Friday, October 26, 2012

Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Souls of White Folk

[By Jerry Ward]

One hundred and forty years after his birth, Paul Laurence Dunbar‘s presence in African American collective memory is as secure as any presence can be in a society that values forgetting. Finding

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Collected Novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Herbert Woodward Martin, Ronald Primeau and Gene Andrew Jarrett. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009.

in a New Orleans public library inspires a spoonful of hope.  Readers who only know Dunbar as our historical poet laureate or his novel The Sport of the Gods (1902) and a few of his short stories have an opportunity to discover, as the editors note, that Dunbar’s first three novels --- The Uncalled (1898), The Love of Landry (1900), and The Fanatics (1901) –“together challenge the long-standing assumption that African American authors should cast only blacks as main characters and as messengers of racial justice” (vii).  Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Sewanee, William Gardner Smith’s Anger at Innocence, Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door, Richard Wright’s Savage Holiday, and Ann Petry’sCountry Place do challenge the assumption, but so weird an assumption  warrants  our being reminded of Dunbar’s pride of place in challenging what is inane.

The availability of Dunbar’s novels may encourage more scholars to explore, as Emine Lâle Demirtürk does in How Black Writers Deal With Whiteness: Characterization Through Deconstructing Color (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellon Press, 2008), how African American novels “seem to negotiate both modern and postmodern representations of whiteness in subtle and diverse ways” (6). Dunbar’s negotiation functions in and beyond the context of post-Civil War American fiction.

The editors based The Collected Novels “on Mnemosyne’s 1969 reproduction of the texts of the novels’ original editions” (xvi), and such editing is sufficient for casual readers.  Scholars too will use these minimally critical editions until a “definitive edition,” based on dedicated research in the Dunbar Papers at the Ohio Historical Society emerges. Deep study of Dunbar’s manipulation of the souls of white folk requires footnotes of the kind Lisa A. Long supplied in her edition of The Fanatics (Acton, MA: Copley, 2001) and notes on the texts of various editions.  It is rewarding, of course, to read Long’s critical introduction which rather nicely puts The Fanatics in conversation with contemporary whiteness, just as Margaret Ronda’s “  ‘Work and Wait Unwearying’: Dunbar’s Georgics” PMLA (October 2012): 863-878 puts Dunbar in conversation with Latin antiquity.

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