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Oak and Ivy Analysis

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Gayle writes with the perspective of someone who has lived through the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, the Black Power movement that changed the way that whites saw African Americans and the way that African Americans saw themselves. Although the author is critical of Dunbar’s dialect poetry, he is also compassionate toward him regarding the reasons that he chose to write these poems. He states that Dunbar was not a great poet and that his fame was mostly attributable to the political forces that led him to create dialect poetry in order to gain an audience.

Young readers, both African American and white, will be inspired by Dunbar’s discipline and belief in himself as a writer. He was strong in resisting the efforts of others, primarily his mother, who wanted him to choose another occupation. His independence and persistence provide a good example.

As painful as it may be for some readers to learn about the institution of slavery, it is important for relationships with one another, especially among African Americans and white Americans, to know what took place. Gayle touches on the forces at work, the destruction of the slaves’ memory of Africa, and the myth of happy slaves. In Dunbar’s time, African Americans were attempting to assimilate into mainstream culture without being subjected to violence, as lynchings were common, and trying to support themselves in a society that offered them few resources.

Gayle focuses on Dunbar’s conflict concerning his dialect poetry and his more serious poetry. He shows the pressure that Dunbar felt to use light subject matter and how, eventually, this compromise was one too great for a sensitive individual such as Dunbar. Gayle believes that this resignation to write more of what people wanted caused cynicism, bitterness, the dissolution of Dunbar’s marriage, his alcoholism, and his illness.

Nevertheless, Gayle gives Dunbar credit for his accomplishments and helps the reader understand by introducing the politics of Dunbar’s time. This context is provided through the words of important historical figures such as Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Each leader’s philosophy is explored as Dunbar speaks about them in his poetry, showing how their ideas affected his work and his beliefs about himself as an African-American man.

Putting forth his theory that Dunbar bought fame at too great a price, Gayle gives his readers much support for this idea. He quotes from the review of Howells, who called Dunbar’s work a reflection of the “Negro’s limitation.” In addition, Gayle compares Dunbar’s work to that of other African-American writers, including Phillis Wheatley, William Wells Brown, Charles Chesnutt, and Francis Harper. In doing so, he acknowledges that Dunbar’s fame was greater than any of these writers because Dunbar more clearly pandered to his audience and portrayed African Americans in a way that many whites wanted to believe. Gayle reflects on the extent to which each writer was willing to unmask the myth of the inferior race.

For the young reader who knows little about Dunbar’s work, Gayle’s biography contains a large sampling of his poetry. Beyond literary considerations, however, the book examines the history of African-American struggle and activism and presents the moral that one should be true to one’s beliefs.

Gayle speculates often as to Dunbar’s mixed emotions, and as a biographical device, he sometimes puts himself in Dunbar’s place as an omniscient narrator, telling Dunbar’s thoughts as events occur. The narrative is written in descriptive, nonacademic, yet intelligent prose, and it moves smoothly from one important event in Dunbar’s life to the next. Gayle often makes the link between Dunbar’s work and his life, calling attention to...

(The entire section is 957 words.)