- Christmas Night in the Quarters (Jackson: Mississippi Historical Society, 1970)
- Christmas-Night in the Quarters, and Other Poems (1917)
- Poems (1888)
- Christmas Night in the Quarters (1878)
- Half Way Doin’s
- Precepts at Parting
- Mississippi Witness
Irvin Russell is a poet and essayist who was born in 1853 in Port Gibson, Mississippi. His father was a doctor, and his mother was a teacher. As a child he learned to read Milton at a very young age. He went to the University of St. Louis and then read law in the office of Judge L. N. Baldwin. He was admitted to the bar at the age of nineteen by a special act of the Mississippi legislature. An outbreak of yellow fever seems to have ended his career as a lawyer, and he began to write as a career.
He acquired a small printing press and wrote a play for the local thespians, but it was never produced due to a yellow fever epidemic. His most famous poems include Christmas Night in the Quarters, (written in 1878), Half Way Doin’s, Nebuchadnessar, Precepts at Parting and Mississippi Witness. Traveling to New York, he became a featured writer in Scribner’s Monthly in a section called Bric-a-Brac. Primarily he wrote poems which used a Negro dialect, and he is recognized as the first to use this technique.
In New York, Russell was homesick and drank a lot. To get back to the South, he took a job on the Knickerbocker, a steamer, as a coal heaver. Arriving in New Orleans, he took a job with the New Orleans Times. However, Russell contracted pneumonia and died at the age of twenty-six.
Charles C. Marble collected the writings of Russell and published them in a small volume in 1888. Joel Chandler Harris, the writer of the Uncle Remus stories, wrote the introduction. An expanded volume, complete with illustrations, was printed in 1917, again with an introduction by Harris, who said 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.” Russell aimed at portraying the Negro sympathetically and emphasized the basic human qualities. Russell did not always sign his works and sometimes used a pen name, so it is not known how many poems he actually wrote.
Russell died in 1879 in a boarding house in New Orleans, but eventually he was buried in Mississippi. In 1907, school teachers of Mississippi placed a bust of Russell in the Hall of Fame in the old capitol building. His works are rarely known today.
- Ole Miss Writers page has biography of Russell
- Complete poem by Russell entitled De Fust Banjo
- The entire book Poems by Russell can be read online here.
- Another version of Poems is available here.
- Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes by Jean Wagner, pp. 52-59. Online.
- Black English and the Mass Media by Walter M. Brasch, 1981.