January 10 - So You Think You Can Preach?

Story topics

On January 10, 1898, Paul Laurence Dunbar in Washington, D. C., wrote to his fiancée Alice Ruth Moore in Brooklyn and mentioned that one of his short stories had been widely published and well received.

Have just had a letter from Bacheller's Syndicate saying that my "Trial Sermons" was well liked all over the country, that Peterson's Magazine published it and the editor spoke in flattering terms about it.  This praise is followed by the practical request for another.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, January 10, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

Irving Bacheller was a journalist, poet and essayist who operated an influential press syndicate, distributing feature articles and literary works to periodicals around the country.  Peterson's Magazine was a monthly journal for ladies, so it included fashion plates and knitting instructions along with poetry and fiction.  Paul's short story "The Trial Sermons on Bull-Skin" is about a church seeking a new pastor.  Two ministers are invited to preach sermons so the congregation can choose between them, but rival factions within the church use manipulative schemes to promote their favorite.

Each party refused to endorse any measure or support any candidate suggested by the other;  and as neither was strong enough to run the church alone, they were in a state of inactive equipoise very gratifying to that individual who is supposed to take delight in the discomfort of the righteous.  There was an ominous quiet on the banks of Bull-Skin, the calm that precedes a great upheaval, when clouds hang heavy with portents and forebodings, but silent withal.

Excerpt from "The Trial Sermons on Bull-Skin," by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Published in Folks from Dixie (1898).

In late 1897 and early 1898, the story appeared in periodicals around the country.  Alice was in Massachusetts during the holidays and heard people discussing it.

Your "Sermons" was in the Boston Transcript.  I found Boston dividing admiration between it and Quo Vadis, with the balance of favor on your side as Bostonians never read books -- only criticisms, and one can't discuss Quo Vadis in criticisms.

Alice Ruth Moore to Paul Laurence Dunbar, January 10, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

"The Trial Sermons on Bull-Skin" by Paul Laurence Dunbar, will begin tomorrow.  This is a capital humorous story of negro life, by the brilliant young poet and writer whose unique distinction as the first of his race to attain literary fame has awakened widespread interest in himself and his work.

The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington).  November 30, 1897.  Page 4.

We have arranged that during the winter months when lack of outdoor amusements compels thoughts of books and fireside, the best short fiction of the season shall appear in our columns.  Beginning with December, the first story of the month will be from the pen of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the already famous young poet and writer.  In "The Trial Sermons on Bull-Skin," he has told a very amusing story of an exciting dissension in a Negro congregation in the South.

"Short Serial Stories for the Holiday Month."  Davenport Daily Republican (Davenport, Iowa).  December 2, 1897.  Page 5.