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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

James Revel
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 seventeenth century?

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 Defoe’s novels.

Second, internal 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.

James Egan
Brown University

In the Heath Anthology
The Unhappy Transported Felon (1660)

Other Works

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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.

Secondary Sources

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