InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

James Grainger

James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane combines elements of writing that were very popular during the eighteenth century: New World exploration narratives, imperial topographical poetry (as in such poems as Denham’s “Cooper’s Hill” and Pope’s “Windsor Forest”), and the encyclopedia writing inspired by Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Yet the poem also drew upon a “georgic” tradition stretching back to Virgil. Poetically, then, Grainger’s Sugar-Cane had antecedents in classical writings; topically, the poem created innovations on its classical model. Moving beyond the georgic tradition of providing instruction to an idealized farmer, Grainger also aimed to give the reader practical information. Indeed, Grainger’s poem remains one of the best descriptions of work life on an eighteenth-century sugar plantation. In extensive footnotes, The Sugar-Cane provides minute details on the history and topography of the various islands of the Antilles, the plant and animal life, the various diseases and their cures.

The fourth and final book of The Sugar-Cane, included here, details the management of the labor force—enslaved Africans—that makes the sugar plantation possible. Grainger’s own difficulty in justifying the slave system is evident throughout: he shifts awkwardly between advice of a practical nature offered to the slave buyer and invocations and prayers for amelioration of slave conditions, marked by a sense of hope for the eventual abolition of slavery. Grainger puts a difficult and sometimes anguished description of the management of slaves in place of the georgic’s usual culminating celebration of the perfect farm. Along the way, Grainger also provides a poetical version of the standard British defense of slavery (the Spanish started it; Scottish miners are worse off than African slaves) and intriguing insights into the various cultures and manners of the Africans who peopled the West Indian islands.

James Grainger was born about 1721 in Berwickshire in southeast Scotland, the son of a tax collector. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, spent three years as an army surgeon in Scotland and Holland, and made a grand tour of Europe before receiving his M.D. degree in 1753. Moving on to London, Grainger joined the Royal College of Physicians, but he met with difficulty in making a living as a physician. He supplemented his income by writing for various magazines on medical and literary topics and by publishing poetry of his own. A self-taught Latinist, Grainger published translations of classical Latin poems, the most notable being the Elegies of Tibullus, which was scathingly reviewed by his one-time friend Tobias Smollett, prompting a bitter exchange of insults in print between the two. His later works include what became the standard reference work on West Indian diseases and a ballad included in Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). His literary interests led to friendships with the key figures in London’s cultural world at midcentury: Robert Dodsley, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Percy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Shenstone. In his Life of Johnson (1791), James Boswell recorded Bishop Percy’s opinion of Grainger: “He was not only a man of genius and learning, but had many excellent virtues; being one of the most generous, friendly, and benevolent men I ever knew.”

In hopes of improving his fortune, Grainger set out in 1759 to the West Indies as a paid companion to John Bourryau, a wealthy friend who owned plantations on the island of St. Christopher (St. Kitts). Shortly after arriving, Grainger met and married a local heiress, whose family made him manager of their estates. Grainger continued his medical practice on the side, hoping one day to be able to buy his own sugar plantation. His authorship of The Sugar-Cane represents his education in the cultivation and manufacture of sugar, combined with his growing interest in the history, geography, and natural history of the islands. Interestingly, the poem also suggests Grainger’s continuing interest in medicine. After four years in the Caribbean, Grainger traveled back to London, where he presented his long georgic poem to his circle of literary friends for their opinion. According to Boswell, the manuscript of the poem was read at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s house, where the company was amused by Grainger’s account of the ravages caused in the sugar cane fields by rats. The amusement caused among this literary group by the explicit descriptions of the conditions of sugar cane plantations demonstrates how unusual was Grainger’s innovation of including specific technical and medical terminology in the neoclassical form of the georgic poem. One of the ways Grainger managed to maintain the high tone of the blank verse while also providing accurate and useful information was to use extensive footnotes detailing the various names and uses of local flora and fauna. The effect of reading the complete poem with all its footnotes is to take a sort of grand tour of the West Indies while the islands were at the height of a sugar-and-slavery system that produced more wealth for Great Britain than all the North American colonies combined.

Thomas W. Krise
U.S. Air Force Academy

In the Heath Anthology
The Sugar Cane
      Book IV: "The Genius of Africa" (1764)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


'Sugar Realism' in Caribbean Fiction
  An academic essay about sugar in literature; the piece is largely driven by Grainger's book The Sugar-Cane.

Secondary Sources

John Gilmore, "The Poetics of Empire: A Study of James Grainger's The Sugar Cane, " 2000

Thomas W. Krise, ed. Caribbeana: An Anthology of English Literature of the West Indies, 1657-1777, 1999

David S. Shields, Oracles of Empire: Poetry, Politics and Commerce in British America, 1690-1750, 1990