James Edwin Campbell


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(1867–1895), journalist and poet.

The son of Lethia (Stark) and James Campbell was born in Pomeroy, Ohio, and graduated from Pomeroy High School in 1884. He taught school in Ohio and participated in Republican politics there. In West Virginia (1890–1894) Campbell served as principal of Langston School (Point Pleasant) and of the newly opened Collegiate Institute (Charleston), an agricultural and mechanical arts school for African American youths. He married Mary Champ, a teacher, in 1891. Moving to Chicago, Campbell joined the staff of the Times-Herald and contributed articles and poems to several periodicals. His promising career was tragically cut short when he died of pneumonia in Pomeroy at age twenty-eight.

Campbell published two poetry collections: Driftings and Gleanings (1887) and Echoes from the Cabin and Elsewhere (1895); the latter contains what some have judged to be the finest group of dialect poems of the nineteenth century. Campbell's peers and leading critics during and after his lifetime praised his poems in the Gullah dialect for their originality; hard realism; aptness of phrasing, rhymes, and rhythms; and truth to the spirit, philosophy, and humor of antebellum plantation folk. Jean Wagner (Black Poets of the United States, 1973) notes that Campbell's “racial consciousness,” “satirical spirit,” and religious skepticism foreshadow the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance.

Campbell captures “the joy and pathos” of cabin life without lapsing into minstrelsy or surrendering race pride. He varies verse forms, moods, and speech patterns to suit individualized subjects, and leavens pungent satire with sympathetic appreciation for folkways. A few poems emulate traditional animal fables, such as “Ol' Doc' Hyar,” in which wily Doctor Hare loses a patient but not his fee: “‘Not wut fokses does, but fur wut dee know / Does de folkses git paid’—an’ Hyar larfed low.” Other dialect lyrics include work songs, lullabies, or vivid portrayals of activities such as horse trading, good eating, backsliding from church, and superstitions. In standard English, Campbell's poems celebrate wine, women, song, and the beauties of nature; his “The Pariah's Love” (300 lines) recounts an interracial love affair. These serious, metrically varied verses are aesthetically superior to most of the century's African American poetry, but his dialect poetry dedicated to “the Negro of the old regime” remains his most notable work.

Carter G. Woodson, “James Edwin Campbell, a Forgotten Man of Letters,” Negro History Bulletin (2 Nov. 1938): 11.Frank R. Levstick, “James Edwin Campbell,” in DANB, eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, 1982, pp. 32–36.Joan R. Sherman, Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, 2d ed., 1989.

Joan R. Sherman

Subjects: Literature.

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