Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt: Appropriating Milton in Early African American Literature

Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt: Appropriating Milton in Early African American Literature

Reginald A. Wilburn $70.00

May 2014 | 340 pages | cloth | ISBN: 978-0-8207-0471-5

Winner of the 2014 John T. Shawcross Award of the Milton Society

Recipient of The College Language Association's "Creative Scholarship Award", 2016

Book Reviews:

“This is an original study, the first to devote itself to early African Americans’ receptions of John Milton . . . [a] groundbreaking argument about a critical ‘void’ between Milton and African American studies. . . . All of Wilburn’s readers owe him a deep debt of gratitude for making it possible to envision this important remapping of Milton and African American studies.” — Milton Quarterly 

“Wilburn’s argument — which is both about African American literature’s engagement with Milton’s works, including but not limited to Paradise Lost and its Romantic reception, and about that literature’s struggle over time to define African American identity in or against American culture, in part through a narrative that moves from infernal rebellion through grace-inspired redemption to a common future — establishes new ground. . . . All of Wilburn’s readers owe him a deep debt of gratitude for making it possible to envision this important remapping of Milton and African American studies.” — Milton Quarterly

"In Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt, Reginald A. Wilburn illuminates early African American writers’ bold and ingenious interpretations of one of western literature’s epic poets, John Milton. In doing so, Wilburn, like the authors he has so lucidly researched, renders 'darkness visible' for a new generation of literary scholars."

— Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

“Wilburn . . . firmly situates early African-American writers within the framework of English literature. His book convincingly illuminates the stylistic, thematic, and rhetorical affinities of early African-American writing with the larger English literary tradition, as well as the writers’ own agency in making this tradition their own.”

—American Studies Journal

Book Information:

“Pursuing things yet unattempted” in literary criticism, Reginald A. Wilburn offers the first scholarly work to theorize African American authors’ rebellious appropriations of Milton and his canon.  This comparative and hybrid study engages African Americans’ transatlantic negotiations with perhaps the preeminent freedom writer in the English tradition.

Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt: Appropriating Milton in Early African American Literature contends that early African American authors appropriated and remastered Milton by “completing and complicating” England’s epic poet of liberty with the intertextual originality of repetitive difference.  Wilburn focuses on a diverse array of early African American authors, such as Phillis Wheatley, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Frederick Douglass, and Anna Julia Cooper, to name a few.  He examines the presence of Milton in these works as a reflection of early African Americans’ rhetorical affiliations with the poet’s “satanic epic” for messianic purposes of freedom and racial uplift.

Wilburn explains that early African American authors were attracted to Milton because of his preeminent status in literary tradition, strong Christian convictions, and poetic mastery of the English language.  This tripartite ministry makes Milton an especially indispensible intertext for authors whose writings and oratory were, sometimes, presumed “beneath the dignity of criticism.”  Through close readings of canonical and obscure texts, Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt explores how various authors rebelled against such assessments of black intellect by altering Milton’s meanings, themes, and figures beyond orthodox interpretations and imbuing them with hermeneutic shades of interpretive and cultural difference.  However they remastered Milton, these artists respected his oeuvre as a sacred yet secular “talking book” of revolt, freedom, and cultural liberation.

Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt particularly draws upon recent satanic criticism in Milton studies, placing it in dialogue with methodologies germane to African American literary studies.  By exposing the subversive workings of an intertextual Middle Passage in black literacy, Wilburn invites scholars from diverse areas of specialization to traverse within and beyond the cultural veils of racial interpretation and along the color line in literary studies.

Author Information:

Reginald A. Wilburn is associate professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, where he teaches African American literature and drama, women’s literary traditions, and intertextuality studies.  He has presented his work on Milton and African American literature and culture at the Modern Language Association; The International Milton Symposium in Tokyo, Japan; the African American Studies Spring Symposium at the University of Texas, San Antonio; and the Northeast Milton Seminar.  Wilburn has published in Milton Studies and is a contributing author to Milton Now.

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