March 15, 2013

Dunbar: Howells has done me irrevocable harm

Paul Laurence Dunbar had reason both to be thankful to editor/critic William Dean Howells and to be upset with him. Howells had used his influence to launch Dunbar's national fame. In doing so, however, he also drew attention specifically to Dunbar's dialect poems and encouraged him to do more of them (and less of his more traditional works). In doing so, Howells limited the public's expectation of Dunbar's work as stereotypically black. Worse, the problem was compounded by other critics who followed the word of the "Dean of American Letters." The poet was acutely aware of the problem. As he wrote in a letter dated March 15, 1897:

One critic says a thing and the rest hasten to say the same thing, in many instances using the identical words. I see now very clearly that Mr. Howells has done me irrevocable harm in the dictum he laid down regarding my dialect verse.

Similar sentiments were expressed overseas as well. Dunbar wanted to stay popular and successful. As such, he had to cater much of his work to the expectations Howells created for his potential readers. Further, critics implied he only deserved recognition because he was black; similar writings from a white person were less impressive. Dunbar, confined to this sphere, had difficulty fighting against it. Still, enough of his works challenge and complicate his contemporary reputation. Such tension is clear in one of his most powerful works "We Wear the Mask":

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
     It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
     We wear the mask.

We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile,
But let the world dream otherwise,
     We wear the mask!

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