The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar
THE COMPLETE POEMS
PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR
WITH THE INTRODUCTION TO
"LYRICS OF LOWLY LIFE"
W. D. HOWELLS
DODD, MEAD AND COMPANY
Copyright 1895, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1905
By The Century Co.
Copyright 1897, 1898, 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1905
By The Curtis Publishing Co.
By The Outlook Co.
By J. B. Walker
By W. H. Gannett
Copyright 1896, 1899, 1903, 1905, 1913
By DODD, MEAD AND COMPANY
PRINTED IN U. S. A.
LYRICS OF LOWLY LIFE
LYRICS OF THE HEARTHSIDE
LYRICS OF LOVE AND LAUGHTER
MISS CATHERINE IMPEY
LYRICS OF SUNSHINE AND SHADOW
MRS. FRANK CONOVERWITH THANKS FOR HER LONG BELIEF
I think I should scarcely troublethe reader with a special appealin behalf of this book, if it hadnot specially appealed to me forreasons apart from the author'srace, origin, and condition. Theworld is too old now, and I findmyself too much of its mood, tocare for the work of a poet becausehe is black, because his father andmother were slaves, because hewas, before and after he beganto write poems, an elevator-boy.These facts would certainly attractme to him as a man, if I knewhim to have a literary ambition,but when it came to his literaryart, I must judge it irrespective ofthese facts, and enjoy or endure itfor what it was in itself.
It seems to me that this was myexperience with the poetry of PaulLaurence Dunbar when I foundit in another form, and in justiceto him I cannot wish that it shouldbe otherwise with his readers here.Still, it will legitimately interestthose who like to know the causes,or, if these may not be known, thesources, of things, to learn that thefather and mother of the first poetof his race in our language werenegroes without admixture of whiteblood. The father escaped fromslavery in Kentucky to freedom inCanada, while there was still nohope of freedom otherwise; butthe mother was freed by the eventsof the civil war, and came Northto Ohio, where their son was bornat Dayton, and grew up with suchchances and mischances for mentaltraining as everywhere befall thechildren of the poor. He has toldme that his father picked up thetrade of a plasterer, and when hehad taught himself to read, lovedchiefly to read history. The boy'smother shared his passion forliterature, with a special love ofpoetry, and after the father diedshe struggled on in more than thepoverty she had shared with him.She could value the faculty whichher son showed first in prosesketches and attempts at fiction,and she was proud of the praiseand kindness they won him amongthe people of the town, where hehas never been without the warmestand kindest friends.
In fact from every part of Ohioand from several cities of the adjoiningStates, there came lettersin cordial appreciation of the criticalrecognition which it was mypleasure no less than my duty tooffer Paul Dunbar's work in anotherplace. It seemed to me ahappy omen for him that so manypeople who had known him, orknown of him, were glad of astranger's good word; and it wasgratifying to see that at home hewas esteemed for the things he haddone rather than because as theson of negro slaves he had donethem. If a prophet is often withouthonor in his own country, itsurely is nothing against himwhen he has it. In this case it deprivedme of the glory of a discoverer;but that is sometimes abarren joy, and I am always willingto forego it.
What struck me in reading Mr.Dunbar's poetry was what had alreadystruck his friends in Ohioand Indiana, in Kentucky andIllinois. They had felt, as I felt,that however gifted his race hadproven itself in music, in oratory,in several of the other arts, herewas the first instance of an Americannegro who had evinced innatedistinction in literature. In mycriticism of his book I had allegedDumas in France, and I had forgetfullyfailed to allege the fargreater Pushkin in Russia; butthese were both mulattoes, whomight have been supposed to derivetheir qualities from white bloodvastly more artistic than ours, andwho were the creatures of an environmentmore favorable to theirliterary development. So far asI could remember, Paul Dunbarwas the only man of pure Africanblood and of American civilizationto feel the negro life aestheticallyand express it lyrically. Itseemed to me that this had cometo its most modern consciousnessin him, and that his brilliant andunique achievement was to havestudied the American negro objectively,and to have representedhim as he found him to be, withhumor, with sympathy, and yetwith what the reader must instinctivelyfeel to be entire truthfulness.I said that a race whichhad come to this effect in any memberof it, had attained civilizationin him, and I permitted myself theimaginative prophecy that the hostilitiesand the prejudices whichhad so long constrained his racewere destined to vanish in the arts;that these were to be the final proofthat God had made of one bloodall nations of men. I thought hismerits positive and not comparative;and I held that if his blackpoems had been written by a whiteman, I should not have found themless admirable. I accepted themas an evidence of the essential unityof the human race, which does notthink or feel, black in one andwhite in another, but humanly inall.
Yet it appeared to me then, andit appears to me now, that there isa precious difference of temperamentbetween the races which itwould be a great pity ever to lose,and that this is best preserved andmost charmingly suggested by Mr.Dunbar in those pieces of his wherehe studies the moods and traits ofhis race in its own accent of ourEnglish. We call such pieces dialectpieces for want of some closerphrase, but they are really not dialectso much as delightful personalattempts and failures for the writtenand spoken language. Innothing is his essentially refinedand delicate art so well shown asin these pieces, which, as I venturedto say, described the rangebetween appetite and emotion,with certain lifts far beyond andabove it, which is the range of therace. He reveals in these a finelyironical perception of the negro'slimitations, with a tenderness forthem which I think so very rare asto be almost quite new. I shouldsay, perhaps, that it was this humorousquality which Mr. Dunbarhad added to our literature, and itwould be this which would mostdistinguish him, now and hereafter.It is something that onefeels in nearly all the dialect pieces;and I hope that in the present collectionhe has kept all of thesein his earlier volume, and addedothers to them. But the contentsof this book are wholly of his ownchoosing, and I do not know howmuch or little he may have preferredthe poems in literary English.Some of these I thoughtvery good, and even more thanvery good, but not distinctively hiscontribution to the body of Americanpoetry. What I mean is thatseveral people might have writtenthem; but I do not know any oneelse at present who could quitehave written the dialect pieces.These are divinations and reportsof what passes in the hearts andminds of a lowly people whosepoetry had hitherto been inarticulatelyexpressed in music, but nowfinds, for the first time in ourtongue, literary interpretation of avery artistic completeness.
I say the event is interesting,but how important it shall be canbe determined only by Mr. Dunbar'sfuture performance. I cannotundertake to prophesy concerningthis; but if he should donothing more than he has done,I should feel that he had madethe strongest claim for the negro inEnglish literature that the negrohas yet made. He has at leastproduced something that, howeverwe may critically disagreeabout it, we cannot well refuse toenjoy; in more than one piece hehas produced a work of art.
W. D. HOWELLS.