A Troubled Literary Union

By Wellington, Darryl L. | The New Crisis, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

A Troubled Literary Union


Wellington, Darryl L., The New Crisis


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Lyrics of Sunshine and hadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore

By Eleanor Alexander New York University Press, $26.95)

For those of us who grew up with the image of Paul Laurence Dunbar as a Black hero - the poet whose "Sympathy" we memorized in grade school for oral recitation - it is a sobering and somewhat sad experience to read Eleanor Alexander's Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore. This account of the Dunbar marriage makes extensive use of unpublished letters that previous biographers may have lacked access to or ignored for the sake of propriety.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first nationally famous Negro literary artist. In 1896, America's foremost literary critic, William Dean Howells, made the 24-- year-old poet a celebrity with a glowing review that compared Dunbar to Scottish dialect poet Robert Burns.

Fame proved a mixed blessing. Howell praised Dunbar for his humorous, plantation school poetry, written in a comical dialect associated with minstrel shows. Dialect poetry amused White sensibilities of the day by portraying antebellum Negroes as thoughtless, happy, eating and sleeping children. Dunbar preferred his lyric poetry written in standard English. Far too intelligent to fail to see that his fame was purchased at the sacrifice of his artistic dignity, Dunbar eventually would come to detest the humorous verse for which the reading public clamored.

Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow offers little discussion of Dunbar's historical importance as a writer. The book focuses on a sociological study of upperstrata Blacks at the turn of the century, with the Dunbar marriage offered as a case study.

Earlier biographers have written of Dunbar's psychologically split personality, the bizarre schism between the man who wrote refined, "White" Victorian literary verse, and embarrassingly stereotypical minstrelsy. His memorable poem "Sympathy" (featuring the well-known lines "I know why the caged bird sings, ah me/When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore/When he beats his bars and he would be free") is a gloomy parable of White oppression and battered Black self-identity. Obviously, racial prejudice contributed to Dunbar's depression and the alcoholism that led to his early death at age 33. But there were other factors. Previous biographers have written with less acumen about the conservative, upper crust Black society that Dunbar joined by virtue of his fame, a society of internalized oppression and copycat social mores. Nor have they written much about Dunbar's pathologically abusive nature. That is where Alexander's biography fills in the gap.

Alice Ruth Moore was a poet of considerable accomplishment herself. Moore - with whom Dunbar fell in love immediately upon seeing her picture in a magazine - belonged to a New Orleans community of light-skinned Negroes who frowned upon social interaction with those of a darker hue. She referred to herself as a Creole, rather than as a Negro. No doubt the dark-skinned Dunbar was as much taken with her skin color as with her spiritual or intellectual qualities.

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