Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the best-known writers in the United States at the time of his death in 1906. His pioneering work in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction prose, which appealed to blacks and whites alike, has continued to shape African American literature. Yet Dunbar's impact on American culture has rarely received the attention it deserves. The articles in this special issue of African American Review reexamine the nation's first professional African American author to reveal a figure who merits a more prominent place in the critical and cultural landscape today.
These articles emerge from the Paul Laurence Dunbar Centennial Conference, which was held at Stanford University, California, in March 2006 and was organized by the guest editors of this volume. Scholars of literature, history, American Studies, African American Studies, visual culture, and performance studies, together with some of the nation's leading contemporary poets and writers, gathered at Stanford to bring new critical perspectives to bear on the full range of Dunbar's career as a poet, novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and journalist.
True to the spirit of the conference as a whole, the essays presented here highlight Dunbar as an artist challenged by complex psychological, aesthetic, social, and political pressures at a crucial moment in US history. They seek to uncover neglected aspects of Dunbar's artistic achievements and cultural contexts, such as the subversive role of religion in Dunbar's fiction and poetry; the relationship between Dunbar's poems and the Hampton Camera Club photographs that framed them in Dunbar's immensely popular gift books; and his three novels that feature virtually all-white characters--books generally ignored by critics. Along the way, these reconsiderations challenge a number of assumptions about aesthetics, naturalism, realism, and modernism in the early years of the last century. Forms and genres that Dunbar helped to pioneer, such as epistolary dialect poetry, are examined closely for the first time. Dunbar's engagement with the racial politics of both the Civil War era and the post-Reconstruction era receives more attention than it has in the past, as does his interest in the elegy and in the lyrics of 17-century England, and his key role in the birth of American cosmopolitanism and modernism. Other essays relate Dunbar's work to discourses about law and evidence that were characteristic of his era; explore his long-term relationship with the Century magazine; trace the reception of his work in China; and chart some of the social, cultural, and political controversies that shaped Dunbar's reputation during the century after his death. We hope that, taken together, these essays build a firm foundation for a new century of Dunbar scholarship.(1)
(1.) The Paul Laurence Dunbar Centennial Conference at Stanford may be viewed and listened to online in its entirety, or by individual paper or session, at the following web addresses: http://www.stanford.edu/dept/dunbar; for MACs: http://vodquik.stanford.edu/ish/dunbar/01/01.qtl (QuickTime is required); for PCs: htt://vodreal.stanford.edu/ish/01/01.smil (RealPlayer 9 or later is required). Using wireless technology significantly slows the viewing, and is not recommended.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin is Professor of English and Director of American Studies at Stanford University. She is the author, editor, or co-editor of forty books, including Lighting Out for the Territory; Was Huck Black? Mark …