Paul Laurence Dunbar

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Paul Laurence Dunbar Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s life and writing were both impeded and tempered by the racial politics of his day. It was his greatest sorrow as an artist that his public wanted to read only his dialect verse and his stories in the plantation tradition, which were comic, sentimental, depicting black people as ignorant children. The fact that so much of his work contributed to negative stereotypes of his people has compromised his legacy and sometimes eclipsed the fact that, if he had not complied with those stereotypes, the work for which he is justly revered would not have been published at all. For African Americans of his day, his literary success was a symbol of the entire race’s intellectual and creative abilities, hitherto unrecognized by white Americans, and his trials and fortunes were theirs: to suffer, to condemn, to praise.

The roots of Dunbar’s short fiction are to be found in the stories his parents told him of their Kentucky home and servitude. His mother told him gentle stories about plantation community life, but his father had been a fugitive, had fought with the Massachusetts Fifty-fifth, and his stories were not sentimental. Dunbar’s best short fiction is informed by the spirit and example of these stories and by the customs, traditions, and mores of the transplanted black southern community from which he came.

Dunbar’s short fiction is often compared to that of his contemporary, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, who was also black and who wrote some accomplished plantation-based tales of black life. Chesnutt’s stories are often peopled with characters who resist, undermine, and outsmart the white people, who think they know them. The majority of Dunbar’s black characters tend instead to manipulate and subvert white opposition and gain white approval by a show of sterling character: honesty, integrity, faithfulness, loyalty, love, redemptive suffering, forgiveness. Worse, some Dunbar stories cast uneducated black people as the ignorant, minstrel buffoons his white readers preferred. Yet nestled among this packing were also great stories for which he is well remembered, stories which reveal righteous anger over ignorance and racial injustice and contempt for those who perpetuate them.

Folks from Dixie

There’s plenty of “packing” in Dunbar’s first story collection. Several stories, such as “Mount Pisgah’s Christmas ’Possum,” represent uneducated black people as ludicrous bumpkins or grateful, indebted servants. “The Colonel’s Awakening” is an extremely sentimental tale, dripping with the sort of pathos Thomas Nelson Page whipped into his plantation tales. In “Anner ’Lizer,” Dunbar pokes fun at religious hypocrisy, while affirming the fact that people’s emotional and spiritual needs are often deeply linked. “Jimsella,” “Aunt Mandy’s Investment,” and “Nelse Hatton’s Revenge” were written primarily for his post-Reconstruction black readers, who were still figuring out how to live now that the structure and restrictions of slavery no longer dictated their circumstances. Timely issues, which these stories address, were family responsibility, honesty, and integrity in businesses, which should serve the black community, and remembering and living the results of slavery and emancipation in ways that are not self-destructive.

“The Ordeal at Mt. Hope” and “At Shaft 11” are satisfying, well-constructed stories. The former is interesting for its autobiographical elements, its social commentary, and its “bootstrap economic” and educational philosophies as advocated by Booker T. Washington. The Reverend Howard Dokesbury steps off the train at Mt. Hope to take up his new post as Methodist preacher. The station house is run-down and filthy, like the rest of the town, and the indolent blacks, whites, and dogs view him with suspicion and malice. Dokesbury, understanding that any reconstruction of this community must happen one individual at a time, befriends ’Lias, one of the...

(The entire section is 1,663 words.)