Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

As one of the first popular African American writers of fiction and poetry, Paul Laurence Dunbar necessarily found himself reliant upon the aid of white benefactors. His most influential literary friend, the novelist and editor William Dean Howells, helped to promote Dunbar’s image as a humorist. Howells, the influential editor of The Atlantic magazine, was also more interested in Dunbar’s poetry than in his fiction. Early negative reaction to the novel thus resulted, in part, from audience expectations based on Dunbar’s reputation as a poet and humorist.

The reference made by Dunbar in the opening paragraph of the work to plantation fiction alludes to the popularity of a number of writers such as the rabidly racist Thomas Dixon, author of the turn-of-the-century works The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansmen (1905), the latter of which served as the source for the 1915 D. W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation. Dixon’s novels unvaryingly depict African Americans as pathological thieves, liars, and killers. Dunbar answers these charges by showing a prosperous family of African Americans who live a comfortable life even in the bitterly racist South of the time. The family’s fall is caused not by their own deeds but by the prejudice of the ignorant whites who surround them.

The greatest significance of the novel rests in its strength of voice and its tone, which make it a pivotal text in the history of African American novels. In the first section of the book, Dunbar is outspoken in his indictment of southern prejudice and oppression. The mask of the entertainer is dropped and is replaced, for at least a few moments, by the outspoken voice of indignation. This use of realism and naturalism helped to make possible the work of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s, particularly the fiction of Claude McKay and Langston Hughes. It likewise helped to lay the foundation for the great novels of city life written by Richard Wright in the 1940’s and 1950’s.