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Paul Laurence Dunbar and the genres of dialect.

In a 1902 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Paul Laurence Dunbar was asked, "And when you do write have you more pleasure in negro songs or in others?" Sometimes I am fascinated by the negro song," Dunbar responded. "It carries me along-writes or sings itself. But the form is so purely lyrical that it is limited.... The negro song must be sentimental--it must be a love song or a lullaby, or a song of home longing, or something of that sort." Dunbar's interviewer then offered the opinion that "negro song.... holds something of the same relation to American poetry that Scottish songs do to English poetry.... Scottish ballads were peculiarly adapted to war themes, but the negro ballad would not be, would it?" Dunbar disagreed with this last point, noting "I have a ballad beginning, 'When they 'listed cullud soldiers an' 'Lias went to wah.' Negro songs of that sort are liable to be more mournful than stirring, perhaps, but this is not in the necessity of things. Of course, too, the negro ballad is well adapted to be narrative, but it must be simple narrative. It cannot be epic.... [W]hatever is most charming about the negro dialect is in the way of endearing words. Its genre is domestic, so to speak" (E. W. P.).

"Negro songs," according to Dunbar, could be "lyrical" and "narrative," "sentimental" and "stirring," "domestic" and "martial." Although it provides no clear definition of "negro songs," this interview still offers a fascinating insight into Dunbar's thoughts on the widely noted distinction between his dialect and non-dialect poems. Dialect poems, in Dunbar's account, were a particular poetic genre (capacious as it might be), and were not simply inflections of other standard poetic genres. According to Dunbar, "negro dialect," with its "endearing words," contributed greatly to the "lyrical" effects (sentimentalism, mournfulness, charm) for which "negro songs" were noted, so that a variety of poetic types (love songs, lullabies, songs of home longing, martial narratives) all became "negro songs" when they were written in "negro dialect." Dunbar and his interviewer compared "negro songs" to "Scottish ballads," and collapsed these two types into a third, "negro ballads." "Ballad," "song," and "dialect" were all conflated, but their shared modifier, "negro," was stabilized by the turn to Scottish balladry. In the generic hierarchy of 1902, "Scottish ballads" were the epitome of a kind of poetry understood as "popular," in the sense that they were believed to index the collective experience and identity of a people; by comparing Dunbar's dialect poems to Scottish ballads, the interview provided these poems with a similar "popular" identity.

This essay situates some of Dunbar's poems within late 19th-century debates about "popular" poetic genres, in particular popular ballads and slave spirituals; my concern is to demonstrate the relation of Dunbar's dialect poems as poems to particular histories of thought about poetic genres in the nineteenth century. Critics like William Dean Howells associated Dunbar with a notion of black "folk" and with a concept of "black vernacular dialect" that had been articulated through prior discourses on popular poetry. Although Dunbar was born after the Civil War and lived his entire life in northern cities, he became the poet of southern, rural black folk because pre-existing modes of thought about folk genres provided readers with paradigms to read him as such. Naming dialect poems as "negro ballads" condensed into a single term a train of associations--from ballad to spiritual to dialect poem--that enabled printed, aesthetic poems like Dunbar's to mediate cultural fantasies about oral pre-modern culture. Through this elision, 19th-century readers substituted abstractions of genre for persons and personal voices, so that certain kinds of poems came to stand for certain kinds of social experience. Therefore, when writers, readers, and critics of dialect poetry described dialect poems as though they were like ballads and spirituals, they did so to authenticate dialect poems as the expressions of racialized folk groups, no matter who actually wrote the poems.

"Negro ballad" is a term with many valences. Besides the contexts of popular ballads and spirituals, "negro ballad" also referred to songs of the minstrel theater, such as those by Stephen Foster. By the postbellum period (when the popularity of minstrelsy waned considerably), minstrel songs were thoroughly constituted by the deployment of racist caricatures that used conventional sets of malapropisms, misspellings, and mispronunciations to represent black speech as a degraded form of standard English; the aural conventions of minstrel speech and song worked in tandem with the visual orientation of blackface performance to produce the racial, social, and cultural politics of minstrelsy. (1) As Lisa Gitelman has argued, the aural structure of blackface intensified in the 1890s with the mass popularization of coon songs, which were sold both as sheet music and as phonograph records. In contrast to blackface minstrelsy, which was primarily a working-class cultural form, coon songs "were played in middle-class parlors, concerts, syndicated vaudeville, and the other bourgeois venues where sheet music was increasingly consumed," sites shared by late-century dialect poems (and slave spirituals); Gitelman quotes the June 1905 catalogue of Edison's phonograph company, which advertised recent recordings of a "romping coon song" and a "Negro dialect poem" by Dunbar (134-35).

Critics of Dunbar's dialect poems, particularly since the 1920s, have often read them in relation to the context of minstrelsy, (2) The context of minstrel theater and coon songs certainly contributed to the ways that readers consumed and interpreted Dunbar's dialect poems; Dunbar himself collaborated with Will Marion Cook on several minstrel productions at the turn into the twentieth century. However, minstrelsy was merely one frame of reference for readers at the time, and culturally-prominent readers specifically contrasted "authentic" dialect poems like Dunbar's from the songs of the minstrel stage. In his 1896 review of Dunbar's Majors and Minors, for instance, Howells carefully differentiated Dunbar's dialect poems, with their "expressions of a race-life from within the race," from the "pseudo-Negro poetry of the minstrel show" ("Life and Letters"). While Dunbar was no doubt read within the valence of minstrelsy, his popularity as a dialect poet derived more particularly from the ways that his poems were understood to supersede minstrelsy by providing a more authentic look at the real black folk. (3)

Why and how were Dunbar's dialect poems deemed more authentic than the "pseudo-Negro poetry of the minstrel show"? The answers to these questions lie in the other modes of interpretation available to 19th-century readers from discourses on "popular" genres like slave spirituals and ballads. Slave spirituals had also suffered from comparisons to minstrel songs. G. D. Pike, an agent for the Fisk Singers, whose national and international tours in the 1870s greatly popularized spirituals, observed that the group succeeded among middle class audiences (their target demographic) only after they marketed themselves as an entertainment utterly different from minstrelsy, a task that took painstaking efforts to accomplish. Pike noted that newspapers routinely derided the Singers as a minstrel troupe; the New York Herald infamously mocked them as "Beecher's Nigger Minstrels" (112). Pike labored to present the Fisk Singers as an entertainment suitable for evangelical audiences "who would scarcely patronize negro concerts.., as represented in burnt cork minstrels"; his effort to differentiate spirituals from minstrel songs was thus a project of market-formation (107). Other defenses of spirituals strongly contrasted them with "spurious imitations, manufactured to suit the somewhat sentimental taste of our community," and these defenses located the value of spirituals in their folk authenticity (Allen, Introduction i). In this line of argument, spirituals were also called "negro ballads," and this turn to balladry was intended to authenticate the spiritual as a legitimate folk form, worthy of scholarly attention and study. (4) Since the 1760s, ballads, and particularly Scottish ballads, had been deemed the oldest and noblest folk poetry in English. (5) In the 1870s, F. J. Child, the preeminent 19th-century ballad theorist and anthologist, defined the "popular ballad" as "an expression of the mind and heart of the people as an individual" that disappeared with "increased civilization, and especially the introduction of book-culture," but which could be "put beyond the danger of perishing" by careful transcription into print (Child 214).

According to Child's definition, the popular ballad was a people's earliest mode of expression, an oral form that arose naturally at a point in time prior to the introduction of "book-culture," or reading, writing, and printing. In Child's ballad discourse, popular ballads and pre-literate folk were origin points in developmental narratives about cultures and nations. As folk groups became more complex and evolved into modern nations, their literary forms also became more complex, changing from "popular poetry" to the "poetry of art," in Child's terms (214.). Because the "condition of society in which a truly national or popular poetry appears explains the character of such poetry," popular ballads were inscribed with the distinctive features of the folk imagined to have created them (Child 214.). Identity, in other words, was inherently built into a popular ballad, and in 19th-century ballad theory the "popular ballad" became an index for the ideal of a popular folk, such that the poem called into being a particular notion of folk experience that was pre-literate and pre-national, and so outside the bounds of history and not subject to change. This indexical understanding of ballads, combined with the evolutionary narratives of ballad theory, positioned "popular ballads" as the wellsprings of national and racial identities. In the 19th-century imaginary, ballads thus became a key literary reference point in the effort to imagine unbroken and coherent national and racial identities.

It is this model of the "popular ballad" that was taken up into the discourse on slave spirituals. For instance, a reviewer of the Fisk Singers' 1871 tour described their songs in the terms of balladic history:
 The peculiarities of a people's music spring, like those of its
 poetry, out of a people's early history. We came here with an
 inheritance of English song, as of English ballads.... The slaves
 of the South came to begin a totally new history. Their ignorance,
 their degradation as a dass, their separation in sympathy from the
 white race, above all, their wrongs and their longings, fitted them
 to produce a rude, but really original, musical utterance, in their
 broken English speech. (Goodrich 1)

All of a people's history was distilled into the particular folk forms that they carried with them from their earliest beginnings ("musical utterance" conflates "music" and "poetry" in slave culture). For this reviewer, "we" could stabilize "our" English identity by reference to the "inheritance of ... English ballads" that "we came here with." In comparison, the brutal history of slavery had inscribed itself into "the slaves of the South" and "their" "rude, but really original musical utterance." These primary folk forms, the ballad and the spiritual, were alike in their capacity to stabilize historical identity. At the same time, they were equally useful for distinguishing "us"--white Americans claiming English descent--from "them"--the former "slaves of the South." This difference was materialized in the "broken English speech" of the spirituals, which marked both the songs and their singers as different from whites, while also making these available to white listeners.

For this reviewer, writing about an oral performance of slave songs, the songs' "broken English speech" presented little impediment to their circulation as black folk poetry. For postbellum writers who transcribed slave spirituals into printed anthologies, however, dialect presented challenges for which balladry offered few solutions. In his 1867 essay "Negro Spirituals," the first lengthy collection of slave songs in print, Thomas Wentworth Higginson likened himself to Walter Scott, and he called the spirituals "a kindred world of unwritten songs, as simple and indigenous as the Border Minstrelsy" (Army Life 149). For Higginson, however, the inscription of slave spirituals presented challenges unknown to Scott, and the versions printed in the essay were at best provisional: "the words will be here given, as nearly as possible, in the original dialect; and if the spelling seems sometimes inconsistent, or the misspelling insufficient, it is because I could get no nearer" (Army Life 150). Higginson sought to capture the sounds as he overheard them in the camps of Port Royal, while avoiding the use of "extreme misspelling, which merely confuses the eye, without taking us any closer to the peculiarity of sound" (Army Life 150). (6) In his journal, Higginson described the former slaves' songs as pure sounds, without linguistic or semantic signification, calling them "meaningless, monotonous, endless chants, with obscure syllables recurring constantly & slight variations interwoven, all accomparded with a regular drumming of the feet & clappings of the hands, like castanets" (Journal 56-57). Rather than hopelessly attempting to reproduce the pure phonic materiality of these "chants," Higginson's dialect transcriptions offered the fantasy of sound in print; they stood at the limit ("I could get no nearer") to which the eye could be confused into creating "the peculiarity of the sounds."

The editors of Slave Songs of the United States (1867), the first anthology of spirituals to be printed with musical notation, wrote in their introduction that "ordinary negro talk, such as we find in books, has very little resemblance to that of the negroes of Port RoyaL" which had "an utterly un-English sound," filled with "strange words and pronunciations ... [that] disguise the familiar features of one's native tongue" (Allen, Introduction xxiv). This description of dialect used dialect to distinguish between the editors, with their "native tongue" and command of print literacy, and "the negroes of Port Royal," whose difference was materialized in the "negro talk" that disguised "the familiar features of one's native tongue" with "utterly un-English" sounds. Yet the strangeness of dialect, which marked off the singers from their audience, also fitted their dialects and songs for incorporation into scholarly taxonomies. The attuned expert could rely on the "utterly un-English" dialect to authenticate the songs: "adepts profess to be able to determine by the speech of a negro what part of an island he belongs to, or even, in some cases, his plantation.... Songs, too... vary in the same way" (Allen, Introduction xxiv). Dialect was both the product of "rudeness" and the object of expertise; it marked oral authenticity, both in spoken and printed transmissions. Dialect transcription thus enabled slave songs to circulate as the markers of racial history, even after they were detached from their initial sites of transmission by way of print: "the negro songs" transcribed into Slave Songs of the United States were "the embodiment of the mental and physical anguish of a bruised race," wrote one reviewer, and the editors' achievement was "to make that permanent which is now transient" ("Slave Songs"). (7) In addition to denoting the "rudeness" of "their broken English speech" in the ears and eyes of white readers, the conventions of black vernacular dialect transcription also authenticated printed songs as oral, popular, folk poetry. Certain kinds of poems could therefore be read as "authentic" because of the defamiliarizing power of dialect, which mediated the original, oral circulation of the folk song and its instantiation as a print genre.

This brief survey of the 19th-century discourses on popular poetic genres gives some indication of the cultural power inherent in naming a dialect poem a "negro ballad." During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this interpretation of dialect as the authenticating oral signature of the printed folk poem enabled poems with no pretense to being oral folklore, like Dunbar's, to become a dominant mode of articulating cultural fantasies about racialized folk. (8) Such fantasies operated at the local level of the individual reader, and also at the high cultural register of professional literary criticism. For instance, in his introduction to Dunbar's 1896 Lyrics of Lowly Life, Howells located Dunbar's dialect poems as a new boundary for the poetic color line: "[The] precious difference of temperament between the races ... is best preserved and most charmingly suggested by Mr. Dunbar in those pieces of his where he studies the moods and traits of his race in its own accent of our English. We call such pieces dialect pieces for want of some closer phrase, but they are really not dialect so much as delightful personal attempts and failures for the written and spoken language" ("Paul Laurence Dunbar" 280).

For Howells, as for other writers on dialect, language materialized and also mediated racial difference--"our English" could be distinguished from Dunbar and "his race" by their "accent." Blackness, in Howells's definition, was an "accent" of "our English," an oral/aural construct, and the sounds of race were visually materialized on the page by printed dialect. Dialect could best preserve this differentiating "accent" because the circulation of printed dialect poems disseminated folk cultures in a new, aesthetic literary form. The dialect poems were "divinations and reports of what passes in the hearts and minds of a lowly people whose poetry had hitherto been inarticulately expressed in music, but now finds, for the first time in our tongue, literary interpretation of a very artistic completeness" ("Paul Laurence Dunbar" 281). Dialect poems were superior to spirituals as the expressions of a "lowly people" because dialect allowed for greater "artistic completeness" by being more "articulate," an improvement that mediated Howells's linguistic distinction between races. Yet if the dialect poem could project folk authenticity in a manner superior to ostensibly more "folk" genres like the spiritual (which only "inarticulately" expressed black experience), dialect poems were themselves nothing more than "delightful personal attempts and failures for the written and spoken language." In Howells's account, Dunbar's dialect poems fell into a space between writing and speech, failing to become either medium. Instead, dialect poems conflated the fantasy of both: they appeared as printed writing, but readers could imagine them as oral reports of "what passes in the hearts and minds of a lowly people" living outside the circle of articulate expression. Neither fully white nor black, aesthetic and yet authentic as well Dunbar's dialect poems circulated as the fantasy of difference, seeming to come from the illiterate and inarticulate folk, but also available to literate and articulate readers.

As a genre, dialect poetry mediated the discursively constructed oppositions between genres of ancient, folk-oral circulation and genres of modern, literateprint circulation. The mediation between and among these genres is in fact one of the principle features of Dunbar's poetry, which cuts across the critical divide between his dialect and his non-dialect poems. In the early poem "Songs," Dunbar declared that "I love the dear old ballads best, / That tell of love and death" because they are "those songs the heart can feel, / That make our pulses throb" (11. 1-2, 5-6). Such songs work their effects by internalizing themselves within the body of the reader/auditor, the way Dunbar imagined the "negro song" (that "writes or sings itself") to work in his interview with the Chicago Tribune.
 God sings through songs that touch the heart,
 And none are prized save these.
 Though men may ply their gilded art
 For fortune, fame, or fees,
 The muse that sets the songster's soul
 Ablaze with Lyric fire,
 Holds nature up, an open scroll,
 And builds art's funeral pyre. (11.9-16)

The natural power of the "dear old ballads" undermines the force of the "gilded art" of literate poetry, even as it gives rise to that art by instantiating the ultimate poetic themes of "love and death" The poem recapitulates a version of Childs definition for the popular ballad: "dear old ballads" are not written, and they come forth from no individuated motive (not for "fortune, fame, or fees"), but instead are natural, spontaneous expressions that everyone can adopt as their own. The portability of the songs destabilizes the racial identifications so strongly inherent to most 19th-century ballad discourse; songs are differentiated not by race, but by genre: all "dear old ballads" are alike in their difference from the "gilded art" of literate poetry. "Songs" merely comments on these ballads, without attributing to itself their mode of production or circulation; furthermore, as a poem written in "standard English," "Songs" foregrounds its own location within the "gilded art" of literate poetry that it pointedly contrasts with the more natural and divinely-inspired model of the "dear old ballads." It therefore fixes itself outside of the circle of true poetry, even as it ruminates on the ways that true poetry produces instances of "the gilded art" like itself.

Similarly, "A Corn Song" dramatizes the discursive conflation of oral songs and literate, modern culture. The poem routes a sense of nostalgia for the world of the old plantation through the passing of oral songs into the literate poem. The "master" on the veranda overhears the song of the "field-hands" returning from work; the master never sees these field-hands, and the relation between the two comes only through the field-hands' dialect song, which is inscribed four times into the standard language narrative frame of the poem. Therefore, the sense of "overhearing" in the poem is materialized in the difference between the dialect conventions of the song, and the standard language conventions of the frame, in that the contrast between dialect and non-dialect conventions facilitates the fantasy of an oral exchange captured in print. In this manner, "A Corn Song" doubly reproduces a fantasy of oral, folk circulation. The poem narrates this fantasy by telling a story of overhearing (a common scene in plantation writing) in its standard-language frame, but readers' sense of "overhearing" comes through the presence of dialect in a poem otherwise written in standard English. "In the purple failing light," the master's
 ... dreamy thoughts are drowned
 In the softly flowing sound
 Of the corn-songs of the field hands slow returning.
 Oh, we hoe de co'n
 Since de ehly mo'n;
 Now de sinkin' sun
 Says de day is done. (11.2, 4-10)

This corn-song rises "thro' the silence dusk and dim" of the evening landscape: it thus blends into the scene of its transmission, even while it is set off in the poem by its dialect, which disarticulates it from the literate language of the narrative frame. At the end of the poem,
 ... a tear is in the eye
 of the master sitting by,
 As he listens to the echoes low-replying
 To the music's fading calls
 As it faints away and falls
 Into silence, deep within the cabin dying. (11.25, 31-36)

orality becomes personified in the brief moment before its death, as the cornsong, independently of the field-hands who sing it, elicits echoes that respond to its music. The sounds of the corn-song thus are made available to the master without any accompanying awareness of the singers, which dislodges the cornsong from the field-hands, the system of labor, and the economy that have produced it. In this way, the inscribed corn-song becomes a freely circulating, material emblem of the fantasies about plantation culture that are present elsewhere in the poem's iconography ("the wide verandah white ... the purple failing light," and so on). The poem insists that the corn-song "faints away and falls/ Into silence," even though the corn-song concludes the poem, and so outlasts the other traces of the plantation world conjured in "A Corn Song." The modes of oral circulation and transmission figured both in the poem's action and in its strategy of dialect use present the dialect song as the final vestige of the oral culture "overheard" in the poem: the orally-circulated song is "silenced" because it must be reformatted for print dissemination within the literate poem. This reformatting into print racializes the past into a fantasy carried by the fetishistic print dialect poem.

"The Deserted Plantation" intensifies the engagement between oral songs and printed poems by narrating the absence of the particular folk culture that the poem's dialect would supposedly make present. The interconnected tropes of rural labor and rural poetry are each figured through images of decline and loss:
 Oh, de grubbin'-hoe's a-rustin' in de co'nah,
 An' de plow's a-tumblin' down in de fiel',
 While de whippo'will's a-wailin' lak a mou'nah
 When his stubbo'n hea't is tryin' ha'd to yiel'. (11. 1-4)

The iconic implements of agrarian labor, the hoe and the plow, are presented in a state of disuse, which figures the absence of the laborer who would use them, without specifying this absence. The song of the "whippo'will," another icon of the rural plantation, resembles the sound of the "mou'nah" in the camp meeting, a resemblance that also implies the absence of that plantation character, who no longer speaks or sings himself, either on the scene or in the poem. The metonyms of the plantation thus serve only to reinforce the loss of its human culture; like the dialect in which they are inscribed, these metonyms figure an absence they cannot fill. This absence is most particularly evoked by the description of silence on the grounds: the songs and music of the plantation are named but not heard:
 An' de banjo's voice is silent in de qua'ters,
 D'ain't a hymn ner co'n-song ringin' in de air;
 But de murmer of a branch's passin' waters
 Is de only soun' dat breks de stillness dere. (11. 13-16)

Meanwhile, in the middle stanzas of the poem, stock figures from the plantation tradition are listed only to call attention to their absence:
 Whah's de da'kies, dem dat used to be a-dancin'
 Evry night befo' de ole cabin do'?
 Whah's de chillun, dem dat used to be a-prancin'
 Er a-rollin' in de san' er on de to'?
 Whah's ole Uncle Mordecai an' Uncle Aaron?
 Whah's Aunt Doshy, Sam, an' Kit, an' all de res'?
 Whah's ole Torn de da'ky fiddlah, how's he farin'?
 Wha's de gals dat used to sing an' dance de bes'?
 Gone! not one o' dem is lef' to tell de story;
 Dey have lef' de deah ole place to fall away. (11. 17-26)

Like the prospect poems of William Cowper, Oliver Goldsmith, or John Clare, "The Deserted Plantation" narrates the abandonment and ruin of the countryside as a way to attack the contemporary political situation, in this case black emigration from the southem states during the Jim Crow era; the poem also uses the abandoned plantation as a way to demonstrate the complicity of conventional plantation literature (replete with its cast of stock "da'kies') in the political regime of Jim Crow. The poem's failure to realize the nostalgic past romanticized in the literature of the plantation tradition implies that in the 1890s the stock figures of the plantation tradition can no longer stand in, even as a fantasy, for the social and economic relations of life in the post-Reconstruction South. Yet in the concluding stanza this indirect engagement with the contemporary moment is countered by a direct disavowal:
 Fu' I fin' hyeah in de memory dat follers
 All dat loved me an' dat I loved in de' pas'.
 So I'll stay an' watch de deah ole place an' tend it
 Ez I used to in de happy days gone by.
 'Twell de othah Mastah thinks it's time to end it,
 An' calls rne to my qua'ters in de sky. (11. 31-36)

"De memory dat follers" from the iconography of the plantation tradition remains in place even despite the overwhelming absences otherwise detailed in the poem. With its final vision of "de othah Mastah" who will call "me to my qua'ters in de sky," the poem retrogressively engages a racialized cosmology that draws parallels between divine and earthly masters. As such, the poem maintains the hierarchy of the plantation, with its separation between "de big house" and "de ole cabin," even though both of these spaces have been abandoned by all of the figures imaginatively called to mind through the poem's dialect conventions. In this way, "The Deserted Plantation" narrates the end of the fantasy of vernacular culture by replacing the oral songs and social forms of rural black culture with the printed dialect poem. From here on, the poem concludes, only the aestheticized dialect poem can index the lost history of the plantation, and only the literate poet, with command of print dialect, can revive, reanimate, and disseminate the silenced popular culture of the cabin and the quarters.

These brief readings are not meant to exemplify an over-arching proposition about Dunbar, nor do I mean to argue that interpretations of Dunbar were either monolithic or dictated from above by critical authorities. Instead I intend these readings to demonstrate some of the ways that Dunbar's poems engaged with some of the conventions available to readers at the turn into the twentieth century. These conventions worked across a range of print media (books, newspapers, magazines, scholarly essays, anthologies) that served a broad array of different reading communities. A critic like Howells, who commanded the national literary field at the end of the nineteenth century, employed them in his influential essays, but they also worked for the middle-class consumers of Dunbar's attractively-printed books, and for the large readerships of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlanta Constitution, the New York Times, and African American newspapers and periodicals like the Colored American Magazine, the Southern Workman, the New York Age, and the Freeman. (9) All of these newspapers regularly reprinted Dunbar's dialect poems, and wrote features proclaiming him to be "the Negro Poet," whose poems, and whose dialect poems in particular, embodied "all the peculiarities of temperament which differentiate sharply the pure African from all of the other race elements of our citizenship," and would therefore "contribute for good to the future of American literature" by catching "the peculiarities of his own people, not in language alone, but in their thoughts" ("Paul Laurence Dunbar"; "Pride of the Race" 26; "A Negro Poet"). In other words, many different communities of readers interpreted the dialect "language" of Dunbar's poems as the index of "his own" people's "thoughts," and this interpretive practice emerged from a set of discourses on folk peoples and folk genres that was firmly entrenched across American society at the end of the nineteenth century. By contextualizing Dunbar's dialect poems within this continuum of thought, we can clarify the strange power that has continued to animate the long cultural after-life of these poems.

Works Cited

Allen, William Francis. Introduction. Slave Songs i-xxxvi. --., Lucy McKim Garrison, and Charles Pickard Ware, eds. Slave Songs of the United States. 1867. New York: Oak, 1965.

Child, F. J. "Ballad Poetry." 1874. The Journal of Folklore Research 31.1-3 (Jan-Dec 1994): 214-22.

Cruz, Jon. Culture on the Margins: The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1993.

Fortune, T. Thomas. "Paul Laurence Dunbar." The New York Age 15 Feb. 1906: 2.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Stanford: Stanford UP: 1999.

Goodrich, W. H. "Slave Songs." New York Evangelist 30 Nov. 1871: 1.

Harris, Joel Chandler. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. 1880. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. 1869. New York: Penguin, 1997. --. The Complete Civil War Journal and Selected Letters. Ed. Christopher Looby. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000.

Howells, William Dean. "Life and Letters." Rev. of Majors and Minors. Harper's Weekly 27 June 1896: 630.

--. "Paul Laurence Dunbar" 1896. Selected Literary Criticism Volume II: 1886-1897. Ed. Donald Pizer. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993: 279-81.

"The Hymnody of the Blacks." The Independent28 Nov. 1867: 2. Johnson, James Weldon, ed. The Book of American Negro Poetry. New York: Harcourt, 1958. Jones, Gavin. Strange Talk: The Politics of Dialect Literature in Gilded Age America. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.

Lhamon, W. T., Jr. Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

McKim, Lucy. "Songs of the Port Royal Contrabands." Dwight's Joumal of Music 8 Now 1862: 25455.

"A Negro Poet." The New York Times 6 Feb. 1897: BRI.

P., E. W. "The Poet Dunbar a Chicagoan." Chicago Tribune 13 Sept. 1902: 18.

"Paul Laurence Dunbar." The New YorkAge 15 Feb. 1906: 1.

Pike, Gustavus D. The Jubilee Singers and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars. Boston: 1873. "Pride of the Race." Chicago Tribune 29 Oct. 1893: 25-26.

Radano, Ronald. Lying up a Nation: Race and Black Music. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

"Slave Songs of the United States." The Nation 21 Nov. 1867:411.

Stewart, Susan. Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.


(1.) Lott and Lhamon have separately argued that early blackface, particularly in the 1830s and 1840s, allowed white, urban, working-class audiences to challenge (albeit in compromised forms) the economic and racial contradictions of the antebellum US; in this argument, early blackface had a political efficacy that disappeared in the 1850s, when it became constituted only by the reproduction of racist caricatures that reinforced, rather than challenged the social order.

(2.) In his introductory remarks on Dunbar in the Book of American Negro Poetry(1922), Johnson foretold the passing of Dunbar's fame because dialect poetry, for which he was (unfairly, according to Johnson) most famous, was "no longer considered an important" part of American literature, due to its "tenderness, sentimentality, homely humor, genial optimism," qualities "that now bring disparagement upon it" (51). In the "Preface to the Revised Edition" (1931), Johnson was more pointed: "Today even the reader is conscious that almost all poetry in the conventionalized dialect is either based upon the minstrel traditions of Negro life, traditions that had but slight relation-often no relation at allto actual Negro life, or is permeated with artificial sentiment.... These conventions were [maintained] for the simple reason that the individual writers wrote chiefly to entertain an outside audience, and in concord with its stereotyped ideas about the Negro. And herein lies the vital distinction between them and the folk creators, who wrote solely to please and express themselves" (3-4). For a critique of Johnson, see Gates (178-87); for a short history of Dunbar's critical reception in the twentieth century, see Jones (182-86).

(3.) Similarly, Harris characterized the dialect legends of Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880) as "a part of the domestic history of every Southern family," and therefore "wholly different... from the intolerable misrepresentations of the minstrel stage" (39). According to Jones, "Harris assumed that phonemes could be depicted on the page in a new form of literary language capable of capturing the essence of an integral folk" (44).

(4.) Lucy McKim, for instance, describes spirituals in the terms of popular balladry: "these negro ballads ... tell, as the sufferers themselves never could, of crushed hopes, keen sorrow, and a dull daily misery which covered them as hopelessly as the fog from the rice-swamps" (254). In McKim's balladic terms, the spiritual ("Poor Rosy") went beyond individual expression to index a collective experience that was explicitly racialized. Both Cruz and Radano have explored the discursive relations between spirituals and ballads in the larger "discourse of authenticity" in the mid-nineteenth century.

(5.) The process of cultural legitimation for the ballad was also riddled with contradiction and controversy: for a history, see "Scandals of the Ballad" in Stewart.

(6.) Jones comments that postbellum dialect writing shifted away from the "orthographic buffoonery" of antebellum dialect writing, and instead posited a "cult of the vernacular' that "avowed realism, not humor' (38-39). In a shift pertinent to the transcription of slave spirituals, editorial claims "to linguistic authenticity [marked] the other characteristic of Gilded Age dialect writing: the authorial profession of a profound ability to differentiate, in utter realism, between [the] many forms" of particular dialects (3).

(7.) Child wrote that popular ballads had disappeared with the coming of "civilization" and "book-culture," and critics foretold the same fate for the spirituals: "We may thank the editors for their effort to save from oblivion a portion of this wild and unique minstrelsy that is now rapidly passing away under the influence of the new civilization" ("Hymnody").

(8.) Dunbar's dialect poems had no pretense to being oral folklore in the sense that, unlike slave spirituals or the stories of Joel Chandler Harris, Dunbar's poems were not imagined actually to have come from rural southern African Americans; turn-of-the-century essays about Dunbar carefully noted his poetic origins in a postbellum Dayton elevator.

(9.) Small, regional newspapers like the Indianapolis Journal, the Iowa State Register, and the Utahnian, and small African American newspapers like the Plaindealer, the Richmond Planet, and the Topeka Weekly Call, also printed stories and poems by and about Dunbar throughout the 1890s and 1900s. The most culturally-prominent periodical to print Dunbar's dialect poems was The Century, a genteel periodical with a strong social-uplift agenda and a wide readership in the 1890s. It is worth noting that the influential African American editor T. Thomas Fortune disapproved of Dunbar's dialect poems "because there is no Negro dialect ....

[Dunbar] made a dialect for his own purposes, because it was the best vehicle for the expression of his ideas in relation to his race and because the publishers demand dialect, but the existence of its exact counterpart cannot be found in any of the divisions of States" (Fortune).

Michael Cohen is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Macalester College. He is at work on a project on the cultural life of poems in the 19th-century US. His interests include modes of circulating poems, theories about poetic genres, and the formation of canons of American literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
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Author:Cohen, Michael
Publication:African American Review
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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