The “Bard of the Maumee,” Ohio's first native African American poet, was born in Gallipolis where he spent his first sixteen years. From 1842 to 1853, Bell worked as a plasterer in Cincinnati and there married Louisiana Sanderlin with whom he had several children. He plied the plasterer's trade in Canada West, Ontario (1854–1860); there he became a friend of John Brown's, raised funds for Brown's 1859 raid, and later dedicated The Day and the War to “The Hero, Saint and Martyr of Harpers Ferry.” For the next thirty years, until he settled in Toledo in 1890, Bell pursued the trades of plasterer and poet-lecturer in San Francisco (1860–1865) and many other cities north and south. He championed abolitionism and black educational and legal rights, served as a prominent lay worker for the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and briefly worked in Republican Party politics. In 1901, at the insistence of Bishop Benjamin Arnett, Bell published his life's poetry in Poetical Works.
Bell specialized in long verse-orations (each of 750 to 950 lines) that recounted the history of slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction: A Poem (1862); A Poem Entitled the Day and the War (1864); An Anniversary Poem Entitled the Progress of Liberty (1866); and A Poem Entitled the Triumph of Liberty (1870). These poems require the spirited dramatic recitals Bell offered on his tours, where, William Wells Brown observed, his “soul-stirring appeals” inspired “enthusiasm of admiration” in his listeners. On the printed page the orations’ abstractions, clichés, and monotonously regular iambic tetrameter and rhymes smother both emotional force and intellectual conviction. Occasionally specific references to historical persons and events or variations in stanza length add distinctiveness to Bell's poetic declamations on liberty and racial justice. Collected with the long poems in Poetical Works are a dozen conventional shorter poems, most on racial themes, and a daring, vigorous satire of President Andrew Johnson, “Modern Moses, or ‘My Policy’ Man” (c. 1867). In every age, writes Bell, “an assassin's blow” has raised to power someone “Whose acts unseemly and unwise, / Have caused the people to despise / And curse the hours of his reign, / And brand him with the mark of Cain.” Worse than Cain is Johnson, “My liege of graceless dignity,” our Judas, Satan's minion, a false Moses. Exposing Johnson's political treacheries, dissipations, and vulgarities in 377 lines, Bell combines shrewd humor and irony, concrete topicality, and uninhibited personal emotion for his most inventive and readable work. As poet and public speaker, Bell was one of the nineteenth century's most dedicated propagandists for African American freedom and civil rights.
Benjamin W. Arnett, “Biographical Sketch,” in Poetical Works, by James Madison Bell, 1901, pp. 3–14.Joan R. Sherman, Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, 2d ed., 1989.
Joan R. Sherman