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. 

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

Completed: The Jungle Book

The Jungle BookThe Jungle Book
Rudyard Kipling
1894 (England)

Mowgli had never seen an Indian city before, and though this was almost a heap of ruins it seemed very wonderful and splendid. Some king had built it long ago on a little hill. You could still trace the stone cause-ways that led up to the ruined gates where the last splinters of wood hung to the worn, rusted hinges. Trees had grown into and out of the walls; the battlements were tumbled down and decayed, and wild creepers hung out of the windows of the towers on the walls in bushy hanging clumps. (“Kaa’s Hunting”)

That I should decide to read The Jungle Book in the same month that Disney should release their big-budget “live-action” remake of the animated film is complete coincidence. Rather, it had been sitting on my shelf for some time, tempting me, and with this month’s Children’s Classics Event incentive, I decided to finally give in.

The Jungle Book is not a novel, but a collection of seven short stories with accompanying poems (one per story, relating to to the story previously told). Of these stories, three–“Mowgli’s Brothers,” “Kaa’s Hunting,” and “Tiger! Tiger!”–are related to Mowgli, Shere Khan, Baloo, and all the other characters familiar to us from Disney. The remaining four stories all feature different characters and are not all closely linked to the Jungle. While “Toomai of the Elephants” is very much jungle-based, and “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and “Her Majesty’s Servants” both remain set in British India they are in the human world and “The White Seal” is largely set on an island in the Bering Sea–what a contrast! But constant throughout is the importance of animals, usually anthropomorphized. Only in “Toomai of the Elephants” do we not have the direct thoughts of the animal characters presented as dialogue. More often, the animals speak directly–even in “Her Majesty’s Servants,” which is narrated entirely by an unnamed man of British origin, who had learned from the “natives” to understand camp-beast speech. Which poses an interesting question–was this conceit, that the locals understood camp-beast speech, simply meant as a narrative device, or is it part of Kipling’s romanticization of India, and the Jungle? Although Kipling had spent a good portion of his life in India–he was born there, and after schooling in England returned to work for some time–he wrote his Jungle Book stories while living in Vermont, and the brief introduction in my copy of The Jungle Book (Collins Classics edition) suggests that his distance from the country led to creating an India that “perhaps never quite existed.”

‘All the jungle is thine,’ said Bagheera, ‘and thou canst kill everything that thou art strong enough to kill; but for the sake of the bull that bought thee thou must never kill or eat any cattle young or old. That is the law of the Jungle.’ (“Mowgli’s Brothers”)

On the other hand, Kipling’s India reflects back on the human world he lived in. Setting the stories among animals allows him to comment on human society, both through the customs and structures of his animal characters–“The Law of the Jungle” so frequently referenced in the Mowgli stories (and strictly adhered to by most)–and Mowgli’s uneasy interactions with other humans once he finally leaves the jungle. His arrival in a human village brings to him the knowledge that there is a price on man-eating Shere Khan’s head, but the reward is never motivating to young Mowgli. Rather his motivation is more complicated–a mix of survival, vengeance, power. And in turn, the villagers cannot understand him, for his ability to communicate with animals seems a most dangerous magic. What is not understood is feared–and understanding takes away fear, as in Mowgli’s ability to yield the “red flower” so feared among the jungle beasts.

Moving away from Mowgli, the story most directly connected to his seems to be “Toomai of the Elephants,” also set in the jungle, and another instance of a young child seeing a side of it–in this case, the elephant’s dance–that the adults–native and colonist alike–will never see. Although perhaps one might say there is the fantastic in these stories, specifically in the ability of human and beast to communicate, the real magic seems to be the experiencing of the natural world free of human intervention.

The air was full of all the night noises that, taken together, make one big silence–the click of one bamboo-stem against the other, the rustle of something alive in the undergrowth, the scratch and squawk of a half-waked bird (birds are awake in the night much more often than we imagine), and the fall of water ever so far away. (“Toomai of the Elephants”)

“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and “Her Majesty’s Servants” are on the other hand set in the human world. The perpetual conflict between wild, natural space and human, created space is illustrated in the former, when the cobras resent the arrival of humans who they feel must be responsible for the dangerous mongoose that now threatens not only their eggs but their very lives. Rikki in turn becomes the intermediary between the two spaces, for his natural instinct to kill the snakes fits well with the human desire to have space safe from such dangerous reptiles. And finally, man vs. nature makes way for man vs. man in “Her Majesty’s Servants,” as now all animals involved are either domesticated or trainable wild beasts (elephants) whose concerns are how to reconcile their fears with their service to their human masters. It is an illustration and contrast of types, for each beast–horse, camel, mule, elephant, bull–has a different function, and different fears, based on their natural abilities and inclinations. It is also fascinating to reflect on all the different ways humans have found to solve their difficulties–in this instance fighting on all sorts of different terrain.

The most distinct of the stories is “The White Seal,” whose titular hero Kotick is shocked to discover the passivity with which his fellow creatures allow themselves to be hunted by man. He is unique–not only for his white coat, but for his determination to find a nesting ground which is truly safe for all. A reminder, perhaps, that even humans too often simply allow dark things to happen and only the most daring or most determined speak out or act.

I rather enjoyed these enchanting stories. The poems, or “songs,” less so, but then I am not so much a poetry person and could not really begin to judge if they are even any good or not. Although I think they do work better if thought of as “songs” as Kipling calls them. (Actually, I read the “Road-Song of the Bandar-Log” as a sort of pirate’s shanty. It seemed appropriate.) There is a second volume of Jungle Book stories which I shall be on the lookout for–especially as I am promised that more Mowgli stories feature among them.

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, 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.

In Progress: Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories (1)

ChristmasAnneChristmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories
L.M. Montgomery
Rea Wilmshurst, editor (1995)

“Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves” from Anne of Green Gables (1908)
“Christmas at Red Butte” (1909)
“The End of the Young Family Feud” (1907)
“Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket” (c. 1903)
“The Osbornes’ Christmas” (1903)

As December marched quickly on this year, I didn’t expect that I would have time to read anything seasonal this year, but on Christmas day I found myself with some spare time and my copy of Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories at hand. The volume is one of several collections  of L.M. Montgomery’s short stories edited by Rea Wilmshurst in the late 80s to early 90s. Most of the stories had been originally published in various newsletters or magazines, although in this collection, given the “Anne” theme, several episodes are chapters selected from the Anne books. I only read the first five this year, which allows me to save the rest for future Christmases.

There is something about Montgomery’s work that I always find delightful. A lightness, I suppose, or a feeling at the end of each tale that everything will be alright—a marked contrast to her own difficult adult life. However, unlike the Louisa May Alcott Christmas stories I wrote about last year,  I didn’t feel that they contained the saccharine quality that I had difficulty swallowing—a story may travel from despair to hope, but always as the result of making-do or of a benefactor already in play, not an unexpected and sudden reward for the mere virtue of doing good. That is, the stories felt realistic rather than mere fairy-tale. None of them were the same either—”The Osbornes’ Christmas” was not a tale of a family wishing they could receive Christmas despite the odds, but rather of a family that was so well-off they could no longer appreciate what they did have, and “Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket” was a story of making a Christmas while snowed in on a train.

The first story, “Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves,” is not actually a free-standing short story, but is pulled from Anne of Green Gables. As such, it works best in context of the book, but as a fan of Anne, I could read it over and over again with or without the remainder of the novel. It is such a lovely chapter depicting gentle Matthew and his determination to do something special for Anne, even though this means an attempt to overcome his overwhelming shyness.

“Christmas at Red Butte” is perhaps the most similar to the Alcott stories: a mother is in despair because she cannot afford to give her children Christmas. But where in Alcott a surprise benefactor might arrive, here the niece who makes a great sacrifice to let her cousins have some Christmas joy. Where Alcott speaks of Christmas miracles, Montgomery champions sacrificial giving, a message that sits more easily with me. Finally,  “The End of the Young Family Feud” tells what I find seems to be a typical Montgomery story: an old family argument and stubborn pride overcome by a mistake and/or a plucky young woman, and the discovery that the prickly old man is rather nice after all.

One realization as I read these: while I may have decided a few months back while reading Year of Wonders that I am not as much of a fan of historical fiction as I thought, I truly love reading old fiction where the time-frame is from within the author’s memory. Throughout these stories there are little details included that readers of the time would have thought nothing of, but which help provide a fuller—and more accurate—image of the past for the reader one hundred years later. In “The Osbornes’ Christmas,” Montgomery tells us “…Frank and Darby had stoned all the raisins…”, an activity that would never had occurred to me as necessary in this day of convenient store-bought, seed-free raisins, but doubtless Montgomery’s original readers would have known this chore themselves, or have observed others complete it. A writer from today would likely need to complete extensive research to discover this tidbit, and likely would have not inserted it so naturally into the narrative in the concern of ensuring the reader’s complete understanding. I can’t even imagine anyone using that phrasing! And this is only one small instance, one little detail. I’m sure if I paid better attention to my reading of old fiction, I could find many such instances of detail or description that would better illustrate the world of the past for me. A challenge for my future reads! And how lovely to know that I have more of these stories to look forward to next year.