This essay looks to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s dilemma as the nation’s first African American commercial writer and representative of black dialect verse by examining his metapoetic standard English poems in Oak and Ivy (1893), Majors and Minors (1895), Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) and Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899). At the cusp of a growing demand for black dialect and blackface performance in the 1890s, Dunbar’s “pure blackness” put him in the rather unfortunate position of having to write in dialect to gain a readership and make a living as a professional writer. To mitigate this problem, I find that Dunbar developed the proto-modernist technique of metapoetic personae, which he employed in the majority of his standard English verses as implicit commentaries on the romantic ideals of his white counterparts. Dunbar’s metapoems are thus significant assessments of the link between craftsmanship and commercialism in the Post-Reconstruction era, debunking the deeply problematic myths about the imaginative possibilities of black writers.


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pp. 131-153
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