Intimate Intercessions in the Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar

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... Then Br'er Adams, a white-haired patriarch, knelt and "took up the cross." --"Anner 'Lizer's Stumblin' Block" (Dunbar, Best Stories)

Much of the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar reveals the intimate intercessions of a tormented poet, figuratively "taking up the cross." Dunbar's meteoric rise as the most famous black writer in the world at the end of the nineteenth century, his prolific offerings over a short 14-year career (1892-1906), his ambivalence about the branding of his own poetic genius, his precarious stardom in a society that insisted on "separate-but-equal" race relations, and his tragic, unfulfilled personal life represent the subject matter of many intimate intercessions with which the poet wrestled emotionally and spiritually.

Named for the Apostle Paul, the Biblical figure who helped to establish the Christian church, Dunbar took seriously his parents' charge to be a great man who would carry the word to his people. Like Paul, Dunbar suffered as the chosen expounder of his own gospel, the African American literary tradition. Though he experimented with many literary traditions and read extensively the works of Tennyson, Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, and Poe, among others, he was painfully aware that his own work inspired a debate on the merits of his standard English works as opposed to his more popular dialect pieces that appeared to some too close to the minstrel and plantation traditions. Sterling Brown, in his book Negro Poetry and Drama (1937), considered Dunbar a highly gifted man who "took up the Negro peasant as a clown, and made him a likeable person." Brown recognized that Dunbar benefited from a heritage of folk sense that poured out in "flashes of unforced gay humor," "well-turned folk phrases," and "virtuoso rhythms." However, Brown believed that Dunbar was too strongly influenced by the local color poetry of Irwin Russell and the plantation formula of Thomas Nelson Page, and consequently compromised his interpretation of folk life by omitting mention of the hardships that were undoubtedly a part of it. On the other side of the debate, according to Herbert Woodward Martin and Ronald Primeau in the introduction to their book, In His Own Voice (2002), "Dunbar wrote about the difficult questions of progress after emancipation, the adjustments of reconstruction, the perils and the promise of migration to Northern cities, the paradoxes of portraying 'Negro' life authentically while a residue of stereotypes remained strong in the society on the whole" (xix). In truth, Dunbar's poetic sensibility led him to subtle uses of irony and veiled allusions to racial dilemmas as he steadily made incursions against the dominant stereotypes of his day.

However, there were other, more personal challenges in Dunbar's life. He wrestled with the thorns of the flesh: chronic health problems that dogged him until his early death, medically-induced alcoholism, self-hatred, latent misogyny, and depression. Though I do not insist that his poems are personal chronicles of his own life, I do, however, advance that Dunbar's poems echo the complex emotional and spiritual sensibility that penned them. In The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, "A Prayer" illustrates his poetic genius coming to terms with a deep sense of something more than this world (11). The poem also reveals a poet honing an authentic voice, shaped by both romantic and realistic views of life, and mastering a variety of tones, rhythms, and nuances that are at the heart of his genius.

Significantly, Dunbar's poetry gives witness to an intensely religious sensibility that has been shaped in part by the cultural forms, rituals, and beliefs of the black church. Maturing during a period that saw the revival of the so-called Negro spirituals with the work of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Dunbar heard the eloquent prayers and sermons of near-illiterate church folk barely one generation removed from slavery. As they had firmly accepted the Bible as their spiritual road map, Dunbar created characters in his fiction as well as his poetry who were exhorters of the Word. …