Lyrics of Lowly Life
LYRICS OF LOWLY LIFE
Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) is the book of poems that established Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) as the most important African American poet of his time. The volume of 105 poems is a mixture of works in conventional literary English and in dialect, a split that not only defines Dunbar's poetic career but also dramatizes a central argument of the black aesthetic. Dunbar, a black poet who in a very short career reached a national audience, provided both a model and a target for subsequent African American artists, especially the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. His most productive decade, the 1890s, marks what has been called the lowest historical moment for African Americans, and his poetry reveals many of the contradictions of his times: a book of poems for both black and white readers, written in both "white" and "black" styles, intermingled seemingly randomly, not separated, and published in the same year that "separate but equal" became established as the law of the land.
The poems in Lyrics of Lowly Life were composed over several years, and the book is actually a successor to two earlier privately printed volumes: Oak and Ivy (1892) and Majors and Minors (1895). Dunbar's parents had been slaves in Kentucky; his father escaped slavery and, after serving in the Civil War, settled in Dayton, Ohio (an important stop on the Underground Railroad), where he met Dunbar's mother. His parents separated when Dunbar was two years old and divorced when he was four, but his mother encouraged his burgeoning poetic talent. Dunbar composed the earliest of the poems for Lyrics of Lowly Life while working as an elevator operator in Dayton, where he had graduated in 1891 as the only black student at Dayton's Central High School. He established quite a presence in his otherwise white school: he wrote the class song, served as president of the school's literary society, and edited a black newspaper, the Dayton Tattler, aided by his boyhood friend (later the pioneering aviator) Orville Wright. After graduation, Dunbar gave poetry readings to white, black, and mixed-race audiences, and his fame as a talented young writer continued to grow regionally, boosted in 1892 by a reading at the meeting in Dayton of the Western Association of Writers, which enabled him to collect his poems in book form to sell at public readings.
At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago he met Frederick Douglass, who employed Dunbar as a clerk and encouraged him in his poetic career. Aided by white friends and patrons, Dunbar published his second book, Majors and Minors (1895), which was reviewed enthusiastically in the 27 June 1896 Harper's Weekly by William Dean Howells (1837–1920), the most influential writer and critic of his time. This glowing review by Howells led directly to the publication of Lyrics of Lowly Life later that year by Dodd, Mead of New York, who put Dunbar under contract, paid him a monthly salary of $400, and published his subsequent work. Howells wrote the introduction, a revised form of his earlier review, an important critical notice that catapulted Dunbar's work to a national audience and trumpeted him as the best poet of his race but also set critical interpretation of Dunbar's poetry in ways that hampered his wider ambitions. In reaching a national audience he became not only "the Poet Laureate of the Negro Race," as Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) called him, but also perhaps the best American poet of his time. The book had sold over twelve thousand copies by the turn of the century, and Dunbar was able to publish his poetry in such national publications as Century Magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and the New York Times as well as to publish more books of poetry, novels, short stories, and essays. He managed to make his living as a writer in a time when that feat was difficult for white writers, let alone for a person of color.
Dunbar was born and grew up during the brief moment of optimism and opportunity of the Reconstruction period (1866 to 1877), when blacks made incredible progress in politics, business, education, and equal rights. As Reconstruction formally ended in 1877 with the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the relaxation of political pressure on the South to reform, a backlash against black gains and freedoms ensued. By the 1890s the forces of disfranchisement, institutionalized segregation, and violence against blacks were in full swing, erasing the political, economic, and social gains of African Americans. Lynching became epidemic, with around two hundred per year reported for the decade (which does not account for unreported incidents). The gains blacks had made in integrating society were erased by segregationist Jim Crow laws, which were upheld in 1896 by the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, making "separate but equal" the law of the land. As Dunbar came of age and began his poetic career, he found himself in a society that increasingly sought to marginalize him.
Historical forces within black society also had an impact. In his famous Atlanta Exposition speech of 1895, Booker T. Washington announced a movement of assimilation and accommodation. Artistically, the black press had been calling for an African American writer who could represent the race and show white America that a "Negro artist" could contend equally with white artists. Within this context Dunbar appeared on the national scene, seeming to emerge in answer to a call and a need. His poetry reached an unprecedentedly wide audience, and the poetry itself contains a mixture that mirrors the contending forces of the time.
A reader of Lyrics of Lowly Life in 1896 would have first encountered a frontispiece that showed an extremely young, somewhat small, neatly dressed, and decidedly dark-skinned man, announcing with no question the race of its author. Before the poetry comes an introduction by Howells, in which he praises Dunbar's achievement as a poet, especially his dialect poetry. Howells's judgments had such an impact on Dunbar's career that they bear quoting:
The contents of this book are wholly of his own choosing, and I do not know how much or little he may have preferred the poems in literary English. Some of these I thought very good, and even more than very good, but not distinctively his contribution to the body of American poetry. What I mean is that several people might have written them; but I do not know any one else at present who could quite have written the dialect pieces. These are divinations and reports of what passes in the hearts and minds of a lowly people whose poetry had hitherto been inarticulately expressed in music, but now finds, for the first time in our tongue, literary interpretation of a very artistic completeness. (P. xix)
Dunbar recognized the double-edged nature of Howells's remarks. In his literary poems Dunbar had achieved mastery of traditional forms and themes, mastery achieved not only through natural ability but also by voracious reading in the English tradition, especially of John Keats. His attitude about his popular dialect poems is somewhat ambivalent, ranging from comments that he knew he could write such poetry better than anyone else to dismay that his more conventional works were not taken more seriously. Still, Howells's judgment remains true in the sense that, were it not for the dialect poetry, Dunbar would be remembered, if at all, as a skillful poet of a kind of traditional verse that was very soon to fall completely out of favor.
Approximately three-quarters of the 105 poems in Lyrics of Lowly Life are written in literary English, the remaining fourth in dialect (and not all in black dialect; Dunbar also wrote in Irish, German, and Hoosier dialects, influenced greatly by the popular James Whitcomb Riley). Taken together the poems exhibit a remarkable range, from the polished formality of the first poem, "Ere Sleep Comes down to Soothe the Weary Eyes," to the raucous hilarity of the final poem, "The Party": "Dey had a gread big pahty down to Tom's de otha night; / Was I dah? You bet! I nevah in my life see such a sight" (p. 199). The poems in literary English often focus on traditional themes of love and love lost, the nature of art and the artistic impulse, and the transitory nature of life. In several of these poems, such as "Frederick Douglass," "Ode to Ethiopia," and "The Colored Soldiers," Dunbar explicitly treats black subjects. But in the midst of these polished and serious poems sit the dialect poems, erupting from the page: "A Banjo Song," "An Ante-Bellum Sermon," and "When Malindy Sings." The interpretation of these dialect poems has shifted constantly since their publication and reveals as much about the reader and the historical moment as about the poems. "When Malindy Sings" can be read as a comic stereotype of a natural black affinity for music or as a more subversive comment: the speaker addresses the whole poem to "Miss Lucy," clearly a young white woman who is trying to sing "by the book," in contrast to Malindy's soulful, natural art. "An Ante-Bellum Sermon" can seem at first an example of more comic stereotyping, this time of semiliterate black preaching, but a closer examination of the preacher's message reveals a constant subtext of "signifying" on the slaveholder's hypocrisy.
In their time, Dunbar's dialect poems were seen as a continuation of the "plantation tradition," popularized in the dialect poetry of white writers like Irwin Russell and Thomas Nelson Page. The delight white and black readers took in Dunbar's dialect poetry reflects a strong taste for dialects of all kinds around the close of the nineteenth century. But the question of how Dunbar fit into the usually racist plantation tradition has been controversial almost from the start. Poets and critics of the Harlem Renaissance looked back twenty years later and saw Dunbar as little more than a minstrel darky. The New Negroes repudiated his poetry as accommodationist and stereotypical, an embarrassing and harmful pandering to white tastes for comical and misplaced plantation nostalgia. Despite being a close friend of Dunbar and himself a prolific writer of dialect verse, James Weldon Johnson made the pronouncement in The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) that dialect poetry has only "two stops—pathos and humor," thus relegating Dunbar to a much lower status in the eyes of the generation of artists that followed. Even so, Dunbar was an important influence for many African American poets, notably Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.
Dunbar's status began to recover in 1972 with an important centennial celebration of his birth. The rise of the Black Arts movement during this period provided a new lens through which to view Dunbar's art. Poets, writers, and critics such as Nikki Giovanni, Arna Bontemps, and Darwin T. Turner called for a new look at Dunbar, and he began to be recognized as a pioneer in using authentic black speech as a medium for art. This more revolutionary aesthetic could detect in Dunbar's poems, even in the dialect poems, subtleties and undercurrents that reveal a writer who at once pleases but also subtly confronts a white audience.
One of the final poems in the book, probably Dunbar's most famous, "We Wear the Mask," has been the key for those critics who argue that the poet was conscious of subverting the plantation tradition even as he used its elements to gain an audience. This widely anthologized poem gains even more power when read amidst the dialect poetry that originally accompanied it:
We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Dunbar was friends with both Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, and even though he was accused of Washington-like accommodationism, in this poem he anticipates Du Bois's influential idea in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) of black "double consciousness." Reading the dialect poems with the idea of masking behind them forces a reinterpretation of Dunbar's motives and strategies.
Lyrics of Lowly Life established Dunbar's reputation, a reputation that has risen and dropped and risen as political and aesthetic forces have changed. His poems, especially the dialect poems, remain controversial and subject to debate, forming a kind of literary Rorschach test that reveals as much about the reader and the times as the poems or the poet. After a long battle with tuberculosis, Dunbar died in Dayton in 1906. His career was as short as that of his literary hero John Keats, but his influence on the African American literary tradition was profound.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Library of America, 1990.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. 1895. Edited by Joanne M. Braxton. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. Lyrics of Lowly Life. Introduction by William Dean Howells. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1896.
Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition 1877–1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Keeling, John. "Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Mask of Dialect." Southern Literary Journal 25 (spring 1993): 24–38.
Martin, Jay, ed. A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975.
Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne, 1979.