Brown on Dunbar

Brown on Dunbar


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Dunbar’s best qualities are clear. Such early poems as “Accountability” and “An Antebellum Sermon” show flashes

of the unforced gay humor that was to be with him even to the last.



Sterling Brown on Paul Lawrence Dunbar


Dunbar and Traditional Dialect

(excerpts) [1937]


Early Dialect

Dunbar was not the first Negro poet to use dialect, although his predecessors had not realized the possibilities of the medium. The influential work of white authors in Negro dialect, from Stephen Foster and the minstrel song writers through local colorists such as Irwin Russell, J. A. Macon, Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page, will be our concern in the concluding chapters devoted to poetry. In spite of these forerunners, however, Dunbar was not only the first American Negro to “feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically,” as William Dean Howells wrote, but also the first American poet to handle Negro folklife with any degree of fullness. As a portrayal of Negro life, Dunbar’s picture has undoubted limitations, but they are by no means so grave as those of Russell and Page.

Dunbar: Plantation Tradition

Writing in the heyday of the dialect vogue, Dunbar (1872-1906) could not completely escape the influences of these two writers, but the shadow of Page, much the lesser poet, fell more darkly upon him. Almost all of Dunbar’s poetry about slavery is of the Page school, some of it directly copied. Old slaves grieve over the lost days, insisting upon the kindliness of old master and mistress, and the boundless mutual affection. Treated approvingly, they grieve that the freedmen deserted the plantation, or wish to die so that they can get to heaven to continue serving old master, or faced by their master’s poverty, indignantly decide to

“Tell Marse Linkum for to take his freedom back.”

The master is generally pictured as “smiling on de darkies from de hall,” or listening to the corn-song from his veranda with a tear in his eye. In Parted, a slave, separated from his beloved, knows that he will come back to her, since

God knows ouah heats, my little dove, He’ll help us from his th’one above

–which seems to be a cruel misreading of history. The very few other poems that admit the distresses of slavery, forget them in memories of cabin dances. “When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers” shows Negroes fighting for their own freedom, but love for the grayclad masters is expressed as well.

Folk Life in Dunbar

These unworthy perpetuations of plantation sentimentalities are fortunately not what Dunbar is known by. He is at his best in his picture of the folk life of his day. He did not know the deep South, but, a willing listener to his mother, an ex-slave, he probably got a good background of folk lore and speech, and he knew small Negro communities of Ohio, Kentucky, Eastern Shore Maryland and the District of Columbia. Influenced by the popular James Whitcomb Riley, he wrote that the

sandy roads is gleamin’ wile de city ways is black Come back, honey, case yo’ country home is best.

His fancy is caught by the parties, spelling bees, church services, by nodding and drowsing in front of the hickory fire, by ripened cider ready to be drunk while the back log is slowly burning through. He deals with charming rural love-affairs, from which the bitterness and disillusion of his personal love poetry are noticeably lacking. Farmers brag of an old mare, or welcome the rain so that they can tinker ’round mending harness, or, like Tam O’Shanter, return a bit worse for drink to irate spouses, and lay the blame for the slowness on old Suke, the nag. For these people Dunbar conveys his friendship warmly.

The Happy Peasant

Though he has written that “it’s mighty hard to giggle when dey’s nuffin’ in de pot,” he barely mentions dire poverty, his world being one where

De po’est ones kin live an’ play and eat Whair we draws a simple livin’ from de forest an’ de tide.

He writes of the countryman’s delight in good food, of “wheat bread white ez cotton an’ a egg pone jes’ like gol'”; of hog jowl, roasted shoat, and all the partitions of the hog; of chickens, turkeys, sweet potato stew, mince pies. One of his poems on possums is a rhymed cooking recipe; one of his less worthy pieces tells of a backwoods suitor winning a wife with a possum. He has a fondness for poetry about hunting and fishing, and the festal seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas. He is definitely a poet of the happy hearthside and pastoral contentment. Poems that do not show the pleasant life are few. “Blue” suggests a vaguely understood melancholy, poems like “Two Little Boots, ” with the touching quality of Eugene Field’s “Little Boy Blue,” express the grief of stricken parents, and “A Christmas Song” makes use of the folk-saying that a green Christmas means “a hongry churchyard.” But explicit revelation of the folk Negro’s hardships is absent.

Best Qualities

Dunbar’s best qualities are clear. Such early poems as “Accountability” and “An Antebellum Sermon” show flashes of the unforced gay humor that was to be with him even to the last.

[H]is grasp upon folk-speech is generally sure. His rhythms almost never stumble and are frequently catchy: at times as in “Itching Heels” he gets the syncopation of a folk dance. Most of all he took up the Negro peasant as a clown, and made him a likeable person.

Pastoral Picture

Unlike Irwin Russell, whose views of Negro life and character are those of an outsider on a different plane, Dunbar, writing more from within, humanizes his characters and gets more of their true life. There is still, however, a great deal omitted. His picture is undoubtedly idealized. Believing with the romanticists that “God made the country and man made the town,” writing that

“the folks I meet in any other spot, Ain’t half so good as those I knowed back home in Possum Trot”

he left out many of the more unpleasant aspects of life. His backsliders are guilty only of such “sins” as dancing after joining church, or of comic fisticuffs. More serious is his omission of the hardships that the Negro folk met with as much in Dunbar’s day as in ours. Reasons for such omission may have been Dunbar’s own kindheartedness and forgivingness, or his lack of deep acquaintance with the South. Or it may have been the influence of his literary school, his audience and his publishers, or of the professional conciliators who in that day guided racial expression. Be the reason what it may, one of these or all, the fact of omission remains. Dunbar concentrated upon a pastoral picture. No picture of Negro life that is only pastoral can be fully true.

Dunbar: Standard English

[M]any of his own people welcome the poems in standard (miscalled “literary”) English and consider the dialect to be merely pot-boiling, or at least, the harmless straying of genius.

*  *  *

Dunbar’s poems in standard English are of many sorts. There are many love-poems, some heavily sentimentalized like “Ione,” which is certainly worse than any of his dialect; and echoes of belated romantic poets, conventional and undistinguished. At times, however, as in “The Debt,” “Parted,” and “Forever” he speaks simply and directly; sometimes the burden of his own unfortunate love affair breaks through and the result is rewarding.

I had no known before Forever was so long a word The slow stroke of the clock of time I had not heard. . . .

*  *  *


Dunbar likewise wrote race-conscious poetry. This varies in quality from the school-boy recitation pieces like “The Colored Soldiers” and “Black Sampson of Brandywine,”

an ebony giant Black as the pinions of night–

to more dignified sonnets to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Robert Gould Shaw, the militant Douglass and the unmilitant Booker T. Washington. Only occasionally does he speak out. “The New South” can still refer, in the accents of Gray’s “Elegy” to the slave “jocund as the day,” can contrast the abuses of the present with the “glory of the South’s ancient days:”

And thou [the South] wilt take, e’en with thy spear in rest Thy dusky children to thy saving breast.

“We Wear The Mask” is probably a poem about the race; but it is generalized protest, still masked. “The Haunted Oak” is a specific poem upon lynching in the ballad form; the spokesman is the oak tree. When Dunbar dealt with the harsher aspects of Negro life, he discarded not only dialect, but also directness and simplicity. Such a poem as “Ode to Ethiopia” is popular with Negro audiences, probably because of its propaganda of aspiration. Like so much of Negro expression of the period, it praises the nobility of forgetting and forgiving.

Dunbar: Summary

Many of Dunbar’s standard English poems are deservedly among his best known. His mastery of rhythm and of the poetic vocabulary of romantic poetry is superior to that of any preceding Negro poet. Being too facile, however, and having little chance for thorough grounding in his craft and in  American Tennysonians to which he belonged. Although his standard English poems lack the freshness, humor, and life of his dialect, their imitativeness is to be expected from a poet of his time and upbringing, and their achievement in many instances is high.

Source: Negro Poetry and Drama. Copyright © 1937 by the Associates in Negro Folk Education.

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posted 29 June 2008 




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