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Some Dayton Saints and Prophets
Paul Laurence Dunbar Part One

(This chapter has been divided into two parts due to its length - Editor)


Part One


      IN one of the smaller later volumes from the pen of the dead poet, there are these lines which were brought to the writer of this sketch one summer afternoon when he had come to say thank you for some trifling service:

            "Because you loved me I have much achieved;

            Had you despised me then I must have failed;

            But since I knew you trusted and believed,

            I could not disappoint you, so prevailed."

      Upon the flyleaf of the book is printed this dedication : "To................ with thanks for her long belief."

      To have had a "long belief" when few others did; to read this recompense for it, now, when the heart that dictated, and the hand that wrote are both forever still, is to have a deep gratitude for some of the opportunities that life offers.

      In 1891-92, the patrons of a certain dress-making establishment, in one of our public buildings, noticed that the elevator boy was always reading.  This is not, in itself, remarkable.  The yellow literature of the day finds its widest field among the employed boys in town-town offices.  But this elevator boy was reading Tennyson and Shakespeare, and he was black. In the dim light that came down the shaft, with his hands at work on the ropes, and the throb of the engine in his ears, he was feeding his soul.  All other avenues of work were closed to him.  With a good common-school education, and a diploma from the high school, no clerical work was open to Paul Dunbar.  His race shut him out.  Judge Dustin has written since the poet's death, that he wonders the exasperating discouragements of those early years did not drive the boy to self-destruction.  Time and again was he recommended for clerical positions to be refused because office men would not associate with a negro; time and again was he turned away from the manual work, because he was told that he was "fit for something better."  In the meantime there was the elevator, and it helped to make a living for himself and his mother.

  As a child he had composed verses in a tentative way; but the class poem written upon his graduation seemed to fix his metier,  It was better than the usual jingle, and had a promise in its lines.  From time to time, during the two years, following his school life, fugitive verses appeared in the local newspapers that struck a popular chord. People cut them out for their scrap-books, and asked,  "Who is Paul Laurence  Dunbar?"  Among these early verses are some which he never improved upon.  "A Drowsy Day," "Sunset," "Ere Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eyes," "Comparison," "The Poet and His Song," are little treasuries of true poetic feeling.  The last named was a favorite of his own, and, from being read so often by the author, became a favorite with the public also.  The refrain brings an answering thrill from every one who knows the zest of creative composition; even those who float on the lower plane of mere prose.


            "A song is but a little thing,

            And yet what joy it is to sing;

            In times of toil it gives me zest,

            And when at eve I long for rest,

            When cows come home along the bars

            And in the fold I hear the bell

            As night, the Shepherd, herds his stars,

            I sing my song and all is well."


                  *     *           *

            "What matters yon unheeding throng?

            They cannot feel my spirit's spell;

            Since life is sweet and love is long

            I sing my song and all is well."


            "Sometimes the sun, unkindly hot

            My garden makes a desert spot.

            Sometimes a blight upon the tree

            Takes all my fruit away from me:

            And then with throbs of bitter pain

            Rebellious passions rise and swell,

            But, life is more than fruit or grain,

            And so I sing and all is well."


      The young negro who could sing his song under the disadvantages of poverty and racial ostracism was learning what life held of compensation and joy.  As Paul wrote, he found friends; friends, who, as he afterward said, "forgot that I was black."  They suggested sending his verses to the magazines, and, to his delight, some were accepted.  With the help of these friends, he gathered his poems into a little brown volume, called "Oak and Ivy," published in 1893.

      About this time (the exact chronology makes small difference) George W. Cable came to Dayton to give a reading.  Talking of the colored race with the writer in her library one afternoon, he remarked,

      "My friend Gilder, of the Century, has always wished to have a negro contributor to his magazine."

      "Does he not know that he has one?" I asked.

      In answer to his inquiring look, I opened the current number of the Century that lay upon the table, and there among "In lighter vein" was that exquisite lyric, "When Malindy Sings."  The information appeared to interest Mr. Cable greatly.  He asked many questions:

      "Was Paul Dunbar a pure negro?"

      "Of the purest Congo type."

      "Why had he not said he was a negro?"

      "Because he wanted his work to be judged as poetry, not as 'freak’ accomplishment."

      "Did he live in Dayton?"

      "Could he be seen?"


      It was not only possible, but probable.  That evening as the novelist recited his scene from "The Grandissimes," he held in his hand a little brown book, which he had been looking over, behind the scenes, while awaiting his place on the program.  Its author in the top seat of the gallery, saw, with a thrill.  After the reading they were introduced, and that was the beginning of that recognition, and appreciation which the poet craved.  Mr. Cable discussed metrical rules, literature, college, men, and magazines; he criticised Paul's book, and encouraged him to further work.   The humble author of this juxtaposition of kindred souls was left out.  She did not belong to the craft. Paul did.  But she took her extinguishment meekly.  It was enough to see the light in the young poet's eyes, and to feel, thus early, the justification for her "long belief."

      Two years later Dunbar was invited to Toledo as a guest of Doctor Tobey, one of his first friends and admirers, who helped him bring out his second book, "Majors and Minors."  This was a crucial experience, because it meant meeting white people socially.  On his return he came joyously to tell about it.

      "But I wish," he added shyly, "that you would tell me what I ought to say when people praise my poems.  I only stand and smile, and feel awkward."

      Of course it was easy to initiate him into a few of those polite inanities which stand for the feelings one is never expected to express in society.  In later years, when Paul had learned to say, "Thank you; you are very kind;" with smooth suavity, to ladies in London drawing-rooms, he wrote home that he was still grateful for his coaching in conversational conventionalities.

      "Majors and Minors" was reviewed in Harper's Weekly by William Dean Howells, that kind encourager of young writers.  I dare say that never again in his whole career can he count on doing anything to confer such intense happiness.  To have been so praised would be a boon to a white man of cultured lineage and college training; to this son of a slave mother, this hewer of wood, and drawer of water, this furnace tender, and elevator boy, it was nothing less than the supreme touch of inspiration and joy.

      After the Century Magazine had honored others of his contributions, Paul went to New York, and found his feet among American men of letters.  He met Howells, Brander Matthews, James A. Hearne, Cable again, and Major Pond.  The latter arranged readings, and sent the poet to London, where he recited his poems in the home of American Ambassador, Colonel John Hay, and met many English notables.  The Gridiron Club entertained him, and he, them.  It was a welcome experience to feel in England the entire absence of the social shadow that the black man always casts in America.

      Coming back to his own home, wearing these laurels, it became evident that Dayton should show some honor to her own particular prophet.  A "Tea" was given by the Woman's Literary Club to meet the colored poet.  This in a way was' a more formidable experience than Toledo or London.  Standing, awaiting his introduction, he whispered to the president of the Club that never had he faced an audience that so troubled his nerves.

      "I have looked after the furnaces, and the lawns of many of these ladies," he said, "and taken all of them up and down in the Callahan elevator."

      "You will forget it all when you begin," was the reply.

      And he did.

      His art took hold of him and lifted him above the reflection of grass-cutters and caste lines.  "He sang his song, and all was well."   To be sure, there were some who excused themselves before tea was served.  Tradition holds in spite of the theory of brotherhood and the spirit of poetry.  Had Paul been a plowboy poet, precedent would have sanctified even his black skin, but what has an elevator to do with the divine gift?

      Slow as she was in the beginning to accept her native singer, Dayton was loyal to him at the last.  White and black stood together around his bier; white and black spoke his funeral oration; white and black carried all that remained of him to his rest, and the crowd of mourners that turned away from the church, unable to enter, numbered as many of one race as of the other.

      The strange part of Dunbar's personality was not the black in him, but the white in him. W. D. Howells said, "He thinks white."  It was very true.  The critic detected the Saxon strain in the writings of the negro.  It was still more manifest upon personal acquaintance.  Paul Dunbar's white point of view never ceased to be astonishing.  It seems incongruous; but was it?

      He was bred in the public schools with the children of well-to-do white people.  He came under the instruction of the same teachers in the High School.  He practiced in the debating society; played baseball (which he said he loved better than literature); read Shakespeare, the newspapers, the magazines, and the American classics. In bringing-up he was as far from the ordinary negro boy as is the ordinary white boy.  He met none of the old-time southern darkies; there are none in southern Ohio, or so few they do not count.  His mother spoke no dialect, nor did his friends; that is the reason he could not write or read dialect.  This, I know, is rank heterodoxy.  The critics have always admired Dunbar's dialect poems; but either Ruth McEnery Stuart, Joel Chandler Harris, or Virginia Culbertson is a better "colored person" than Paul Dunbar.  Dialect comes from long and early association with the type of negro so fast disappearing, even in the South, the "Mammy" type.   Dunbar's dialect was all acquired second-hand; it was not bred into him in his childhood.  In the end he did acquire a pretty fair imitation, but it was an accrescence, not an original possession.  Before he was to read "When the Co'n Pone's Hot," he was in the habit of going to visit some of the few remaining dialect darkles that are left in Dayton, to catch their pronunciation.

      The last dialect poem that he read before his fellow townsmen was "In the Morning,"---that call of an impatient mother from the bottom of the kitchen stairs to the lazy sleeper above.  It was well done.  The shrill "Lias,---Li---as" running up into a falsetto crack, was immensely effective, and brought a quick responsive laugh from the audience.  But this a white man with the gift of imitation could have done just as well.  It was not the expression of Dunbar's nature, it was the expression of his art.  He rose to dialect because dialect was what was expected of him.  There is a great deal of that, as every psychologist knows.  The test of his genius was not in being an exponent of the negro race; not in his painting of negro traits, but in his painting of human traits.  This analysis may possibly be contested. The Dunbar dialect was held to be the proper dialect, because Dunbar did it.  People love to see the expected thing develop; it satisfies their sense of the fitness of things, and proves them prophets; but none the less it was mimicry, no more; and I leave the verdict to any Virginian with an ear for music.

      To say that Dunbar's dialect poems are not indigenous is not to deny their charm.  "When Malindy Sings" will live as long as anything in literature, because in; it lyric sweetness is married to perfect metrical form ; and a fine sensibility.  In "Jump Back Honey, Jump; Back!" you can hear the buzzing thrum of the banjo strings.  "When Angelina Johnson comes swingin' down the line," dances a two step to the time of "Ole Dan Tucker," "Never Min', Miss Lucy" has the foot-pat of the plantation minstrel singer in its cadence.

      The death lullaby of three little stanzas speaks his love for nature in his own home.





            Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,

            Whah de branch 'll go a-singin' as it pass.

                  An' w'en I's a-layin' low,

                  I kin heah it as it go.

            Singin', "Sleep, my honey, tek yo' res' at las'."


            Lay me nigh to whah it meks a little pool,

            And de watah stan's so quiet lak and cool,

                  Whah de little birds in spring,

                  Ust to come and drink and sing,

            An' de children waded on de way to school.


            Let me settle when my shouldah draps dey load

            Nigh enough to heah de noises in de road;

                  Fu I tink de las' long res'

                  Gwine to soothe my sperrit bes'

            Ef I's layin' 'mong de tings I's allus knowed.


      But it had been said better in plain English.

      Dunbar's love of nature was of course paramount.

      No little verse ever penned seems to picture a rainy day so vividly as this:


      "The rain streams down like harp-strings from the sky;

      The wind, that world-old harpist sitteth by;

      And ever as he sings his low refrain,

      He plays upon the harp-strings of the rain."


or a summer night like this:


      "Like sentinels the pines stand in the park;

      And hither hastening like rakes that roam,

      With lamps to light their wayward footsteps home,

      The fire-flies come stagg'ring down the dark."


or this:


            "The river sleeps beneath the sky,

                  And clasps the shadows to its breast;

            The crescent moon shines dim on high;

                  And in the lately radiant West

                        The gold is fading into gray,

                        Now stills the lark his festive lay

                        And mourns with me the dying day.


            While in the South the first faint star

                  Lifts to the night its silver face,

            And twinkles to the moon afar,

                  Afar the heaven's graying space;

                        Low murmers reach me from the town

                        As day puts on her somber crown,

                        And shakes her mantle darkly down."


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