Academic journal article African American Review

Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Genres of Dialect

Academic journal article African American Review

Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Genres of Dialect

Article excerpt

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. …

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