Poems in the Press: Verse, War, and the Culture of Reprinting

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:00 AM
Chicago Ballroom F (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Becca Weir, Jesus College, University of Cambridge
Elizabeth Barrett Browning does not appear in anthologies of American Civil War poetry. Yet in 1863, ‘Mother and Poet / Turin, After News from Gaeta, 1861’ appeared on the front page of the Augusta Daily Constitutionalist with a revealing note: ‘Mr. Editor: Please publish this poem and gratify many women in whose hearts it will find a mournful echo. Mrs. Browning wrote of Italians fighting for their independence: thousands of Southerners fight for the same cause today. God speed them. S.C.B.’ At least one Confederate reader recognised ‘Mother and Poet’ as a Civil War poem, and the Constitutionalist editor circulated it as such.

Taking Meredith McGill’s concept of the ‘culture of reprinting’ as a starting point, I will explore the ways in which newspaper poetry challenges current conceptions of Civil War literature.  This paper introduces the idea of ‘improvised’ war literature and discusses its implications in a case-study of Robert Hamilton’s weekly Anglo-African newspaper during the period 1863-65. Hamilton and his editorial associates published original and selectively-reprinted poetry in this neglected New York title; I argue that verse played a crucial part in the Anglo-African’s enlistment campaign, and that soldiers and civilians alike engaged with newspaper verse as part of ‘a tradition of social dialogue and debate’ upon which community maintenance rested.1

1 Paula Bernat Bennett, Poets in the Public Sphere: The Emancipatory Project of American Women’s Poetry, 1800-1900 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 5.

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