December 20, 2013

Dunbar, the Wright Brothers, and the Tattler

Paul Laurence Dunbar issued the first edition of the Dayton Tattler in December 1890. The venture was put forth with the help of an associate named Preston Finley and printed by Dunbar's friends and classmates the Wilbur and Orville Wright (fellow residents of Dayton, Ohio, the Wrights are better known for their exploits in aviation). In its second issue, dated December 20, he included three short stories left anonymous but since attributed to Dunbar himself: "His Failure in Arithmetic," "His Little Lark," and "From Impulse."

Though he was known primarily for his poetry, Dunbar was actually prolific in prose as well, publishing four novels (one was somewhat autobiographical), a play, and four collections of tales. None of the three stories from the Tattler's December 20, 1890 issue were included in those compilations and have only been identified as possibly from the pen of Dunbar more recently (using the original manuscript). Each is quite short, only a few paragraphs.

In "His Failure of Arithmetic," a "red 'hided' man" visits the professor of the academy after hearing he has beaten his son "with an oak split" after he got an incorrect answer. The father, Mr. Jowerson, threatens to maul him but the professor explains the circumstances:

"My dear sir," said the professor, "I did whip your son with a white oak split, but he deserved it. During a recitation in arithmetic, I asked him this question: 'If you were to go with a jug to fill it, and there was a still-house a half mile away and a spring a quarter of a mile away, what would you bring back?'"

The boy said, "water." After hearing the story, the father says he agrees with his son's punishment, though he would have recommended, "he deserves hickery instead of white oak."

In "His Little Lark," a man named Mr. Sylvester is out with a friend, presumably after a long night of drinking. He brags that his wife no longer waits up for him but when he stumbles up the stairs, he finds her sitting in a rocking chair at the end of their bed. She refuses to answer him, however, even after he "commands" her with the authority of a husband. He crawls into bed nonetheless but is shocked to find someone is already there! In fact, it is his wife, and the silent person in the rocking chair was merely a stack of her clothes.

And Sylvester murmured: "Saved again, b'gosh!" as he tucked himself in his little bed, while his wife continued to sleep the sleep of the just.


* Information in this post, including the text of the tales mentioned, comes from The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar (Ohio University Press, 2005), edited by Gene Andrew Jarrett and Thomas Lewis Morgan.

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