Book Review: Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, Don Tate (2015)

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

“My heart to lift, my empty mind to feed, And all the world explore.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through NetGalley.)

George Moses Horton (1798–1884) was an African-American poet – the first black poet to be published in the Southern United States, as a matter of fact. Born into slavery, he taught himself to read and composed and memorized poetry in his head. When he was 17, his master decided to divide the estate. George and his family were separated, with George going to the master’s son.

On weekends, he traveled to nearby Chapel Hill to sell produce – and his poetry. Students at the University of North Carolina, taken with his verse, bought love poems at twenty-five cents apiece; Horton befriended the writer Caroline Lee Hentz, who helped him learn to write, and arranged for his work to be published in the Gazette. He also published a book of poetry, The Hope of Liberty, in 1929. With his earnings, Horton bought his time from his master (in an arrangement that was illegal) – but he was not allowed to purchase his freedom.

Despite his success and support from college students and faculty, Horton remained a slave. Many of his poems protested the “peculiar institution” of slavery, though he was forced into semi-retirement (from poetry, that is; he was still made to work on his master’s farm) by the start of the Civil War. Horton lived to see the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and became a free man at the age of sixty-six. After the end of the war, Horton traveled west with the Union army and transmuted his journey to verse.

(More below the fold…)