May 13 - The Strength of Gideon

Story topics

On May 13, 1900, two favorable reviews were published about The Strength of Gideon, a collection of short stories by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  The twenty stories in the book were concerned mostly with Black characters, both before and after the Civil War.

Paul Laurence Dunbar has sent out through Dodd, Mead & Co. a new volume of short stories of Negro life.  His "Folks from Dixie" was so good that the success of "The Strength of Gideon" is assured.  Mr. Dunbar has an abundant fund of humor and a knowledge of where to stop in pathos.  His tales are genuine short stories -- just an incident, briefly described.  At his best he is very, very good, and at his worst he is better than most writers of short sketches.  He rather lacks ingenuity in his plots, but he still tells his stories so well that we are quite able to forgive that defect, which, after all, is only slight.

"Books of the Day."  Boston Sunday Post (Boston, Massachusetts).  May 13, 1900.  Page 20.

Paul Laurence Dunbar has given his readers a most enjoyable book in "The Strength of Gideon."  The language is so pure and simple and the spirit of the book so elevated that it will be read with pleasure by all.  The dialect is perfect and easy to understand.  This Negro novelist puts to shame many of our modern writers by the unquestionable purity of his conceptions and his manner of expressing them.

The Burlington Hawk-Eye (Burlington, Iowa).  May 13, 1900.

The Strength of Gideon was the second of four short story collections published during Paul's lifetime.  The volume takes its title from a story about a young Black man who is born into enslavement and becomes a trusted house servant.  He gets engaged to his sweetheart Martha just as the Civil War begins.  Compelled by duty to his white master's family, Gideon remains on the plantation as other slaves escape -- including his fiancée.

Then began the disintegration of the plantation's population.  First Yellow Bob slipped away, and no one pursued him.  A few blamed him, but they soon followed as the year rolled away.  More were missing every time a Union camp lay near, and great tales were told of the chances for young negroes who would go as body-servants to the Yankee officers. Gideon heard all and was silent.  Then as the time of his marriage drew near he felt a greater strength, for there was one who would be with him to help him keep his promise and his faith.

The spirit of freedom had grown strong in Martha as the days passed, and when her lover went to see her she had strange things to say.  Was he going to stay?  Was he going to be a slave when freedom and a livelihood lay right within his grasp?  Would he keep her a slave?  Yes, he would do it all -- all.

Excerpt from "The Strength of Gideon," by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Published in The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900).

The Strength of Gideon received mixed reviews overall and did not sell as well as Paul's first volume of stories, Folks from Dixie.

The majority of readers of polite literature know something of the verse of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who has done much to increase the general belief in the power of education to elevate his race.  But he now makes his bow before the reading public as a writer of prose.  He has put forth a volume of short stories under the title of "The Strength of Gideon."  That these stories will be read with interest we can hardly doubt.  That they will awaken antagonism in some quarters is equally certain.  Several of the stories in this volume are devoted to the endeavor of the black man to lift himself, and they are touching as well as instructive.  Most of the stories are well conceived and charmingly told.  Mr. Dunbar's prose style is clear and fluent, without any palpable attempt at fine writing.  It is the style of a well-balanced mind, and it has literary elegance without particular distinction.

"Fiction of the Season.  Stories by Paul Laurence Dunbar."  The New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art (New York, New York).  May 19, 1900.  Page 324.

The present stories have all the merits that made the author's first volume of stories so popular.  The sketches are all readable, the humor and the pathos are unforced, and the characters are skillfully and firmly drawn.  Another merit is that the dialect which some of the characters speak is understandable, which is a saving of much exasperation on the part of the reader.

Saturday Evening Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts).  May 19, 1900.

Some of the qualities that make the verses of Paul Laurence Dunbar notable are exhibited in his short stories.  He writes stories for the magazines that are as good as the average, yet leave no deep impression.  But when he comes to express the character, feeling, sentiment of the Southern darkey, he not only catches the external form with a little more certainty than most dialect writers, but seems to touch a deeper and truer note than is possible to the outside observer.

"The New Books of the Week."  The Times (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).  May 19, 1900.  Page 7.

The stories deal with Negro life in many phases, both before and after emancipation.  The plantation tales are the most entertaining, but the political stories are the strongest.  The volume as a whole appeals more strongly for sympathy for the Negro than a barrelful of tracts could do.

"A Negro's Stories."  Buffalo Morning Express (Buffalo, New York).  June 17, 1900.