Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Souls of White Folk

[By Jerry Ward]

One hundred and forty years after
his birth, Paul Laurence Dunbar‘s presence in African American collective
memory is as secure as any presence can be in a society that values forgetting.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The
Collected Novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar
. Ed. Herbert Woodward Martin,
Ronald Primeau and Gene Andrew Jarrett. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009.

in a New Orleans public library
inspires a spoonful of hope.  Readers who only know Dunbar as our
historical poet laureate or his novel The Sport of the Gods (1902)
and a few of his short stories have an opportunity to discover, as the editors
note, that Dunbar’s first three novels — The Uncalled (1898), The
Love of Landry
 (1900), and The Fanatics (1901)
–“together challenge the long-standing assumption that African American authors
should cast only blacks as main characters and as messengers of racial justice”
(vii).  Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Sewanee,
William Gardner Smith’s Anger at Innocence, Willard Motley’s Knock
on Any Door
, Richard Wright’s Savage Holiday, and Ann Petry’sCountry
 do challenge the assumption, but so weird an assumption  warrants  our
being reminded of Dunbar’s pride of place in challenging what is inane.

The availability of Dunbar’s novels
may encourage more scholars to explore, as Emine Lâle Demirtürk does in How
Black Writers Deal With Whiteness: Characterization Through Deconstructing
 Color (Lewiston,
NY: The Edwin Mellon Press, 2008), how African American novels “seem to
negotiate both modern and postmodern representations of whiteness in subtle and
diverse ways” (6). Dunbar’s negotiation functions in and beyond the context of
post-Civil War American fiction.

The editors based The
Collected Novels
 “on Mnemosyne’s 1969 reproduction of the texts of the
novels’ original editions” (xvi), and such editing is sufficient for casual
readers.  Scholars too will use these minimally critical editions
until a “definitive edition,” based on dedicated research in the Dunbar Papers
at the Ohio Historical Society emerges. Deep study of Dunbar’s manipulation of
the souls of white folk requires footnotes of the kind Lisa A. Long supplied in
her edition of The Fanatics (Acton, MA: Copley, 2001) and
notes on the texts of various editions.  It is rewarding, of course,
to read Long’s critical introduction which rather nicely puts The
 in conversation with contemporary whiteness, just as Margaret
Ronda’s “  ‘Work and Wait Unwearying’: Dunbar’s Georgics” PMLA (October
2012): 863-878 puts Dunbar in conversation with Latin antiquity.