In “Middle Passage” Hayden mingles the voices of multiple speakers to depict the voyages of slave traders bringing Africans across the Atlantic Ocean. He had been deeply moved by “John Brown’s Body,” Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic 1928 poem about the Civil War, and Hayden marked a passage in which Benét stated he could not fairly describe the titanic battle from the African American viewpoint. Such a depiction, Benét declared, waited upon a black pen. It became Hayden’s ambition to write such an epic, and though he was never to write a full-scale work on this theme, “Middle Passage” became the largest and most compelling of the fragments of his promised epic.
Since the turn of the twentieth century, there have been at least two other great American fragmented epics, T. S. Eliot’s 1922 masterpiece The Waste Land and Hart Crane’s 1930 The Bridge, both of which influenced Hayden. Eliot used a collage of voices and mangled quotations to suggest the disunity of the twentieth century. Hayden uses the same techniques, but he turns their implications in another direction by suggesting that it is the past, not the present, that is fragmented. He views the past as a time when tribal Africans lost their culture and slave traders their humanity. The distorted quotations mingled in Hayden’s text, taken from the works of William Shakespeare and from gospel hymns, do not, as in Eliot’s poem, suggest the amnesia of the...
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