September 26 - Compromising for Cash

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On September 26, 1897, a New York City newspaper published a short story by Paul Laurence Dunbar, promoting it as "A Human Nature Sketch of Real Darkey Life in New York -- The First of a Notable Series of Negro Dialect Stories by the Greatest Writer the Colored Race Has Ever Produced."  The story was about a Black house servant who habitually stole money from her employers.

She never took large amounts, and it was only the annoyance that her habit caused that kept her moving from place to place.

"Martha, why can't you do better?" asked one mistress, who had given her more than one trial.

"Don't call me Marfy," the girl had replied, sullenly;  "I's tiahed of all dese Nawthe'n aihs;  I's Mat -- jes' plain Mat."

"Well, won't you try and do better then, Mat?"

"Yass'm, I will -- I will do bettah;  jes' gi' me a chanst."

But this chance ended like all the rest, and she was soon hunting a new place.

Excerpt from "Miss Jinkins Up Nawth," by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  New York Journal (New York, New York).  September 26, 1897.  Page 18.

Over the next few weeks, the paper published more of Paul's stories in which African American characters, speaking in exaggerated dialect, were portrayed as gamblers, thieves, liars and con artists.  In another story, a Black preacher collects contributions from his congregation, and then gambles the money in a dice game.

"Lawd, hyeah come ol' Yellah Jack, ready to bus' de game agin," yelled one fellow.

"Lawd, I'm hoodooed a'ready," yelled another;  "gi' me my hat.  Yellah Jack ain't go'n' to ca'y my money away in his clothes dis Sunday night."

"'Scuse me, gentlemen;  I'm a little late tonight," said the newcomer, "but I wanted to be heavy wif de green.  Dat kep' me singin' a little longer over de collection.  How’s de game?"

"Too wa'm fu' a chile like you," said a fellow shaking the dice.

Excerpt from "Yellowjack’s Game of Craps," by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  New York Journal (New York, New York).  October 3, 1897.  Page 29.

Writing from Washington, D. C., to his fiancée Alice Ruth Moore in Brooklyn, Paul admitted he was compromising his literary standards in order to earn a paycheck.  Paul's letter referred to the Tenderloin District, an area of New York known for gambling, drinking and other vices.

If you look in today's Journal you will see, and disapprove of, the first of my Tenderloin stories, but go on disapproving dear, I am getting money for it that means help toward a cozy nest for my little singing bird.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, September 26, 1897.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 5).

After reading some of his Tenderloin stories, Alice scolded Paul and begged him not to write such lowbrow literature.

Don't, don't write any more such truck as you've been putting in the Journal.  Now this is between us as between husband and wife.  To everyone else I champion your taste.  I argue from all sorts of premises your right to do as you please -- but to you darling, I must say -- don't.  I know it means money and speedier union for us, but sometimes money isn't all.  It is not fair to prostitute your art for "filthy lucre," is it?  I shall be glad when the sixth story comes out.  It will be such a relief, for every Sunday I find myself asking "What next?"  Now that's a hard scolding, so consider it accompanied with two dozen kisses and a big, big hug to take the edge off.

Alice Ruth Moore to Paul Laurence Dunbar, October 21, 1897.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

Paul and Alice had been engaged for months but lacked the money to get married, so he justified the Tenderloin stories as a means to hasten their marriage. 

I am quite conscious dear that the Journal work is far below my standard of production, and I will quit if you wish me to, but it is hard to give up the money those little sketches bring.  They paid me $20.00 for the one last week.  You see we must marry soon even if I have to write trash for the Journal in order to do it.  However, I take your scolding with good grace and soothe my soul with the kisses that follow it.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, October 24, 1897.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).