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  • Late-19th-Century Literature
  • Nicolas S. Witschi

Poetry and prose by African American artists take center stage amid this year's scholarship. A special issue devoted to the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar provides a welcome contribution to our understanding of the period, while the number of books on women's writings attests to the growing prominence of artists such as Frances E. W. Harper and Pauline Hopkins. As a genre, journalism receives more that its usual share of attention, as does poetry by writers such as Sarah Piatt. Stephen Crane, Charles Chesnutt, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman attract less attention than usual this year, though their works still inspire significant scholarship. Frank Norris and W. D. Howells attract their normal share of attention, while Sarah Orne Jewett's critical stock seems to be in decline.

i African American Literature

A 2006 conference marking the centenary of Dunbar's death provides the occasion for a special issue of AAR devoted to the appreciation and analysis of his work. A handful of essays stand chiefly as personal meditations on Dunbar's influence in poetry and prose. Among these and the more critically oriented contributions, questions related to genre, masks, and audience are never far from consideration, beginning with Joanne M. Braxton's opening essay, "Dunbar, the Originator" (41: 205–13). Braxton argues for never forgetting the figure of Dunbar found at the center of his work while acknowledging and accepting that "uncertainty, mystery and doubt" can often mark both his writings and [End Page 281] the scholarship about him. Lillian S. Robinson and Greg Robinson in "Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Credit to His Race?" (41: 215–25) trace the reception of Dunbar's works, emphasizing the differences often evident between white and black cultural worlds. Introducing a discussion of the particular genres within which Dunbar worked, Nadia Nurhussein's "Paul Laurence Dunbar's Performances and the Epistolary Dialect Poem" (41: 233–38) interprets his use of epistolary conventions and voicing in his dialect poems as a way for the poet to reconfigure radically his relationship to audience. Nurhussein demonstrates that Dunbar's use of the form was not an empty capitulation to audience stereotypes but rather a subtle and complex exercise in broadening inquiry into the appropriateness and possibility of rendering speech and hence literacy through dialect writing. Taking up another subcategory of verse, Marcellus Blount's "Paul Laurence Dunbar and the African American Elegy" (41: 239–46) chronicles his initiation of an elegiac mode that is both part of a longer tradition and creates something new for future generations of African American poets. In "Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Genres of Dialect" (41: 247–57) Michael Cohen offers a contextualizing analysis of Dunbar's dialect verse, emphasizing how assumptions about race, genre, and Dunbar's own strategic exploitation of these assumptions made for a complex set of cultural artifacts. Michele Elam's "Dunbar's Children" (41: 259–68) explores his poetry for and about children, arguing that the poet reconfigures a "generation of black youth who are not eternally fixed in their childhood but, rather, can, like other children, grow up to be fully enfranchised men, women, and citizens." Jennifer Terry's "'When Dey 'Listed Colored Soldiers': Paul Laurence Dunbar's Poetic Engagement with the Civil War, Masculinity, and Violence" (41: 269–75) looks closely at both standard English and dialect poetry about the Civil War, arguing that Dunbar's work allows for the shaping of a sustained critique of racial injustice while giving voice to an African American experience in war not otherwise found in literature.

Shifting to considerations beyond Dunbar's poetry, the special issue continues with Gene Andrew Jarrett, "Second-Generation Realist; or, Dunbar the Naturalist" (41: 289–94), which makes a very compelling case for Dunbar's novel The Uncalled as an engagement with the theories of literary naturalism. Another of Dunbar's novels is the subject of Jennifer A. Hughes's "The Politics of Incongruity in Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Fanatics" (41: 295–301). Hughes argues that The Fanatics should be read for its "elements of satire, humor, and incongruity," which render [End Page 282] it highly "critical of incongruous treatment—both in reality and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2125
Print ISSN
0065-9142
Pages
pp. 281-300
Launched on MUSE
2009-10-01
Open Access
No
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