George Moses Horton 1797?-1883?
Referred to by some critics as “the slave bard of North Carolina,” Horton is generally praised for his poetic achievements, and his name is usually associated with several “firsts” in American literature. He was the first black southerner to have a book of poetry published; he was the only slave to derive a substantial income from selling his poems; he was the first American slave to write antislavery poems; and he was the only poet ever to publish a book of poetry before being able to write. His poems cover a wide variety of subjects, including freedom, antislavery, love, religion, and death, and although critics, in general, do not equate his talent with that of major nineteenth-century poets, they do find his achievements remarkable in light of the circumstances of his life as a slave.
Horton was born into slavery in North Carolina, probably in 1797, under the ownership of William Horton, a small landowner. Horton's mother and siblings were all slaves of the same owner, according to his autobiographical writings. He does not mention a great deal about his father except to say that he was his mother's second husband and apparently did not live with them. When Horton was very young, William Horton took his slaves and moved to a new farm near the town of Chapel Hill. George Moses Horton, of course, had no formal schooling, but with the help of his mother and her Wesley hymnal, which the slaves used at religious camp meetings, he did learn to read (before he could write). When Horton was about nineteen or twenty, he started making weekly treks from the farm into Chapel Hill on weekends to sell his master's fruit. Chapel Hill was the site of the state university, and it was on these weekend visits that Horton came into contact with university students and faculty. His literary “career” began when the students hired him to compose poetry, usually in the form of love poems or acrostics using their sweethearts' names. He would take “orders” on these weekends and create verse while working on the farm during the week. He would memorize the poems and later dictate them to one of the students, who would copy them. Horton made a tidy sum from this business venture, charging a minimum of twenty-five cents per poem. He became so popular with the students that he earned enough money to pay his owner, James Horton (son of William, to whom ownership of George had passed), to allow him to stay in Chapel Hill all week long for a fee of twenty-five cents per day, an unheard-of arrangement in those days. Some critics argue that Horton was such a poor farmhand that it was more lucrative for James Horton to take the fee than to have him in the fields. It was also during his time in Chapel Hill that Horton met the poet and writer Caroline Lee Hentz, wife of a university faculty member. She advised him on his writing technique and helped him get some of his poetry into print. One of Horton's poems was published in abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's popular Liberator.
Two efforts were made by northern and southern abolitionists on Horton's behalf to secure his freedom, one of which involved the publication of Horton's first book of poetry, The Hope of Liberty (1829). His supporters hoped that the proceeds from this book would be great enough to pay off Horton's owner and gain his freedom. Although the desired result did not occur, the book was noteworthy for several reasons, not the least of which was that it was the first book ever published by a slave in a slaveholding state. Horton later published two more books of poetry, The Poetical Works of George M. Horton (1845) and Naked Genius (1865). Horton returned to the farm with the outbreak of the Civil War, as many of his clients had left to enlist in the war and he could no longer earn enough money to stay in Chapel Hill. After the war, as a free man, he went to Philadelphia, and little is known about his activities there and until his death. Some critics suggest that he might have returned to North Carolina and died there; others believe he died in Philadelphia. At some point, perhaps around the late 1830s, Horton had married a slave woman from another farm and had two children with her, but since he never mentioned his family overtly in any of his writing, little is known about them.
Critics focus most of their commentary on Horton's first book, The Hope of Liberty, a collection of more than twenty poems about love, death, religion, and slavery, themes that Horton would revisit in his two other books. John L. Cobbs argues that all of the poems have the underlying theme of flight—in essence, freedom—binding them together, and most critics agree that Horton's verse is influenced by biblical writings and hymns, as well as by British poets, especially Lord Byron, one of Horton's favorites. The Hope of Liberty was republished as Poems by a Slave in 1937 in Philadelphia by abolitionist Lewis Gunn. Horton's second book, Poetical Works, was published after the North Carolina state legislature had passed a law banning all slaves from learning how to read and write, it is therefore noteworthy that the book was published at all. Although the editors would have had to have been careful not to include poems about slavery and liberty, a few of the poems contain Horton's antislavery views. The poems in this volume also address the themes of religion, patriotism, drinking, scholarship, fame, and love. Horton's third poetry collection, Naked Genius, resulted from Horton's collaboration with a Civil War officer from Michigan named William Banks. This is by far the largest of the three volumes, containing over 130 poems. While many of these poems are on themes Horton had addressed previously, those on slavery are angrier and more strident than in earlier efforts. The volume also contains humorous and misogynistic poems. Some critics have speculated on whether the negative comments on women were directed at Horton's wife.
Although Horton did well for himself financially and socially with his poems for the students at the university, he did not enjoy the same success with his three volumes of poetry. None of the three books brought him any significant financial gain nor any critical commentary; he was largely ignored. The latter is also largely true for the first half of the twentieth century; his work received some attention from critics, but most of it was dismissive or at best, mixed. Since then, however, Horton's poetry has gained a greater audience from those who recognize his talent and achievements despite the fact that his poetry is not considered among the best in American literature. Instead of dismissing Horton's poetry outright, these critics look at his entire life and career and find him quite unusual and extraordinary.