Factoring out Race: The Cultural Context of Paul Laurence Dunbar

By Bradley, David | African American Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Factoring out Race: The Cultural Context of Paul Laurence Dunbar


Bradley, David, African American Review


I am always intimidated when asked to speak to scholars, possibly because I recall the evaluation of one of my tutors at the University of London: "As a scholar, Bradley is adequate, as opposed to brilliant." That was, in fact, polite British understatement; now, as then, I am a scholar of zero magnitude. I am a writer, and while my work at times treats literary issues, the treatise is not a form that I attempt. My remarks here are shaped by methodological assumptions which are at times quite different from the methodological assumptions of scholarship. Indeed, the essence of my remarks is a challenge to some scholarly conclusions which have gained credence due to a flaw in scholarly methodology.

I say this not because I lack respect for scholarship. Indeed, I not only respect it but am indebted to it. 'Twas scholarship that brought me from my Christian childhood and taught my soul to understand that there's redemption in examining evidence, interrogating assumptions.., and letting the chips fall where they may. 'Tis scholarship that allows me to understand that I write fiction in the American Realist tradition of Herman Melville and William Dean Howells. 'Twas scholarship that taught me, when I ventured into the genre now called "creative non-fiction" that truth often emerges more powerfully from factual accuracy than from literary artistry. 'Tis scholarship that provides me with that accuracy; without the work of scholars I would be unable to do my work at all.

And were I to begin with anything so scholarly as an "Explanation of Method and Procedures" it would be a quote from playwright Wilson Mizner: "If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research." I try to stop short of larceny, and to the extent possible acknowledge scholarly sources. And as I beg the lending of ears, declare, I come not to bury scholars, but to praise them--some of them, anyway. It is fitting I should do this here because I have never been more acutely aware of my dependence on scholarship than during the four years when I have been writing about Paul Laurence Dunbar.

My first Dunbar project was a treatment for a documentary film. The treatment form does not allow for footnotes, but an examination of my working papers references the work of such scholars as Lerone Bennett, Jr., Arna Bontemps, Joanne Braxton, James A. Emmanuel, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Gloria Hull Gossie Hudson, James Weldon Johnson, Jay Martin, Saunders Redding, Peter Revell, Darwin Turner, Lida Keck Wiggins, Kenny J. Williams, and Harry Wonham. My second Dunbar project was a series of three Introductions for The Sport of the Gods and Other Essential Writings of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Although the publisher, did not include footnotes, the text I submitted included about 150, and my working papers included many, many more.

One reason for the number of these latter citations was, I was collaborating with Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin. It was not the first time Professor Fishkin has risked reputation and sanity by working with me, and I have come to think of her as the Voice of Saint Jerome, the 4th-century Catholic cleric who spent years in a cave in Jerusalem studying Hebrew primary sources, the better to "clarify" the Latin Bible. I, on the other hand, am the Voice of David Farragut, the Civil War commander who said, "Full speed ahead~ Damn the torpedoes" Actually, what Farragut said was Damn the torpedoes! Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!" Which correction exemplifies the scholarly precision on which Professor Fishkin has insisted.

Some would call it folly for a reputable scholar with a PhD in American Studies from Yale to have any dealings at all with a gonzo with an MA in United States Studies from a British Institute that is now defunct. I would call it noblesse oblige, and pray her peers will hold her blameless for any heresies in the Introductions in The Sport of the Gods and Other Essential Writings, as well as anything I say today. …

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