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  • "We are not in the old days now":Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Problem of Sympathy
  • Christine A. Wooley (bio)

The nineteenth was the first century of human sympathy,—the age when half wonderingly we began to descry in others that transfigured spark of divinity which we call Myself; when clodhopper and peasant, tramps and thieves, and millionaires and—sometimes—Negroes, became throbbing souls whose warm pulsing life touches us so nearly that we half gasped with surprise, crying, "Thou too! Hast Thou seen Sorrow and the dull waters of Hopelessness? Hast Thou known Life?" And then helplessly we peered into those Other-worlds, and wailed, "O World of Worlds, how shall man make you one?"

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Upon declaring the nineteenth as the "first century of human sympathy," or at least the first in which human sympathy began to be extended to "peasants, tramps . . . and—sometimes—Negroes" (178), W. E. B. Du Bois immediately identifies a problem. 1 Even as his language emphasizes the heartfelt, revelatory urgency of sympathetic connections through which human experience might better be understood and shared, he suggests that what we do with this sympathetic recognition prompts a feeling of helplessness. Of the "Other-worlds" into which "we" have peered, he asks: "how shall man make you one?" This question of Du Bois's shows his awareness that such sympathetic recognitions concerning the similarity of human suffering mark the beginning of the work that individuals must do in order to forge a world in which these similarities are not revelations, but rather always already understood. To make the "Other-worlds . . . one" is to demand that the "we" of Du Bois's prose act upon the revelatory knowledge prompted by sympathy to create a new United States in which the bonds of humanity are not divided by race. That at the turn of the twentieth century Du Bois presents this demand as a question—one wailed, no less—suggests that he is fully aware of the difficulty of attaining this bond.

Like Du Bois's early twentieth-century work, Paul Laurence Dunbar's 1902 novel The Sport of the Gods is profoundly interested in the problem of race and sympathy during what historians have called the "nadir" of race relations in the United States, (or as recent critics have termed it, using Charles Chesnutt's language "post-bellum, pre-Harlem"). 2 Indeed Dunbar's novel anticipates Du Bois's question and answers it: for Dunbar, "Other-worlds" will not be made one. I argue that Dunbar's attention to sympathy in Sport helps to explain why. This attention to sympathy, a by-product of the novel's more frequently recognized focus on the modern condition that occurs in the novel, is part of Dunbar's profound awareness of the limited social and economic options that African Americans experience at the turn of the century. His novel offers a radical critique of the affective and socioeconomic contexts that limit sympathetic expression for those who inhabit Du Bois's "Other-worlds." The Sport of the Gods does so by focusing on the modern condition, in which individuals are increasingly atomized by self-interest and sympathy is commodified by mass culture. The theater of the modern renders the experience of sympathy and its subsequent effects questionable at best and pernicious at worst, particularly for those who suffer injustice as a result of race. 3 In turn, the relationship between sympathy and the world-altering political change that Du Bois articulates as a product of the nineteenth century becomes temporary, limited, and ultimately illusory in Dunbar's novel.

My analysis approaches these issues from two directions: Dunbar's attention to the ways that self-interest limits expressions of sympathy between characters, and his [End Page 359] extension of this analysis to that sympathy which is created for readers through texts. By positioning a sensationalized version of his own novel's story at the climax of his plot, Dunbar shows us that though a sympathetic relationship between reader and text is reconstituted and revised by what was called the "yellow journalism" of the turn of the century, the attention to justice that results...


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pp. 359-370
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