Reading Ohio

Completed: Folks from Dixie by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Cover: The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence DunbarFolks from Dixie
Paul Laurence Dunbar
(U.S., Ohio, 1898)
as republished in The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar
Ed. Gene Andrew Jarrett and Thomas Lewis Morgan
Forward by Shelley Fisher Fishkin
(Ohio University Press, 2005)

It is a very fortunate thing that I took notes as I made my way through some of Dunbar’s stories this past spring; it has been so long since that I read them, that my memories have grown faint. Although I had at hand a collection of the entirety of Dunbar’s short fiction, I opted at this point to stick with just those stories making up Folks from Dixie, the first published collection of short stories by Dunbar.

One trouble I had reading the stories from the  21st century perspective was trying to make out where Dunbar was portraying realistic situations (as his contemporary critics praised him for) vs. what was expected by his white audience–was he pandering in stereotype or were his stories accurate? Is it one of those things where we look back years later and see stereotype or cliché but it was fresh or unusual at the time? Regardless, it was an interesting set of stories and characters, with settings in both the north and south, among the poor and the middle class and the previously rich, with characters both black and white. Dialect is employed liberally–and not just African American Vernacular; one of the stories is set in West Virginia and so an Appalachian dialect is used as appropriate. Faith, community, and family are the predominant themes. Some stories are heart-warming, some amusing. Some portray the complexities of relationships between blacks and whites both before and after the Civil War, while some focus entirely on African American characters.

Even more so than I noted in Dunbar’s poetry, a happy–or at least uplifting–ending seems almost requisite. Even when everything seems to have gone wrong, or every opportunity is there for the story to take a darker turn, it always seems to work out in the end. I couldn’t say if this was reflective of Dunbar’s own personality or point-of-view or simply if it was what would sell. (And I know too little of the era’s short stories to know if such positivity was generally common in published short fiction. They do perhaps bring to mind the short stories of L.M. Montgomery which are also consistently uplifting.) In a way though, it is refreshing to read, at least when the current reality of 2016 seems to always want to take the darker path. And it is perhaps our 21st century cynicism that makes me notice Dunbar’s optimism.

“Anner ‘Lizer’s Stumblin’ Block”

A plantation story—all the characters are slaves—yet, it feels odd, as if it is one of those stories that is romanticizing the plantation era, even though written by a descendant of slaves. Quite the contrast to Charles W. Chestnutt. But it is striking to me, from both Dunbar’s and Chestnutt’s stories, there is almost the sound as if slaves were just allowed to walk around wherever—that is, Sam is out “‘coon hunting” and the other slaves go to revival service—I would have thought they’d be more limited, more confined. What is accurate?

In this, Anner ‘Lizer goes to a revival service & finds herself wanting “‘ligion,” but she can never seem to overcome some “stumblin’ block” that keeps her from leaving the “mourner’s bench.” This “stumblin’ block” turns out to be Sam: Anner ‘Lizer isn’t sure if he wants to marry her or Phinny, another slave. It is an ironic story, as seen in the difference between what Anner ‘Lizer is really thinking and what the other slaves think she is thinking, i.e., they think she is solely focused on getting religion, while in reality she can’t get Sam off her mind.

“The Ordeal at Mt. Hope”

He passed vacant lots which lay open and inviting children to healthful play; but instead of marbles or leap-frog or ball, he found little boys in ragged knickerbockers huddled together on the ground, ‘shooting craps’ with precocious avidity and quarrelling over the pennies that made the pitiful wagers. He heard a glib profanity rolling from the lips of children who should have been stumbling through baby catechisms; and his heart ached for them.” (17)

Another southern story, but this one post-war and in an all-black community. It is an interesting look at the contrasts between an educated, northern black man and his uneducated southern small-town counterparts. Although in some ways I suppose it might stereotype, just including a standard-English speaking black man was, I would guess, an accomplishment for the late 1800s. On a certain level, it is a universal story and shows that some things haven’t changed (and some never well)–young folks not doing what their elders want, the lure of alcohol and other temptations, the wariness of a small town of outsiders, the way communities just sit in hopelessness, seemingly unwilling or unable to try to change anything and make things better. Indeed, “Mt. Hope” is an ironic town name, yet true to Dunbar’s form, it is flipped on its head to be accurate by the end.

He could not talk to Elias. He could not lecture him. He would only be dashing his words against the accumulated evil of years of bondage as the ripples of a summer sea beat against a stone wall. It was not the wickedness of this boy he was fighting or even the wrongdoing of Mt. Hope. It was the aggregation of the evils of the fathers, the grandfathers, the masters and mistresses of these people. Against this what could talk avail?” (21)

“The Colonel’s Awakening”

A very sad story of a southern gentleman whose mind has been in the past ever since his two sons were killed in the war. Two of his former slaves (“servants”) care for him, pretending for him that it is just the same as it always was. But rather than romanticizing the antebellum South, with servants staying out of loyalty to their master, it appears that due to age, they don’t know how else they might live. The colonel is however portrayed sympathetically, despite his past slave-holding. Loss is universal.

…and in the haste of the retreat he had been buried with the unknown dead. Into that trench, among the unknown, Colonel Robert Estridge had laid his heart, and there it had stayed. Time stopped, and his faculties wandered. He lived always in the dear past. The present and future were not.” (26)

“The Trial Sermons on Bull-Skin”

A church is in need of a new pastor, but there are two factions who cannot agree on who it should be. It is decided to give the two choices each a Sunday sermon, and the faction leaders embark on plots to win over others to their side while undercutting the other. I found it quite an amusing story, even knowing how common such a congregational fractures are, for Dunbar keeps it lighthearted, and there never seems any real danger that this will split up the church–though perhaps some feelings will be long hurt.

“Jimsella”

Here, we have a portrait of domestic distress: abandonment and adultery, but in the end the power of an infant brings the father/husband back hope. A bit of a sweet story, actually, despite how unpromising it begins. It is yet another example of Dunbar’s penchant for uplifting endings. “Jimsella” is set in a northern city–perhaps New York? According to the introduction to The Complete Stories, this would have been a challenge to preconceived notions of the era’s readers, expecting to only see former slaves or their descendants in the rural south.

“Mt. Pisgah’s Christmas ‘Possum”

This one was perhaps less jolly that I might have expected for a Christmas story, as it turns out that Brother Jabez ate 3 of the 4 Christmas ‘Possums! I admit, before reading this collection, I had never contemplated the thought of eating ‘possum, but apparently it would not have been uncommon in Dunbar’s day, as a number of stories reference it.

“A Family Feud”

The old woman had been a trusted house-servant in one of the wealthiest of the old Kentucky families, and a visit to her never failed to elicit some reminiscence of the interesting past. Aunt Doshy was inordinately proud of her family, as she designated the Venables, and was never weary of detailing accounts of their grandeur and generosity. What if some of the harshness of reality was softened by the distance through which she looked back upon them; what if the glamour of memory did put a halo round the heads of some people who were never meant to be canonised? It was all plain fact to Aunt Doshy…” (45)

This is different in that this story, while a plantation story, is the story of a white family, specifically a father and son, and the split that nearly happens between them over the woman the son chooses to marry. It is told by an old woman who had been a slave on the plantation, and one of the characters was the master’s son’s old nurse who does what it takes to reunite the two. It is interesting to me in that it illustrates the complexities of relationships between master and slaves. There is perhaps a bit of romanticism of the past, but I would guess that–considering the story told in The Help–the idea of such relationship between nurse and son is not complete fiction. A sweet story, really.

“Aunt Mandy’s Investment”

A swindler sets up an investment (Ponzi) scheme, convincing the poor blacks of a city he’s just arrived at that if they invest with him, they will reap the benefits and avoid the white man gaining their money. An old lady, Mandy, comes to him privately to invest her little savings that she might bring her son back from out west. This is a charming story, the reader knowing by now that Dunbar will work it all out–for Mandy at least.

“The Intervention of Peter”

Peter, desperate to prevent his master from dying in a duel (of honor), takes matters into his own hands and is about to fire an old fowling piece at the opponent when discovered, a discovery which causes all concerned (save Peter) to howl with laughter. Looking at this and “A Family Feud,” I notice that Dunbar seems to be showing that the slaves have more sense than their masters. Is this where we see him subverting the plantation story?

“Nelse Hatton’s Vengence”

The people had eaten their suppers, and the male portion of the families had come out in front of their houses to smoke and rest or read the evening paper. Those who had porches drew their rockers out on them, and sat with their feet on the railing. Others took their more humble positions on the front steps, while still others, whose houses were flush with the street, went even so far as to bring their chairs out upon the sidewalk, and over all there was an air of calmness and repose save when a glance through the open doors revealed the housewives busy at their evening dishes, or the blithe voices of the children playing in the street told that little Sally Waters was a-sitting in a saucer or asserted with doubtful veracity that London Bridge Was falling down. Here and there a belated fisherman came straggling up the street that led from the river, every now and then holding up his string of slimy, wiggling catfish in answer to the query ‘Wha’ ‘d you ketch?'” (59)

A tramp shows up on the back door of former slave Nelse Hatton’s house (in Ohio), begging for food. Nelse’s wife reluctantly sets the table at Nelse’s insistence, and he and the tramp have a conversation while the tramp eats, leading to the discovery that the tramp is “Mas’ Tom,” the son of Nelse’s old master. Excited, he wants to introduce his family, but his wife, Eliza, scorns meeting the man who gave her husband a scar on his neck. Her anger brings Nelse’s to rise, and for a moment we are afraid he will do as he once vowed and kill the man. But in the end, Tom Hatton having expressed remorse for the scar, Nelse gives him his Sunday suit and money to return home to Kentucky.

This is another illustration of the complex relations between (ex)slaves and (ex)masters. But I think the kicker is Nelse’s final statement: “Bless God, ‘Lizzy, I feel as good as a young convert.” Religion/faith may not be overt in this story, but it colors the end.

“At Shaft 11”

Unlike the other stories, in this one, a white man, Jason Andrews, is the primary protagonist, or at least as much as anyone is in the story. (A black man, Sam Bowles, is another.) It is a story of a mine strike—and it seems to be anti-union.  Or at least, pro-capitalist. The black men are the strike breakers, Jason is against the strike, but has left the mine so his white friends can’t say he profited. This interaction between black and white takes on an interesting dimension when it also equals strikers vs. strike breakers: even without a racial aspect, tension leading to violence seems highly likely. Interesting to me, also, unlike Chestnutt’s stories in which his ex-slave story teller frequently used “n—-r” to refer to his fellow African Americans, this was the first story in which Dunbar employed the term, and there in the voice of the strikers.

“The Deliberation of Mr. Dunkin”

This is a very familiar story, about the courting of a very pretty young woman, Miss Callena Johnson, the new school teacher, by Mr. Alonzo Taft, although he is supposedly acting on behalf of his friend, Mr. Dunkin.  It is so familiar, in fact, that I read it already this year—The Two Gentlemen of Verona— and I’m sure elsewhere as well. Of course, all works out in the end, and the collection ends on a very charming note.

3/3 posts relating to my spring reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar works. Read as part of my Reading Ohio project and for the category “a volume of classic short stories” for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

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