While the photographically illustrated volumes of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poetry published between 1899 and 1906 have begun to attract critical attention, there is still much to be said for how they expand our understanding of the historical modes for reading Dunbar's dialect verse in the late nineteenth century. The first in this popular series of illustrated gift books, Poems of Cabin and Field features reprints of eight of Dunbar's black dialect poems, cover and page designs by Alice Morse, and photographs by the Hampton Institute Camera Club. This essay explores how the volume's photographs stage the mechanics behind dominant readings that approached Dunbar's dialect verse as authentic expressions of a vanishing Southern black folk. I argue that the volume depicts how the poetic speaker—the figure imagined as uttering the poems—works to construct and uphold literal readings of Dunbar's dialect and the larger cultural fantasies of the black folk with which these readings were associated. This argument complicates the deployment of the speaker in recent critical interpretations of Dunbar's plantation dialect poetry and asks us to consider the speaker itself as one of the racial formations at stake in the history of reading Dunbar.


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pp. 67-95
Launched on MUSE
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