular, and began composing verses in his head. He would memorize his verses and then "spout" them on demand. By 1817 or so, around the time Austen's life was drawing to a close, Horton would compose acrostics (a poem in which a word is spelled down the left side and each line begins with a letter from the topic word) on the names of girlfriends of UNC-Chapel Hill students (the college was founded in 1789). He used this money to buy himself out of laboring for his enslaver.
The wife of a UNC faculty member and author in her own right, Caroline Hentz took an interest in Horton. Hentz was originally from Boston, and was sympathetic to Horton's literary ambitions. With her help - namely, transcribing his oral poetry for him - he was able to publish his first volume of poetry, The Hope of Liberty, in 1829. An historical placard (pictured below) declares that his was the first book published by a Black author in the south (Phillis Wheatley had been forced to publish her book of verse in England over 50 years before). Hentz also taught Horton to write.
His poetry shows considerable metrical innovation; some of his verse is in very regular iambic tetrameter (lines of 8 syllables, divided into 4 two-syllable "feet" in which the second syllable is stressed), while other poems experiment with line length and disrupting rhythms. You can explore samples of his verse here.
Professor Richards held a Faculty Fellowship position in 2021 at the Institute for Art and Humanities at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her time there enabled her to complete the first critical edition of Horton's poetry. You can read a Q & A with Professor Richards here.
If you cannot wait till Dr. Richards' keynote address to find out more about George Moses Horton, you can peruse this article from the New York Times about discovering an unpublished essay of Horton's in 2017, and the essay's place in the intensifying abolition debate of the late 1840's.
And if, in keeping with our focus on young writers and readers this year, you want to share Horton's story and work with a young reader in your life or classroom, there is an illustrated collection of his poetry for children (an Ezra Jack Keats award winner, no less!). Don't forget that even though Jane Austen Books won't be with us in person, you can still order through their virtual bookstore.
Make sure to add Dr. Richards' lecture on Thursday to you dance card!