Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
African Preachers
By Mary Traill Spence Lowell Putnam (1810–1898)
[Born in Boston, Mass., 1810. Died there, 1898. Record of an Obscure Man. 1861.]

“I HAVE heard much,” I said, after a few moments’ pause, “of the eloquence of African preachers, but I have not yet had the good fortune to meet with one who justified their reputation.”
  “It is possible you may not have it. It has more than once been my chance to observe a remarkable phenomenon. I have been standing entranced, like the rest of his hearers, before one of these rude prophets, when suddenly the electric current has been broken. The spell by which he held his audience is dissolved. The seer has vanished. An ordinary man is before you, dealing out commonplaces in language trite or turgid. I have looked for the explanation,—nor long. A party of white persons had entered,—fashionable women, perhaps, and men condescending or supercilious,—brought by curiosity to hear a specimen of negro eloquence.”  2
  “The poor slave—even in his moments of exaltation he is quelled by the lordly eye of his superior.”  3
  “I believe,” replied Edward, “that, in general, it is not awe that works the change, but the sudden introduction of an unsympathizing element.”  4
  “I have seen the same failure in an illiterate white preacher of real eloquence, when called to speak before a cultivated audience. I confess, in his case, I thought the desire of being equal to his reputation had something to do with his falling so far below it. He abandoned his usual simple, nervous language for a studied diction, and made a little display of scholarship quite uncalled for. I afterwards heard him in his own Bethel, and formed a very different estimate of his powers.”  5
  “Among the weaker sort,” Edward answered, “vanity has, no doubt a share in this sudden destitution of apostolic gifts. I have seen among the black preachers men of real ability, sincere men, too, make themselves absurd, when called upon to speak before an audience composed of white persons. This is especially apt to be the case when the occasion has been foreseen and prepared for. But, in general, this temporary suspension or inthralment of the powers, of which we have been speaking, is due neither to servility nor self-love, but to an influence of which all men are more or less susceptible. No faculty is more under the control of exhilarating or depressing influences than that of language. Sympathy is the breath of life to the poet. I have known men strong enough to hold themselves independent of it,—yet few. These have been men severely schooled by suffering, and whose whole being was possessed by an earnest purpose. The slave does not commonly want the needed discipline; and when he is great enough to be formed, not crushed by it, no man is more likely to devote himself to a single and unselfish object. The adoration of the Deity, and the awakening of other souls to his love and worship, often make the voluntary life of the man whose material existence has no office for his will or his hope.”  6
  “I can understand the power of these men over their fellows, but not that they should have any over you. Yet it is true that those who are in continual attendance on their masters wear off all coarseness, and have nothing in their manner which offends.”  7
  “The ablest and most eloquent among them,” said Edward, smiling, “are not usually those who are in constant communication with the master race, nor, indeed, those who have received most instruction. They are more commonly found among the followers of mechanic arts which employ the hands without engrossing the thoughts. These men enjoy greater independence than the others. They are necessarily more trusted to themselves. They are forced to use their own faculties. They do not commonly work under the eye of a taskmaster. They are not obliged to be always ready at call. Wood-cutting, cattle-tending, boating of produce, any occupation which implies a certain independence and gives opportunity for silent meditation, is more favorable than household service. Agriculture on a small plantation, where few hands are employed, does not so much impede the expansion of the intellect. But the obsequiousness, the alertness, required of a domestic servant, accord very ill with the grand, tranquil flow of religious inspiration. And the wretch—one of a gang as abject as himself—who has toiled all day under the lash of a driver, what has he strength for but perhaps a dumb, imploring prayer to a Protection divined, but not yet made manifest?”  8
  “But from what source do the men you speak of draw their ideas, their language?”  9
  “They owe, indeed,” Edward answered, “little to schools. And that great garden of modern literature in which we wander at will, passing from one flower or fruit to another so carelessly that we hardly know well the perfume or flavor of any, is shut to them. But they have, perhaps, their compensation. If they are confined to one volume, it is a volume which is in itself a library. Let us not forget that they have been trained by that great teacher through whose influence England learned to speak with one tongue and to feel with one heart,—the same that gave to Germany a classic language, and that infused into the springing literature of these countries those elements of elevation and energy that have distinguished the productions of English and German mind from those of any other modern people. Shall we call that man uncultivated whose mind is imbued with the deep wisdom, the sublime devotion, the grand imagery of the Book of Books? And where shall we find a better school of language, a deeper well of English undefined, than in our common version of the Old and New Testaments?”  10
  “Do all these preachers know how to read?”  11
  “Many of them. Those who do not, when they are men of strong intellect, lose less by the deprivation than we are apt to suppose. For every aid that civilization gives us, we sacrifice something of our self-reliance, and, with this, something of our power. The force of memory possessed by some of these men, who cannot store learning up in libraries and find it ready to their hand, but must trust to their own brain for the preservation of whatever mental treasures they collect, would astonish many a German scholar. Only the Druids, perhaps, may have surpassed them. Their wealth, too, is gathered slowly; each new accession is pondered and scrutinized.”  12
  “I have had few opportunities of listening to negro eloquence. I once, indeed, heard a black man relate to an audience of his own race a mournful incident in simple and touching language, I was moved with the rest. But when he heightened the pathos of his narrative by noting the fineness of the handkerchief with which his heroine dried her tears, my sympathies received a sudden shock. He passed from the grief of the bereaved to the procession of carriages to the grave, and described with unction the splendor and profusion of the funeral-feast. I have always found my interest thus cut short. It is true, I have heard no black preacher of eminence. I have seen reports of negro discourses in which I have found originality certainly, and rude power; but the grotesque and vulgar images, which no doubt were well enough adapted to those they were meant for, would, I am afraid, have made me laugh in spite of myself, if I had been of the audience.”  13

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