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Irwin Russell

Irwin Russell

Viewed as an immensely talented poet with vast potential taken too soon from life, Irwin Russell enjoyed a status among his southern contemporaries resembling that of John Keats to his fellow British Romantics. Although his literary output was limited, Russell was considered the forerunner of dialect writers such as Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris, who pointed to his work as an early influence on their own writing.

Irwin Russell was born on June 3, 1853, in Port Gibson, Mississippi. The son of a physician and a teacher at the Port Gibson Female College, Russell attended St. Louis University, where he graduated with honors. He then returned to Port Gibson, where by special act of the legislature he was admitted to the bar at the remarkably young age of nineteen.

As a child, Russell had been drawn to the dialect poetry of Robert Burns, and back in Port Gibson he began writing his own dialect verse. He experimented with representation of southern poor white, English, and Irish speech, but it was ultimately his treatment of African American pronunciation and idiom that secured his importance to post-Reconstruction southern writing. In 1876, he began publishing poems in Scribner’s Monthly
Magazine
, in which his most important and influential works—including the seminal “Christmas Night in the Quarters”—appeared from 1876 to 1879. His desire to immerse himself in a national literary center compelled him to move in January 1879 to New York City, where he lived for six months.

Russell’s father had died in April 1879, and in June, the grief-stricken Russell moved to New Orleans, where he lived in a cheap boarding house at 73 Franklin Street. He would not live there long. Plagued by life-long ailments, the effects of heavy drinking, and recent contact with typhoid, Russell died on December 23, 1879. Several tributes to Russell appeared in the years following his death, and in 1907 the teachers of Mississippi had a bust of him sculpted and placed in the capitol building in Jackson.

Russell’s influence on his contemporaries was great, especially on local color writers who looked to his work as the precedent for depicting African Americans and their dialect. Both Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris, two of the most important southern dialect writers of the late nineteenth century, acknowledged Russell’s writing as their inspiration. In fact, Harris, the creator of Uncle Remus, wrote the preface to the 1888 collection of thirty-one of Russell’s poems published as Poems in which he praised the Mississippian as the being “among the first—if not the first—of Southern writers to appreciate the literary possibilities of” African American speech and character. Although now out of print and rarely read, Russell’s poetry is foundational in the ways white Southern writers from Harris and Page to Faulkner and Welty would depict African Americans in the South.

(Article first posted April 2003)

Taylor Hagood

Related Links & Info

De Fust Banjo,” one of Russell’s dialect poems, is available online at Bartleby.com..

Publications

Poetry:

  • Poems. New York: Century, 1888.
  • Christmas-Night in the Quarters, And Other Poems. New York: Century,
    1917.
  • Christmas Night in the Quarters. Jackson: Mississippi Historical
    Society, 1970.

Selections:

Poems by Irwin Russell have been collected in the following anthologies:

  • Fulton, Maurice G., ed. Southern Life in Southern Literature: Selections of Representative Prose and Poetry. Boston: Ginn and company, 1917.
  • Untermeyer, Louis, ed. Modern American Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1919; New York: Bartleby.com, 1999.
  • Polk, Noel E., and James R. Scafidel, eds. An Anthology of Mississippi Writers. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1978.

Bibliography:

Books and articles:

  • Baskervill, William Malone. “Irwin Russell.” Southern Writers: Biographical
    and Critical Studies
    . Vol. 1. Nashville: Publishing House of M. E. Church,
    1897. 1-40.
  • Holliday, Carl. “Irwin Russell.” A History of Southern Literature. New
    York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1906. 367-69.
  • Nyholm, Jens. Irwin Russell: A Biographical and Critical Study. M. A.
    thesis. George Washington University, 1934.
  • Todd, Hollis B. An Analysis of the Literary Dialect of Irwin Russell and a
    Comparison with the Spoken Dialect of Certain Native Informants of West
    Central Mississippi
    . Dissertation. Louisiana State University, 1965.
  • Webb, James Wilson. “Irwin Russell.” Lives of Mississippi Authors,
    1817-1967
    . Ed. James B. Lloyd. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi,
    1981. 397-98. (Reprinted at Strangers to Us All: Lawyers in Poetry, by James R. Elkins.)
  • ---. “Irwin Russell’s Position in Southern Literature.” Studies in English
    4 (1963): 49-59.
  • ---. New Biographical Material, Criticism, and Collected Writings of Irwin
    Russell
    . M. A. thesis. University of North Carolina, 1940.

Internet Resources

By the Author:

  • De Fust Banjo.” In Modern American Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1919). Reprinted on Bartleby.com.

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