Children’s book of Paul Laurence Dunbar poems
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    Auction Finds

    Paul Laurence Dunbar’s ‘Poems of Cabin and Field’

    I went hunting for the book of poetry as soon as I entered the front door of the auction house. I had seen the book by Paul Laurence Dunbar on the auction website and couldn’t wait to get a look at it.

    I wanted that book, but since this was a special ephemera auction, I assumed that I’d be out-bidded and Dunbar would go home with someone else and not me.

    This wasn’t the first Dunbar poetry book that had come up at one of my frequent auction haunts. Last year, I picked up a children’s book of his titled “Little Brown Baby,” published posthumously in 1940.


    A mother and father watch over their sleeping child in “Poems of Cabin and Field” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

    “Poems of Cabin and Field” was the first of his adult poetry books I’d come across. Dunbar was a major African American poet of the early part of the 20th century. I’m not much of a fan of his dialect poetry – most of the time it’s hard to decipher – but I understand his place in the country’s literary history.

    The auction book was inside a glass case where staffers keep the good stuff that they expect to sell at a high price. The book no longer had a dust jacket and the cover was faded. It apparently had been given as a gift with this notation: “From Sherman & Marion, dated Oct. 12, ’00” in fountain pen ink.

    Flipping through the pages, I saw something very different about the book. Instead of drawings to accompany the poems, black and white photographs captured the tone. The photos were framed in garden-like decorations of leaves, trees, peanuts, cotton, watermelons and rabbits.


    The front cover and title pages of “Poems of Cabin and Field” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

    The photos were captured by the Hampton Institute Camera Club, and the Art Nouveau decorations were by designer Alice Morse.

    The poems dealt with plantation life (or nostalgia about those days), black children, hunting and banjo playing. The poem “Little Brown Baby,” also published in the children’s book, was included.

    The book is a compilation of poems that Dunbar had already published. It contained two copyright dates: The Century Company from 1895-1896 and Dodd, Mead & Co. from 1896-1899. I can only assume that these were the original publishers and dates for the poems.

    “Poems of Cabin and Field” was first published by Dodd, Mead in 1899. The one at auction had a date in roman numerals: MDCCCC (1900).


    Two children from “Poems of Cabin and Field” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

    The book was one of six illustrated with photos by the camera club from 1899 to 1906, according to Ray Sapirstein in his 2005 dissertation on Dunbar titled “Out From Behind the Mask.” Dunbar died in 1906.

    The other books were “Candle-lightin’ time (1901),” the second in the series (decorated by Margaret Armstrong and contained one poem in standard English and the rest in dialect);” “When Malindy Sings (1903);” “Li’l’ Gal (1904);” “Howdy Honey, Howdy (1905),” and “Joggin’ Erlong (1906).”

    The camera club was made up not of Hampton students, but white Northern teachers and staff who had taught at the college for years and lived among African Americans in the community. Two African Americans were members, including Robert Moton, who contributed all photos for the “Hunting Song” chapter in the book. They are pictures of African American men out hunting with their dogs. Moton, a graduate of Hampton, was an administrator at the school. He went on to become principal at Tuskegee Institute after the death of Booker T. Washington in 1915.


    One of the landscape photos from “Poems of Cabin and Field” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

    The club was founded in 1893 to give members a mechanism for competitively exhibiting their works. It was given the name Kiquotan Kamera Klub – Kiquotan was the Native American name for the Hampton area – and a derisive acronym of the then well-known group of misfits terrorizing African Americans.

    Club members sought to paint what they considered a broader and fuller picture of black life. The prevailing images of African Americans in practically everything mainstream was stereotypical. They also wanted to go beyond the emphasis on middle classism as depicted in the publicity photos the school had commissioned Frances Benjamin Johnston to shoot to generally raise funds and to garner support at international expositions, including the 1900 Paris Exposition. W.E.B. DuBois and others had insisted that African Americans be represented with an exhibit at the expo.

    Club members took their cameras into rural Virginia not far from Hampton, and photographed southern landscapes and people in their environments.


    Men hunting with their dogs in “Poems of Cabin and Field” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Photographs in the “Hunting Song” chapter were done by Robert Moton, one of two black members of the Hampton Institute Camera Club.

    All of the photos were not done in the field, however. Club members also staged some on campus with students and staff dressed in costumes. Here’s an account of how the books were assembled.

    The six books produced 450 images with poems that were largely picked by the club, but likely vetted by Dunbar and the publisher.

    None of the photos in the auction book bears a photographer’s name. The lead photographer, though, was Leigh Richmond Miner, an art teacher who alone illustrated three of the books. Miner, who had a background in design, may not have contributed to this book, according to one account, noting his influence in the quality and representations in the succeeding books.

    At auction, I was able to get the book. Fortunately for me, no one else bid on it. I was also able to grab another one, “Shakespeare in Harlem (1942)” by Langston Hughes. I’ll write about that one on Wednesday.


    A farmer feeds his chickens in “Poems of Cabin and Field” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.


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    1 Comment

    1. Two great finds! Congratulations to you, Sherry! The pictures in Poems of Cabin and Field are priceless.


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