Children’s book of Paul Laurence Dunbar poems
I’ve never been much of an admirer of the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. I’ve always had a hard time reading and deciphering his dialect poems because they were so antithetical to the language – even the Black English – that I sometimes heard black folks speak.
But I got the chance to buy a book of his poetry for children at auction Sunday. I had arrived at the auction house late and was hurriedly browsing one of two tables left with stuff for sale. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a book with the word “Brown” on the cover.
I had no idea what the book was about, but I figured I’d check it out anyway. As I got closer, I saw the title: “Little Brown Baby: Paul Laurence Dunbar Poems for Young People.” An auction staffer whispered to me: “I knew you’d like that.” And she was right.
Even if I didn’t exactly love Dunbar’s dialect poetry, I appreciated the man’s talent. The book was published in 1963 by Dodd, Mead & Co. of New York, and it contained his poems and a bio by Bertha Rodgers. It was first published in 1940.
The book still had its dust jacket, which was tattered, and someone had used a ballpoint pen to color some of the illustrations by Erick Berry. There were also pencil and other marks on some pages, many of which were soiled. The book had been in the library at a school in Delaware, which explained its rough condition.
In the book, Rodgers – about whom I could find nothing on the web – offered a summary of Dunbar’s life: born to a mother who learned to love poetry as she listened to her slave master read it to his wife, and a father who served with black regiments in the Civil War and later taught himself to read. Dunbar went through a round of hard times before his poetry became popular.
Dunbar was a major African America literary figure at the turn of the 20th century, and was the first most widely recognizable of black poets. He began writing poems when he was 6 years old, and he had his first one published in 1888 in a newspaper in his hometown of Dayton, OH. With the help of Orville and Wilbur Wright – his former classmates from high school where he was the only African American student - he published a newsletter called The Dayton Tattler.
Working as an elevator operator, he published his first book of poetry – written in both traditional verse and dialect – called “Oak and Ivy” in 1893. He met Frederick Douglass after being invited to recite his poetry at the World’s Fair in Chicago that same year. Douglass admired his works.
Dunbar continued to publish and read his poems, but neither produced much money for him. His predicament didn’t improve until the writer/literary critic William Dean Howells wrote a favorable review of his poetry in Harper’s Weekly – popularizing the poet and his works both in this country and internationally.
Soon came the first of a two-volume collection of poetry titled “Lyics of a Lowly Life.” Dunbar went on to write 12 books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, essays, a play and the lyrics for “In Dahomey,” the first African American musical on Broadway. The 1903 production featured the comedy team of Bert Williams and George Walker. Sickly for the latter part of his life, Dunbar died of tuberculosis in 1906 at the age of 33.
Most of the poems in the children’s book at auction were written in dialect except for “A Boy’s Summer Song” and “A Corn-Song,” which used both dialect and traditional verse:
On the wide veranda white
In the purple failing light,
Sits the master while the sun is lowly burning;
And his dreamy thoughts are drowned
In the softly flowing sound
Of the corn-songs of the field-hands slow returning,
Oh, we hoe de co’n;
Since de ehly mo’n;
Now de sinkin’ sun
Says de day is done.
Dunbar is most known for his dialect poems like “Little Brown Baby.” He apparently was torn over the issue, which was understandable for a man who was so prolific and versatile in his writings. Some critics felt that he was never able to get beyond the plantation dialect found in most language ascribed to black people during that time. His dialect poems were dismissed by critics – especially the later African American poets and writers – as sentimental and stereotypical.
Dunbar himself was apparently a bit disturbed that Howells promulgated his dialect poems at the expense of the works he wrote in traditional English.
He was said to have told an interviewer: “‘I am tired, so tired of dialect,” though he is also quoted as saying, ‘my natural speech is dialect’ and ‘my love is for the Negro pieces.’”
In a conversation with poet James Weldon Johnson in 1901, Dunbar also took on the subject, as quoted in the book “Voice of the Voiceless”: “I didn’t start as a dialect poet. … I simply came to the conclusion that I could write (dialect poetry) as well, if not better, than anybody else I knew of, and that by doing so I should gain a hearing. I gained the hearing, and now they don’t want me to write anything but dialect.”
Regardless, I wanted that children’s book (just as I went after another one about two weeks ago). At auction, I asked that the Dunbar book be sold separately from the other items in the box with it. When the auctioneer lowered the bid to $5, I lifted my bid card. He was about to award the bid to me when a man decided to raise his card. I had seen him looking at the book earlier, but he didn’t appear to be the type who even knew who Dunbar was. But this was a book about black people, and most dealers snatch up anything African American because they know that black memorabilia sells.
The two of us went tit-for-tat until he finally backed down, and I got what should’ve been a $5 book for much more than its market value (another library copy was selling on the web for about $20 or so).
As I walked away with the book, a female auction-goer praised me for hanging in there. Later, a male auction-goer sympathized over my fight for the book and the price I was forced to pay for it. “I’m glad you got it,” he said. “That guy was a jerk.”
That’s what I love about “real” auctions – not the antagonistic game-play you see on the TV show “Storage Wars.” Most of the auction regulars are decent and fair-minded folks. Even if you do get a few jerks every once in a while.