Once considered the leading African American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s posthumous reputation went into a decline in the 1920’s, amid charges that he had accommodated negative stereotypes by writing poetry in black dialect. This republication of his major poetry is an attempt to reclaim Dunbar as a poet of permanent importance.
William Dean Howells helped establish Dunbar’s national reputation when he favorably reviewed Dunbar’s second collection of poetry, MAJORS AND MINORS (1895), in HARPER’S WEEKLY. Howells recognized the exceptional quality of Dunbar’s black dialect poetry but commented that there was nothing notable about Dunbar’s standard English poetry. This judgment was to haunt the young Dunbar. Seeing himself as a poet who, as he said in “The Poet,” “sang of life serenely sweet,/With now and then a deeper note,” Dunbar was perplexed that the world “turned to praise” only his jingles “in a broken tongue.”
Joanne Braxton’s introduction argues that Dunbar’s poetry continued to mature throughout his thirty-three years of life, citing two well-known poems, “Sympathy” (which gave Maya Angelou the title for her autobiography, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS) and “We Wear the Mask,” as evidence of the mature Dunbar’s skill with standard English. As important, however, she makes the case that his dialect poetry should be critically appreciated. She concedes that black dialect poetry in American literature is intimately linked to racism but points out that Dunbar’s poetry was based on a thoughtful appreciation of black life, expressing levels of protest beneath a smiling veneer.
Among the sixty added poems, both an early poem entitled “A Crumb, A Crumb, and a Little Seed” and one entitled “Sympathy” provide interesting echoes of the better known version of “Sympathy,” while a poem to his wife, “To Alice Dunbar,” provides a warm, intimate view of his stormy marriage to fellow writer Alice Moore Dunbar. This book is a valuable step toward retrieving an African American writer whose achievements merit greater recognition.