That Dunbar Boy Critical Essays

Jean Gould


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Gould claims that she decided to write about Dunbar because he had a singularly happy school career and she hoped that to retell his story would set an example. The book is successful in its appeal to schoolchildren, who will identify easily with the activities that characterized young Dunbar’s school days. For example, Gould shows her subject making friends, playing marbles, and doing homework and chores around the house.

From an early age, Dunbar had a love of stories and words and was a daydreamer. In his mind, he was often playing with rhymes to complete the verses that he scribbled in the notebook that he always carried. His frequent requests for a story from his mother often postponed or delayed his chores. These stories became the basis for much of his later writing. They offer the reader of this biography exciting tales of slave life on the plantations of the South and recount daring escapes on the Underground Railroad, for example. While the biography gives central importance to the development of the child’s imagination, however, Gould’s depiction of Dunbar’s life as an example for young people is a questionable one.

Because Dunbar is initially presented as a lovable and childlike innocent, he continues to be portrayed as a laughing, happy-go-lucky character even in the face of the difficulties that he confronted as an African-American writer in a racist society. Unfortunately, the depiction of Dunbar that Gould establishes early in the biography does not change later in the book when Dunbar grows up. The poet as an adult never seems to...

(The entire section is 645 words.)