February 10, 2012

Silas Jackson: the hollowness of his life

Unbeknownst to him, it was just one day more than six years before his death that Paul Laurence Dunbar published "Silas Jackson" in the New York Evening Post, February 10, 1900. It was the beginning of the end for Dunbar. That year he finally would be diagnosed with tuberculosis and spiral more fully into his alcoholism. Two years later, he and his wife would separate. Two years after that, he would return to the city of his birth (Dayton, Ohio) to live out his remaining two years with his mother before his death at age 33.

"Silas Jackson" was one of Dunbar's many short stories, though he is primarily remembered as a poet. In the story, the title character is born on a Virginia farm but, as told in the opening lines, is destined for fame. Silas, a black boy, obtains work in a hotel with the help of a benefactor. He instantly learns to hate his humble ways as a farmhand, saw that his family was dirty, and looked forward to moving to the big city (despite being warned of its "wickedness"). But, when his benefactor comes to see him, he finds something about the boy has changed, and not for the better.

Silas is soon recognized for his singing skills and an opera producer recruits him. In New York, he becomes a star, develops an ego, and forgets to send money home to his struggling family. When Silas suddenly becomes sick, however, he is no longer able to sing — and is instantly replaced. Only then does he realize how far he has fallen from his humble family life:

Silas gazed blankly at the wall. The hollowness of his life all came suddenly before him. All his false ideals crumbled, and he lay there with nothing to hope for. Then came back the yearnings for home, for the cabin and the fields, and there was no disgust in his memory of them.

When his strength partly returned, he sold some of the few things that remained to him from his prosperous days, and with the money purchased a ticket for home; then spent, broken, hopeless, all contentment and simplicity gone, he turned his face toward his native fields.

No comments:

Post a Comment