May 7, 2014

Dunbar: the ability to manage dialect

You ask my opinion about Negro dialect in literature. Well, I frankly believe in everyone following his bent. If it be so that one has a special aptitude for dialect work, why it is only right that dialect should be made a specialty. But if one should be like me — absolutely devoid of the ability to manage dialect — I don't see the necessity of ramming and forcing oneself into that plane because one is a Negro or a Southerner.

So wrote Alice Ruth Moore to her future husband Paul Laurence Dunbar on May 7, 1895. Moore was herself a poet, and the letter clearly implies that Dunbar felt uncomfortable taking advantage of his status as an up-and-coming black poet by writing in a stereotypical black dialect. He was correct to be concerned. Though he also wrote in traditional poetic language, it was his dialect poetry that soon launched his popularity. He was not a Southerner, having been born in Dayton, Ohio; Moore, on the other hand, was from New Orleans. One of Dunbar's boosters was William Dean Howells, who particularly enjoyed the dialect work. Two years after his letter to Moore, Dunbar admitted that Howells had done him "irrevocable harm"; the public came to expect a black dialect from the pen of Paul Laurence Dunbar, and was less likely to accept his more traditional work.

Dunbar was then 22 years old and had published his book Oak and Ivy two years earlier. That book included only a few dialect poems. His next book, Majors and Minors (1895) included a separate section for "Humor and Dialect." The same year, Moore published her first book, Violets and Other Tales. Though some of the prose stories in that collection had characters who spoke with Southern dialogue, her poetry used traditional language. One of Dunbar's more famous dialect poems is "A Negro Love Song":

Seen my lady home las' night,
   Jump back honey, jump back.
Hel' huh han' an' sque'z it tight,
   Jump back honey, jump back.
Heahd huh sigh a little sigh,
Seen a light gleam f'um huh eye,
An' a smile go flitin' by—
   Jump back honey, jump back.

Heahd de win' blow thoo de pines,
   Jump back honey, jump back.
Mockin' bird was singin, fine,
   Jump back honey, jump back.
An' my hea't was beatin' so,
When I reached my lady's do',
Dat I couldn't ba' to go—
   Jump back, honey, jump back.

Put my ahm aroun' huh wais',
   Jump back, honey, jump back.
Raised huh lips an took a tase',
   Jump back, honey, jump back.
Love me honey, love me true?
Love me well ez I love you?
An' she ansawhd: "'Cose I do"—
   Jump back, honey, jump back.

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