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Professor’s new book highlights ‘Poetry Wars’ of American Revolution

Portrait of St. Olaf Professor of English Colin WellsSt. Olaf College Professor of English and Department Chair Colin Wells recently released his new book Poetry Wars: Verse and Politics in the American Revolution and Early Republic.

“Poetry Wars offers an erudite and engaging account of the surprisingly instrumental role of verse in U.S. nation formation,” Edward Cahill of Fordham University says in his review of the book, noting that Wells is “capturing a time when poetry was both a vital force in public life and a dynamic means of effecting political change.”

Penn Press describes the book by saying “The pen was as mighty as the musket during the American Revolution, as poets waged literary war against politicians, journalists, and each other. Drawing on hundreds of poems, Poetry Wars reconstructs the important public role of poetry in the early republic and examines the reciprocal relationship between political conflict and verse.”

Wells joined the St. Olaf English Department in 1995, where he has taught courses in 18th-century and early American literature, comedy, satire, the novel, and Marxist literary theory. His areas of interest include the literature of the American Revolutionary and Early National periods, 18th-century English poetry, and the relations between literature, politics, and religion.

Tell us a little about your book. Are there key messages that you want to come across to your readers?
The main goal for the book is to recover for contemporary readers a sense of the cultural and political importance of political poetry in America’s founding period. This is a time when hundreds of amateur poets submitted political poems to newspapers (usually anonymously) as a way to respond to the news as it was unfolding – and particularly the news related to the events that preceded the Revolution (such as the Stamp Act), the Revolutionary War itself, and then – after the war – the intense struggle over the political direction the new republic should follow. Most of these poems have been forgotten in the ensuing centuries. My book attempts to re-examine the hundreds of poems that were published and, more particularly, recover the atmosphere in which rival poets waged “poetic warfare” against political leaders and each other during this time.

What did you draw inspiration from as you wrote this book?
I was inspired to write this book because, when I was doing research on an earlier book, I kept coming across satirical poems and songs that were directed at other printed texts: sometimes they were directed at official proclamations or declarations (including the Declaration itself); sometimes they were directed at articles from the  newspapers or speeches and writings by people like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or Alexander Hamilton; sometimes they were directed at other poets. So often I saw this dynamic in which poets were attacking and counter attacking each other so that their party or group could gain the upper hand politically.

Is there anything in your book that you think the St. Olaf community might find of particular interest?
So many of us have fallen in love with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton because it recreates this period in the form of music and rap. What Poetry Wars reveals is that “rap battles” were fought over politics and policy during Washington’s administration, but they were fought out in the poetic forms of the time. In fact, I recently wrote a blog post on the Penn Press Log discussing the similarities between poetry wars and rap battles.