Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence
Dunbar Discover Christopher Columbus
Throughout history, Americans have paid tribute to Christopher Columbus through the construction of countless monuments, formation of societies, and composition of poems and songs. Towns, cities, and other public entities, rivers, colleges, and other institutions have adopted his name whether it be Columbus or Columbia. At the time of the American Revolution, the name Columbia, which is the poetic personification of Columbus and the nation, assumed wide popularity. Its use demonstrated the successful beginning of nationhood and historical continuity. The use of the name Columbia emerged in the early years of the Republic as its leaders searched for an appropriate title that would signify a distinct identity quite separate from the rest of the world. For obvious reasons, the name “Britannica” was unacceptable. It is no wonder that the Founding Fathers named the nation’s capital Washington, District of Columbia.
During the period of the nation’s founding, Timothy Dwight, David Humphreys, Philip Freneau, Mercy Warren, Joseph Hopkinson, and others composed poems with Columbian references to satisfy inherent national and literary needs. But the person who popularized the name Columbia most effectively during the Revolutionary period was Phillis Wheatley (1753?–1784), a brilliant African-born slave woman. She was brought to Boston in 1761 to live in the home of John and Susannah Wheatley who, noting Phillis’s intelligence, educated her in the classics. Freed ten years later, she articulated patriotic sentiments in her poems as she established herself as the first black writer of distinction in America.
Wheatley committed herself to the American cause of liberty. In a letter dated October 26, 1775, to George Washington, citing his appointment by the “Grand Continental to be Generalissimo of the Armies of North America,” she included a poem that employed Columbia four times. Its patriotic theme equated the virtues of Washington’s leadership with the struggle for freedom. This poem, of heroic verse, was sent to General Washington; it was published the following year in the Pennsylvania Magazine (April 1776). Impressed by its quality and purpose, Washington invited Wheatley to visit him, which she gladly did.
A recent literary assessment of Wheatley’s poem linked it to the classical tradition. She created the figure of Columbia in her poem, “To His Excellency George Washington,” to personify America. Although the term Columbia had been used before, those uses lacked complete personifications of America. The Columbia that Wheatley constructed, according to one scholar, was a composite of Phoebus Apollo and Pallas Athene, later known to the Romans as Minerva, both taken from ancient mythology. Athene provided the feminine base for Columbia. Apparently, she drew from her reading classical and neoclassical poets to create the “personification of Columbia from Apollo — the God of poetry and poets and thus the representation of the poetess herself in a masculine embodiment — and from Athene — the goddess of strategy and generals, and thus a representation of Washington in a feminine embodiment.” Columbia’s characteristics were also Christian, reminiscent of John Milton’s “Lycidas.” Thomas J. Steele, who drew these conclusions, made no reference to Columbus in his analysis (see “The Figure Columbia”).
Another scholar, however, did assess graphically the central position of Columbus in the New World:
At the moment America became Columbia, Columbus changed sex, transcended history, and entered the pantheon of gods and goddesses, taking America with him. In both guises, as the idealized historical character and the feminized deity, Columbus would remain a central and recurring figure in America’s imagination. (Conn 103)
Wheatley used Columbia as the poetic personification of America in several of her other poems: “On the Capture of General Lee” (1776), two times; “On the Death of General Wooster” (1777), one time; “Liberty and Peace, A Poem” (1784), six times. In the poem, “To His Excellency General Washington,” she began:
Celestial choir! enthroned in Realms of light,
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
(qtd. in Mason 164–67, lines 1–2)
In the conflict with Great Britain, winning the minds of the colonists played a major role in the movement for independence. Like Philip Freneau, Joel Barlow, Timothy Dwight, David Humphreys, and others, Wheatley enlarged on the revolutionary movement with her metaphorical verses idealizing the goal of freedom. She continued:
One century scarce perform’d its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
(qtd. in Mason 164–67, lines 29–32)
To emphasize the enduring significance of the conflict and its worldwide appeal, she wrote:
Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
(qtd. in Mason 164–67, lines 33–34)
On a sadder note in the poem, “On the Capture of General Lee,” December 30, 1776, Wheatley wrote: “The hour approach’d that damps Columbia’s joy” (qtd. in Mason 167–70, line 2). And for America’s human losses:
Columbia too, beholds with streaming eyes
Her heroes fall — ’tis freedom’s sacrifice.
(qtd. in Mason 167–70, lines 59–60)
In the poem, “On the Death of General Wooster” (1778), Wheatley honored a hero who died for his country’s cause. Freedom is the “Celestial prize.”
O still propitious by thy guardian care
And lead Columbia thro’ the toils of war.
(qtd. in Mason 170–75, lines 21–22)
“Liberty and Peace,” Wheatley’s final poem, celebrated the American victory over the British. It was written in July, 1784, less than a year after the Treaty of Paris was adopted officially ending the Revolutionary War. She employed Columbia six times. It is in the last four lines, in two prophetic couplets, that Wheatley captured the essence of the new nation’s mission in the world.
Auspicious Heaven shall fill with fav’ring Gales,
Where e’re Columbia spreads her swelling Sails:
To every Realm shall Peace her Charms display,
And Heavenly Freedom spread her golden Ray.
(qtd. in Shields 155–56, lines 61–64,
and in Mason 175–77, lines 61–64)
One of her biographers commented: “Personified as Peace and Freedom [America] will act as a world emissary, and emanating like the rays of the sun” (Shields 239–40).
Phillis Wheatley is a remarkable poet for her time. She rose above humble origins to express great appreciation for her adopted land. She was inspired by, and helped to inspire, a deep commitment to the American Revolution and its heroes. Part of that inspiration derived from the Columbus legend transformed into the poetic metaphor Columbia for the new nation. Perhaps more than any other at the time, she contributed to the origin and use of that term in establishing an American identity. This former slave, a child prodigy, a woman in an age of male monopoly, recorded major events in verse form in the struggle for freedom and independence. Simultaneously, she personified America with the name Columbia. Just as Christopher Columbus had broken physical barriers to progress by discovering a new world, Phillis Wheatley espoused a keen intellectual and passionate awareness of what the future held for the new nation. It is important, however, to cite the references to and the reliance on Columbia as the inspiration for America and all that it implied.
Following the Civil War, there was a group of writers who also honored and drew inspiration from Christopher Columbus. Among this group were midwestern poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), southern poet Sidney Lanier (1842–1881), western poet Joaquin Miller (1841–1913), New England memoirist-clergyman Edward Everett Hale (1822–1909), and Harvard University music-composer professor John Knowles Paine (1839–1906). In their own way, each fashioned the image of Columbus to national needs. Each complemented one another at a time when a growing transient population shifted westward across the last remnants of the American frontier. These intellectual leaders represented a continuation in the application of a literary image to the growth of American civilization. Dunbar, Lanier, Miller, Hale, and Paine did not find it necessary to appeal to the ancient muses for inspiration in their verses. Instead, a homebred tradition of literary nationalism was available to guide them for that purpose.
Paul Laurence Dunbar represents the second African-American poet who honored Columbus in the context of national needs and literary creativity. He achieved in his brief life of thirty-four years a wide recognition as an author no other African American had accomplished before him. Earlier, black writers such as Jupiter Hammond (1720–1800), a Long Island slave, and Phillis Wheatley distinguished themselves for their poetry with themes acceptable to the dominant white society. Hammond expressed little quarrel with slavery. Wheatley composed poems in the style of Alexander Pope.
Over time, African Americans faced the dilemma of rising above stereotypical views of what was expected of black artists, in spite of their efforts to achieve a creativity based on their own individual standards. An oral tradition that featured spirituals, ballads, work songs, hymns, and folk songs had effectively served African-American people. In order to survive, the poetic genius of Dunbar was often forced to compose black dialect poetry in order to yield to the prejudicial strictures of white society. More important, he produced original mainstream poetry that earned him national literary fame. He also wrote novels and short stories. Blyden Jackson, in his study of African-American literature, noted that since Phillis Wheatley’s time in the last half of the eighteenth century, no black poet until the 1890s had attained such fame as Dunbar. According to John Hope Franklin, Dunbar’s books — Oak and Ivy (1893), Majors and Minors (1896), Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) — have earned him the title of “poet laureate of the Negro race” (Jackson 42; Franklin 302).
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Dunbar began writing poetry at the age of six. He was the only black student at Central High School, where he distinguished himself as editor of the school newspaper and class president. His attempts at securing employment for which he was qualified failed because of community prejudice. He took a job as an elevator boy in Dayton’s Callahan Building. In time, his eventual success as a writer came at great cost; he suffered the frustration and isolation of being a black artist; he became ill due to alcoholism; and his marriage ended in divorce. His brilliant career was cut short by death at the age of thirty-four (Gayle x–xiv).
The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, or more popularly known as the Chicago World’s Fair, influenced Dunbar both personally and professionally. The Dayton Herald commissioned him to write a feature story entitled “Dayton at the Fair.” While in Chicago, he secured a job as a waiter in a hotel. At the same time, he met the great black leader Frederick Douglass, who had heard about the young poet. Douglass encouraged Dunbar to continue writing. Douglass had held the post of Minister to Haiti from 1889 to 1891 and was now in charge of the Haitian exhibit at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Although funds were limited, Douglass offered Dunbar a position as an assistant at the Fair’s Haitian Exhibit. Dunbar accepted even though his pay amounted to half of what he received from his hotel job (Gayle 16–21).
In 1893, in celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, Paul Laurence Dunbar composed a remarkable poem that honored history’s peerless mariner-navigator. “Columbian Ode,” as it was named, proved to be a composition of the highest standard in American literature. In it Dunbar described an archaic, superstitious old world luxuriating in its “thriftless ignorance,” while on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean lay “another offspring, fine and fair.” Men knew nothing of this new world until arose,
That mighty mariner, the
Who dared to try, in spite of fears
The unknown fortunes of unsounded
O noblest of Italia’s sons, thy
Went not alone into that shrouding
(The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar 47–48)
And there in the new world was discovered a rich, virgin land.
Dunbar related in verse where once in that land there existed “deer-haunts” with crowded game; where the “Bruin had his den”; where the “wigwam stood”; where men of “savage mien” lived. This new land
Now teems with Nature’s
Where moved the forest-foliage
Now flutters in the breeze the
stars and stripes.
(Complete Poems 47–48)
National healing in the post-Civil War era evolved gradually as economic expansion and mass immigration re-shaped the United States. From a humanistic perspective, Dunbar, himself the son of emancipated slaves, set down in effective rhyme and meter a paean confirming history’s singular discoverer and discovery. Dunbar linked past with present by interpreting Columbus’s discovery as providing a vital connection between Europe and America. Dunbar implied in his praiseworthy poetic statement the importance of national unity in modern history. If he appeared proudly expansive, it was because he was moved by the potential social forces of the growing national wealth and power of its people harnessing limitless economic resources on the brink of a new century. Progress would surely follow. The “American Century” would surely arrive. Despite the impending declaration of the United States Supreme Court’s ominous “separate but equal” doctrine in 1896, Dunbar manifested sentiments similar to other contemporary poets: Whitman, Lanier, and Miller.
That he was African American in expressing an inspiring theme is all the more remarkable in a nation that promised so much in the recently enacted thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth constitutional amendments. Nevertheless, racial discrimination remained a cancer in American society. Conscious of writing dialect poems of his people, Dunbar also produced uplifting poems, such as “Columbian Ode,” in a genre that any talented poet would have envied. His masterful but little-known poem demonstrated a thoughtful clarity that captured the spirit of Columbus’s discovery.
Dunbar had other heroes besides Columbus. He composed poems of great nineteenth-century leaders: Frederick Douglass, John Greenleaf Whittier, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, and James Whitcomb Riley. This inclusive group represented writers, statesmen, educators, abolitionists, female and male, black and white who contributed much to the survival and spirit of the United States (Complete Poems 6–7, 18–19, 119, 184, 208–09, 287).
Noted author William Dean Howells (1837–1920) admired the work of Dunbar. Writing in the introduction to Dunbar’s book of poems, Lyrics of Lowly Life, Howells observed that “here was the first instance of an American negro who had evinced innate distinction in literature.” He praised the poems “as an evidence of the essential unity of the human race, which does not think or feel black in one and white in another, but humanly in all” (viii–ix). It is no wonder that Dunbar became known as a “poet of the people,” and that his poems have remained in print to this day (Patterson 77; Ploski and Williams 520, 980). It is even more remarkable that he turned to Christopher Columbus for inspiration to express in an American poem elements of greatness consistent with the national literary tradition.
Thus, Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar, two African-American poets have, without any preconceived prejudices, composed Columbian verses at important times in American history to combine an heroic image with a national purpose. Their poems have also enriched the literature of the United States. National ideology was strengthened by a commonality of democracy and language, providing unifying forces in a nation of plural ancestries. By discovering Christopher Columbus, Wheatley and Dunbar applied laudatory poetic references to his name that helped to contribute to an amicable spirit among African Americans and Italian Americans to the benefit of a more united nation.
Professor Emeritus, SUNY Farmingdale
Cavaioli, Frank J. “Columbus and the Name Columbia.” Italian Americana 11 (Fall/Winter 1992): 6–17.
___. “Columbus and the Rise of American Literature.” New Explorations in Italian American Studies. Ed. Richard N. Juliani and Sandra P. Juliani. New York: American Italian Historical Association, 1994.
___. “Columbus and the Whitman Connection.” The Long Island Historical Journal 6 (Spring 1994): 233–44.
The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1913.
Conn, Peter. Literature in America. New York: Cambridge UP, 1989.
Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. New York: Knopf, 1974.
Gayle, Addison, Jr. Oak and Ivy. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
Howells, William Dean. “Introduction.” The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1913.
Jackson, Blyden. A History of Afro-American Literature. Vol. 1. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989.
LaGumina, Salvatore J. “Columbus Day: A Rallying Point for Italian Americans.” The ECCSSA Journal 11 (Winter 1996): 60–71.
Mason, Julian D. Jr., ed. The Poems of Phillis Wheatley. 1966. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.
Patterson, Lindsay, ed. and comp. “An Introduction to Black Literature in America.” International Library of Afro-American Life and History. Cornwells Heights, PA: Publishing Agency, 1978.
Ploski, Harry A., and James Williams. The Negro Almanac. 5th ed. Detroit: Gale, 1989.
Robinson, William H. Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings. New York: Garland, 1984.
Shields, John C. ed. The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Steele, Thomas J. “The Figure Columbia: Phillis Wheatley Plus George Washington.” The New England Quarterly 54 (June 1981): 264–66.
Survey of American Poetry. Vol. 2. Great Neck, NY: Poetry Anthology P, 1983.
Jupiter Hammond (1720?–1800) has been considered to be the first published black poet in America (Survey of American 1). See also Mason, Shields, and Robinson.
Mason (1966) suggests that Wheatley was the first to use the name Columbia (87–88n17). However, in the revised and enlarged edition (1989), there is no mention of this point. In addition, Robinson asserts that Wheatley was not the first to use the name Columbia. In fact, Columbia had been used earlier (288n2).
For further references on Columbus in American literature, see other works by Cavaioli listed in the Works Cited. for the importance of Columbus for Italian Americans, see LaGumina.