J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, April 04, 2015

Another Newly Discovered Poem by Jupiter Hammon

For the second time in four years, a researcher has identified a previously unstudied poem by the enslaved preacher Jupiter Hammon in an archive.

In this case, the poem had not already been properly catalogued, like the last time. It was filed under the name of Phebe Townsend in the Townsend Family Papers at the New-York Historical Society. But above her signature in big letters, Townsend had labeled the three-page manuscript:
Composed by Jupiter hammon
A Negro belonging to mr Joseph Lloyd
of Queens Village on Long island
August the 10th 1770
Claire Bellerjeau, who has researched the Townsend family’s own slaves in depth, came across the document and confirmed that the poem had not been published elsewhere. She has been speaking about the find this spring. The New Haven Register reports that Bellerjeau “hopes to publish her findings by the end of this year in the New York History Journal,” which is the periodical of the New York State Historical Association.

The Oyster Bay Enterprise-Pilot reported on Bellerjeau’s surprising conclusion about the untitled poem’s subject:
She said one of the things that struck her about this poem is that it is an homage to [Anne] Hutchinson, a woman who lived 127 years before Hammond’s time.

“It’s truly incredible,” she said. “He was educated enough, thoughtful enough and scholarly enough to pay tribute to her, a woman who also had a belief that she was equal in God’s eyes.” . . .

She explained that the poem by Hammond is in three parts, titled “Sickness,” “Death” and “Funeral” and alludes to aspects of Hutchinson’s life; and since Hutchinson never had a proper funeral, Bellerjeau interprets the poem as a way of “laying her soul to rest.”
I’d love to see the full text of the poem because Bellerjeau’s reading raises several questions for me:
  • What “aspects of Hutchinson’s life” does it address, and how rare were those for early American women? 
  • In the “Death” section, does it describe how Hutchinson was so notably killed by Native Americans
  • Aside from the “Funeral,” what other aspects of life does the poem discuss which were not part of Anne Hutchinson’s life? 
  • Can we rule out the possibility that Hammon wrote a memorial to a local woman who had recently died, of the sort the young Phillis Wheatley was cranking out in Boston?

I ask those questions because I’m surprised that Hammon, who advocated meek and conventional piety, would praise Anne Hutchinson, a disruptive dissenter who had lived a century earlier. Hutchinson wasn’t as widely admired in 1700s America as she later became.

That said, the eighteenth-century author who had the most to say about Anne Hutchinson was her descendant Thomas Hutchinson. He wrote about her at length in his History of the Province of Massachuset’s-Bay. That book was published a few years before the date on this poem, so perhaps it was Hammon’s source of information and inspiration.


J. L. Bell said...

The New-York Historical Society has now posted an article with legible images of this Jupiter Hammon poem.

Hammon’s lines refer early on to “Children of Boston” and later to “Dear Hutchinson.” However, I saw no references to the notable events of Anne Hutchinson’s life many decades earlier: the theological controversies with Massachusetts authorities, the children with reported birth defects, the banishments, the violent death.

I therefore see no reason to believe that Hammon wrote about Anne Hutchinson as opposed to any other woman named Hutchinson with Boston ties. The way the poem describes the piety of that late lamented woman looks pretty formulaic.

Hammon was writing poetry by 1760, the date of his earliest published work. At that time, he was enslaved to Henry Lloyd of Lloyd’s Neck, Long Island. Henry’s oldest son, also named Henry, married Catharine Hutchinson in Boston in 1737, so Hammon could have written the poem as a tribute to her mother or another relative. The Lloyd family had other links to Boston as well through Dr. James Lloyd.

Incidentally, in researching that connection, I came across the fact that the younger Henry and James’s sister Margaret, born in 1713, was the mother of Anna Strong, later linked (without strong evidence) to espionage on Long Island during the Revolutionary War. The young woman who copied out Hammon’s poem, Phebe Townsend, was brother of Robert Townsend, a well documented member of the Culper Ring. And in 1779, their sister Sally Townsend was the recipient of a Valentine’s poem from Capt. John Graves Simcoe.

Anna Strong, Robert Townsend, and Capt. Simcoe are all now characters in the Turn: Washington’s Spies television show. In fact, the series has even quoted Simcoe’s Valentine’s verse, but showed him writing it to Strong.

I’m not sure what that confluence of names means in the real world, aside from how there were a relatively few genteel families on Long Island in the 1700s.

Chaucerian said...

Do I understand you to be saying that the poet is more likely to be referring to a Bostonian woman associated with his own household than with a woman born more than a century earlier with no personal associations? Or, looking at another way, he might be referring to the Hutchinson he knew rather than to the Hutchinson that a person living 250 years later knew? What a concept.