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Book History 9 (2006) 213-233

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Imagining Race

Illustrating the Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar

In November 1899, a slim volume of illustrated poems appeared on the shelves of American booksellers, just in time for the Christmas gift book season. The book contained eight previously published poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, along with lavish page decorations, an elaborate cover design in three colors, and grainy black and white photographs illustrating each stanza. The book was published by Dodd, Mead & Co., and illustrated by a group of amateur photographers from a small school for blacks in Hampton, Virginia. Though it is almost impossible to know exactly how well Poems of Cabin and Field sold during its first season on shelves, the title was sufficiently popular to be reprinted each year for the next three years, with additional editions appearing in 1904, 1908, and 1913. Over the next seven years, Dodd, Mead followed the success of Poems of Cabin and Field with five similar books, and enlisted popular book artist Margaret Armstrong to design the books' decorations. These subsequent books also seem to have sold quite well.

Book decorations and photographic illustrations were common enough at the beginning of the twentieth century, but the Dunbar illustrated volumes are of unique interest because of the author's own ambiguous standing in the history of American literature broadly, and African American literature specifically. While some present-day scholars dismiss Dunbar's dialect work in favor of the later, more "authentic" dialect poetry and prose of Langston [End Page 213] Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, others have argued that Dunbar's poetry subverted the contemporary conventions of dialect writing, used primarily for comic effect or to indicate stupidity and racial inferiority, and instead wrote in dialect to represent the "fractured consciousness of a poet fundamentally unsure about which language to use."1 Dunbar's position on his work in dialect is ambiguous: the poet eventually became frustrated that he was most widely known for his dialect poetry, but this sentiment does not exclude the possibility that Dunbar viewed these poems as a valid and accurate expression of black folk culture.

The illustrated volumes of Dunbar's poetry add an additional, complicating dimension to his literary reputation. The books' decorations and illustrations, which rely heavily on visual renderings of "plantation" conventions, beg the question: how could a black poet allow his work to be published in such a blatantly racist format? Dunbar's response to such a query might enable a more balanced twenty-first-century reading of the books, and would help to place these curious volumes in their literary and historical contexts. There is, however, an almost complete lack of evidence regarding Dunbar's feelings toward the illustrated books. Any conclusion would have to be extrapolated from Dunbar's positive reaction to other book decorations by Dodd, Mead and his frustration with the obscuring popularity of his dialect poems.

There is, however, a wealth of information on the production of the books' illustrations by the Hampton Institute Camera Club, and on Dodd, Mead's understanding of Dunbar's stature as a popular literary figure. While the illustrated volumes of Dunbar's poems are valuable as works of popular culture from a strictly literary perspective, the importance of the way these poems are presented should not be undervalued. Information on the production of the visual "packaging" of these books, as well as the illustrations and page decorations themselves, reveals much about the intentions of the books' creators, and also points to the way in which readers may have read, or have had their reading influenced by, the physical appearance of the books. While Dunbar is the author of the poetry that appears in the volumes, the publisher, the illustrators, and the photographers all additionally contributed to the books' content, and in turn their reception. In lieu of Dunbar's attitude toward these books, detailed information about the production and selection of the photographs that illustrate Poems of Cabin and Field and Candle-Lightin' Time provides valuable insight into the intentions and motivations that brought these...


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