| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Little is known of James Revel other than what he tells us in his
poem. If we take the narrator of the poem to be a figure for its author, which
the poem leads us to do, it would appear that Revel was a convicted felon for
whom transportation to Virginia served punishment. So little can be confirmed
about Revel’s life from sources outside the poem, though, that some scholars
question his very existence. Since the earliest known version of the poem dates
from the eighteenth century, he might have been the creation of an enterprising
publisher looking to capitalize on the popularity of Daniel Defoe’s tales of
transported convicts, such as Moll Flanders. Why, then, do scholars
believe that, whether or not Revel was a real person or the product of a
printer’s imagination, at the very least the poem itself was produced in the
One argument in favor of
the poem being a seventeenth-century work concerns the history of transportation
tales in English literature. According to John Melville Jennings, who not
only recovered Revel’s poem from obscurity but also published the most
extensive discussion of it, tales of felons transported across the Atlantic
existed at least one hundred years before Defoe put them in his fiction. One
reason for the frequency of such stories can be seen in the sheer numbers of
those who were transported. At least thirty thousand people convicted of crimes
in England were transported to the colonies during the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries. Judges were empowered to make a choice: either sentencing
individuals to death or sending them to the colonies. Protests by colonial
agents led to the suspension of transportation from 1671 to 1717, but the
widespread sense that England was threatened by a wave of crime in the early
eighteenth century led to the resumption of the practice.
Criminals were not the
only “undesirable elements” of society sent to the colonies. Early advocates of
English colonization in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries claimed that
England’s colonies could be used as a place to send various unwanted subjects.
Critics, satirists, and many colonists themselves complained of this use of the
colonies in the seventeenth century, citing it as an impediment to economic
development and a sign of the colony’s degraded culture. However they portrayed
such “undesirable elements” in the colonies, the figure of the colonial convict
became a staple if not a cliché in seventeenth-century literature about the
colonies, a tradition that would continue in work by colonial Americans and
about colonial America into the eighteenth century both before and after
evidence in the poem suggests that only someone with an intimate knowledge of
seventeenth-century Virginia could have written the piece. Revel notes that he
lived in Rappahannock County for twelve of his fourteen years in Virginia. The
name Rappahannock disappeared from Virginia place names and was relegated to
memory when, in 1692, the county was split into two new counties, Richmond and
Essex. It is very unlikely that an eighteenth-century writer simply trying to
capitalize on the popularity of a recent novel would seek to authenticate his
narrative by going to the trouble of mentioning the name of a long-dead county
whose very existence was known to precious few.
And lest we take the
absence of any surviving seventeenth-century edition of Revel’s poem as a sure
sign of its eighteenth-century origins, we should remember that the work was no
doubt issued in an inexpensive edition known as a chapbook. In the decades
following the English Civil War, the market for printed material expanded to
include more and more members of the middling ranks. Printers issued numerous works
that would appeal to the interests and concerns of these new consumers, but to
keep prices within the range of the little disposable income such people were
able to accumulate, the works were often of such poor quality that chapbooks
were literally read to pieces. Few chapbooks or other inexpensive printed
materials remain from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Revel’s poem,
then, serves as a useful reminder of important literary traditions that existed
alongside and, at least in some sense, in competition with the works of often
more “mainstream” writers, writers whose works were issued in more durable
editions. Revel’s poem gives us a glimpse of the tastes, interests, and
concerns of readers who do not represent the wealthy or elite parts of society.
In the Heath Anthology
The Unhappy Transported Felon
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The Poor Unhappy Transported Felon's Sorrowful Account. Of His Fourteen Years Transportation at Virginia in America. In Six Parts.
The complete text of Revel's poem, with scans of the original published version.
The Other Print Tradition: Essays on Chapbooks, Broadsides, and Related Ephemera, eds. Cathy Lynn Preston and Michael Preston, New York: Garland, 1995
Margaret Spufford, Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and Its Readership in Seventeenth Century England, 1982