PULLMAN, Wash. — A new book by Washington State University English and American Studies Professor Albert J. von Frank chronicles the events surrounding the capture of an escaped slave in 1854. In the book, “The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston,” von Frank links the dramatic affair to the coalescence of antislavery sentiment in the nation just before the Civil War.
Anthony Burns, the 21-year-old runaway slave, had been living in a community of free Blacks in Boston. His Southern owner had traced Burns through his correspondence with family still living in Virginia and had him arrested — the first step in reclaiming Burns under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
The subsequent week-long hearing, which returned Burns to slavery, inflamed Massachusetts abolitionists and punctuated the split between national pro and anti abolitionist factions. Von Frank tells the gripping tale, which includes murder, courthouse mobs, huge demonstrations, rescue attempts, and a dramatic trial, as well as famous figures like defense attorney Richard Henry Dana Jr. (author of “Two Years Before the Mast”) and Bronson Alcott (author Louisa May’s father), and moves beyond it.
An authority on Ralph Waldo Emerson and 19th century American literature, von Frank uses this transforming event to explore the broader cultural history of the time and particularly Emerson’s Transcendentalism. Although Emerson, who is frequently described as aloof, did not participate in the events in Boston, von Frank builds a case to counter a popular argument “that Emerson was not all that interested in the social issues of his day, including slavery.” In fact, argues von Frank, “Emerson is a central figure who influenced many other 19th century writers and clearly was very important in making headway against slavery among Northerners.” In the book, he writes, “Emerson was a force in antislavery because of his idealism, not in spite of it.”
In addition to his interest in the events and their implications for contemporary cultural history, von Frank notes, “One of my aims in the book was to try to reconnect the work we do in English departments to the general public. I was hoping to get away from the vocabulary of professional literary study that sometimes discourages popular interest in literature.”
His book has received accolades in reviews in The New York Times, The Boston Herald, The Boston Sunday Globe and The Chronicle of Higher Education. In the reviews, von Frank was praised as a “skilled historical detective” for his examination “of the impact of the case on American thought and culture” and for the book’s “dramatic narrative.” The book was published by Harvard University Press, which gave it first position in its 1998 catalogue of titles.
Earlier books by von Frank include “The Sacred Game,” which discusses provincialism in American literature, and a four volume work,” The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” which he edited.
Von Frank earned degrees from Amherst College, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Missouri. He taught at Harvard University for seven years before coming to WSU in 1984. He delivered the 1996 Annual Distinguished Faculty address titled “Escaping Slavery” on the Burns case.
The book is available locally at The Student Book Corporation and on the Web at www.amazon.com