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Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt

Appropriating Milton in Early African American Literature

by Reginald A. Wilburn

Publication Year: 2014

“Pursuing things yet unattempted” in literary criticism, Reginald A. Wilburn offers the first scholarly work to theorize African American authors’ rebellious appropriations of John Milton and his canon. This comparative and hybrid study engages African Americans’ transatlantic negotiations with perhaps the preeminent freedom writer in the English tradition. Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt: Appropriating Milton in Early African American Literature contends that early African American authors appropriated and remastered Milton by “completing and complicating” England’s epic poet of liberty with the intertextual originality of repetitive difference. Wilburn focuses on a diverse array of early African American authors, such as Phillis Wheatley, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Frederick Douglass, and Anna Julia Cooper, to name a few. He examines the presence of Milton in these works as a reflection of early African Americans’ rhetorical affiliations with the poet’s “satanic epic” for their own messianic purposes of freedom and racial uplift. Wilburn explains that early African American authors were attracted to Milton because of his preeminent status in literary tradition, strong Christian convictions, and poetic mastery of the English language. This tripartite ministry makes Milton an especially indispensible intertext for authors whose writings and oratory were, sometimes, presumed “beneath the dignity of criticism.” Through close readings of canonical and obscure texts, Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt explores how various authors rebelled against such assessments of black intellect by altering Milton’s meanings, themes, and figures beyond orthodox interpretations and imbuing them with hermeneutic shades of interpretive and cultural difference. However they remastered Milton, these artists respected his oeuvre as a sacred yet secular “talking book” of revolt, freedom, and cultural liberation. Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt particularly draws upon recent satanic criticism in Milton studies, placing it in dialogue with methodologies germane to African American literary studies. By exposing the subversive workings of an intertextual Middle Passage in black literacy, Wilburn invites scholars from diverse areas of specialization to traverse within and beyond the cultural veils of racial interpretation and along the color line in literary studies.

Published by: Duquesne University Press

Title page, Editor page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-xiv

The journey from dissertation to book has not been a solitary endeavor. For this reason, it is fitting that I publicly thank and acknowledge everyone who has supported me in multiple ways along this journey. Through their support, I have gained a deeper...

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1. Making “Darkness Visible”: Milton and Early African American Literature

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pp. 1-56

Ever since Phillis Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773, there has been a need for theorizing the Word that governs African Americans’ receptions of John Milton. That need has intensified for more than two and a half centuries...

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2. Phillis Wheatley’s Miltonic Journeys in Poems on Various Subjects

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pp. 57-94

Wheatley ruptured literary history by disturbing the demonic grounds of Miltonic interpretation. It was she who first sang and published a collection of verse in the African American literary tradition by allusively echoing the words of John Milton to significant...

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3. Black Audio-Visionaries and the Rise of Miltonic Influence in Colonial America and the Early Republic

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pp. 95-148

The journey out of hell and up to a marvelous light of freedom in early African American literature continued to complete and complicate Milton well beyond the publication of Wheatley’s Poems. As early as 1788, a writer adopting the name Othello published...

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4. Of Might and Men: Milton, Frederick Douglass, and Resistant Masculinity as Existential Geography

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pp. 149-188

With the publication of Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, 1829 proved to be an acceptable year for preaching the gospel of Milton in furtherance of the antislavery cause.1 With its satanic appropriations of Paradise Lost and Milton’s hyperbolic...

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5. Breaking New Grounds with Milton in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Moses: A Story of the Nile

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pp. 189-228

While a militant ministry of “self-made men” preached Milton’s satanic epic as a symbolic expression of resistant black masculinity, a collective of “self-invented women” labored in the vineyard of racial and social uplift, operating in the spirit of a tempered assertiveness...

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6. Miltonic Soundscapes in Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South

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pp. 229-278

In keeping with the proto-womanist spirit of tempered assertiveness, Anna Julia Cooper, another prominent member of Milton’s black sisterhood, performs a series of rebellious vocal exercises with Milton in her 1892 publication, A Voice from the...

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7. Returning to Milton’s Hell with Weapons of Perfect Passivity in Sutton E. Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio

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pp. 279-326

In 1899, the last year of what is known as the long nineteenth century, Sutton E. Griggs brought the tradition of early African American engagement with Milton to a fitting satanic close. His novel, Imperium in Imperio, or State within a State, focuses on...

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Epilogue: Malcolm X, Paradise Lost, and the Twentieth Century Infernal Reader

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pp. 327-334

Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt originated from my awareness of my status as an “outside” reader. Upon reading Paradise Lost, it did not take long for my lived experiences as an African American to begin informing my responses to the poem. Specifically...


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pp. 335-360


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pp. 361-378


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pp. 379-392

E-ISBN-13: 9780820705972
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820704715
Print-ISBN-10: 0820704717

Page Count: 340
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 18th century -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Milton, John, 1608-1674 -- Influence.
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