Publication Date

September 1, 2010

In memory of Dennis Brutus (1924–2009)

Noralee Frankel, who coordinates this “Art of History” series, writes: Created on the suggestion of the AHA’s Graduate and Early Career Committee, the series was launched in December 2009 with an essay by Caroline Bynum on how she trains her graduate students to think about the nature of scholarship. Articles byLynn Hunt, who wrote on the interrelationship between thinking and writing; Dipesh Chakrabarty and Gordon Wood, who wrote—from different perspectives—on challenges of writing for public; followed. The series recommences in this issue with the following essay by on the poetry embedded in historical narratives. Future essays in the series will include those by David Ransel on the perfect source and Dane Kennedy on humor in history.

My grandfather, the late Fred Robertson, influenced how I think about and write history. He died years before I decided to become a historian and he was not an academic, but he was a historian and an intellectual in his own way. He was a master storyteller.

This Kentucky coal miner was a larger-than-life figure in my youth. I fondly remember sitting with him at the kitchen table. In one hard hand he held a Lucky Strike. In the other hand he held a saucer of his beloved Maxwell House coffee, which he sipped that way even when it was no longer hot. In this posture he told endless stories to a boy who sat enthralled amid the pathos, humor, and quiet heroism of working-class life. His mood changed with the story. He laughed with his whole body, like the then-popular comedian Red Skelton, at his own funny parts. His visage grew dark and scary at moments of danger or injustice. His eyes danced with the drama of his words. I knew something big was coming when he paused, put the cigarette in the ashtray, and set aside the saucer, freeing his hands for emphasis. His stories were vivid, complex, passionate, and somehow always practical. They featured apocalyptic Biblical language (a lot of hell-fire), long silences (with fateful stares), and curse words that were normally forbidden in our house (son-of-a-bitchin’ this and that). He always managed to tell a big story within a little story.

One of the stories I remember best concerned a vigilante hanging of a man in a coal village where he had once worked, Beech Creek, Kentucky. I don’t remember why the man was hanged. Nor do I remember whether he was white or black; I don’t think he told me. I do remember my mother walking into the kitchen, expressing her doubt without saying a word about whether I should be hearing this particular story. What I remember most of all was how his telling of the story made clear how wrong the hanging was, and how a real-life lynching looked nothing like what we had all seen on television. He described a frantic, terrifying struggle, with legs flailing, ugly cheers from the crowd, and in the end a limp body with dangling eyeballs and wet pants. The storyteller’s sympathy was firmly with the victim, whose deadly ordeal he had made terribly, hauntingly real.

My grandfather, the poetic storyteller, was perhaps the oldest and deepest influence on my life’s choice to write “history from below,” the variety of social history that emerged in the New Left to explore the experiences and history-making power of working people who had long been left out of elite, “top-down” historical narratives. He educated me about the ways of the world and at the same time about the fundamentals of storytelling. He helped me to see and appreciate the poetics of struggle. And he also helped to shape my sense of the art and craft of history.

Like all good storytellers from Shakespeare to Brecht, my grandfather was a good listener. He had a canny ear for how people talked; he was attuned to voices, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, adult and child. Even animals sometimes talked in his stories; a touch of Uncle Remus! He spoke metaphorically: a crowd of people might be “as big as Coxey’s army”; something moving fast “took off like Moody’s goose.” I listened and learned about Coxey, but I never could figure out who Moody was or why his goose was in such a hurry.

I remember hearing while I was in graduate school an admonition about archival and primary sources: “Go on reading until you hear voices.” It seemed an exhortation to schizophrenia at the time, but memories of my grandfather helped me to grasp the point: humanize the sources, humanize the story. Learn to listen. And, of course, the recovery of voices has been a central purpose of history from below from the very beginning, but storytellers were way ahead of us.

The people I study did not often speak through documents of their own making, so it is not easy to hear them. This is the classic challenge of history from below, and many good books have addressed it. I listen by paying close attention to the meaning of words. I spend a lot of time looking up chronologically specific meanings in theOxford English Dictionary. As an 18th-century specialist, I am especially fond of the words and meanings to be found in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, compiled by Francis Grose and first published in 1785. In writingBetween the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a study of deep-sea sailors in the first half of the 18th century, I always had those wondrous things called maritime dictionaries close at hand to help me grasp the material conditions, cooperative work, communications, and consciousness of seagoing proletarians. I also paid close attention to sailors’ speech wherever I could find it, and to their own tradition of storytelling, or yarn-spinning. In his brilliant essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin explained that historically there have been two main types: the peasant storyteller who had a deep knowledge of locality and its lore, and the sailor storyteller who brought exotic tales from afar. My grandfather was, I suppose, a variant of the former; he helped me to understand the people I studied, the very embodiment of the latter.1

My grandfather chose his words carefully, showing me how a word, a phrase, or a quotation can bring a historical moment to life, even sear it into memory. And what could be more poetic than a note sent by a would-be arsonist to a gentleman in 1830: “My writing is bad but my firing is good my Lord.” One can almost hear the defiant laughter behind the writing. Such words were often speech committed to paper and preserved in the archive of “crime”—always an important place for those who would reconstruct the lives of the expropriated.2

Having heard the power of poetry in stories, I make it a point to use verse as historical evidence wherever possible. For example, poetry is central to The Many-Headed Hydra, a book Peter Linebaugh and I wrote about the motley proletariat of the Atlantic from 1600 to the 1830s. It appears in almost every chapter, some 50 times throughout a book that begins with William Shakespeare (The Tempest) and ends with William Blake (“Tyger, Tyger”). Famous, canonical poets (Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Shelley) rub elbows with largely unknown proletarian poets (Thomas Spence, Joseph Mather, and the ever-scribbling “anonymous,” a preferred female writer’s name for centuries). Contemporary poets such as the Martinican Aimé Césaire appear to summarize themes and ideas, for example, about the serpentine continuities of resistance.

Poetry can get the historian close to the experience and consciousness of working people and can evoke people, places, and events in multidimensional, dynamic ways. Sailor-poet James Field Stanfield crafted memorable, graphic images in his epic poem “The Guinea Voyage” and in his grimly poetic letters about life aboard a slave ship. He described, for example, the second mate of his vessel, lying sick, near death, on the medicine chest, his long hair clotted with filth as it brushed the deck of the ship. He depicted the nightmarish enslavement, flogging, and eventual death of an African woman named Abyeda. Such images can arrest the reader as surely as a surrealist object, disclosing in poetic fashion important connections, relations, parallels, and unities. Christopher Hill once wrote, “Good—imaginative—history is akin to retrospective poetry. It is about life as lived—as much of it as we can recapture.”3

Poetry written by workers may be rare, but poetry to be found in action, in resistance by workers, is plentiful; it can be found most everywhere. My grandfather taught me to look for it. To give an example: I discovered a profound one-word poem in a memoir written by Silas Told, a sailor turned Methodist minister who described a drama aboard the slave ship Loyal George in 1727. An enslaved man had decided to die by hunger strike. Captain Timothy Tucker tried to force him to eat. He horse-whipped him to a raw and bloody pulp. He threatened to kill him. The nameless man uttered one word:adomma, so be it. Captain Tucker placed a loaded pistol to his forehead and repeated the demand to eat. Again: adomma. The captain fired and the blood gushed but the man stared him directly in the face and refused to fall. The captain cursed, called for another pistol, and shot the man in the head a second time. Again he would not drop, to the astonishment of all who looked on. A third shot killed the man but by this time an insurrection had exploded among the enslaved, who were inspired by the man’s resistance and outraged by his treatment.

It is impossible to know how many of the hundreds of people who witnessed this incident decided, like Silas Told, to tell the story, punctuated by the word adomma. I suspect many told it, and retold it, in several languages, on plantations, in urban workshops, on docks, and in ships, over many years. The nameless African man gives precise expression to a definition of poetry offered by Ann Lauterbach: “Poetry is the aversion to the assertion of power. Poetry is that which resists dominance.” This is crucial to history from below.4

All good storytellers tell a big story within a little story, and so do all good historians. It can be done in many ways. In my work, the big story has always been the violent, terror-filled rise of capitalism and the many-sided resistance to it from below, whether from the point-of-view of an enslaved African woman trapped in the bowels of a fetid slave ship; a common sailor who mutinied and raised the black flag of piracy aboard a brig on the wide Atlantic; or a runaway former slave who escaped the plantation for a Maroon community in a swamp. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz once remarked that the small fact of sheep-stealing speaks to the big issue of revolution because the storyteller (in his case, the ethnographer) finds connections between the two.5

Finally, I remember my grandfather and remind myself that the historian, like the storyteller, is not above the fray. One of the big questions in the Kentucky coal fields in the 1930s was, which side are you on? In that spirit, I try to develop an ethical relationship with the oppressed and exploited people I study. The relationship is imaginary but no less important for that. In writing The Slave Ship, I asked myself repeatedly, from the beginning of the project to the end, how can I do justice to the people aboard the floating dungeons and what they experienced? The answer is to show retrospective solidarity and “accompany” them through their history, to use a term proposed by Staughton Lynd to describe an egalitarian relationship between historians/intellectuals and movements of working people from below.6

Walt Whitman made the same point in Leaves of Grass. He wrote of:

The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover’d with sweat;

The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck—the murderous buckshot and the bullets;

All these I feel, or am.

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,

Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen;

I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the ooze of my skin;

I fall on the weeds and stones;

The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close, Taunt my dizzy ears, and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.
Agonies are one of my changes of garments;

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels—I myself become the wounded person;

My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

Whitman exaggerates to make a point: he cannot “become” the fugitive, but he can demonstrate sympathetic understanding of the historical subject. As a poet he can join the struggle and convey it to readers. In the end I strive to write history that is vivid, complex, passionate, and practical. I try to make it real and pose questions of justice as I lean on a cane of social and temporal distance and observe. My grandfather would have expected nothing less, dadgummit.

is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and author of several prize-winning books, including (with Peter Linebaugh)The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic(Beacon Press, 2000) and The Slave Ship: A Human History(Viking-Penguin, 2007). His books and articles have appeared in 12 languages. He has held numerous fellowships and he has lectured around the world, in Medellín, Kolkata, Sydney, and Tokyo. He is working on a new history of the Amistad Rebellion.


1. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in his Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 83–109.

2. Quoted in E. P. Thompson, “The Crime of Anonymity,” in Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaugh, and E. P. Thompson, eds., Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975), 297.

3. Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (London: Allen Lane, 1993), 438, 437.

4. Ann Lauterbach, “Links Without Links: The Voice of the Turtle,” American Poetry Review 21 (1992), 37–38.

5. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 23.

6. Staughton Lynd, “Oral History from Below,”Oral History Review 21 (1993), 1–8.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.