Thursday, July 24, 2008

Whatever You Wish To Give (Part 2): An Inglorious Milton?

Written and distributed by James Boon Cheatham around 1880, this 20-stanza carrier's address ("Sympathize with the Blind!") incorporates some of the same rhetorical strategies as "A Railroad Boy's Appeal" and "The Wounded Soldier's Appeal" which I've highlighted below: an expressed (though frustrated) desire to labor for one's living as able-bodied Americans do, and appeals to not only Christian charity but to earning one's place in the afterlife. The railroad boy, for example, ends his poem "by-and-by may all we meet / In realms just over there," punning on the word "just" to indicate not only the proximity of that afterlife but the justice he expects to experience when distinctions between abled and disabled are no longer operative. If things are "just over there," then the poem implies that things are not so just over here and that a small donation will help—at least in the short term—to remedy that; the acts of earning capital and earning salvation are parallel if not overlapping endeavors. Indeed, as a quotation in the upper right-hand corner of Cheatham's broadside explains, "Lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven."

In the poem, Cheatham—after imploring his reader "to buy this poem, every line"—explains:

But I'm blind, I cannot see
The beauty of your loving face,
Be true and grateful and He will be
A loving Saviour of His grace.
But there is a day God's saints shall see
And God will give me light,
When Christian friends shall meet above
Where the blind receive their sight.

As with "A Railroad Boy's Appeal," this poem appeals to ideas of justice and equality in the afterlife in order to encourage people on earth to acts of charity. Cheatham relies on the poetic form to impress this as well, using the linebreak in line three to remind people of the reciprocity in the Christian, not-by-faith-alone, contract for salvation: "Be true and grateful and He will be [as well]". Even more interesting is the implication that able-bodied people are rewarded with salvation for leading good lives while the blind are rewarded with sight; there are two sets of rewards. For the able-bodied, faith alone is not good enough to get one into heaven, but for the disabled, faith—and the pain of enduring the world without sight which that faith makes possible—is enough (especially if they serve as town criers for God). Indeed, Cheatham makes this distinction later in the poem when he writes:

I love my Saviour's welcome voice
His word is my delight;
In early life make him our choice
And battle for the right.

A moral compass, the blind person ("I") can hear and delight in the Saviour's "voice"—an act of revelation that privileges sound over sight—but it's the sighted person who has the responsibility (and power) to "make him our [collective] choice" and lead the "battle for the right." The contractual nature of salvation differs depending on one's physical abilities, and the corresponding cultural economics of ability—at least as they are rhetorically positioned—are in the end more complex and more morally entangled than simply flipping two bits to a blind guy.

The prevalence of poems like "Sympathize with the Blind," "A Railroad Boy's Appeal" and "The Wounded Soldier's Appeal" in the 19th century popular print landscape would seem to offer the field of disability studies a rich entryway into that period's discourses about ability and disability and the ways that disabled individuals harnessed not just a genre but an entire rhetorical constellation in surviving an inhospitable world via their wits and linguistic capacities. It should also offer literary critics another way to think about how poetry was used within popular culture; it was not just easy reading.

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