- We Wear the Mask: Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Politics of Representative Reality
This collection of sixteen essays is a welcome addition to critical work on Paul Laurence Dunbar. Building on recent scholarship, such as the Dunbar anthology In His Own Voice and Gene Andrew Jarrett’s Deans and Truants, and harkening back to Jay Martin’s A Singer in the Dawn, We Wear the Mask contributes to a growing body of work that reassesses Dunbar by leaving behind the dichotomy of accommodation or protest that traditionally locates the writer’s legacy. In abandoning this dichotomy, this collection provides the context required to understand Dunbar’s negotiation of literary success in late nineteenth-century America. By engaging the difficult choices Dunbar was compelled to make, both literarily and socially, We Wear the Mask models the type of scholarship that will continue to provide fresh and valuable insights into Dunbar’s life and work.
Editor Willie J. Harrell, Jr.’s introduction argues for the necessity of renewing our investigation of Dunbar’s representation of black identity. Noting the value of locating Dunbar’s “artistry in relation to various contextualizations of the politics of black reality that proliferated at the turn of the century” (x), Harrell observes that “there has not been enough attention given to the ways in which Dunbar’s representation of black identity was positioned and conditioned in his works” (xii). The collection’s three main sections then follow a roughly chronological order, moving from Dunbar’s initial experiments in dialect and poetry to the strategies taken up in his later fiction. This trajectory allows We Wear the Mask to challenge “the superficial interpretations of the role Dunbar’s prose played during the complex period of turn-of-the-century America, reassessing his works and introducing new paradigms for understanding the unfolding evolution of his artistry” (xiii). [End Page 725]
The initial section of the collection focuses on Dunbar’s poetry, troubling the traditional separation between dialect and protest. For example, Nassim W. Balestrini and Sharon D. Raynor both examine Dunbar’s war poetry as a challenge to the traditional historiography of black soldiers’ participation in the Revolutionary, Civil, and Spanish-American wars. Balestrini challenges Jean Wagner’s claims about Dunbar’s “timidity” and “art of compromise,” arguing that Dunbar’s “poems are a clarion call to artists, legislators, and citizens to grapple with national history in a candid and constructive fashion in order to close the gap between American ideals and American reality for all” (29). Elston L. Carr, Jr.’s essay examines the relationship between masking in Dunbar’s dialect poetry and the reciprocal cultural paradigms of minstrelsy, observing that Dunbar’s ambivalence “may be less a capitulation to racist expectations than an indication of the literary market’s expectations” (57). In all, the poetry section underlines Dunbar’s narrative experimentation in a way that effectively frames the subsequent discussion of race and representation in Dunbar’s later works.
“Race, Rhetoric, and Social Structure,” the second section of the collection, offers comparative perspectives designed to expand our understanding of Dunbar’s literary pursuits. Matt Sandler analyzes Dunbar’s relationship with George Horace Lorimer, the editor of the Saturday Evening Post, and the connections between Lorimer’s rhetoric of self-help and that of racial uplift, as well as Dunbar’s own interests in modernist aesthetics and bohemianism. Harrell’s own contribution focuses on the relationship between community building and dialect in Dunbar’s Old Plantation Days. Arguing that Dunbar’s use of dialect was intended to transform contemporary stereotypes by depicting the “continuing development of the black community” (157), Harrell notes that Dunbar’s collection “did not mimic or degrade blacks but attempted to prevail over the effect of the centuries-old hegemonic structure of racism that was used to disadvantage the race” (156). Harrell’s focus on Dunbar’s manipulation of narrative strategies portrays the subtlety Dunbar had to employ in order to present his message to a white readership. Finally, Mark Noonan...