Irwin Russell was born on 3 June 1853 in Port Gibson, Mississippi. His father, William McNab Russell, was a physician, while his mother, Elizabeth Allen Russell, was an instructor at Port Gibson Female College. Shortly after his birth the family moved to St. Louis, returning to Port Gibson at the outbreak of the Civil War. At the end of hostilities the family moved back to St. Louis, where Russell graduated from the University of St. Louis in 1869. He later returned to Port Gibson and began studying law with Judge Lemuel N. Baldwin.
During the time of his law study, Russell received local attention for the creativity and wit of several poems he published in the Port Gibson Standard. For the next decade his Mississippi-based poems were regular features in such national literary magazines as Scribner’s Monthly, Appleton’s Magazine, Century, and Puck, where they appeared under a variety of pseudonyms, including Job Case. His literary popularity was largely based on his ability to write poems in dialect, such as the brogue of working Irishmen and the lilt of the Scots tongue. Most noteworthy were his poems set in the dialect of the recently emancipated Mississippi slaves. Chance encounters with freed slaves on the street, songs in the plantation housing quarters, and simple descriptive dialogue became exotic living language transcribed in the tongue and tense of the speakers. Best known was “Christmas Night in the Quarters,” a poetic reenactment of a Christmas celebration Russell overhead on the Jefferies Plantation in Coahoma County. A portion of that extended poem is frequently anthologized as “De Fust Banjo,” telling the story of the banjo’s creation and stringing the instrument with hair from an opossum’s tail. Russell’s interpretation of the colloquial language and expressions of the former slaves became his legacy to early African American dialect literature.
During the yellow fever pandemic of 1878 Russell helped his father care for fever-stricken locals when hundreds were ill and scores died. In December 1878 he moved to New York to further his writing career but became ill and homesick within just a few months. After his father died of yellow fever in April 1879, Russell hired on as a coal tender aboard the sea freighter Knickerbocker, earning his passage back to New Orleans by August. He was too proud to return to Port Gibson in his penurious condition, so friends assisted him in getting a job as the editor of the All Sorts column at the New Orleans Times. On 23 December 1879, wracked by pneumonia and fever, Irwin Russell died in his rented room on Franklin Street, a mere twenty-six years old.
In 1888 friends gathered and published his poems. In 1907 the Mississippi Teachers Association raised funds to have a sculptor create a marble bust of Russell. It was placed in the State Capitol in 1908.
- William Malone Baskerville, Southern Writers: Biographical and Critical Studies, vol. 1 (1897)
- Taylor Hagood, Mississippi Writers website, http://mwp.olemiss.edu//dir/russell_irwin/
- Carl Holliday, A History of Southern Literature (1906)
- Hollis B. Todd, “An Analysis of the Literary Dialect of Irwin Russell and a Comparison with Spoken Dialect of Certain Native Informants of West Central Mississippi” (PhD dissertation, Louisiana State University, 1965)
- James Wilson Webb, in Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817–1967, ed. James B. Lloyd (1981)