Viewed as an immensely
talented poet with vast potential taken too soon from life, Irwin
Russell enjoyed a status among his southern contemporaries resembling
that of John Keats to his fellow British Romantics. Although his
literary output was limited, Russell was considered the forerunner
of dialect writers such as Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler
Harris, who pointed to his work as an early influence on their own
Irwin Russell was
born on June 3, 1853, in Port Gibson, Mississippi. The son of a
physician and a teacher at the Port Gibson Female College, Russell
attended St. Louis University, where he graduated with honors. He
then returned to Port Gibson, where by special act of the legislature
he was admitted to the bar at the remarkably young age of nineteen.
As a child, Russell had been drawn
to the dialect poetry of Robert Burns, and back in Port Gibson he
began writing his own dialect verse. He experimented with representation
of southern poor white, English, and Irish speech, but it was ultimately
his treatment of African American pronunciation and idiom that secured
his importance to post-Reconstruction southern writing. In 1876,
he began publishing poems in Scribners Monthly
Magazine, in which his most important and influential works—including
the seminal “Christmas Night in the Quarters”—appeared
from 1876 to 1879. His desire to immerse himself in a national literary
center compelled him to move in January 1879 to New York City, where
he lived for six months.
Russells father had died in
April 1879, and in June, the grief-stricken Russell moved to New
Orleans, where he lived in a cheap boarding house at 73 Franklin
Street. He would not live there long. Plagued by life-long ailments,
the effects of heavy drinking, and recent contact with typhoid,
Russell died on December 23, 1879. Several tributes to Russell appeared
in the years following his death, and in 1907 the teachers of Mississippi
had a bust of him sculpted and placed in the capitol building in
Russells influence on his
contemporaries was great, especially on local color writers who
looked to his work as the precedent for depicting African Americans
and their dialect. Both Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris,
two of the most important southern dialect writers of the late nineteenth
century, acknowledged Russells writing as their inspiration.
In fact, Harris, the creator of Uncle Remus, wrote the preface to
the 1888 collection of thirty-one of Russells poems published
as Poems in which he praised the Mississippian as the being
“among the first—if not the first—of Southern
writers to appreciate the literary possibilities of” African
American speech and character. Although now out of print and rarely
read, Russells poetry is foundational in the ways white Southern
writers from Harris and Page to Faulkner
and Welty would depict
African Americans in the South.
posted April 2003)
Links & Info
Fust Banjo,” one of Russells dialect poems, is available
online at Bartleby.com..
- Poems. New York: Century, 1888.
- Christmas-Night in the Quarters, And Other Poems. New
- Christmas Night in the Quarters. Jackson: Mississippi
Poems by Irwin Russell have been collected in the
- Fulton, Maurice G., ed. Southern Life in Southern Literature:
Selections of Representative Prose and Poetry. Boston: Ginn
and company, 1917.
- Untermeyer, Louis, ed. Modern
American Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1919;
New York: Bartleby.com, 1999.
- Polk, Noel E., and James
R. Scafidel, eds. An Anthology of Mississippi Writers.
Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1978.
Books and articles:
- Baskervill, William Malone. “Irwin Russell.” Southern
and Critical Studies. Vol. 1. Nashville: Publishing House of M.
- Holliday, Carl. “Irwin Russell.” A History of Southern
York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1906. 367-69.
- Nyholm, Jens. Irwin Russell: A Biographical and Critical Study.
thesis. George Washington University, 1934.
- Todd, Hollis B. An Analysis of the Literary Dialect of Irwin Russell
Comparison with the Spoken Dialect of Certain Native Informants of West
Central Mississippi. Dissertation. Louisiana State University, 1965.
- Webb, James Wilson. “Irwin Russell.” Lives of Mississippi
1817-1967. Ed. James B. Lloyd. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi,
1981. 397-98. (Reprinted
to Us All: Lawyers in Poetry, by James R. Elkins.)
- ---. “Irwin Russells Position in Southern Literature.”
Studies in English
4 (1963): 49-59.
- ---. New Biographical Material, Criticism, and Collected Writings
Russell. M. A. thesis. University of North Carolina, 1940.
By the Author:
- “De Fust Banjo.”
In Modern American Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer (New
York: Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1919). Reprinted on Bartleby.com.
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