The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

V. Dialect Writers

§ 7. Russell

The man who really discovered the literary material latent in negro character and in negro dialect was Irwin Russell (1853–79), of Mississippi. The two men best qualified to pass judgment, Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page, have both borne grateful testimony to Russell’s genius and to their indebtedness to him. It is noteworthy also that the first marble bust that the State of Mississippi has placed in her Hall of Fame is that of Irwin Russell.

Russell’s greatest poem is Christmas Night in the Quarters (1878). In its fidelity to the humble life that it seeks to portray, in the simplicity of its style, the genuineness of its feeling, the distinctness of its pictures, and the sympathy that inspires it, Christmas Night belongs in the class with Burns’s Cotter’s Saturday Night and Whittier’s Snow-Bound. “Burns,” said Russell, “is my idol. He seems to me the greatest man that God ever created, beside whom all other poets are utterly insignificant.” This poem differs from the works hitherto considered in three important respects: the negro is the central character, the poem being written not to exploit him but to portray him; the dialect, both in its grammar and its rhetoric, is an improvement on everything that had preceded it; and the mingling of humour and religion, though admirably true to life, had been hitherto unachieved.