Black American Poets and Dramatists: Before the Harlem Renaissance

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview
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George Moses Horton

c. 1797-c. 1883

GEORGE MOSES HORTON was born in slavery on the farm of William Horton in Northampton County, North Carolina.The year of his birth is probably 1797, as he states in The Hope of Liberty ( 1829) that he was thirty-two years old. Little is known of Horton's parents; Horton himself says that his mother was forced to leave her husband when Horton was still a boy, and this separation may have been a result of William Horton's transferral of his farm to Chatham County, near Chapel Hill, in 1800. Nevertheless, it was at this time that Horton began gaining a rudimentary education from Wesleyan hymnals and remnants of schoolbooks obtained from white children. Although Horton did not learn to write until years later, as an adolescent he was already composing poems and committing them to memory.

In 1814 Horton became the property of William Horton's son James. At some point during the next five years he became a fruit vendor in the Chapel Hill area, where he met students from the university and recited his poetry for them. The students began asking Horton to write acrostics and love-poems for their girlfriends, paying him fifty or seventy-five cents for each poem. Horton claims to have written dozens of such poems for young men in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia, but only a few survive. The young men also gave Horton books—including the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, and other poets who would influence Horton's later poetry.

At Chapel Hill Horton also met Caroline Lee Hentz, a poet and novelist who lent him assistance with his work and transcribed some of his poetry. In 1828 she arranged for the publication of two of Horton's poems in a newspaper, the Lancaster ( Mass.) Gazette. At this time Horton was befriended by many abolitionists, who attempted unsuccessfully in 1828 and 1829 to purchase his freedom. Horton's collection of poems, The Hope of Liberty, was published by these abolitionists in the hope of raising enough money to give James Horton the sum he required to liberate Horton.This effort failed, as the book sold few copies; but it constituted the first book


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