From the Editor

By Carol Berkin

From Virgil to Shakespeare to Walt Whitman, poets have often turned to historical subjects for their topic, preserving historical events and figures in verse. This poetry, in turn, becomes the subject of historical inquiry as scholars explore the context in which the poet lived and the issues of her or his day that resonated with the poet’s choice of a subject from the past. Thus in studying poetry, students can be asked both to examine the poet’s perception of the past and to consider the poet’s own historical moment in time. Because April is Poetry Month, it is fitting for this issue of History Now to focus on American poets.

We asked four historians to look at poetry written across the centuries of American history. In Charlotte Gordon’s essay, "‘If Ever Two Were One’: Anne Bradstreet’s ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband,’" we enter the world of seventeenth-century colonial America and the Puritan society established in New England. Gordon’s analysis of this tender love poem begins with a look at Bradstreet’s own personal experience as a colonist. She then shows us how this poem shatters stereotypical notions of Puritans as dour, emotionally stifled women and men. And finally, she helps us appreciate how Bradstreet’s poetry also stands as evidence that women of talent and intelligence emerge in every century.

In "A Poem Links Unlikely Allies in 1775: Phillis Wheatley and George Washington," James Basker reminds us of the rising hopes the struggle for independence stirred in black as well as white Americans. Wheatley was a slave, brought to America as a child, and her precocious talents were fortunately recognized and encouraged by the Massachusetts family who owned and later freed her. In 1775, Wheatley demonstrated her patriotism in a poem dedicated to George Washington, the newly appointed commander of the revolutionary forces. In it, she asserted her admiration for Washington—and a certainty that the American cause was just and would be triumphant. Washington expressed his appreciation in a letter to Wheatley and arranged for the poem to be published in a Virginia newspaper. Basker suggests that the impact of the poem on Washington was great, altering his views of slavery.

Julie Des Jardins examines "The New Colossus," a poem written by Emma Lazarus. Lazarus’s stirring declaration that America opened its arms to the tired, poor, and "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" was destined to become the first words of welcome to immigrants who sailed past the Statue of Liberty, where they are engraved. Des Jardins’s essay provides information about immigration and about Emma Lazarus, who died before Ellis Island was established as the entry point for almost twelve million women, men, and children.

Finally, Steven Tracy reminds us that poets, like historians, are influenced by, and build upon, themes introduced by the writers who come before them. In "‘I, Too’: Langston Hughes’s Afro-Whitmanian Affirmation," Tracy shows how the democratic and egalitarian impulse present in Walt Whitman’s poetry is brought to life once again in the poetry of a brilliant African American, Langston Hughes. As Tracy points out, Whitman was part of a nineteenth-century explosion of nationalism that was reflected in the music, art, literature, and poetry of the era; Hughes was part of an equally important emergence of African Americans as shapers of culture and art in the twentieth century.

As our interactive feature for this issue, we offer audio recordings of two poems by American writers. And our master teachers have provided a lesson plan on another popular American poem, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere: Literature v. History."

Let me wish you all a happy Spring,

Carol Berkin