THE SPORT OF THE GODS
And Other Essential Writings
By Paul Laurence Dunbar
Edited and Introduced by Shelley Fisher Fishkin and David Bradley
Modern Library. 441 pp. $14.95
"I didn't start as a dialect poet," Paul Laurence Dunbar told James Weldon Johnson in 1901. Dunbar had been a guest in Johnson's Jacksonville, Fla., home for six weeks after giving a public reading in the city. At night, Johnson would sit at Dunbar's bedside while the celebrated poet consumed his customary raw onion with salt and a bottle of beer (an antidote, he believed, to the tuberculosis with which he had been diagnosed). The two men, Johnson recalled in his autobiography, Along This Way, "talked again and again about poetry."
"I simply came to the conclusion that I could write [dialect poetry] as well, if not better, than anybody else I knew of," Dunbar said to Johnson, "and that by doing so I should gain a hearing. I gained the hearing, and now they don't want me to write anything but dialect."
Dunbar (1872-1906), certainly the most prominent African American poet of his day, was for at least a century after his death known primarily for that style of verse that became both his gift and his burden. The form was already out of favor by the time he and Johnson were discussing it. Johnson, himself an able poet and influential critic, concluded "that not even Dunbar had been able to break the mold in which dialect poetry had, long before him, been set by representations made of the Negro on the minstrel stage." As other styles of poetry took hold during the Harlem Renaissance and afterward, Dunbar's reputation inevitably suffered. He seemed to sense that it would happen. The year he died, he said to Johnson, "I've kept on doing the same things, and doing them no better. I have never gotten to the things I really wanted to do."
Dunbar didn't specify what those things were, so we can say little about them. But we can say with confidence that his casual dismissal of his own achievements was decidedly off the mark. This vital repackaging of Dunbar's works, ably edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin and David Bradley, will undoubtedly help restore his work to the stature it merits. Perhaps to show that Dunbar did far more than simply write "the same things," the editors have assiduously culled fine examples of his prose to supplement the poetry included here. Still, the title is something of a misnomer, since Dunbar's fourth and final novel, The Sport of the Gods, is just a small fraction of this volume.
The poetry in these pages is persuasively put in context by the editors. "What made his poetry different, and eventually controversial, was his choice to use the personae of people he knew, loved, and respected, including black ex-slaves with little education," they write. "Having made that choice, he was forced, by the principle of verisimilitude, to write in dialect." Add to that his need to satisfy his large white readership and you might get, in Johnson's words, poems that "often bore little relation, sometimes no relation at all, to actual Negro life." Johnson may have been overstating the case somewhat, as Dunbar classics such as "When Malindy Sings" have retained their lyrical charm without raising questions about their veracity. The speaker in "Little Brown Baby" ("Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes,/ Come to yo' pappy an' set on his knee") may not speak textbook English, but his love for his child and the language he uses to express it are persuasive and compelling.
But clearly Fishkin and Bradley feel the sting of comments such as Johnson's. "That Dunbar would be more remembered a century later for a rollicking feel-good poem like 'The Party' " than for his often searing political essays is "unfortunate," they write. Yet, they, too, may be overstating the case. This forty-something reviewer encountered Dunbar's verse as early as elementary school and found that dialect poems such as "The Party" were seldom addressed. Instead, Dunbar was championed as the writer of such enduring works as "Sympathy" ("I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,/ When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore") and "We Wear the Mask" ("Why should the world be over-wise/ In counting all our tears and sighs?/ Nay, let them only see us, while/ We wear the mask.")
Even if Dunbar's slow climb back to legitimacy may be further along than Fishkin and Bradley suggest, the short fiction they've chosen won't hurt his cause any. Dunbar published more than 100 short stories, many of them forgettable commercial trifles written to bring in bread. He was nothing if not practical. "The age is materialistic," he noted. "Verse isn't. I must be with the age, so I am writing prose." The prose included here is of uniformly high quality.
Fishkin and Bradley's robust introductions to each section seem to have scholars rather than general readers in mind. They are written in smart, accessible language, but the tone seems to anticipate arguments that those outside of academia may not be concerned with. About the short fiction, they write, "Stories that took a less tragic and sardonic look at black-white relations have led some twentieth-century critics to dismiss him as a sentimental accommodationist, a black writer who catered to the prejudices of the white marketplace. But although some of Dunbar's short stories conform more than others to sentimental popular genres, it is a mistake to try to pin a reductive label on Dunbar." This salient point is driven home by stories such as "Mr. Cornelius Johnson, Office-Seeker," about a pompous black Southerner who "carried himself always as if he were passing under his own triumphal arch." "The Mission of Mr. Scatters," about a hyperarticulate black con man who uses his silver tongue to hoodwink a group of rural, uneducated blacks, enables Dunbar to philosophize a bit about the uses of dialect: "A language should be like an easy shoe on a flexible foot, but to one unused to it, it proves rather a splint on a broken limb."
Even more valuable are the essays included here. They are indeed essential if Dunbar is to be properly assessed as a writer. Still, the defensive tone of the introduction to this section is occasionally wearying. "Anyone inclined to view Paul Laurence Dunbar as an apologist for the South or as a white-identified 'Uncle Tom' would be quickly disabused of that view by reading the caustic, eloquent attacks on white racism that Dunbar published in newspapers," the editors write. A few pages later: "Anyone inclined to view Dunbar as a conciliationist captive of the white book-buying public on whom he depended for his living would do well to read" such pieces as "The Fourth of July and Race Outrages." And once more: "Dunbar may have written poetry that sold, but he was far from a sellout." Fishkin and Bradley are correct, of course, but the work they've chosen illustrates their position well enough on its own.
The last section of the book is devoted to The Sport of the Gods, which seldom packs the punch of Dunbar's best short fiction. It is mostly of interest because it is the only Dunbar novel to feature a largely black cast, not at all surprising when one considers his determination to "be with the age." The plot revolves around the Hamiltons, a black family that flees the South after its patriarch is falsely accused of theft and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. Without Berry, the head of their household, the Hamiltons fall prey to vice, lust and violence up north in New York.
With the exception of a pair of supporting players, the characters in The Sport of the Gods seldom rise above mere types employed in the service of the author's larger design. This is consistent with Dunbar's approach to storytelling. He wrote to his wife, Alice, "I believe that characters in fiction should be what men and women are in real life -- the embodiment of a principle or idea. . . . Every character who moves across the pages of a story is, to my mind, . . . only an idea." The prevailing idea here echoes themes that Dunbar addressed with some passion in essays such as "The Hapless Southern Negro" and "The Negroes of the Tenderloin." In the latter he cast his sensitive gaze on the development of dysfunctional black ghettoes and concluded, "The gist of the whole trouble lies in the flocking of ignorant and irresponsible Negroes to the great city," an influx that "continues and increases year after year." Joe, Berry's headstrong young son, who comes to no good, symbolizes the futile migration that Dunbar lamented. Chronicling Joe's sordid ordeal, Dunbar's omniscient narrator mentions "the pernicious influence of the city on untrained negroes" and predicts that "the stream of young negro life would continue to flow up from the South, dashing itself against the hard necessities of the city and breaking like waves against a rock."
It is tempting to regard Dunbar's implausibly tidy ending as a bit of wishful thinking. Fishkin and Bradley remind us that Dunbar was dying of tuberculosis as he wrote the novel. Better, perhaps, to read the story's conclusion as evidence that he had not lost faith in his brethren, despite the many opportunities for cynicism and despair with which his short life had presented him. At times he did feel obligated to offer such reassurances. "I do not write as a malicious croaker," he asserted in one essay, "but as one deeply interested in the development of the best that is in the negro." *
Jabari Asim is deputy editor of Book World.