Study Guide

Anthony Burns

by Virginia Hamilton

Anthony Burns Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

Hamilton dedicates this biography “in memory of Anthony Burns” and accompanies it with “The Abolitionist Hymn.” In the afterword, she remarks that “he somehow deserved more than a paragraph or a mere mention” in the history of the abolition movement as it related to fugitive slaves. She concludes with this justification: “For once I wanted readers to have a book in which the oppressed slave, a common man, was at the center of his own struggle.” Thus, the central narrative concerns one man’s life but, in Hamilton’s own words, it also “is a narrative history of events surrounding Anthony’s life as well as a biography.” Hamilton engages her readers’ sympathy for Burns by revealing his thoughts and memories while living through the legal ordeal. Yet she also provides a sense of the intense emotions aroused by the fugitive slave issue in Massachusetts, a feeling so inflammatory that military intervention approved by President Franklin Pierce was required to prevent race riots from getting out of hand. Even so, one deputy was killed by citizens attempting to free Burns from his captors, however legally he may have been held.

To create sympathy for Burns as a fugitive slave, while reporting the legal and emotional turmoil surrounding his return to slavery, Hamilton identifies with Burns and those who work on his behalf. In the first chapter, as he is being apprehended, Burns thinks to himself: “Never let a buchra—never let a man who is white—know what you are thinking.” From that clue, Hamilton allows the flashback chapters to account for Burns’s present reluctance to trust even those who come to his defense and for his sense of inevitability when taken aboard ship under armed guard to return with his master to Virginia, which is described in contrast to his...

(The entire section is 735 words.)