The next year, Longfellow wrote to Sumner calling the Dred Scott decision heart-breaking, and wishing he could find a way to write about it: “I long to say some vibrant word, that should have vitality in it, and force. Be sure if it comes to me I will not be slow in uttering it.” On Dec. 2, 1859, the day John Brown was hanged, Longfellow wrote in his diary, “This will be a great day in our history, the date of a new Revolution quite as much needed as the old one.”
Pondering that new Revolution, Longfellow got to thinking about the old one. In April 1860, he began writing “Paul Revere’s Ride.” While he worked on the poem, he worried about the fate of the nation. Around the same time he went to see Frederick Douglass speak and read Sumner’s latest speech, which predicted that “the sacred animosity between Freedom and Slavery can end only with the triumph of Freedom.” In November, weeks after finishing “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Longfellow rejoiced in his diary that Lincoln had won the presidency; echoing Sumner, he wrote: “Freedom is triumphant.”
“Paul Revere’s Ride” was published in the January 1861 issue of The Atlantic, which appeared on newsstands on Dec. 20. It was read as a rallying cry for the Union. It is a poem about waking the sleeping, and waking the dead: “Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,/ In their night encampment on the hill.” The dead are Northerners, awakened, at last aroused. But the dead are also the enslaved, entombed in slavery — an image that was, at the time, a common conceit: Douglass called his escape “a resurrection from the dark and pestiferous tomb of slavery.”
Much of the poem echoes stanzas in Longfellow’s earlier abolitionist verses, including “The Witnesses”:
These are the bones of Slaves;
They gleam from the abyss;
They cry, from yawning waves,
‘We are the Witnesses!’
Thanks to poems like “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Longfellow was once the country’s most respected and beloved poet. But, beginning with the rise of New Criticism in the early 20th century, literary scholars have dismissed his poetry as cloying, drippy and even childish. Generations of schoolchildren have memorized “Paul Revere’s Ride”; critics have barely read it.
Yet neglecting Longfellow, taking the politics out of Longfellow, thinking of Longfellow as childish, have both occluded the poem’s meaning and made it exceptionally serviceable as a piece of political propaganda. It is, after all, a rousing call to action:
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoofbeats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
With the history of the poem forgotten, this became all-purpose stuff. “We still need some Paul Revere of conscience to alert every hamlet and every village of America that revolution is still at hand,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967. In 1971, the Vietnam Veterans against the War marched Revere’s ride in reverse; four years later, Gerald Ford quoted Longfellow to call for renewed pride in America.
This year George Pataki came to Boston to unveil an organization called “Revere America”: “We’re here today to tell the people of America,” he declared, “that once again our freedom is in danger” ... from health care.
A century and a half ago, there was quite a bit more at stake. “The dissolution of the Union goes slowly on,” Longfellow wrote in his diary in January 1861. “Behind it all I hear the low murmur of the slaves, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy.” They cry, from the abyss.Continue reading the main story
Prometheus Bound, a play attributed to the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus, created an ageless champion of radical change in politics, economics, culture, and society. For his crime of stealing fire from the gods, Prometheus — literally, “one who thinks ahead” in ancient Greek — suffered, chained to a rock, where an eagle plucked out his liver, which regenerated daily for the eagle’s repeated dining pleasure. But, ultimately, all humankind benefited from Prometheus’s revolutionary deed.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus created a metaphoric lens through which change, particularly revolutionary change, got an alternative Frankenstein makeover. Change could be desirable, but it could also spell disaster. Even well-meaning change might expose the wretched, but true nature of its creator.
Shelley wrote Frankenstein just as Great Britain was ponderously transitioning from its role as a slave-trading state into the coming upheavals of empire building, the Industrial Revolution, labor unrest, and the struggles for universal suffrage and human rights. Slavery came first up on Britain’s “we shall overcome” list. With the Promethean anti-slavery position in place by 1807 with the passage of the Slave Trade Act, Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, published in London two years later, anticipated Mary Shelley’s Promethean anti-hero by nearly a decade. The volume of poems opens with James Grahame’s “Prometheus Delivered”:
“Prometheus rises man again! / Such, Africa, thy suffering state! / Outcast of nations, such thy fate! / The ruthless rock, the den of pain, / Were thine — oh long deplored in vain, / Whilst Britain’s virtue slept!”
Globally, many philosophers, politicians, writers, and poets had long taken aim at slavery. Mary Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, believed that slavery was “the deepest stain upon civilized man.” And, for Shelley the poet, it was the philosophers, writers, and poets who must lead the battle against the scourge of slavery; his 1821 manifesto “A Defence of Poetry,” first published posthumously in 1840, concluded, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
Frontispiece portrait and title page of the first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773). Schomburg Center, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Book Division
Thomas Wright’s engraved portrait of Aleksandr Pushkin, ca. 1836–37. Schomburg Center, Photographs and Prints Division
Portrait photograph of Frederick Douglass, ca. 1860s. Schomburg Center, Photographs and Prints Division
An emerging generation of African diasporic writers also mined the classics as they worked to end slavery. They clearly saw no monstrous potential in the freedom quest, except for the monstrosity of the slaveholders. In America, slave-born Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753–1784) grasped Prometheus as a chained, tortured humanitarian, as did Afro-Russian writer Aleksandr Pushkin (1799–1837), whose work in fact earned him the nickname “the new Prometheus.”
In 1820, human bondage thoroughly saturated the American economy and culture. As the U.S. expanded, so too did its enslaved population. British textile mills got their biggest boost from cotton produced on American plantations. Readers of Frankenstein who were pro-slavery soon discerned an uncomfortably mixed message within the story: Frankenstein was both creator and slave to his creation. Freeing slaves could be a calamity, the public reasoned. Frankenstein became a convenient argument against abolition. Speaking in the House of Commons during the debate on “Negro Slavery,” on March 16, 1824, George Canning, Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House, observed:
“I am persuaded, Sir, that in dealing with the negro, we should treat him not as a brute but as an infant, ... not unlike that which is pourtrayed (sic) in a romance of recent date (Frankenstein), ... into which its creator, failing to inspire a moral feeling, endangers his own safety in his rash experiment.”
Frankenstein’s monster became the favored, frightening metaphor for both slaveholders and those who held to notions of black inferiority, but black writers looked at Mary Shelley’s creature very differently. Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) and W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) directed the metaphor back at those who continued to justify slavery, racism, and, later, Jim Crow. As Shelley’s Creature warns his creator: “‘Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension. Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master; — obey!’”
As a political symbol during the 19th century, Frankenstein represented both Reconstruction efforts in the U.S., and workers’ rights upheavals in England. In a satirical cartoon by Sir John Tenniel published in Punch on September 8, 1866, tiny John Bright, M.P., a supporter of workers’ suffrage, does his best to avoid the monstrous shadow of “The Brummagem Frankenstein,” that is, the working man. In Birmingham — working-class pronunciation was “Brummagem” — a reform demonstration drew an estimated 250,000 workers. As the cartoon’s caption notes: “The unwillingness of Parliament to accept any measure of Reform had aroused a wide-spread discontent amongst the working classes. A monster gathering was held at Birmingham in August.” NYPL, Print Collection
Portrait photograph of W.E.B. Du Bois, ca. 1940s. Schomburg Center, Photographs and Prints Division
In 1838, Frederick Douglass became a self-configured Prometheus, a freedom-seeking fugitive slave who “stole” himself a new identity. Once safely in the North, he devoted his life to working tirelessly for the freedom of the more than three million who were still enslaved. On the eve of the Civil War, he declared: “Slavery is everywhere the pet monster of the American people.”
As the nation marked the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln, on March 4, 1861, a front-page editorial in the Charleston Mercury pointed to the monster at the President’s door: “He must proclaim peace or declare war. He must virtually recognize the independence of the Confederate States, or encounter them in a conflict of arms.... Like Frankenstein, they have raised a monster which they cannot quell.”
The Civil War only inflamed the South’s racist assessment that a black monster, facilitated by its white Northern creator, wanted to take control of a sovereign people. For many southerners, including the imprisoned Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, Reconstruction became yet another monster. As he remarked in The Prison Life of Jefferson Davis (1866): “It has been the continually growing danger of the North, that in attempting to crush the liberties of my people, you would raise a Frankenstein of tyranny that would not down at your bidding.”
W.E.B. Du Bois grew up in Massachusetts and experienced little racism as a child. Famously determining “the color line” as the major problem of the 20th century, he transformed mankind’s ancient champion into a brand-new hero: Black Prometheus. In Darkwater (1920), Du Bois addresses the demigod directly:
“Why will this Soul of White Folk, — this modern Prometheus, — hang bound by his own binding, tethered by a fable of the past? I hear his mighty cry reverberating through the world, ‘I am white!’ Well and good, O Prometheus, divine thief! Is not the world wide enough for two colors, for many little shinings of the sun? Why, then, devour your own vitals if I answer even as proudly, ‘I am black!’”
“The Black Prometheus Bound,” a cartoon by M. Crump published in The Crisis, July 1926, demonstrated the journal’s powerful use of visual imagery. Promethean eagles have become vultures, feasting on Uncle Sam’s guts (“human hearts”). Evoking Booker T. Washington, Truth utters a rallying cry: “Up from Slavery to that fire of freedom, which The Souls of Black Folk brought down from heaven!” The differences between the supporters of the “accommodationist” Washington and the supporters of the more radical W.E.B. Du Bois were insignificant to the vultures, who — here, labeled as southern states — terrorize both camps. Schomburg Center, General Research and Reference Division
“Mob-Rule,” a cartoon by Albert Alex Smith published in The Crisis, February 1927; Smith’s drawing won honorable mention in the 1926 Crisis contest. It depicts the figure of a dead black woman surrounded by a accusatory crowd and an armed but terrified white man (the murderer?) fleeing from the Frankenstein-monster-like mob. In the issue, W.E.B. Du Bois noted that 34 lynchings had occurred in the U.S. in 1926, almost twice as many as the previous year. Schomburg Center, General Research and Reference Division
For Du Bois, the history of the black experience in America, from slavery through Jim Crow, could be traced to that ancient archetype of struggle against tyranny. Slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow fueled and continuously refueled the struggle for human rights. In Black Reconstruction in America (1935), he warned that we must remember:
“How civil war in the South began again — indeed had never ceased; and how black Prometheus bound to the Rock of Ages by hate, hurt and humiliation, has his vitals eaten out as they grow, yet lives and fights.... Reconstruction was a determined effort to reduce black labor as nearly as possible to a condition of unlimited exploitation and build a new class of capitalists on this foundation.”
One of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Du Bois exercised his influence partly through its journal, The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, which he launched and edited from 1910 to 1934. His mastery of the classics gave him a special bond with America’s premier black classics scholar, Dr. William Sanders Scarborough (1852–1926). They were founding members of the American Negro Academy, a group created in 1897 to aid its members in the arts, sciences, and literature — subjects that, metaphorically, comprised Prometheus’s gift to humankind. Scarborough raised the question: Why shouldn’t blacks decipher ancient texts along with whites? Blacks, he said, should not be given “a [cotton] pick instead of Greek and Latin,” contrary to Booker T. Washington's insinuation.
A vein of classically influenced black writers, poets, and artists have taken ancient themes for their own including Alain Locke, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Martin Luther King Jr., Romare Bearden, Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, Toni Morrison, and Rita Dove. From Euripides’s Medea, to Countee Cullen’s version of the Greek tragedy, to the adventures of Tyler Perry’s Madea, ancient themes repeat and renew. Some tapped the same classical vein as Mary Shelley, whose Creature hinted that revolutionary change, once unleashed, often proves hard to contain: “I was the slave, not the master, of an impulse which I detested, yet could not disobey.”
Title page of William Sanders Scarborough’s First Lessons in Greek (New York, 1881). Other leading black classic scholars of the era included Richard T. Greener, John Hope, and Anna J. Cooper. Schomburg Center, General Research and Reference Division
Dick Gregory, in his 1968 novel The Shadow That Scares Me, wrote: “I remember coming home from the movie theater one day in tears. I had just seen Frankenstein. My momma asked me what was wrong. Still crying, I told Momma, ‘I just saw Frankenstein and the monster didn’t scare me.’ Momma couldn’t explain it and I couldn’t understand it. I was afraid I wasn’t normal. But now that I look back, I realize why I wasn’t frightened. Somehow I unconsciously realized that the Frankenstein monster was chasing what was chasing me. Here was a monster, created by a white man, turning upon his creator. The horror movie was merely a parable of life in the ghetto. The monstrous life of the ghetto has been created by the white man. Only now in the city of chaos are we seeing the monster created by oppression turn upon his creator.” Poster insert designed by Milton Glaser for album Dick Gregory’s Frankenstein (New York, 1970), recorded during Gregory’s performance at Bronx Community College, March 20, 1970. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Archives of Recorded Sound. Poster image courtesy Milton Glaser Design Study and Archives, Visual Arts Foundation
Canning, George. Speech in the House of Commons during debate on “Negro Slavery,” March 16, 1824. New-York Spectator, April 30, 1824.
Craven, John Joseph. Prison Life of Jefferson Davis. Embracing details and incidents in his captivity, particulars concerning his health and habits, together with many conversations on topics of great public interest. New York: Carleton; London: S. Low Son & Co., 1866.
Douglass, Frederick. “Slavery and the Irrepressible Conflict.” Speech given in Geneva, N.Y., August 1, 1860, in: The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One, Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, vol. 3. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979–85.
Du Bois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935.
Du Bois, W.E.B. Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920.
Editorial, unsigned (“The Fourth of March”). The Charleston Mercury, March 4, 1861.
Gregory, Dick. The Shadow That Scares Me. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968.
Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade; written by James Montgomery, James Grahame, and E. Benger; embellished with engravings from pictures painted by R. Smirke. London: Printed for R. Bowyer by T. Bensley, 1809.
Scarborough, William Sanders. The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus ... Revised, corrected, and illustrated with a new introduction, by the author. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley; Edinburgh: Bell and Bradfute; Dublin: Cumming, 1831.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Defence of Poetry," in: Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments. Edited by Mrs. Shelley. London: Edward Moxon, 1840.