Study Guide

Jupiter Hammon

Jupiter Hammon Essay - Critical Essays

Hammon, Jupiter

Introduction

Jupiter Hammon 1711(?)–1800(?)

American poet and essayist.

Contrary to popular belief, Hammon, not Phillis Wheatley, was America's first published black author. His poem An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries is dated December 25, 1760 and was printed in 1761, preceding Wheatley's verse by at least nine years. All of his writing expresses Christian themes and avoids confrontation with the slaveholding class that governed Hammon's life. Although he is relatively unrenowned, Hammon remains important as the first black American author to appear in print. His verses are considered the forerunners of Negro spirituals and abolitionist dialogues.

Biographical Information

Hammon's birthdate is believed to be October 11, 1711, though many sources place his birth nearly ten years later. He was born a slave on the estate of Henry Lloyd on Long Island and served the Lloyd family for three generations. As a household slave, Hammon was given many privileges not available to other slaves: he attended primary school with Lloyd's children and learned to read and write. In 1733 Hammon purchased a Bible from Lloyd and began the religious studies that greatly influenced both his poetry and prose. The inspirational hymns of Charles Wesley, John Newton, and William Cowper also profoundly affected Hammon's verse. Hammon's poems were issued on broadsides, large sheets of paper with print on one side only. He published four poems in this manner with his own resources and the financial assistance of his owners. His first poem, An Evening Thought, appeared in 1761. After the death of Henry Lloyd in 1763, Hammon became the property of Lloyd's son Joseph, who fled with his family to Connecticut when the British took control of Long Island. In Hartford, Hammon produced several works, the most noteworthy being An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly [sic]. Following the death of Joseph Lloyd, Hammon returned to Long Island as the property of Joseph's nephew, John Lloyd, Jr. Hammon produced only one work, Address to the Negroes in the State of New-York, after his return to the Lloyd estate, although it is possible that other pages of manuscript were never discovered. This last work, an essay, became Hammon's most popular piece. The date of Hammon's death is uncertain. The final mention of him in the Lloyd estate records is entered under the year 1790. From eulogistic references to him in the introduction to a later edition of An Address to the Negroes in the State of New-York, it is known that Hammon died before the date of publication, 1806.

Major Works

An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly, Hammon's most significant poem, suggests that Wheatley's enslavement in Ethiopia, arrival in America, and conversion to Christianity were the product of divine will. The poem An Evening Thought, which strongly resembles eighteenth-century devotional hymns, reflects Hammon's evangelical preoccupation with salvation, righteousness, and eternal life. A Poem for Children with Thoughts on Death consists of seventeen quatrains, each linked to a Biblical verse. Through interpretation of the Biblical passages, the quatrains admonish young people and advise them to follow Scripture. Hammon's last poem, The Kind Master and Dutiful Servant, appeared in his essay An Evening's Improvement: Shewing the Necessity of Beholding the Lamb of God. A dialogue in verse, it recommends that all slaves show dutiful servitude and reminds them that salvation is available through the love of God.

Critical Reception

Hammon's work has not been widely discussed. Some commentators criticize Hammon for his repetitive use of themes and language and occasionally weak syntax, while others find his meter and rhymes forced or otherwise imperfect. The primary reason for Hammon's obscurity, however, is most likely what Vernon Loggins called the author's "conciliatory attitude towards slavery." Hammon was not an avid abolitionist, and his seeming acceptance of servitude has made him unpopular with some readers. However, after more than a century of neglect, twentieth-century critics are now beginning to recognize Hammon's important contribution to early black American literature.

Principal Works

Poetry

An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penetential [sic] Cries 1761

An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly [sic] 1778

*A Winter Piece: Being a Serious Exhortation, with a Call to the Unconverted, and a Short Contemplation on the Death of Jesus Christ (essay and poetry) 1782

†An Evening's Improvement: Shewing the Necessity of Beholding the Lamb of God. The Kind Master and Dutiful Servant (essay and poetry) 1783

America's First Negro Poet: The Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon of Long Island (essays and poetry) 1970

Other Major Works

An Essay on the Ten Virgins (essay) 1779

An Address to the Negroes in the State of New-York (essay) 1787

*Includes A Poem for Children, with Thoughts on Death.

†The publication date of this work is uncertain.

Criticism

Oscar Wegelin (essay date 1915)

SOURCE: "Biographical Sketch," in America's First Negro Poet: The Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon of Long Island, edited by Stanley Austin Ransom, Jr., Kennikat Press, 1970, pp. 29-31.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1915, Wegelin appraises Hammon's poetry as "commonplace" but concludes that his role as America's first black poet is noteworthy.]

As a poet Hammon will certainly not rank among the "Immortals." His verse is stilted, and while some of his rhymings are fairly even, we can easily comprehend that they were written by one not well versed in the art of poesy. They have a sameness which is wearying to the reader and there is too much reiteration, in some cases the same or nearly the same words being employed again and again.

His verse is saturated with a religious feeling not always well expressed, as he did not possess the ability to use the right word at the proper time. Hammon was undoubtedly deeply religious, but his religion was somewhat tinged with narrowness and superstition, a not uncommon fault of the time in which he lived and wrote.

Although grammatically almost perfect, it seems certain that an abler and more experienced hand than his own was responsible for this.

Compared with the verses of Phillis Wheatley, his lines are commonplace and few would care to read them more than once. When we consider, however, that this poor slave had probably no other learning than what he had been enabled to secure for himself during his hours of relaxation from labor, it is surprising that the results are not more meagre....

(The entire section is 686 words.)

Kenny J. Williams (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "A New Home in a New Land," in They Also Spoke: An Essay on Negro Literature in America, 1787-1930, Townsend Press, 1970, pp. 3-49.

[In the following excerpt, Williams compares Hammon's poetry to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American religious verse.]

[Hammon's] first publication was a poem of eighty-eight lines entitled An Evening Thought; Salvation by Christ, With Penetential Cries. The title page carries his name and asserts that he is a slave "belonging to Mr. Lloyd, of Queen's Village, on Long Island," and the poem is dated December 25, 1760. As the title pages of his publications indicate, Hammon belonged to three different members of...

(The entire section is 1622 words.)

Sidney Kaplan (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Jupiter Hammon," in The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770-1800, New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1973, pp. 171-80.

[In the following excerpt, Kaplan briefly comments on the prominence of religion in Hammon's verse.]

It is altogether possible that Jupiter Hammon was a preacher to the slaves in the communities of Long Island and Connecticut where he labored for the Lloyds. An Evening Thought, an antiphonal poem echoing the word "Salvation" in twenty-three of its eighty-eight lines, has all the ringing ecstatic hope for heavenly freedom with "tender love" that charges the earliest spirituals of the enslaved. The preacher calls and...

(The entire section is 356 words.)

R. Roderick Palmer (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Jupiter Hammon's Poetic Exhortations," in CLA Journal, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, September, 1974, pp. 22-8.

[In the following excerpt, Palmer criticizes Hammon's poetic style and his "intoxication " with religion, suggesting that Hammon could have made a stronger statement against slavery.]

Throughout his life, Hammon was able to reach remarkable stages of self-awareness and self-assertiveness. In this regard, Hughes and Bontemps state that "Hammon was an intelligent and privileged slave, respected by his master for his skill with tools and by some of his fellow slaves for his power as a preacher" [Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, eds., The Poetry of the...

(The entire section is 1009 words.)

Lonnell E. Johnson (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Dilemma of the Dutiful Servant: The Poetry of Jupiter Hammon," in Language and Literature in the African American Imagination, edited by Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 105-17.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson discusses factors that might have influenced Hammon's writings. These factors include Hammon's religion, his life as a slave, eighteenth-century politics and society, and the works of other writers.]

The poetry of Hammon reveals a devoutly religious man who assimilates the predominant religious views of colonial New England. Because of this he has been accused of being too conciliatory in his attitude toward enslavement....

(The entire section is 2695 words.)

Sondra A. O'Neale (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries" and others, in Jupiter Hammon and the Biblical Beginnings of African-American Literature, The American Theological Library Association and The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993, pp. 41-59, 66-75, 134-41, 191-204.

[In the following excerpt O'Neale argues that Hammon was actually one of this country's first African American protest writers. And given the context of eighteenth century society, and especially the fact that he was a slave, Hammon had to couch his criticism of slavery in religious terminology. O'Neale insists that critics who fault Hammon's poetry for its apparent focus on religious salvation rather that...

(The entire section is 7422 words.)