Browse Exhibits (5 total)
A Brief Introduction to Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, embodies a unique position in the American literary imagination: set in 1941 and published in 1970, the novel contends with two historical narratives while bearing witness to one and inhabiting the other. Morrison establishes a narrative that concerns not only people’s Blackness but the lives of Black people. Morrison focuses particularly on the self-identity of two young Black girls, Claudia MacTeer and Pecola Breedlove. In the foreword, she states that “Beauty was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do,” opening a conversation about beauty that echoes through the novel (Morrison xi). For women, Morrison “speaks to the lives of very young women, so crippled in their desires that they all appear to be victims.” (Wagner-Martin 9) And, perhaps most importantly, Morrison speaks to the reality of Black family lives and the pain of coping with racial divisiveness within Lorain, Ohio. This racial divisiveness is perhaps best articulated in the idealized white beauty standards, represented through colorist attitudes and white celebrity figures like Shirley Temple, that permeate Pecola’s milieu.
US American media, geared a white audience, and the people who consume and enforce its values are largely responsible for the internalized self-loathing of Pecola Breedlove. Yet, Pecola’s socialization and introduction to the idealization of white beauty starts with her mother, Pauline Breedlove, and her love for film: “along with the idea of romantic love, [Pauline] was introduced to another—physical beauty. . .It was really a simple pleasure, but she learned all there was to love and all there was to hate” (Morrison 122-123). The transference of these values of the “white American culture” from mother to daughter become detrimental to Pecola’s self-conception. These same values are represented in Pecola’s life in her fixation on Shirley Temple: while in the MacTeer’s care, Pecola drinks all of their milk so that she can use a cup with Temple’s face on the side (Morrison 23). The Breedloves, in contrast, believe in this racialized ugliness and even enforce this notion upon themselves:
The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. ‘Yes,’ they had said. ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it. (Morrison 39)
Here, Morrison illustrates the process by which the Breedloves came to understand themselves in their supposed ugliness, which juxtaposes the way Claudia interprets the MacTeers: with “love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup” in the very foundations of their house (Morrison 12).
Claudia, the youngest MacTeer daughter, serves as the novel’s mouthpiece and witness to an entire history. And the history that Claudia addresses, not that of a nation on the brink of war but that of Pecola Breedlove, on the brink of madness, speaks to the idea of people put “outdoors” by both a racist history and society. In recognizing Pecola as “outdoors,” Claudia, considers Pecola’s situation:
Outdoors, we knew, was the real terror of life…There is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors. If you are put out, you go somewhere else; if you are outdoors, there is no place to go. The distinction was subtle but final. Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition. (Morrison 17)
In seeing Pecola as outdoors, Claudia demonstrates an acute understanding of both race and class that belies her young age while also giving us insight into her own family structure, which stands in stark contrast to Pecola’s.
Morrison reassures us that she does not suppose to explain the history (the why) of the Breedloves but rather to construct it (the how), piece by piece until a life’s narrative unfolds (Morrison 6). Claudia, by witnessing Pecola, builds a life; she beholds Pecola at first as an equal, a child, and later, as an emptiness, because having been put truly outdoors with nowhere to go physically or mentally, Pecola becomes the nothing that she was regarded as all along—or at least tries to become that nothing (Morrison 45). In her attempts to understand Pecola, Claudia must recognize her with her own eyes and through her own experience because “to look with eyes other than one's own is to falsify both self and world” (Fick 12). Claudia establishes herself as a purveyor of reality in a novel that contends with a girl’s falsity by seeing with her own eyes. Here, Fick highlights the central conflict in Morrison’s novel, not the pervading incestuous rape and pregnancy, but rather the idea of sight as one’s own—something belonging to a person or group of persons. While we understand Claudia’s gaze as one tinged by an age of innocence, we also see her as a foil to Pecola’s own desire for blue eyes.
Claudia MacTeer sees Pecola as a girl slightly older than herself who admires Shirley Temple for all the reasons that Claudia hates her, as someone who can bleed and birth, and as someone who asks openly, and perhaps boldly, about how to get someone to love you (Morrison 32). She, who can interpret and contextualize her own identity, chooses to do the same for Pecola. In “PECOLA BREEDLOVE: THE SACRIFICIAL ICONOCLAST IN THE BLUEST EYE” Ramona L. Hyman argues that Pecola represents a class of Black children who choose to deliberately reinterpret their familial identities in order to align with white hegemony (Hyman 256). We see Claudia explicitly parsing Pecola’s identity, but merely catch glimpses of Pecola doing the same. And yet, Hyman regards her as an archetypal figure, representative of a common experience. Pecola parses her identity via the gaze of the other, whether Mr. Yacobowski, the racist purveyor of sweet Mary Janes, Soaphead Church, the town mystic who purports to give Pecola blue eyes, or Claudia, another little black girl, a figure Morrison herself characterizes as “the most helpless thing in the world”. But none of these figures can truly understand the emptiness that permeates Pecola’s being: she is not simply dreaming of another life, but imagining her way out of existence, and the loss of her child, forced upon her by her own father, Cholly, may merely be a way to complete the task, to excuse herself from this world and enter the next.
Claudia tells both hers and Pecola’s story, whereas Pecola is largely silent, with only a few pages of the novel focalized through her perspective. Pecola embodies “the predicament of those whose silence cannot signify or even be recognized as an agentive gesture, precisely because it is thought to be evidence of an incapacity for self-expression” (Christianse 5). In constructing Pecola’s history, Claudia gives legitimate voice to both her silence and reality, despite the vacuity that Pecola’s narrative otherwise inhabits. Claudia allows Pecola to be silent, and tells her story with space for that silence to exist and define Pecola. Claudia and Frieda are the only characters at the end of The Bluest Eye, when Pecola is carrying her father’s child, who “listened for the one who would say, ‘Poor little girl,’ or, ‘Poor baby,’ but there was only head-wagging where those words should have been” (190). The love that Claudia seems to develop for Pecola is demonstrated through her telling of the story more so than any act Claudia does for Pecola in the novel. Even in her retelling of Pecola’s story, Claudia knows that she did not love Pecola at the time of her rape, pregnancy, and madness: Looking back, Claudia says that “Oh, some of us ‘loved’ her” (206), acknowledging that the love they felt at the time was not a genuine one. However, in retrospectively telling Pecola’s story, Claudia is demonstrating her love and parsing their joint trauma, giving Pecola voice in spite of her silence .
Looking at Morrison’s books through the lens of trauma theory gives another layer of importance to the storyteller because speaking about a traumatic experience helps to combat the trauma. In this case, Claudia telling Pecola’s story combats the trauma of the events of her life by expressing Pecola’s pain and allowing it to be seen and acknowledged, and her telling addresses her own trauma from her proximity to Pecola’s pain. In Morrison’s novels, “characters continually vacillate between repressing and revisiting trauma in their attempts to verbalize and move beyond it” (Schreiber 10). Although Claudia’s storytelling is an act of love for Pecola, even this falls short. “There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye” (Morrison 206). Morrison lets stand a paradox here: Claudia’s telling of Pecola’s story is an act of love, an acknowledgement of her trauma and her past, a way of saying that she was heard despite her silence. Yet at the same time the telling of her story is an act that Claudia can only do for herself, and an act that freezes Pecola in the glare of the storyteller’s inward eye.
Claudia’s act of storytelling is her ultimate way of doing beauty in the novel. And Morrison breathes life into every aspect of the telling: Morrison’s writing, descriptive and illuminating, can only be described as, in and of itself, beautiful. “She embraces them [her characters] in their beauty as well as their ugliness, in their possibilities for salvation—or at least for survival—as well as their limitations.” (Harris 325) Which leads to one of the heaviest burdens we must grapple with as readers: how do we handle every horrible action and circumstance when they’re presented so beautifully? The Bluest Eye demonstrates Morrison’s literary genius in that she creates sympathy around a character who raped his own daughter and ran away, but she keeps us captivated in her prose with her lyric landscape of beauty, pain, grief, and love.
When Peter A. Stitt (interviewing Wright for The Paris Review five years before Wright’s death) asked James Wright to describe his poetic philosophy, he stated, “I regard myself primarily as a craftsman” (Stitt 38). This pithy phrase sums up many of Wright’s influences. Born in the steel town of Martins Ferry, Ohio, and growing up during the Great Depression, the odds were stacked against Wright becoming a poet. Wright described his parents as“honest-to-God hillbillies” (Blunk 17). His father Dudley sometimes struggled to provide for the family while working in difficult conditions during the Great Depression (Blunk 21). Through a confluence of good teachers and good fortune, Wright became a poet of astonishing multiplicity and virtuosity. That he thought himself a “craftsman” may, at first, appear unusual. One might imagine that a poet would choose to describe themselves as an artist instead. And yet, when viewed through the prism of Wright’s working-class upbringing and aesthetic influences, this descriptor makes perfect sense.
James Arlington Wright hated his hometown. Yet Martins Ferry, Ohio remains a central fixture in his poetry. Spanning his entire poetic career, from his orthodox and traditional prosody to his experimental and modern structure, Wright returns over and over again to the town he vowed to leave behind. Travelling across the country, and then the world, Wright could not shake the firm grip with which a tiny steel town held his identity. There is always a pasture, a factory, a slag heap; and alongside it all flows the river.
When reading from the collection, Above the River, it is important to bear in mind that Wright, though eager to move on, was formed by a childhood in a rust-belt town. He could no sooner leave his boyhood home than the muck could leave the Ohio River. Martins Ferry is everywhere in Wright’s poetry. There are suckholes and snow blindness. Regional dialect and colloquialisms bring the Ohio River valley into vivid detail. In correspondence to contemporary author, Leslie Marmon Silko, Wright relates the importance of local features. It is in the unique characteristics of the landscape that the setting of a work becomes a part of the text rather than merely a backdrop. Wright’s voice is distinctly rural. Consider the opening two lines of “The River Down Home:”
Under the enormous pier shadow,
Hobie Johnson drowned in a suckhole.
It is a harsh eulogy, but it accomplishes a great deal. The dialect of Southern Ohio, a blend of Appalachian and Midwestern linguistic tradition, is beautifully laconic. Hobie Johnson drowned in a suckhole, and there is no other way to say it. It is not verse; it is a matter-of-fact, take-it-or-leave-it statement which manages to be both sad and aloof. This is town gossip -- passing remarks to a neighbor, and it persists throughout Wright’s work all the way from The Green Wall to The Branch Will Not Break. It conveys emotion while stoic, and it offers beauty in the form of bluntness.
Wright described the ancient-Roman poet Horace as the consulate poetic craftsmen. Many times, he described himself as “as a Horation,” going so far as to say, “the person whom I would like to be my master is Horace—Horace, who was able to write humorously and kindly in flawless verse” (Blunk, 38). In his helpful essay, Dark Water: James Wright’s Early Poetry, Jerome Mazzaro takes a tour through Wright’s first few books, tracking his style as it developed, closing with what may be Wright’s definitive poetic statement, his 1968 book, Shall We Gather by the River. In that essay, Mazzaro connects Horace’s simplicity and regard for the everyday, practical, realities of life with Wright’s early book, The Green Wall (1957). He explains how, “the senses of transience, the forms, and the emphases on friendship in The Green Wall (1957) attest to a Horatian tie. There is, in addition, something Horatian in the care that the poems take in expressing common, practical wisdom” (Mazzaro 135). This ability to transform the practical into the poetic, as well as a keen interest in expressing profound thoughts in a simple way, seem to be Horace’s major contributions to Wright’s work. Wright’s description of “The yellow pears” (Wright 28) in his poem, Autumnal, from The Green Wall (1957) seems particularly Horation in this manner, presenting an idyllic scene which souls the reader towards new heights of contemplation. “In his informal satires, epistles, and iambics as well as in his lyrics, Horace transformed many of the varieties of human experience and sensibility into unforgettable, immortal poetry” (The Poetry Foundation). The same could be said of Wright.
Moving forward in literary history, we come to Wright’s childhood influence: The English Romantics. A loosely-defined group of 18th-Century English poets, the Romantics focused on a range of interests, but they united around a few major themes, many of which are represented in the above illustration by famous poet and artist William Blake. According to the British Library’s page on the Romantics, as they “highlighted the healing power of the imagination,” the English Romantics, “were inspired by the environment, and encouraged people to venture into new territories – both literally and metaphorically. In their writings they made the world seem a place with infinite, unlimited potential” (The British Library). Trapped in an industrial landscape whose social arrangements robbed his father and family of dignity, Wright must have felt liberated by the perspective of this group of poets, whose focus on landscape mimics Horace’s parallel focus. Unlike Horace, however, the English romantics had a keen interest in the rebel and the revolutionary as archetypes, focusing on the ways in which a confluence of landscape, personal imagination, and poetic rhyme and meter can produce transcendent possibilities.
Jonathan Blunk, author of the definitive 2017 biography, James Wright: A Life in Poetry, describes the effect which this kind of poetry had on a young James Wright. Blunk writes that, “the poems of the English Romantics—Byron, Shelley, Blake, and Keats—were his earliest infatuation” (Blunk 24). In a particularly transcendent moment, William Blake seemed to have invaded Wright’s life, telling him, from the lines of a poem, to focus on the industrial wasteland around him as a Romantic landscape. In Wright’s own words: “‘One of the strangest experiences of my life,’ Wright later recalled, ‘was my first reading, as a child, of the Blake line ‘The Ohio shall wash my stains from me’” (qtd. by Blunk 24). The Ohio River separates Martins Ferry from the larger town of Wheeling, West Virginia in which Wright’s father worked in the factories and steel mills, the waste from which would be dumped straight into the river (Blunk 21). This strange coincidence—a combination of transcendent poetry and the Ohio River’s polluted wastes—seems to symbolize an important thematic strain in Wright’s poetic work.
After Wright graduated from high school in 1946, he immediately entered the Army in the occupying forces in Japan. He utilized the educational subsidies which he earned under the G.I. Bill to enter Kenyon College (Blunk 34). At Kenyon College, Wright met some of his most influential mentors. For example, John Crowe Ransom, the literary critic who founded Kenyon College’s literary review, The Kenyon Review, attracted Wright to the college (Blunk 40). He, alongside professors and employees of the magazine, witnessed the cutting edge of literary criticism. Called, New Criticism, this philosophy rejected the need for biographical background in reading a text. The “New Critics focused their attention on the variety and degree of certain literary devices, specifically metaphor, irony, tension, and paradox” (The Poetry Foundation). Admirers of formalist poets like Robert Frost, Ransom and other teachers helped Wright attain a mastery of form, setting the stage for his most technically complex early work. Similar to Formalism, the New Criticism approach to poetry would have pushed Wright to consider each poem to be a complete and contained work. As such, Wright’s goal was to write poetry that stood on its own, apart from his upbringing and experiences. His earlier poetry omits some of the local texture which would place it squarely in Southern Ohio. Consider the first stanza of “A Girl in a Window:”
Now she will lean away to fold
The window blind and curtain back,
The yellow arms, the hips of gold,
The supple outline fading black,
Bosom availing nothing now,
And rounded shadow of long thighs.
How can she care for us, allow
The shade to blind imagined eyes
While the poem is most likely one of Wright’s own experiences, it lacks any indicators of the Midwestern identity which would develop later in his career.
Having published his first couple of books, Wright felt himself reaching an impasse. The formal verse which had carried him through Saint Judas (1959) began to feel stifling. Meeting the poet Robert Bly helped Wright to rediscover his passion for poetry. Robert Bly, unlike John Crowe Ransom, Horace, the English Romantics, and other early influences, was a staunch experimentalist with a keen focus on the environment. Taking Wright in at his farm, Bly helped open Wright’s eyes to new possibilities in poetry, allowing him to undo the shackles of formal meter and rhyme, while retaining the transcendent beauty of his early influences. As Wright explains in his Paris Review interview, “At the center of that book is my rediscovery of the abounding delight of the body that I had forgotten about. Every Friday afternoon I used to go out to Bly's farm, and there were so many animals out there.” (Stitt 49). Wright was able to completely disconnect from his anxieties and focus on the landscape which helped him to connect with poetry. The carefully metered lines and rhyme schemes were scrapped in favor of a more conversational form. The subjects of the poems drew directly from Wright’s background and experiences. Perhaps most importantly, Wright did not shy away from injecting local colloquialisms and idioms into his poetry. In doing so, Wright could take his readers on a tour of his hometown and the surrounding landscape. Shreve High Football Stadium and William Duffy’s Farm are enshrined with melancholy and dignity.
This process of creative rediscover fueled the drafting of the poems which would become The Branch Will not Break (1963). In his essay, published in the Kenyon Review, defending Wright’s place in the literary canon, David Baker explains the blistering significance of this book for Wright’s career. He wrote, taking a view which encompasses both this book and Wright’s whole career, ““In these poems, and throughout his career, James Wright was beset by so many tensions-between the Neoclassical and Romantic impulses of his teachers and poetic models, between a formal dignity and a wild, open frankness, between the perils of citizenship and the obliterating otherness of solitude and of nature itself. Rather than succumb to these large pressures, he made poetry from the sparks given off by their collision. And we are richer for it.” (Baker 160). The combination of influences drove Wright to create a kind of poetry which mixes free verse, formal verse, the transcendent landscapes of the English Romantics, and the metaphor and irony of the New Critics to forge a kind of poetry which allowed him to explore, articulate, and eventually share his industrial upbringing.
An Introduction to The Collected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar
Today, American culture contains whispers of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work with little recognition of the man himself. For instance, for the title of her acclaimed memoir, Maya Angelou used the line “I know why the caged bird sings” from Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy.” She credits Dunbar for this phrase, but still, Americans typically associate this line with her memoir rather than with the original poem by Dunbar. Across the US, high schools don the name of “Paul Laurence Dunbar,” yet the typical high schooler will graduate without studying Dunbar’s work. Contemporary scholars of Dunbar’s work such as Joanne Braxton, Hank Lazer, and Harryette Mullen, who presented at the Dunbar Conference Stanford in 2006, remember their grandparents and parents reciting Dunbar at church and family celebrations. They also explain how older generations studied his works in traditionally all-black schools. These scholars work to bring Dunbar back into the central discourse of the American literary canon.
The Dunbar High School in Washington DC. Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons.
While the emancipation of slaves in 1863 promised freedom to blacks in America, ironically, the release from enslavement imposed new limitations on their social and economic success. Free from plantations, former slaves faced few opportunities to support themselves due to the many obstacles that existed under the Jim Crow laws. These laws reinforced segregation and racial inequality through deliberate systematic limitations meant to keep the African American population inferior to whites. Malinda and Joshua Dunbar were former slaves in Kentucky, making Dunbar a part of the first generation of black Americans to experience freedom. Dunbar a part of the first generation of black Americans to experience freedom. The only African American in his graduating class, Dunbar excelled academically throughout high school. To his disappointment, he was rejected from law school and took the only job he was offered: an elevator attendant in Dayton.
Central High School, Dayton Ohio, 1890. Dunbar, top left, Orville Wright (a close friend of Dunbar’s), 3rd from Dunbar. From the Wright Brothers Collection of Wright State University Libraries.
In his short life, dying at age 34, Dunbar produced a remarkable well of poetry, prose, and short stories. He published a dozen volumes of poetry, four compilations of short stories, four novels, and a play. On top of these literary achievements, he composed music of his own.
Only a generation removed from the Civil War and emancipation, Dunbar’s poetry looks critically at the history which freed his parents from the bonds of slavery and ensured his life as a free man. For instance, many of Dunbar’s poetry represents the complex and troubled reality faced by African American soldiers during the Civil War as they fought for a country that once owned their life and body through slavery. Take the following passage from “The Colored Soldiers:”
And like hounds unleashed and eager
For the lifeblood of the prey,
Sprung they forth and bore them bravely
In the thickest of the fray.
And where’er the fight was hottest,
Where the bullets fastest fell,
There they pressed unblanched and fearless
At the very mouth of hell.
One glaring tension within Dunbar’s language here lies in the celebratory praise the soldiers for the bravery while connecting them to animals, “hounds.” Furthermore, “unleashed” suggests an owner freeing these once captive creatures. This foreshadows an unsettling future. After years of enslavement, the first sign of freedom arrives on the violent battle ground, “at the very mouth of hell.” Considering Joshua Dunbar’s role in the civil war, this poem offers readers a glimpse into Dunbar’s intimate proximity and complex relationship to the war.
Massachusetts 55th Regiment memorial. By Ingfbruno [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.
Dunbar wrote during the popularity of the “plantation tradition” in which authors, such as Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris, romanticized life on plantations, portraying it as a place of peaceful coexistence between slaves and owners.
acts were performed by whites in blackface and mocked African Americans by portraying racist caricatures for comedic effect. Dunbar’s poetry reflects his awareness of this misrepresentation, and with subtlety and nuance, his work counters the racism minstrelsy perpetuated.
The most well-read of Dunbar’s poetry, such as “Sympathy” and “We Wear the Mask,” are examples of Dunbar’s standard English verse. These poems assumed a conventional form and syntax. On the other hand, his dialect poems take on a vernacular associated with southern blacks during the time of slavery. Unlike white plantation narratives, Dunbar’s dialect poetry highlight the daily existence, beauty and pain, of African Americans rather than idealizing the lives of hardworking slaves. Doing this, he speaks with a double consciousness, being simultaneously aware of the prejudiced perceptions of others while maintaining sight of one’s ideal self. Double consciousness is, simplified, a firsthand or inherited knowledge of oppression and historical trauma but a faith in one’s own claim to the responsibilities, benefits, and attitudes of freedom. In this way, double consciousness looks toward the troubled past, but looks, too, forward. With double consciousness, comes the double voicing (or Signifyin[g], speaking both using the voice of and speaking back at a negative idea of blackness) of Dunbar’s dialect poetry. These are most apparent in a poem like “When Malindy Sings” (frequently performed), especially in lines “You [Miss Lucy] ain’t got de tu’ns an’ twistin’s.” This line could mean that Miss Lucy’s life has not included enough hardship, in the form of twists and turns, for her to have a sense of melody--making it a recognition of shared trauma, giving precedence to the pain before the artistry. This line could equally refer to Miss Lucy’s lack of musical aptitude, making it, instead, a celebration of Malindy before anything else. The first reading indirectly satisfies the “looking back” and the second reading satisfies the “looking forward.” This occurs just as powerfully at other points through the poem, such as the line “blessed soul, [Malindy], tek up de cross.” In this one, the cross as a symbol of pain and torture is a reading that looks back, and the cross as a symbol of salvation is a reading that looks forward.
Not all readers of Dunbar are so enthusiastic about his usage of a commonly parodied voice (minstrelsy circulating at the time), viewing his dialect poetry not as a refusal-by-imitation of the stereotype. They instead think its imitation strengthens the stereotype, whether or not it counters with commentary. Ralph Ellison, intellectual and author of the Invisible Man working about 50 years after Dunbar’s death, criticized Dunbar for engaging with white stereotypes of African Americans. James Weldon Johnson, in his introduction to The Book of American Negro Poetry, condemned Dunbar for bringing outdated views back into the popular discourse. However a reader falls on this argument (whether Dunbar’s using of Signifying is a reclaiming or a forfeiting of power) depends on how they come to resolve the tension between reproducing and signifying on a stereotype or racist caricature. A reader who positively resolves the tension will think of Dunbar’s dialect poetry as flourishing studies of complicated and self-contradictory, but irrefutably human, subjects. A reader who negatively resolves the tension will think of Dunbar’s dialect poetry as a revival of empty and painful caricatures.
The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar was originally published in 1913, by Dodd, Mead and Company. Prior to Joanne Braxton’s updated and edited collection of Dunbar’s work, this 1913 edition was the largest collection of Dunbar’s poetry to date, yet it was missing many of his poems which were published in magazines and periodicals. As a child, Braxton’s parents would recite Dunbar’s poetry in the home, an experience which influenced her pursuit for a more expansive and critical collection of Dunbar’s poetry. In her studies on Dunbar, Braxton was disappointed by the 1913 ‘Complete Poems’ collection and hoped to publish a comprehensive edition to use in her classrooms. These “Added Poems” were collected from various magazines and periodicals, mostly found at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. In her introduction, she writes that Dunbar was “rightly uncomfortable with the approval he garnered from mainstream white critics, because he knew they were deaf to his voice of protest” (xxx). In The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1993), Braxton presents the reader with “the man we know as Paul Laurence Dunbar and the man whom perhaps nobody knew,”, and in doing so, she provides the modern reader with a more celebrative and nuanced collection of Dunbar’s work (xxxii).
For over a century, Dunbar’s work has influenced black American culture. Religious communities and families like Braxton’s have recited Dunbar poetry at celebrations, gatherings, or simply in the home, for generations. Critically, Dunbar has been discussed in many literary fields. Critic Marcellus Blount celebrates Dunbar’s achievements as central to the progress of African American literature: “Dunbar's vernacular performance illustrates the solid ground of African American poetic traditions” (584). Beyond the world of academia, the National Park Service runs the Dunbar House in Dayton, Ohio offering tours of the renovated house which Dunbar lived in his last years of his life with his mother from 1904 to 1906. The legacy of Paul Laurence Dunbar is expansive and ever important, especially in our modern day struggles with race and inequality. We hope you find the resources here, featuring poetry from The Collected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, helpful in your own exploration and discovery of his work.
Dunbar featured on US Postage. image courtesy of wikimedia commons.
“‘All Coons Look a Like to Me’ Sheet Music.” National Museum of American History, americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_663819.
“An Introduction to the Harlem Renaissance.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/collections/145704/an-introduction-to-the-harlem-renaissance.
“Double Consciousness.” DuBoisopedia , UMassAmherst, 18 Dec. 2013, scua.library.umass.edu/duboisopedia/doku.php?id=about:double_consciousness.
Dunbar, and Howells. “The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar by Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg, 7 May 2006, www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18338?msg=welcome_stranger.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “Summer in the South.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 31 July 2017, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/when-malindy-sings.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44203/we-wear-the-mask.
“Jim Crow Laws.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/freedom-riders-jim-crow-laws/.
“Maya Angelou Recites 'Sympathy' by Paul Laurence Dunbar.” C-SPAN.org | National Politics | History | Nonfiction Books, 15 July 2015, www.c-span.org/video/?c4611231/maya-angelou-recites-sympathy-paul-laurence-dunbar.
“Minstrelsy.” The Center For American Music, University of Pittsburgh Library , www.pitt.edu/~amerimus/Minstrelsy.html.
“NAACP History: James Weldon Johnson.” NAACP, www.naacp.org/oldest-and-boldest/naacp-history-james-weldon-johnson/.
“Ohio Historical Society.” Ohio History Central, www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Ohio_Historical_Society.
“Overview.” Paul Laurence Dunbar Centennial Conference, Stanford University, web.stanford.edu/dept/dunbar/overview.html.
“Paul Laurence Dunbar House.” Ohio History Connection, www.ohiohistory.org/visit/museum-and-site-locator/paul-laurence-dunbar-house.
“Paul Laurence Dunbar Music Archive.” Department of Music, University of Dayton, 26 Jan. 2018, udayton.edu/artssciences/academics/music/dunbar/index.php.
“Ralph Ellison.” Ralph Ellison | Read.gov - Library of Congress, www.read.gov/fiction/ellison.html.
RFWPP. “Dr. Mabel Grimes Performs ‘When Malindy Sings.’” YouTube, 18 Oct. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAQHeX4VC30.
Wideman, John. “PLAYING, NOT JOKING, WITH LANGUAGE.” The New York Times, 14 Aug. 1988, www.nytimes.com/1988/08/14/books/playing-not-joking-with-language.html.
The Leatherwood God: A Critical Introduction
In the “Editor’s Study” of May 1887, William Dean Howells wrote, “Let fiction cease to lie about life, let it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know. [. . .] Let it speak the dialect, the language that most Americans know -- the language of unaffected people everywhere” (Alexander 46). Years later, Howells takes this project on in 1916’s The Leatherwood God. Documenting a historical event, in which an imposter comes to a camp meeting in Salesville, Ohio the novel brings dimension and complexity to the people living in a rural, Midwestern community much like the places Howells spent his childhood.
Born in 1837, Howells moved to a variety of towns in Ohio throughout his childhood. These towns included Hamilton, Dayton, as well as Eureka Mills — where the family lived in a log cabin (Goodman and Dawson, 9). This Midwestern rural culture did not value education, and Howells never had any formal education beyond “grammar and intermediate schools.” Instead of days in school, Howells spent long hours working for his father in his print shop. Howells recalled that he could set type before he could read (Goodman and Dawson 9).
His self-education catalyzed Howells’ curiosity, and he wanted more for himself than the farming and trade-oriented careers that surrounded him throughout his childhood. After his election as the clerk in the Ohio State House of Representatives, Howells worked for Ohio State Journal.
Figure One: The Ohio Statehouse, courtesy of Project Gutenberg
Here, he was acquainted with many of the most elite writers of his time. These included the older literary elite of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, though his own realist work represented a departure from Hawthorne’s romanticism (Elinor, 475). Several years later, in 1865, Howells moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts — arguably the most intellectual location in the country during this time. In Cambridge, he was not only acquainted with Henry James and Samuel Clemens, but became close, personal friends with them (Goodman and Dawson, 107-108). He shaped both men's careers as an editor and critic throughout his career, including during his tenure as editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. He did the same work with the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and for the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson's poetry.
In his fiction, Howells marshaled the two-fold forces of realism and humanism. Howells built a career out of depicting things as they were. He fervently denounced sentimentalism in writing or the manipulation of the events of a text in order to pull specific emotions out of readers. Howells showed the lives of his characters as accurately and truthfully as he could — his plots elevated ordinary lives, and he made everyday events resonant. Many of his plots are taken straight from historically recorded events. Matched with that style is an undeniable taste for humanism, which stressed the potential of human beings to solve their problems rationally and stripping the divine of its long-held importance.
In The Leatherwood God, Howells captures a community coping with a figure, Joseph C. Dylkes, who comes to this small town and claims to be the Messiah. Some people believe him, and some do not, causing strong divisions within the community.
Mark Twain, with whom Howells maintained an intimate literary relationship, spotted the promise of The Leatherwood God. In his review, he applauded Howells for accomplishing what many writers had failed to capture (Holstein).
Figure Two: William Dean Howells and Mark Twain, courtesy of WikiMedia Commons
"The psychology of the self-styled prophets who from time to time have succeeded in imposing on the credulity and half-understood desires of both the ignorant and the educated is a theme which, tempting though it might reasonably seem, has nevertheless had apparently very little attraction for novelists. Perhaps because of its inherent difficulties, perhaps because of the dangers of offense it contains, it has been used so very seldom that this new book by the dean of American letters can add novelty to its many other claims for attention" (New York Times).
The Leatherwood God explores the dangers of demagoguery and the necessity of justice and the law, in part because of its Ohio frontier setting. Dylkes suddenly appears to the people of Salesville at a camp meeting. At the meeting, devout participants are already overcome with religious fervor and emotion when Dylkes cries “Salvation!” and whinnies like a horse before proclaiming himself the Messiah. In these camp meetings, which spearheaded the Great Awakening in rural communities, religious conversions were common as were emotional outbursts; that is to say, camp meetings and the isolated terrain of the backwoods Ohio frontier bred the perfect environment for Dylkes to claim godhood and gain a following.
In The Leatherwood God, Howells transformed this strange anecdote into a story about community governance and its intersection with religion. The community of Leatherwood Creek splits into believers and non-believers after Dylkes’ arrival, and Howells approaches these divisions with his characteristic love and sympathy, instead of the condescension and judgment that might have been more appealing to his cosmopolitan friends.
We see this in his description of an ardent Dylkes follower. Dylkes promises to perform a miracle to establish his god-like qualities. As Howells describes a woman who provides the cloth that Dylkes says he needs for the miracle, the reader feels empathetic instead of scorn. The cloth was meant for her children’s winter clothing, but “she carried the bolt wrapped about with her shawl, bearing it tenderly in her arms, as if it were indeed her flesh and blood, her babe which she was going to lay upon an altar of sacrifice.” This empathetic description evokes sorrow as we imagine this imposter taking advantage of an impoverished community only scraping by on the frontier. Thereby, Howells is able to introduce a snobby urban literary elite class from Cambridge, Massachusetts and New York City to a more expansive brand of American literature that contains a breadth of experience, following the expansion of the American nation.
At the novel's conclusion, Dylkes is put on trial by Squire Braile, and it is agreed that it is not breaking the law to impersonate a god. Braile seems to represent what Howells considers a necessary part of the community — a rational skeptic. Braile represents the return to law and order for the town and also a sense of compassionate justice, as he does not punish Dylkes for his crimes. This resolution reinforces Twain's suggestions about the vulnerability of these types of communities and the dangers that con men like Dylkes represent to them.
But perhaps equally as intriguing as the events that can arise from the secluded Ohioan landscape is that Howells managed to elevate the western landscape and its people in the minds of his eastern readership. At the end of the novel, T. J. Mandeville, a traveler from Cambridge, Massachusetts, comes to Salesville to hear “whether there were many of the Little Flock [Dylks’ followers] left” (Howells 98). Mandeville’s character—the educated man from Cambridge, Massachusetts—serves as a stand-in for Howells. The reader is invited to read the text as Mandeville’s retelling of the events. Mandeville’s interest in the events of the Leatherwood God and Howells’ use of his position as a well-known man of the east both grant the west importance and relevance in the elite urban literary circles. The North American Review credits The Leatherwood God: “The irony of the story is masterly; it somehow exalts rather than belittles human nature, while it shows how near the heart the greatest folly really lies” (2). The Leatherwood God does not make a spectacle out of Salesville, Ohio for the eastern educated reader—readers are invited to empathize and understand rather than treat Salesville as a backwater spectacle.
In writing The Leatherwood God, William Dean Howells not only brings Ohio to Cambridge but effectively makes a return to Ohio through writing the text. Howells published The Leatherwood God in 1916—just four years before his death in 1920 and the same year he published his autobiography Years of My Youth. Though he never returned to Ohio following his father’s death in 1894, the focus of his literary pursuits on the place of his youth perhaps suggests a desire to return intellectually, spiritually, to the state he could not for fear of pain return to in person.
The Leatherwood God becomes more resonant when we understand that Americans in 2018 are dealing with our own Dylkes-like figure. President Donald Trump takes up our time and attention. We see his tactics when we see Dylkes promising salvation, a release from the daily grind of poverty and the rigor of eking out a living on the Ohio frontier. We see overlaps between Dylkes and Trump in their showmanship — in their overpromising of impossible outcomes, as Dylkes does with the miracle, and Trump does when he promises to return the country's economic expansion to 3-5 percent a year.
We see the similar levels of devotion in their followers, too. T.J. Mandeville asks Braile if any of the Little Flock (the name of Dylkes' followers) were convinced after he failed to perform the miracle, and Braile suggests "it was only the unbelievers that disbelieved in the miracle." We see Trump going to the same spaces, these vulnerable rural communities. Yet at this moment, there does not seem to be any Squire Braile, the voice of reason and good sense to right the ship, as Braile does in Salesville.
Figure Three: President Donald Trump in 2016, courtesy of WikiMedia Commons
We can imagine the counter-protesters in front of a Trump rally, mocking in the same way as the Dylkes-doubters do: “Make the Devil jump, Joseph! Make him rattle his scales for us!” “Fetch on your miracle!” And we can also imagine the staunch divide in this country between fervent Trump supporters and #Resisters, after Dylkes fails to perform his promised miracle, and Howells tells us that it “left the question of his divinity where it had been,” effectively convincing neither side to come together to grapple with the questions this intrusion on their community raises.
Helen and Wilson Follett wrote that Howells understood where the United States was at the turn of the century, when the country was at the intersection of so many new challenges and conversations. With all of this context in mind, it becomes clear that The Leatherwood God is more than a century-old novel by a respected novelist. It is an expression of self by William Dean Howells and the wider conflicts he faced as a writer and the veteran of a literary war that helped shape American writing forever. This novel is more than a story, it is a testament to the tempers and conflicts of a premier artist, critic, and man between worlds.
Alexander, William, 1938. William Dean Howells, the Realist as Humanist. B. Franklin, New York, N.Y, 1981.
Smith, Harriet Elinor, ed., The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, University of
California Press, 2010.
Goodman, Susan, and Carl Dawson. William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life. University of
California Press, Berkeley, 2005.
Follet, Helen Thomas and Follet, Wilson. Contemporary Novelists: William Dean Howells.
The Atlantic Magazine, 1917. www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1917/03/
Howells, William Dean. “The Leatherwood God.” Project Gutenberg.
Holstein, Abigail. “Howells Rediscovered.” The Atlantic. December 2005. Web. March 2018.
A brief video exploring the life and work of writer Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), especially in terms of his aesthetic and psychological conflicts.
It is sad to admit, but the truth is that Sherwood Anderson was and still is severely underrated in the literary world. Raised in the quiet, rural plains of north-central Ohio, this adman-turned-writer collected an impressive diversity of experiences as he moved between city and country, business and intellectualism, poverty and riches, and satisfaction and disappointment over the course of his life. Even though Anderson was incredibly prolific, cranking out a new work almost every year from 1916 until his death in 1941, he is known to most readers only for one of his books: Winesburg, Ohio. Published in 1919 and Anderson’s third book, Winesburg is known for its groundbreaking style and themes, which is also why scholars of Anderson still analyze this text more than any other by him. In Winesburg, these scholars recognize the achievement of a work that says something without really saying anything at all; it seems basic on its surface, focusing on small town life, yet it still somehow manages to haunt us with its insights and sketches that at times feel eerily familiar.
Jessie Alperin '18 is Comparative Literature major and an Art History minor from Massachusetts. Jessie's favorite story in Winesburg, Ohio is "Mother." In her life, she hopes to accomplish two simple things: 1) she wants to travel the world and 2) she wants to write a book on non-sense.
Harper Beeland '20 is an American Studies and English major from Tennessee. Harper's favorite story in Winesburg, Ohio is "Respectability." In his life, he hopes to accomplish two simple things: 1) he wants to travel the world and 2) he wants to write a book on common sense.