Jupiter Hammon Critical Essays

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.