Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

Irwin Russell


The following biographical sketch of Irwin Russell by James W. Webb appears in James B. Lloyd (ed.), Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967 397-98 (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1981) [the sketch is reproduced here with the permission of the University Press of Mississippi]:

Irwin Russell, lawyer, poet, and essayist, was born in Port Gibson, Mississippi, on 3 June 1853. His father was a local physician and his mother was a teacher in the Port Gibson Female College. When he was a young and delicate child he injured one of his eyes while playing with a table fork. His mother appears to have been overly protective, not allowing him to indulge in the rough-and-tumble outdoors with other children of the neighborhood. This fact left him much to himself, causing him to resort to and to develop his powers of imagination and introspection. He learned to read and understand the writings of John Milton at a very young age. Robert Burns later became one of his favorite poets. However, as he grew older he found opportunity to escape his mother's supervision and participated in pranks about the town with the other boys, even taking the leadership in scheming and carrying out some of them. One of them involved the prominent suffragette, Dr. Mary Walker, who was making speeches and leading demonstrations about the country. She had seen service in the Union Army as a physician. While she was in St. Louis, Russell and his friends thought it would be a good idea to invite her to Port Gibson to break the tedium of the small town. Russell wrote the letter, signing a fictitious name. She accepted the invitation, came down by riverboat, took the train at Grand Gulf for some ten miles to Port Gibson and appeared at the station wearing a hat resplendent with artificial flowers, a frilly waistcoat, and men's trousers. She soon discovered the hoax and the perpetrators and Russell's father smoothed out matters by payment of all expenses.

Russell attended the local schools in Port Gibson and then went on to the University of St. Louis where he completed his formal education with distinction. One of his favorite studies was mathematics. After returning to Port Gibson he read law in the office of Judge L. N. Baldwin and by special act of the Mississippi legislature was admitted to the bar at the age of nineteen. After practicing law for a brief time-conveyancing was his specialty-he discontinued law to take up writing as a career.

Russell became interested in printing and acquired a small hand press. He assisted in organizing the local Thespians and wrote a play. The parts were given out, but the play was never produced because of the onset of a yellow fever epidemic. The script was never recovered. During this period of his life he produced some of his best poems, of which the best known is an operetta, "Christmas Night in the Quarters" (1878). Among others were "Half Way Doin's," "Nebuchadnessar," "Precepts at Parting," and "Mississippi Witness." These pieces gained the attention of editors in New York. Encouraged by Henry C. Bunner, editor of Puck, and Richard Watson Gilder and Underwood Johnson of the staff of Scribner's Monthly Magazine, Russell left for New York and a literary career. He soon became a featured writer in the "Bric-A-Brac" section of Scribner's Monthly, writing chiefly Negro dialect poems illustrated with line and silhouette drawings of the characters in action (the South was rich in such materials as Page and Harris's Georgia crackers and old fashioned Blacks, Cable's Louisiana Creoles, and Russell's Negro and Irish characters).

After a brief time in New York, where he suffered with bouts of illness, heavy drinking, and homesickness, Russell took a job on the steamer Knickerbocker as a coal heaver and worked his way to New Orleans, where he took an assignment on the New Orleans Times. After a brief time there he died on 23 December 1879 of exposure and pneumonia in a cheap boarding house on 73 Franklin Street at the age of twenty-six. He was buried in New Orleans but his body was later removed to Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

Selected writings of Russell were collected by Charles C. Marble and published in a small volume in 1888 with an introduction by Joel Chandler Harris. In 1917, an expanded volume illustrated with drawings from Scribner's Monthly was published by the Century Company, with an introduction by Harris. In 1907, a tribute to the poet's memory was paid by the school teachers of Mississippi in the form of a marble bust which was placed in the Hall of Fame in the old capitol building. It is a particularly fine piece of work done by Elsie Herring, a pupil of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Irwin Russell had earned for himself a significant place in Southern and American literature along with Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, George Washington Cable, and other writers of the 1870's, a critical period in the history of the South. Russell's chief contribution is his treatment of the Negro as the central character in a Negro's world, an approach taken by Roark Bradford and other of the next century.

In the introduction to the 1888 and 1917 publications of Russell's poems, Harris states that Russell "was among the first-if not the very first-of Southern writers to appreciate the literary possibilities of the negro character, and of the unique relations existing between the two races before the war, and was among the first to develop them. . . . His negro operetta 'Christmas Night in the Quarters,' is inimitable. It combines the features of a character study with a series of bold and striking plantation pictures that have never been surpassed. . . . But the most wonderful thing about the dialect poetry of Irwin Russell is his accurate conception of the negro character." These statements have stood up rather well. Russell was thoroughly familiar with his material-the newly freed Blacks at their dances, Christmas celebrations, and church meetings-which was all in folk tradition and cast in dialect. He drew on the Black's shrewdness in contact with his former master, his aphorisms, and use of Scripture. His "Christmas Night in the Quarters" is a series of poems conceived as the result of a visit to the quarters on the Jefferies plantation during a Christmas season. After returning to his room late in the night he wrote the entire poem with very little subsequent revision. But the Civil War, Reconstruction, the yellow fever, his drinking, and loneliness were too much for this man of genius. He died too young; otherwise, he no doubt would have gone on to greater achievement.

Russell graduated in 1869. Fond of mathematics, he chose law for a profession. His admission to the the Mississippi bar at the age of nineteen required a special act of the legislature. After taking up the law, Russell learned the printed trade and had a "taste for rare books." He is now considered "one of the first to perceive the artistic possibilities of the negro dialect and to appreciate the pathos and humor of negro character . . . ." Still a young man, he lost his father in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, whereupon he left for New York to be among other literary men. He was nursed through illness while in the city, but decided to return to New Orleans. At the New Orleans Times, there were friends and some heavy drinking. "Soon the life of brilliant promise was ended in the house of a poor Irish woman who took him in for a pittance and tenderly nursed him during his delirium." He died in New Orleans at age 26. [W.P. Trent, Southern Writers: Selections in Prose and Verse 457-458 (New York: MacMillan Company, 1905)]

Russell is said to have "read Milton at the age of six, [and] found literature and adventure more to his taste than attorney's briefs. He had taken several vacations from the law, to go on exciting trips to New Orleans and Texas, and the life on the Mississippi with its fascinating characters had challenged his imagination. His first poem, 'A Chinese Tale,' appeared in 1869 . . . [and his poetry often appears] under pseudonyms. His best poems were in Negro dialect . . . ." [Stanley J. Kunitz & Howard Haycraft (eds.), American Authors 1600-1900: A Biographical Dictionary of American Literature 665 (New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1938)]

[See also: Noel E. Polk & James R. Scafidel, An Anthology of Mississippi Writers 121-122 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1979)]

Russell: Dialect Writers

Irwin Russell
Mississippi Writers Page


De Fust Banjo


Irwin Russell, Poems (New York: Century Co., 1888) [online text]

__________, Christmas-Night in the Quarters, and Other Poems (New York: Century Co., 1917) [online text]

__________, Christmas Night in the Quarters (Jackson: Mississippi Historical Society, 1970)

Law Poetry Anthologies

Irwin Russell, "The Mississippi Witness" and "The First Client," in Ina Russelle Warren (ed.), The Lawyer's Alcove: Poems by the Lawyer, for the Lawyer and about the Lawyer 30-31, 136-137 New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1900)(Buffalo, New York: William S. Hein & Co., Inc., 1990)


Harriet R. Holman, "Irwin Russell," in Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (ed.), A Bibliographical Guide to the Study of Southern Literature 282 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1969)

"Irwin Russell," in William Malone Baskervill, 1 Southern Writers: Biographical and Critical Studies1-40 (Nashville: Publishing House of M.E. Church, 1897)

Jens Nyholm, Irwin Russell: A biographical and Critical Study, M.A. thesis, George Washington University, 1934.

James Wilson Webb, Irwin Russell's Position in Southern Literature, 4 Studies in English 49-59 (1963)

________________, New Biographical Material, Criticism, and Collected Writings of Irwin Russell, M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina, 1940