Gene Andrew Jarrett and Thomas Lewis Morgan, editors: The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar (Ohio University Press, 2005)

Readers and critics who would restrict Dunbar’s expression devalue the complexity, the ambition, and the embrace of diversity that his writings represent” – poet and literary scholar Harryette Mullen     

Around the turn of the last century, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was an American literary icon, read by both white and black readers, public schools – widely segregated by race in the United States under the ‘Separate but Equal’ doctrine until 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the practice unconstitutional – named in his honor, youngsters and adults alike learning poems like An Ante-Bellum Sermon, When Malindy Sings, We Wear the Mask, and Sympathy (“I know what the caged bird feels, alas!”) by heart, and reciting them in school, in church, and at social gatherings.  

In 1891, a then 21-year old elevator ‘boy’ at a downtown office building in Dayton, Ohio, sold his first story, The Tenderfoot, a Western tale, to a large newspaper syndicate for six dollars.   

And over the next fifteen years Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote and published four novels, four books of short stories, fourteen books of poetry; and numerous songs, dramatic works, essays, and uncollected short stories and poems published in several American periodicals and newspapers.

In her foreword to The Complete Stories, Mark Twain and Dunbar scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin, writes: “Dunbar turned out vast quantities of poetry and prose as if his life depended on it – as, indeed, it did.” Aside from a brief stint working at the Library of Congress, he lived by the sale of his books and individual pieces, traveling up and down the country to give readings and recitations.

The complete stories collects all four  short story collections that  Dunbar published during his short but productive life: Folks from Dixie (1898), The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900), In Old Plantation Days (1903), and The Heart of Happy Hollow (1904), along with thirty previously uncollected stories: Dialect Stories, “Ohio Pastorals,” and Individual Stories.    

One of several dilemmas faced by Dunbar as a writer was that he wrote at a time when the so-called plantation tradition was strong, white southern novelists and short story writers painting a nostalgic picture of an idyllic South ‘before the war’ with kind masters and contended slaves, as exemplified by Thomas Nelson Page’s In Ole Virginia: Marse Chan and Other Stories (1887).    

“To what extent could a black writer at the turn of the century destabilize stereotypes – about black writers and black people generally – and still find a lucrative market for his fiction?” Fishkin asks.

And in their introduction Jarrett and Morgan write: “To an extent, Dunbar fell onto his own sword” in reintroducing some of the elements of the plantation tradition into his own writings, like a plantation setting, and conciliatory interracial relationships. (In good old plantation days?).

A second dilemma had a name: William Dean Howells, the 'Dean of American Letters'. In writing a laudatory review of Dunbar’s Majors and Minors (1895), adapted as an introduction for Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), Howells had put Dunbar on the mainstream literary map of America.  

But fame had a price. Howells had praised his verse in dialect at the expense of his verse in literary English. Dunbar felt pigeonholed, readers and critics quick to put him back in his cage, should he stray from the dictum laid down by William Dean Howells regarding his dialect verse as superior.

Slavery and the folk community. The 103 short fictions collected here represent both ‘apprenticeship’ pieces as well as more mature work. The four previously uncollected Dialect Stories from 1897 belong to the first group, and in a letter to Alice Ruth Moore, his young fiancée, Dunbar admits writing them solely in order to make money for himself and his bride-to-be.    

Alice was not pleased. She wrote back: “don’t, don’t write any more such truck … money isn’t all.”

 (Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore – later Alice Dunbar-Nelson –,  today best known for her diaries and the poem “I Sit and Sew,” married in 1898, a marriage troubled by Dunbar’s tuberculosis, alcoholism and physical abuse. She left her husband permanently in 1902, never to return).    

Dunbar’s parents were born in slavery. But Dunbar’s own knowledge of slavery was second hand.  Harryette Mullen: “… for the most part his focus was not on the oppression of the slave system but rather on the humanity of the slave and the culture of the African American folk community.”

And some of Dunbar’s best stories are set in antebellum days. Like The Ingrate, a splendid satire on a slave master who feels betrayed when his slave Joshua (named after Dunbar’s father), hired out as a plasterer to another master with the prospect of eventually earning enough money to buy his freedom for two thousand dollars – Joshua keeps only ten percent of his wages, and his master  speculates: “… should he approach that figure, Mr. Leckler felt it just possible that the market in slaves would take a sudden rise” – takes matters in his own hands and makes his escape to Canada.

Occasionally he would write quite explicitly, too, on “the oppression of the slave system” as in the two stories, The Lynching of Jube Benson and The Tragedy at Three Forks. Dunbar writes that the lynching of Jube Benson “was very quiet and orderly,” attended by “a gathering of the best citizens.” And following the lynching at Three Forks Dunbar writes: “Conservative editors wrote leaders about it in which they deplored the rashness of the hanging but warned the negroes that the only way to stop lynching was to quit the crimes of which they so often stood accused.”    

The previously uncollected The Emancipation of Evalina Jones, a ‘Little Africa’ story, is about a young woman finding the courage to emancipate herself from a psychologically abusive husband. 

Diversity and experiment. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s fictions (including his novels) “explore a variety of literary forms and genres,” experimenting with “standard English” or “nonstandard and regional dialects, including black vernacular,” Harryette Mullen writes.   

They are set in the antebellum days, Reconstruction, and the post-Reconstruction era. They take place in rural Kentucky, a small city in Ohio (Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, where he went to school and was friends with white Orville and Wilbur Wright, of aviator fame), West Virginia mining country, urban Washington, D.C., and various unnamed locales in both the North and the South, according to Shelley Fisher Fishkin and David Bradley (see below: Essential Writings).

The Lion Tamer, previously uncollected, an elegantly written comedy of manners, is a ‘white’ story, all the characters being white, while The Ordeal at Mt. Hope, about a young black minister, new in town, trying to instill hope and a spirit of self-help in the inhabitants of a small rural community in the South, is a ‘black’ story. But most of the stories center on black-white relationships.   

One Man’s Fortunes is the most autobiographical of Dunbar’s stories. Our protagonist, Bertram Halliday, educated at a state university in the middle west with both white and black students, believes that as an American citizen he should be offered a job corresponding to his qualifications with no consideration of color. Only to be told at the law firm where he seeks employment: “Oh, my boy, that theory is very nice, but State University democracy doesn’t obtain in real life.”

The Scapegoat is an intriguing story about class politics within the African American community as well as white exploitation of black voters, white party managers seeing Mr. Asbury, a survivor, as “a man who might be useful to their interests. It would be well to have a man – a shrewd, powerful man – down in that part of town who could carry his people’s vote in his vest pocket.”   

Mr. Cornelius Johnson, Office-Seeker concerns a black southerner seeking a political appointment in Washington, D.C., during Reconstruction, overestimating both his own importance and the  willingness of white northern politicians to continue to support blacks after the Civil War.

At Shaft 11 is a dramatic story about white workers in a West Virginia coalmine going on strike, and the conflict between the white miners and black workers brought in to replace them.

Essential writings. A very good introduction to the writings of Paul Laurence Dunbar is The Sport of the Gods and Other Essential Writings (The Modern Library Classics, 2005), edited and introduced by Shelley Fisher Fishkin and novelist David Bradley (The Chaneysville Incident, 1982), with selected poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, and the complete The Sport of the Gods.    

Most critics, Fishkin, Jarrett, Morgan, and Bradley among them, seem to agree that perhaps the majority of the stories that Dunbar wrote are not especially memorable. But he did write a handful of “masterful or intriguing ones,” and Fishkin and Bradley select twelve for their anthology:

The Ingrate, Mr. Cornelius Johnson, Office-Seeker, Nelse Hatton’s Vengeance, The Ordeal at Mt. Hope, At Shaft 11, One Man’s Fortunes, The Emancipation of Evalina Jones, The Tragedy at Three Forks, The Lion Tamer, A Blessed Deceit, The Mission of Mr. Scatters, and The Lynching of Jube Benson. (Perhaps the editors would have liked to include more stories, had there been space).

Two stories are not among my own top twelve, and I am ambivalent about a third. In any case, I would not have picked twelve stories without including The Scapegoat. And I would have liked to make room for The Mortification of the Flesh, an “Ohio Pastoral” selected by critic Darwin T. Turner for inclusion in his 1969 compendium, Black American Literature: Fiction.      

In their introduction Jarrett and Morgan discuss many more stories than those mentioned here. The publication of The Complete Stories makes it possible for you to pick your own favorites.    

UFI // 24 June 2022   

Gene Andrew Jarrett is also co-editor, with Herbert Woodward Martin and Ronald Primeau, of The      Collected Novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar (Ohio University Press, 2009), including The Uncalled (1898), The Love of Landry (1900), The Fanatics (1901), and The Sport of the Gods (1902).

This year, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, Gene Andrew Jarrett has published a big biography: Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Life and Times of a Caged Bird (Princeton University Press, 2022).   

THE HARRIET MULLEN quotes above come from her essay When He Is Least Himself: Paul Laurence Dunbar and Double Consciousness in African American Poetry, reprinted in The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews – see Index.