Style and Technique
As a black writer at the turn of the twentieth century, Dunbar had a problem, to some extent imposed on him by William Dean Howells—whether to write in dialect and meet certain expectations of a white audience, or to write in standard English, which he preferred, because he wanted to deal with “serious” issues. Although he could not see dialect as a medium for serious poetry or fiction, he did write numerous stories in the plantation tradition, concentrating on rural blacks. Most are pleasantly nostalgic (though even here he does reveal his concern with racial injustice in the South). His identification with the rural poor and his feeling for their plight are also in the urban tale “The Scapegoat,” but well in the background. In the foreground are a language that is standard American English and an argument that is serious enough, perhaps, but mild-mannered and apparently innocuous.
It should not be surprising to find a black writer at that time, a writer anxious to succeed as a professional, choosing indirectness rather than an overtly revolutionary style. If he were to register a protest or assert any political ambition in the name of black people, he would do it subtly. If such thoughts are in “The Scapegoat” at all, they would be hidden. As with almost all black literature in America, not only with that of Dunbar’s, there is an underlying irony, a second perspective that lies just beneath the surface. One is tempted to see it even in...
(The entire section is 567 words.)