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Week’s End Notes (32)

Cuyhoga River in Winter - Kent Ohio
A view of the Cuyahoga River just over a week ago. Would you believe I took this from a busy bridge facing downtown Kent? It’s all about the framing…!

I feel as if I’ve been shamefully neglecting the blog. Neglecting reading other’s posts. It’s a Sisyphean task, that–keeping up with everyone, everything. Especially when I already have the feeling of being underwater elsewhere, at work most especially. I keep plodding away at the reading, though, my Sunday morning reading the one constant. I’m only one week behind (and intend to catch up) on the Deal Me In Challenge. I finally finished Chronicles of Avonlea, which happens to be a short story collection, and which I believe I actually started over a year ago (maybe even in 2015!). Yet I feel as if I’m moving quickly nowhere. Perhaps the long list of unblogged books bogs me down. So many I don’t even properly remember now, not well enough to write about. And perhaps that is why I’ve written nothing.

But I’ve had enough of feeling their weight on my shoulders. Somehow, I’ve managed to dash off a few short posts here this afternoon. Those will be forthcoming. And for those I don’t feel I can prepare a proper post for (but those I still wish to say something about), a few thoughts:

His Last Bow – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Scotland, 1917)

A collection of Holmes stories I read last fall on vacation. A diverting read, though I fear that I don’t remember the stories that well.  This leaves just one collection left and I will have finished all the Holmes stories!

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins (Britain/Zimbabwe, 2015)

The publicity surrounding the movie prompted me to pick this one up. A psychological thriller, I found it much more unputdownable than Gone Girl, but I didn’t feel the need to run out to see the film version. Though I did like the end much better.

Tuck Everlasting – Natalie Babbitt (U.S., 1975)

On learning of Natalie Babbit’s death late last year, I immediately had to pick up Tuck Everlasting for a reread. I had last touched this one in late elementary school, and so both found that I couldn’t remember the story and yet it was completely familiar. A sweet story of a young girl who accidentally meets up with a family who has drunk from the fountain of eternal youth, it is in a way a touching meditation on death and life and the consequences of immortality.

She folded her arms and nodded, more to herself than to Winnie. ‘Life’s got to be lived, not matter how long or short,’ she said calmly. ‘You got to take what comes. We just go along, like everybody else, one day at a time.’ (Chapter 10)

Although I read it as a nostalgia piece/for my Children’s Classics project, Tuck Everlasting could also be assigned to my Reading Ohio project, as Natalie Babbit was originally from/grew up in Ohio. It’s also a nice segue to add a little reminder that the 5th Classic Children’s Literature Event is coming up in just a couple weeks! I’ve already a collection of books waiting for me temptingly…

Happy Reading!

Purple Orchid in Full Indoor Bloom
Who says winter isn’t growing season?
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.

Reading Ohio

Completed: Selected Poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Cover: Selected Poems by Paul Laurence DunbarSelected Poems
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Edited with an Introduction by Herbert Woodward Martin
Penguin Books, 2004

As I mentioned in my previous post, I struggled with reading Dunbar’s poems. This wasn’t just because of the dialect (that didn’t help, but I usually can understand it by reading how it “sounds”), but also because of my weakness as a poetry reader in general, and I suspect perhaps, that this era of poetry may not be the best suited for me; I reacted better both to the Renaissance poetry of Spain’s Siglo de Oro and to a miscellaneous group of 20th century poems I read a year or so ago. But I did want to try my hand at this, the challenge not just to read one of Ohio’s most prolific writers, but the challenge of reading a genre–lyric poetry–I usually avoid. I opted for a curated collection, so I cannot be sure that my observations, such as they are, are necessarily true as compared to the entirety of Dunbar’s poetic output.

Dunbar seems to return to a number of themes many times–love (of course!), faith (I believe I read that his mother wanted him to be a preacher, so…), plantation life, odes to great African Americans and historical events. While most of the themes might be written in either “standard” or dialect, as suited Dunbar–or perhaps as suited his audience–, the odes were universally written in standard speech. They also seemed, I gather, to be tied to either deaths of great figures or anniversaries. Not all were made to people or events with which I was familiar, and I found myself more than one searching out the history behind the poem.

Dunbar also seems to have, over time, lost the optimism and cheerfulness of his early work, as starting in the selections from Lyrics of the Hearthside, some of the poems seemed to takes a grimmer, more despondent tone. I don’t know if this was a matter of which poems the editors selected for inclusion, if it reflected the natural passage from youth to manhood and the subsequent facing of stark reality we all must endure, or if it reflects an even darker turn Dunbar’s life took, perhaps due to the public reception of his work or a personal loss, or even the downturn his health took (he died young, of tuberculosis). This is not to say that his later poems lost all humor and optimism altogether, just that the later books appeared to include more unhappy poems than the early books did.

“A Career” (Oak and Ivy, 1893)

“Break me my bounds, and let me fly
To regions vast of boundless sky;
Nor I, like piteous Daphne, be
Root-bound. Ah, no! I would be free
As yon same bird that in its flight
Outstrips the range of mortal sight;
Free as the mountain streams that gush
From bubbling springs, and downward rush
Across the serrate mountain’s side,—
The rocks o’erwhelmed, their banks defied,—
And like the passions in the soul,
Swell into torrents as they roll.
Oh, circumscribe me not by rules
That serve to lead the minds of fools!
But give me pow’r to work my will,
And at my deeds the world shall thrill.
My words shall rouse the slumb’ring zest
That hardly stirs in manhood’s breast;
And as the sun feeds lesser lights,
As planets have their satellites,
So round about me will I bind
The men who prize a master mind!”

He lived a silent life alone,
And laid him down when it was done;
And at his head was placed a stone
On which was carved a name unknown!

And perhaps this was simply frustration – early on the poems suggest Dunbar’s ambition, and while he did achieve great success, it was for his dialect work, but he also wanted recognition for that which was more traditional. I was surprised to find that one of Dunbar’s most famous poems, “Sympathy,” from which Maya Angelou took the title for her most famous book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was actually in Dunbar’s first published volume of poems. Clearly–and Williams Dean Howell’s praise for his second volume also points to this–even Dunbar’s earliest published work has merit.

One of my favorite of Dunbar’s poems actually turned out to be one of his dialect poems. It is an illustration that some things never change–I can envision the same argument being made today (I think I’ve heard it!), only perhaps substitute different types of music.

The Ol’ Tunes” (Oak and Ivy, 1893)

You kin talk about yer anthems
An’ yer arias an’ sich,
An’ yer modern choir-singin’
That you think so awful rich;
But you orter heerd us youngsters
In the times now far away,
A-singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes
In the ol’-fashioned way.

There was some of us sung treble
An’ a few of us growled bass,
An’ the tide o’ song flowed smoothly
With its ‘comp’niment o’ grace;
There was spirit in that music,
An’ a kind o’ solemn sway,
A-singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes
In the ol’-fashioned way.

But I think that some bright mornin’,
When the toils of life air o’er,
An’ the sun o’ heaven arisin’
Glads with light the happy shore,
I shall hear the angel chorus,
In the realms of endless day,
A-singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes
In the ol’-fashioned way.

Another favorite poem was “The Spellin’-Bee”, if for no other reason than it reminded me of The Little House books as the sort of event that might have occurred–certainly the time frame is close.  (I believe there’s a spelling bee in Little Town on the Prairie? It’s been a long while since I read these.) That, and a little twist at the end. Dunbar does seem to like a twist now and then.

The Spellin’-Bee” (Lyrics of Lowly Life, 1896)

I never shall furgit that night when father hitched up Dobbin,
An’ all us youngsters clambered in an’ down the road went bobbin’
To school where we was kep’ at work in every kind o’ weather,
But where that night a spellin’-bee was callin’ us together.
‘Twas one o’ Heaven’s banner nights, the stars was all a glitter,
The moon was shinin’ like the hand o’ God had jest then lit her.
The ground was white with spotless snow, the blast was sort o’ stingin’;
But underneath our round-abouts, you bet our hearts was singin’.
That spellin’-bee had be’n the talk o’ many a precious moment,
The youngsters all was wild to see jes’ what the precious show meant,
An’ we whose years was in their teens was little less desirous
O’ gittin’ to the meetin’ so ‘s our sweethearts could admire us.

Fur once within that lighted room, our feelin’s took a canter,
An’ scurried to the zero mark ez quick ez Tam O’Shanter.
‘Cause there was crowds o’ people there, both sexes an’ all stations;
It looked like all the town had come an’ brought all their relations.

In general, the poems I liked the best were the ones that in some way amused me: the observations on English cooking (from “A Letter” – Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899):


But dese Englishmen is diffunt, an’ dey’s curus fu’ a fac’.
Fust, dey’s heavier an’ redder in dey make-up an’ dey looks,
An’ dey don’t put salt nor pepper in a blessed t’ing dey cooks!
W’en dey gin you good ol’ tu’nips, ca’ots, pa’snips, beets, an’ sich,
Ef day ain’t some one to tell you, you cain’t ‘stinguish which is which.

or the fight in the kitchen:

Trouble in de Kitchen” (Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow, 1905)

Dey was oncet a awful quoil ‘twixt de skillet an’ de pot;
De pot was des a-bilin’ an’ de skillet sho’ was hot.
Dey slurred each othah’s colah an’ dey called each othah names,
Wile de coal-oil can des gu-gled, po’in oil erpon de flames.

But not all of the poems I liked are humorous. Dunbar had serious poems as well, often stirring. His “The Colored Soldiers” (Majors and Minors, 1895) is both a memorial to those who fought the Union cause but also an argument for equality:

They were comrades then and brothers,
Are they more or less to-day?
They were good to stop a bullet
And to front the fearful fray.
They were citizens and soldiers,
When rebellion raised its head;
And the traits that made them worth,–
Ah! those virtues are not dead.

While “Hymn” (Majors and Minors, 1895) is a poem of great faith:

When storms arise
And dark’ning skies
About me threat’ning lower,
To thee, O Lord, I raise mine eyes,
To thee my tortured spirit flies
For solace in that hour.

The mighty arm
Will let no harm
Come near me nor befall me;
Thy voice shall quiet my alarm,
When life’s great battle waxeth warm—
No foeman shall appall me.

Upon thy breast
Secure I rest,
From sorrow and vexation;
No more by sinful cares oppressed,
But in thy presence ever blest,
O God of my salvation.

And “For the Man Who Fails” (Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899) stands in contrast to those who deem that the only people who matter are those that are the “best” or “greatest” or “win.”

The world is a snob, and the man who wins
Is the chap for its money’s worth:
And the lust for success causes half of the sins
That are cursing this brave old earth.
For it ‘s fine to go up, and the world’s applause
Is sweet to the mortal ear;
But the man who fails in a noble cause
Is a hero that ‘s no less dear.

‘T is true enough that the laurel crown
Twines but for the victor’s brow;
For many a hero has lain him down
With naught but the cypress bough.
There are gallant men in the losing fight,
And as gallant deeds are done
As ever graced the captured height
Or the battle grandly won.

We sit at life’s board with our nerves highstrung,
And we play for the stake of Fame,
And our odes are sung and our banners hung
For the man who wins the game.
But I have a song of another kind
Than breathes in these fame-wrought gales,—
An ode to the noble heart and mind
Of the gallant man who fails!

The man who is strong to fight his fight,
And whose will no front can daunt,
If the truth be truth and the right be right,
Is the man that the ages want.
Tho’ he fail and die in grim defeat,
Yet he has not fled the strife,
And the house of Earth will seem more sweet
For the perfume of his life.

But perhaps the most appropriate poem to share with bookish people is one simply titled “Sonnet: On an Old Book with Uncut Leaves” (Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899)

Emblem of blasted hope and lost desire,
No finger ever traced thy yellow page
Save Time’s. Thou hast not wrought to noble rage
The hearts thou wouldst have stirred. Not any fire
Save sad flames set to light a funeral pyre
Dost thou suggest. Nay,—impotent in age,
Unsought, thou holdst a corner of the stage
And ceasest even dumbly to aspire.

How different was the thought of him that writ.
What promised he to love of ease and wealth,
When men should read and kindle at his wit.
But here decay eats up the book by stealth,
While it, like some old maiden, solemnly,
Hugs its incongruous virginity!

 

2/3 posts relating to my spring reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar works. Read as part of my Reading Ohio project and for the category “a classic by a non-white author” for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

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

Classic Children's Literature · Reading Ohio

Reading Ohio, Completed: The People Could Fly

Cover: The People Could FlyThe People Could Fly: American Black Folktales
told by: Virginia Hamilton
illustrated by: Leo and Diane Dillon
(1985, U.S.)

A few months back I came across a guest post on Book Riot, “We Need Diverse Books to Build Character Through Characters,” written by Maya Payne Smart, a writer, and more importantly for my purposes, a reader. After I moved past my bout of nostalgia–the first book she mentions is Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, a title I remember fondly from Reading Rainbow (and who wouldn’t remember a picture book narrated by James Earl Jones [YouTube] fondly?)–I finished the article and immediately requested her other childhood favorite from the library. The timing was perfect. I had recently finished reading The Conjure Stories by Charles W. Chesnutt, stories in the vein of folklore, though I believe (not certain) they are more creations of Chesnutt rather than actual retellings. Continuing the theme was appealing, especially as I had come to realize that I have very little familiarity with African American folklore, and if I’m going to continue reading novels by African American writers it seems a good idea to familiarize myself with tales they may have grown up with. (Just as knowing European fairy tales can sometimes prove helpful when reading stories by European/European-descendant writers.) An added bonus: the stories of The People Could Fly are told by Virginia Hamilton, a children’s writer who spent most of her life in Ohio.*

I was surprised to find that some of the stories in the collection were familiar. Somewhere along the line, I’d been exposed to a variation of “Doc Rabbit, Bruh Fox, and Tar Baby,” and “The Two Johns” seemed very much like something I might have encountered in Anderson or Grimm. Indeed, Hamilton’s notes at the end of this last story indicate it is “black Portuguese,” suggesting European influences. To what extent, I wonder, are these folktales a mish-mash of African, European, and Native American storytelling?

Hamilton divides the tales into four sections: Animal Tales; Tales of the Real, Extravagant, and Fanciful; Tales of the Supernatural; and Slave Tales of Freedom. While most are completely fanciful, some of the “Slave Tales of Freedom” are true stories, or inspired by true stories. The true tale, “Carrying the Running-Aways” introduced me for the first time to John Rankin, a southern-born minister whose abolitionist beliefs led him to Ripley, Ohio, where he used his riverfront house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Hamilton’s retelling is from perspective of a slave who ferried others across the Ohio River to Rankin’s house; Rankin would light a lantern to let them know it was safe to cross.

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon for "A Wolf and Little Daughter" in The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales
Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon for “A Wolf and Little Daughter” in The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales

Each story ends with a brief note on the “type” of tale it is, including region of origin and other variations that might be found. Each is also accompanied by the black and white illustrations of Leo and Diane Dillon, images as full of wonder as the tales themselves. The stories themselves are told in the colloquial, with the dropping of g’s and the use of non-standard constructions. While not nearly as difficult to read as Chesnutt’s dialect–nor could it be in a children’s book!–I found it far more effective in conveying the sound of a hypothetical speaker. I could “hear” these stories being told, in a way I could not with Chesnutt’s, preoccupied as I was by basic understanding. Hamilton also included tales that used Gullah words (with translation provided), a creole language made of elements of English and West and Central African languages, still spoken in parts of the coastal south.

Despite the inclusion of background information on each story–suggestive of an academic text rather than a storybook–(and a useful bibliography at the end for further exploration), The People Could Fly is very much a book of stories, stories of great variety and imagination. I only wish I had found it back in elementary school when I was devouring the Andrew Lang Fairy Books–it would have made an excellent companion.

*Hamilton was raised–and spent much of her adult life–in Yellow Springs, Ohio (home to Antioch College), and is best known for M.C. Higgins, the Great and The House of Dies Drear, the former of which won both the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award for Children’s Literature. In 1992 she won the international Hans Christian Anderson Award for lifetime achievement in children’s literature.  Source: Ohio Reading Road Trip, Virginia Hamilton page.

Reading Ohio

Reading Ohio, Completed: The Conjure Stories

The Conjure Stories by Charles W. Chesnutt (Norton Critical Edition)The Conjure Stories
Charles W. Chesnutt
(1887-1926, U.S.)
Norton Critical Edition, 2012
Robert B. Stepto and Jennifer Rae Greeson, editors

 Old Julius often beguiled our leisure with stories of plantation life, some of them folk-lore stories, which we found to be in general circulation among the colored people; some of them tales of real life as Julius has seen it in the old slave days; but the most striking were, we suspected, purely imaginary, or so colored by old Julius’s fancy as to make us speculate at times upon how many original minds, which might have added to the world’s wealth and literature and art, had been buried in the ocean of slavery.

“Lonesome Ben”

The Conjure Stories is a short story collection by the late 19th century/early 20th century African-American author Charles W. Chesnutt. Born in Cleveland, Ohio to free blacks from Fayetteville, North Carolina; his family returned to Fayetteville after the Civil War. Chesnutt grew up, taught school, and married in Fayetteville before eventually returning north to Cleveland with his family, where he passed the bar exam, began a successful court reporting business, and started writing. The Library of America describes his literary career thus:

…Charles W. Chesnutt broke new ground in American literature with searching explorations of the meaning of race and innovative use of African American speech and folklore. Rejecting genteel Victorian hypocrisy about miscegenation, lynching, and “passing,” Chesnutt exposed the deformed logic of Jim Crow with novels and stories of formal clarity-creating, in the process, the modern African American novel.

There are several unifiers in this particular collection of stories (a collection created, not by the author, but the editors–although, it should be noted most, if not all, were either published in Chesnutt’s collection The Conjure Woman or submitted by Chesnutt to his publisher for inclusion): the Fayetteville setting (here called Patesville), the framing device of a white narrator from the North (John) around a story told by his hired hand (ex-slave Julius) and ending with commentary by John or his wife Annie, most have a thread of the fantastic–conjuring–running through them.

“Do you live around here?” I asked, anxious to put him at his ease.
“Yas, suh. I lives der ober yander, behine de nex’ san’-hill, on de Lumberton plank-road.”
“Do you know anything about the time when this vineyard was cultivated?”
“Lawd bless you, suh, I knows all about it. Dey ain’ na’er a man in dis settlement w’at won’ tell you ole Julius McAdoo ‘uz bawn en raise’ on dis yer same plantation. Is you de Norv’n gemman w’at’s gwine ter buy de ole vimya’d?”
“I am looking at it,” I replied; “but I don’t know that I shall care to buy unless I can be reasonably sure of making something out of it.”
“Well, suh, you is a stranger ter me, en I is a stranger ter you, en we is bofe strangers ter one anudder, but ‘f I ‘uz in yo’ place, I wouldn’ buy dis vimya’d.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, i dunno whe’r you b’lieves in cunj’in’ er not,–some er de w’ite folks don’t, er says dey don’t,–but de truf er de matter is dat dis yer old vimya’d is goophered.”
“Is what?” I asked, not grasping the meaning of this unfamiliar word.
“Is goophered,–conju’d, bewitch’.”
He imparted this information with such solemn earnestness, and with such an air of confidential mystery, that I felt somewhat interested, while Annie was evidently much impressed, and drew closer to me.

“The Goophered Grapevine”

The first thing I really noticed was how difficult it could be to get through these stories, largely due to the heavy dialect employed by Chesnutt. I’m not certain to what extent the dialect was expected by white audiences or how accurate Chesnutt was in representing the actual speaking patterns of ex-slaves from the Fayetteville region, but this quote (from a letter Chesnutt wrote to his editor) is certainly suggestive that the dialect was more about audience expectations than reality:

 Speaking of dialect, it is almost a despairing task to write it. . . .The fact is, of course, that there is no such thing as a Negro dialect: that what we call be that name is the attempt to express, with such a degree of phonetic correctness as to suggest the sound, English pronounced as an ignorant old southern Negro would be supposed to speak it.

Of course, a glance at a dialect map of the U.S. today suggests that at the very least, Julius would have spoken a different dialect than John. But Chesnutt’s statement suggests that Chesnutt had to create something acceptable to white audiences, and that this included an audience belief that an ex-slave must surely be ignorant.

Fortunately, Chesnutt was a better author than to just pander to his audience. Instead, he subtly subverted the various stereotypes they might expect, allowing the slaves and freemen that populate Julius’s tales to cover the whole range of human characteristics, thereby showing his white audience that African-Americans were just as human as they were and undermining the nostalgia for a lost way of life then common in “plantation fiction.”* With the matter-of-fact voice of Julius narrating, it is hard to ignore the everyday ugliness of slavery–an ugliness present even on farms and plantations where the masters were otherwise decent folk, for the ugliness of slavery was that the slaves were not people, but property that could be disposed of–traded or sold–at will. Chesnutt proved that the slaves were people by showing their very human emotions, as they reacted to separation or jealousy or pettiness. And he showed nothing that suggested that it was a time to be nostalgic for.

Yet at the same time, the stories sometimes felt awkward to read–as a 21st century reader, at least. There was the casual use of racial terms, considered derogatory today but maybe not to Victorians; Julius was usually the speaker, though whether this implies that these words were truly more acceptable or just expected as part of “dialect,” I don’t know. Then too the occasional employment of a stereotype, e.g., “blacks like chicken,” as a story-instigator. Sometimes this stereotype would be subverted by the end of the story, but at others it seemed that Chesnutt was content to let it lie–Julius agrees with John about the chicken, while Annie, on the other hand, questions them both. Chesnutt often used Annie to provide an alternative perspective to John’s.

As it happens, I came across The Classics Club’s June question while thinking about this post. It regards how we deal with racist/sexist issues in classic literature. While I didn’t really answer that question here, I do think that Chesnutt’s The Conjure Stories demonstrate how a classic can be both awkward to read from a present-day viewpoint and offer an important look into the past.

I read The Conjure Stories for my Reading Ohio project, for my 19th Century project list, and as my folklore selection for Once Upon a Time VIII.

*A genre I was not aware of prior to reading selections of the essay “A Critique of the Plantation Legend” by William L. Andrews. (Included in part in The Conjure Stories, originally published in The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), 55-60 and 67-69.) Incidentally, I was very glad I decided to order (from the library) the Norton edition. There weren’t very many notes to the stories themselves, but the contextual and critical essays I read were both enlightening and interesting.

Reading Ohio

Completed: Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State

Cover - Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent StateThirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State
Joe Eszterhas and Michael D Roberts
1970, U.S.

Later in his speech [chaplain John Simons] said, “It seems to me that one of the faults of the older generation is their tendency to duck crucial issues for all generations. The younger generation is naïve, life is not that simple, but the elders run from change by placing the responsibility for every rocky event on some Communist conspiracy. The older generation that wields power now has sold out to its fear of Communism. Perhaps the middle generation can gain the power and achieve the maturity which is not afraid of criticism or change. If we do not, life will go on as usual–there will be more Kents and Jacksons and Vietnams and Cambodias and with each new horror the solid middle America will become smaller and smaller until there is nothing left but two unspeaking and unspeakable extremes tearing the guts out of this great country. If you are part of those extremes, get lost. I hope that you see Kent as an avoidable tragedy, not something you secretly longed for. Four young lives were lost that day and for a while one of our four freedoms was lost. Those lives are irretrievable. That freedom of assembly is retrievable.” (Ch. 10)

I’ve lived nearly my entire life (excepting four months in Italy) in Northeast Ohio. I earned my architecture degrees from Kent State. Somehow, it seems I’ve known about May 4–which is how I always think of the Kent State Shootings (among other names), just those two words of a date–for as long as I can remember. We discussed it in my high school government class. Every day I was at university, I walked past the markers, memorializing the locations where four students died. So for me, the knowledge of May 4 has always been there. I don’t have any perspective on what those far away know, are taught, though. Are high school students, studying Vietnam and the anti-war protests given more than a sentence, that at an anti-war rally at Kent State, May 4, 1970, four students were killed and nine injured (one paralyzed from the waist down)? Is Jackson State ever mentioned? Has Kent mostly been relegated to forgotten history books? After all, the book I read on the topic is only available in e-format (unless, as I did, you find a library copy).

It was strange, in a way, to read this book. It is the first time I’ve ever read a real-life narrative where I haven’t had to look for a map or search for images of the events–I knew the map already. The central part of campus where the events of May 4 took place has changed little since 1970, outside of a controversial annex to the gymnasium building. The current (soon to be former) architecture building overlooks Blanket Hill, from which the National Guard fired. The only building I couldn’t picture was the ROTC building, burned to the ground on May 2. Even the first violence that happened in the lead-up to May 4, in downtown Kent–that scene too, I could visualize, for it happened on the street where I currently work. (Although there has been much more change to the architecture of this street.)

Thirteen Seconds was begun in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, as Eszterhas and Roberts  were sent by their then-employer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the campus to cover the events. They spent three months interviewing many who had been there as well as friends and relatives of the victims. It was published before the end of the year, which gives it an immediacy that a later book might not have, but also means that there isn’t a perspective of looking back after many years. Not that this might mean anything in this instance; the events of that day are still controversial–no one has ever determined conclusively why the National Guard opened fire on the students. A reel-to-reel recording of the events (made by a student in one of the adjacent dorms) was analyzed in 2010 by audio experts and in 2012 by the FBI, but differing conclusions were reached as to just what the recording revealed–perhaps nothing.

This uncertainty and the confusion are represented well in the ninth chapter of Thirteen Seconds, “Monday, May 4”–Eszterhas and Roberts report conflicting accounts and perspectives from students and guardsman. It was the single most gripping chapter of the book–even though I knew what the outcome was, that events went so terribly wrong, I didn’t want to put it down once I had started. From the inexplicable maneuverings of the Guard (one of the witnesses interviewed, a Vietnam vet, couldn’t understand why one group of guardsmen moved where they did, tactically) to the conflicting witness statements to the tense post-shooting moments when a pair of university professors talked the remaining protestors–now shocked and further angered–into dispersing, it was intense reading.

Ezterhas and Roberts never lay blame–they are reporting on events, and on the lives of those impacted. Yet reading over the background leading up to May 4, it felt inevitable to me that something would happen. Tensions were way too high: the town was frightened, the National Guard were exhausted, the students were furious over the presence of the Guard, and bayonets were already fixed and guns already loaded. But the split–the divide between the students and those who thought the Guard were in the right, that they should have killed more–that is what really surprised me, what I couldn’t understand*. I didn’t really know any more about who the Weatherman were than a name; I didn’t have a context for the extreme fear felt by the town after a street party turned looting, which led the Mayor to call the Governor for assistance. Thirteen Seconds began to give me this context, providing background for the events, both on-campus and -off, leading up to the May protests. I still feel like I would like to investigate more, not just about the events at Kent, but about the late 60s/early 70s in general. It is an era I know little about, yet it seems that it must have been a time of great fear and conflict.

Two anecdotes to end with. I was sitting at my desk one morning this spring when one of the bosses walked over to look out the window at the gorgeous day. “I wonder if the daffodils are in bloom on Blanket Hill,” he said. I didn’t know, remarking that I haven’t been on that part of campus since I graduated. He then told me he has a difficult time going on campus around the start of May: he was friends with one of the students who was killed–a student who wasn’t even protesting, but just passing through. Some few days later, May 5, I was sitting at my desk eating lunch and browsing the internet when the phone conversation of another coworker caught my ear. “I was angry for many years.” “I just wish we knew what happened.” “I feel like we could talk.” He hung up his phone, and looked across the desks at me to comment–he was just talking to a former client, who had been there that day, as a guardsman, while he was a student. They had only just found out that the other had been there that day, on the opposite side. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that history happens to real people.

The NPR station affiliated with Kent State has a website devoted to the events of May 4 and its aftermath, HERE, which includes an award-winning radio documentary.

*I was also really surprised to learn both how small the city of Kent and the University were in the 1950s and how quickly both grew post-WWII. But it explains the look of the campus.