June 28 - Criticism with a British Accent

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On June 28, 1897, an acquaintance in Woodford, England, wrote to Paul Laurence Dunbar in London, telling him that a review of his poetry had appeared in an English journal.

Just as I am posting this, I borrowed the "Chronicle" to see a review of your book.  I had purposely refrained from reading anything until I could give my own impressions.  I have not done so as yet for lack of time.

M. Furman to Paul Laurence Dunbar, June 28, 1897.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

Paul was in England to recite his works and find an English publisher for his book Lyrics of Lowly Life.  It was published in the spring of 1897 and soon afterward critical reviews began to appear in the press, some with lengthy quotations of Paul's poems.  As with American reviewers, British critics often disparaged Paul's poems in standard English while praising his verses in Black dialect.

Mr. Paul Laurence Dunbar, who is to make his first appearance as a reader today before a London audience, is an unusually interesting addition to the ranks of literature.  He is not only an American negro of unmixed blood, but he is, as Mr. W. D. Howells has pointed out, the first of his own race to portray its humors, difficulties and aspirations.  Dunbar, in his lighter vein, shows us his own people.  But whilst the painting of negro life is his most characteristic gift, Mr. Dunbar perhaps reaches higher levels of thought in his serious poetry which is not in dialect.  He has faced the problems of life, and has something to say on them.  And he has a keen sense of natural beauty.

"A Negro Poet."  The Manchester Guardian (Manchester, England).  February 22, 1897.  Page 6.

These lowly lyrics fall naturally into two divisions:  verse descriptive of negro life and standpoint, which could have been written only by a negro;  and verse after a more ordinary pattern, which is within the scope of any sentimentalist with a gift for rhyme.  With the latter section we need not concern ourselves;  but the negro poems are well worth attention.  It is curious how true the dialect poem nearly always rings.  It seems as if a man does not write in his own patios unless he has sincerity.  Mr. Dunbar has displayed certain sides of the negro character very charmingly.

"A Negro Poet."  The Academy (London, England).  June 19, 1897.  Page 625.

Mr. Dunbar comes forward, not only with some very bright, humorous, and sometimes touching sketches of negro life, but with some more than passable lyrics, such as might be written by a white man about the life of white men and women, and the thoughts and emotions which they alone are supposed to share.

"Recent Verse."  The Times (London, England).  July 2, 1897.  Page 13.

Mr. Dunbar is an American negro, and the first of his race to produce dialect verse in illustration of negro thought and feeling.  His pieces in literary English are very tolerable indeed, but not out of the common;  it is on the dialect pieces that his claim to consideration must be based.

"Books of the Month," by Davenport Adams.  Belgravia: A London Magazine (London, England).  July 1897.  Page 363.

Mr. Dunbar's poems in the white man's manner are not at all distinguished.  They are mediocre verses, and only interesting as the achievements of a black man in a speech not his own.  A good three-quarters of the book might quite well be dispensed with.  What we would keep would be the negro dialect poems, of which half a dozen deserve to be classics.  In these one gets the qualities of quaint humor, vivacity, simplicity and wisdom, which belong to the negro race, with the affectionateness which made them dear to their masters of old.  It is as a negro poet distinctively Mr. Dunbar must be considered, and as such that he is considerable.

"Recent Poetry and Verse."  The Speaker (London, England).  August 28, 1897.  Page 245.

In a letter to his fiancée Alice Ruth Moore, Paul enclosed some reviews of his work that had appeared in the British press.

I believe I'll get up right here and send you one or two notices if I can find them.  Be sure and preserve them.  The one in the "Chronicle" is said by my literary friends to be excellent for that paper.  There is another long and kindly one in the Academy.  Only one paper was nasty and it was a very unimportant one whose name I had never even seen before.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, July 4, 1897.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 5).