Reading Ohio

Paul Laurence Dunbar

This is the first of three posts that I wrote this summer, but for some reason never published to the blog. I’m grateful I wrote them however, as I don’t believe I would have remembered much that I wrote here otherwise.
Paul Laurence Dunbar circa 1890 (Public Domain)I spent a good chunk of my reading time this past winter and spring reading poems and short stories by Paul Laurence Dunbar–for my Reading Ohio project–, a challenge for me, as I don’t often read much of either, especially poetry, and so my reading muscles found themselves severely taxed.

Not making it easier, was Dunbar’s frequent use of dialect, specifically a vernacular meant to represent English as spoken by slaves, ex-slaves, and their descendants (usually–other dialects make appearances). Dunbar himself was the son of former slaves, born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, where he was a classmate of Orville Wright. Dunbar would briefly write and edit the first African American weekly paper in Dayton, with Orville and Wilbur Wright as the printers¹. After high school, Dunbar’s dreams of college and becoming a lawyer were thwarted due to a lack of finances, so he took a job as an elevator operator. During this time, he continued to write poems, and after his first volume, Oak and Ivy (1893), was published, he hand-sold it to passengers on the elevator. His second volume of poetry, Majors and Minors (1895), caught the eye of fellow Ohio-native William Dean Howells, the “dean of American letters,” who wrote a laudatory review in Harper’s Weekly. This review was later adapted as the introduction to Dunbar’s third volume, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896). But although this praise catapulted Dunbar to fame, it came with a price–Dunbar would find himself in a sort of trap, expected by his white audience to write only in dialect and of the sorts of life experiences of African-Americans they believed to be “authentic.”

Although Howells wrote with the best of intentions, Dunbar’s supposed objective analysis of African American life became, for several contemporaneous literary critics and commercial marketplaces, the standard for determining the realistic nature and aesthetic value of ‘blackness’ in literature. Eventually, this representational category limited Dunbar’s own ability to deviate from the accepted protocols of African American literature, and subsequently reduced the complexity of his legacy to a rigid dichotomy. It has been argued that Dunbar was torn between, on the one hand, fulfilling certain cultural conventions of minstrelsy in order to make money and appease literary critics, and, on the other, heeding personal impulses to write poetry in the style of the Romantics. Dunbar was torn, in other words, between selling out to a racist market for blackface humor and dialect and practicing a sort of literary assimilationism that in itself was racist, because it privileged traditionally white-authored poetry as the best that Western literature had to offer (Jarrett and Morgan, xv-xvi)

And this has seemingly become Dunbar’s legacy: this debate over his use of dialect, authentic or sellout? To what extent should we laud him for his artistic merits or critique him for a continuance of stereotype?

It would seem that for some time his work was mostly overlooked; the Introduction to The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar notes that despite his amazing quantity of output–four novels, four books of short stories, fourteen volumes of poetry, as well as songs, dramatic works, essays, and additional short stories and poems–there has not been a commiserate amount of critical scholarship. But perhaps this is changing; the Introductions to both volumes I read from both seek to promote the idea that Dunbar is more than just his dialect poems or his most famous collections. Indeed, Jarrett and Morgan make a point of demonstrating the ways in which Dunbar undermines or otherwise rebels against the stereotypes expected of him, showing specific examples across his many stories.

A victim of his own success, he boxed himself into a literary paradigm that overshadowed the diversity of his literary skills and racial-political thought while offering him the best means of earning money. While Dunbar accepted these terms for the sake of achieving financial security, he was more proactive and subtle about inserting his own political views than many critics, then and since, have given him credit for. (Jarrett and Morgan, xx)

My own approach to Dunbar is as a casual reader–with only a slight acquaintance with the other literature of the time, and only covering a very small quantity of his entire output. Within these limitations, Dunbar’s rebellions were not as obvious to me as those in Charles W. Chestnutt’s Conjure Stories, which always seemed to twist what was expected. Yet, Jarrett and Morgan point out, even something as small as a story depicting African Americans in an urban northern setting, as opposed to the rural south, would be a departure from the expectations of his contemporary white audience.

More obvious to me was Dunbar’s longing for something greater as in poems such as “A Career,” “Sympathy,” or “He Had His Dreams.” It would seem that in his works Dunbar expressed the frustrations of his ambitions, thwarted not merely by race but by predetermined critical expectation and consensus.

And yet, Martin, in his introduction to Selected Poems, indicates that Dunbar was indeed very successful as a writer of dialect, comparable to Mark Twain in his ear and abilities–high praise indeed! He further points out the catch-22: had Dunbar not achieved success in dialect, he would likely have remained in obscurity and one of America’s most prolific African American poets–and the first to achieve national acceptance–would have been lost.

1. Dunbar’s Dayton, Ohio home is now a National Historic Landmark (free admission) included within the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park along with several landmarks relating to the Wright brothers. 

Resources:
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Gene Andrew Jarrett and Thomas Lewis Morgan. Ohio University Press, 2005. Forward by Shelley Fisher Fishkin.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. Selected Poems. Ed. with an Introduction by Herbert Woodward Martin. Penguin Books, 2004

1/3 posts relating to my spring reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar works

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