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The Agony and the Ecstasy of James Kennard Jr

Early wheelchairHISTORY MATTERS

Joint by joint abandoned him, beginning with his knees, then his elbows, writes and fingers. Slowly writer James Kennard Jr. was transformed from a vibrant young man into a crippled figure seemingly carved from stone. Yet he continued to write and remain joyous. His story is as inspriting today as it was in 19th century Portsmouth, NH.


On the morning of July 28th, 1847, after years of unspeakable agony, poet James Kennard, Jr. of Portsmouth enjoyed a few blissful hours without pain. Then at age 32, he died peacefully.

"Annie," he told his sister shortly before his death, "I have been very happy and am glad to live, but this is buying life hard. If I must give three such days as the last, for another year of life, I would rather go at once."

One posthumous masterpiece

kennard01James Kennard wrote one book. A collection of his essays and poems appeared two years after his death. Assembled as a memorial by his friends, the leather-bound hardcover was "printed for private circulation". Selections from the Writings of James Kennard, Jr. is a book so rare that, today, not a single copy is for sale on the Internet. The Portsmouth Athenaeum has three. The Harvard Divinity School has one.

Similar vanity books of this era are often painful to read. Published out of sympathy or to raise funds for an invalid writer, they tend to be cloying, self-pitying volumes filled with badly written religious poetry. James Kennard, however, was the exception to the rule. His poems are often lively, original, and well-crafted. His "Ballad of Jack Ringbolt", for example, is about an old Portsmouth sailor whose body, weighed down with chains, is buried at sea. Suddenly the shrouded corpse rises from the water, bursts into flames, and disappears over the horizon.

Disgusted by the institution of slavery, Kennard published an 1845 essay in which he proposed that African Americans in the South were "our only truly national poets". Superstar poets Walt Whitman and John Greenleaf Whittier made note of Kennard’s essay, which is still debated today. By 1845, Kennard was so crippled that his body, according to philosopher Francis Bowen, was "almost unmoveable as if carved out of a rock".

Although he could move only his wrist and a few fingers of one hand, James continued to write for publication and corresponded prolifically. Finally unable to move at all, he whispered to friends, who transcribed his words. "You will doubtless be astonished at the alteration of my handwriting," James joked in a letter to a friend. Yet his work remained so good, and his attitude was so kindly, positive and cheerful, that a contemporary critic called him "a Christian hero".

Readers can judge for themselves, the writings of James Kennard, Jr. His only volume is now digitized and available online at no cost from Google Books. But it is his life, ultimately, that gives us a window into the unbeatable nature of the human spirit.


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