- The Outcast Poetics of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Edwin Arlington Robinson
American literary naturalism has been so closely identified with prose fiction that there have been few thoroughgoing explorations of the naturalist strain in American poetry at all, much less in the large body of poetry written and published during the three decades or so when naturalism flourished, roughly 1890–1920. Most recently Chris Beyers has tantalizingly traced a naturalist impulse in some American poetry from Stephen Crane to Sharon Olds, suggestive of an “enduring legacy of a naturalistic poetic tradition” which, nonetheless, seems to be a quite narrow strand in the history of American poetics (461). Tyler Hoffman, writing on “Political Poets and Naturalism” in the 2015 Cambridge History of American Poetry finds two poets—in addition to Stephen Crane who must appear in any list—who were “writing [poetry] for the popular press, with the line between muckraking and poetry at times significantly blurred”: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Edwin Markham (473). A search of the mla bibliography using the subject headings “naturalism in American literature” and “poetry” yields about two dozen entries dating from 1943 to the present, confirming Beyers’s focus on primarily modernist poets and early twentieth-century writers of naturalist fiction who occasionally published poetry, specifically Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, with Edgar Lee Masters being the sole literary naturalist we would consider primarily a poet. Dismissing comprehensive works of literary history in which American literary naturalism and poetry might separately be discussed and the occasional usage of “naturalism” to indicate interest in nature and the natural world, the researcher is left with a handful of essays. Some of these, as does Byers’s, identify naturalist strains in a few modernist and later 20th century poets, such as A.R. Ammons, Greg Kuzma, Robinson Jeffers, Sandra McPherson, and James Dickey. A smaller handful of essays are concerned [End Page 133] with modernist poets’ rejection or repudiation of both or either naturalism or nineteenth-century sentimentalism. Still one would imagine, based on the available scholarship, that with the exception of Stephen Crane, Carl Sandburg, and Edgar Lee Masters, American poets passed from late nineteenth century sentimental versification to mid- twentieth century modernism with barely a pause.
What follows is an examination of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Edwin Arlington Robinson, two poets whose first published collections appeared within a year of Crane’s The Black Riders (1895) but whose poetry has not been extensively treated as exemplary of literary naturalism, and whose work has seldom, if ever, been considered in tandem, despite the formal similarities of their verse and their historical contiguity, although Dunbar’s fiction has received a great deal of attention. These two poets inhabited a space between nineteenth- and twentieth-century American verse, writing poetry that was grounded in the historical moment and employing highly traditional metrical verse forms as well as refrains, repetition, inverted syntax and other techniques that may seem old-fashioned to the contemporary eye, particularly when compared to the innovative poetic ground Crane was laying in the same year. If Crane’s gnomic poems from 1895 set an expectation that naturalism in verse must “challenge … convention” (Byers 447) and Master’s vers libre epitaphs of 1915 confirm a bias toward modernist technique as a marker of naturalism in verse, what to do with these near contemporaries whose work appears so thoroughly conventional?
We should first recall that formal experimentation is not typically considered a marker for literary naturalism in fiction, the dominant genre of the movement—certainly not during the first few decades of the era. The “vital stream” of naturalism in American literature of 1890–1920 flowed primarily through novels and short stories formally indistinguishable from the realist fictions that preceded them (Pizer 9). The form of the nineteenth-century novel encouraged the careful documentation of the impact of social, economic, political and biological forces upon the lives of ordinary people. “Terrible things must happen to the characters of the naturalist tale,” Frank Norris would explain in his attempt to define the genre (1107), which provides a setting for the working out of these forces upon the individual and provides an objective account...