Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
Elaine Hedges and Richard Yarborough
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Although Paul Laurence Dunbar also produced novels, short stories, and
a large number of poems written in conventional English, he is best known
for his adoption in verse of what was presented as the language (or "dialect")
of the black southern folk. Indeed, he has been viewed by some commentators
as an artist who used negative stereotypes of his own people to satisfy
a white audience, and there are still those who suggest that his work lacks
In his lifetime, however, Dunbar was generally considered a glowing
symbol of African-American literary artistry and an apt representative
of his race, and a close reading of his poetry reveals him to be far more
than an unimaginative purveyor of antiblack images. In addition, few modern
readers are aware of the essays on American race relations and other contemporaneous
issues that Dunbar published at the height of his popularity. It is perhaps
no wonder that from shortly after his death through the mid-twentieth century,
his name was associated with numerous respected institutions in the African-American
community. Practically gone now are the various Paul Laurence Dunbar Literary
Societies that flourished throughout the country, but the schools and housing
projects bearing his name still exist in many cities.
In order for students to appreciate the enduring literary achievement
represented by Dunbar's best work, they should be given some sense of the
daunting obstacles arrayed against black authors at that time and, accordingly,
of the complex constraints placed upon them by white editors and readers
alike. To put it another way, students should be encouraged to consider
not just what Dunbar wrote but why he wrote as he did.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
One cannot overemphasize the fact that Dunbar lived during a period
when the access allowed blacks to major white publications was extremely
limited. Although there were a number of important African-American periodicals
in existence as well, for the ambitious black author eager to make his
or her mark on the mainstream literary landscape, magazines such as Century
and the Atlantic Monthly constituted the height of success. All
too often, however, editors of these and similar periodicals expected African-American
writers dealing with black material to follow the conventions of what has
been termed the Plantation Tradition, which dominated the literary representation
of black life and culture in the late nineteenth century. When coupled
with the popularity of dialect verse of all kinds at the time, these conventions
(perhaps best embodied in the fiction of Joel
Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page) exerted tremendous pressure
upon aspiring African-American authors. As a result, one should urge students
not to search Dunbar's work for outright protest and direct rejection of
the dominant racial stereotypes of the day but rather to attend to the
subtle use of irony and the often veiled allusions to the dilemmas of race
that mark much of his writing.
It is also important to recall that Dunbar wrote at a time when American
poetry was in a state of transition. Authors such as Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow and James Whitcomb Riley were seen as "true"
poets, and such sentimental pieces as Eugene Field's "Little Boy Blue"
and Will Carleton's "Over the Hills to the Poorhouse" were celebrated
as the epitome of poetic genius. Although Emily
Dickinson had died in 1886, her work was virtually unknown until the
1930s, and scant serious attention was paid to Ralph
Waldo Emerson's poetic theory or Walt
Whitman's free verse innovations. The invigorating literary experiments
of the modernist period were still several years off.
The state of American poetry at the turn of the century explains, to
some extent, the diverse, occasionally conflicting formal strains in Dunbar's
work. If, on the one hand, his dialect poems reflect his adoption of stylistic
strategies of both James Whitcomb Riley and also the Plantation Tradition
writers, on the other hand, he modelled his conventional English poetry
after the popular sentimental magazine verse of his day. Ultimately, neither
approach was conducive to a realistic rendering of either the psychology
or the vernacular expressions of African-Americans. (One should also keep
in mind that Dunbar was born and raised in the post-Civil War North and
thus had little firsthand knowledge of southern life generally and none
Dunbar was read widely in both the black and the white communities,
with the extraordinary sales of his books making him one of the most successful
American writers of his time, regardless of race. Some attention should
be given in the classroom to the possible consequences for Dunbar's art
of this dual audience, especially given that most white readers were not
just unaware of the complexities of African-American life and culture but
possessed of attitudes toward blacks shaped primarily by the racist images
disseminated in the popular press, on the minstrel stage, and by post-Reconstruction
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Despite the creative and personal tensions that plagued his tragically
brief career, Dunbar was, without question, the single most influential
African-American poet before Langston
Hughes, even if many of the writers of the generation that followed
his rejected aspects of his work. Extremely useful comparisons can and
should be drawn between Dunbar's poetry and that of the New Negro Renaissance.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
For "Mr. Cornelius Johnson, Office-Seeker":
1. What did the Reconstruction Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (1865-70)
accomplish? What did they fail to do?
2. Given the method of character presentation, do you--as the reader--sympathize
with Cornelius Johnson? Do you find any weaknesses in him that might tend
to explain his predicament?
For Dunbar's poetry:
1. By "scanning" Dunbar's poetry, does a reader learn anything
about Dunbar's poetic technique?
2. Analyze Dunbar's representation of black southern life in "When
Malindy Sings" and "An Ante-Bellum Sermon." In particular,
consider the tactics he utilizes in attempting to undermine the stereotypes
that his characterizations appear on the surface to endorse. How successful
are these tactics? Examine the role of religion and the use of irony in
3. From your knowledge of Frederick
Douglass, does Dunbar's poem entitled "Frederick Douglass"
transmit important information about the nineteenth-century leader?
Gayle, Addison, Jr. Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Garden City: Anchor/Doubleday, 1971.
Martin, Jay, ed. A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul
Laurence Dunbar. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975.
Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne, 1979.