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  • Epic, Anti-Eloquence, and Abolitionism:Thomas Branagan's Avenia and The Penitential Tyrant
  • Christopher N. Phillips (bio)

The career of Thomas Branagan was nothing if not improbable. Born in Ireland, Branagan ran away from home as a teenager to seek his fortune as a sailor; he worked his way through the ranks on board slave ships, and eventually became a foreman on a plantation in Antigua. A Methodist conversion experience led him to forsake his former life and become an itinerant preacher, first in London and more permanently in Philadelphia and New York. For the first decade or so of his postconversion career, Branagan's central theme was the evil of slavery, and he published no fewer than six volumes on the subject between 1804 and 1810—four of them poetry. His first works were sponsored by the African American minister and activist Richard Allen; he collaborated in a later work with Quaker abolitionist-publisher Samuel Wood, and he even caught the attention of President Thomas Jefferson by soliciting a subscription for his forthcoming poem Avenia.1

Despite his prodigious output and his status as a kind of American counterpart to John Newton, the renowned slaver-turned-preacher who wrote "Amazing Grace," little work has been done on Branagan's writings or their impact on early abolitionism. While the Irish American abolitionist's works have been acknowledged (briefly) by historians such as David Brion Davis for years,2 Branagan's work, including his volumes of poetry, has been almost totally ignored by literary critics. Branagan appears nowhere in John P. McWilliams, Jr.'s The American Epic, or in the Cambridge History of American Literature edited by Sacvan Bercovitch. Only one article, written by Lewis Leary in 1953, has focused entirely on Branagan's work, and even Philip Gould's powerful Barbaric Traffic includes Branagan almost in passing in his discussion of the poetry of early Atlantic abolitionists. The most significant contextualizations of Branagan's work have come from anthologists. In his collection Amazing Grace, James G. Basker cites [End Page 605] Jefferson's interest in Branagan, though he is careful to qualify it, and describes Branagan as "a pious and indefatigable abolitionist" whose Avenia was a "massive, overwrought epic" ([Notes] 601). Basker does see power in Tyrant, though he says that the "verbal artistry" is "of a different quality" from that of Newton (602). Marcus Wood also compares Branagan to Newton, but is much more blunt about his opinion of the former's verse; to explain Branagan's invisibility in the history of American abolitionism, the British scholar wryly comments that "Branagan's unfortunate insistence on attempting to present his anti-slavery arguments in the form of epic poems, given his spectacular lack of poetic ability, is definitely a stumbling block" ("Thomas Branagan" 425). What Wood assumes, though, is that the spectacle of "lack of poetic ability" is inadvertent; throughout his prefaces, poetry, and even prose works, Branagan indicates that rather than being a hapless poet, he makes his seeming ineptitude into a performance, one predicated on an equation between inarticulacy and innocent truth telling, not unlike the inarticulate innocence theorized by Nancy Ruttenburg in the writings of Whitman, Melville, and other American authors. Branagan's choice of epic as the vehicle for his most spectacularly antieloquent writings sets up a number of interrelated conflicts revolving around the politics of art, the place of writing in the abolition movement, and the place of the classics in the post-Revolutionary Atlantic world.

Branagan's willingness to engage the print world to disseminate his works, by using multiple genres and illustration technologies, is what makes him truly distinctive for Wood: "If . . . [Branagan] is analysed not as a literary cripple but as a propagandist of energy and formal ambition, he emerges as a highly significant figure. What he wrote is not, perhaps, as important as the manner in which he published it" (425).3 Gould tacitly agrees with Wood in his choice of cover image for Barbaric Traffic, a commissioned frontispiece for Branagan's poetry volumes. I will discuss Branagan's enthusiastic engagement with the visual aspects of print culture later in this essay. However, I would argue against Wood that the poems...


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