On October 22, 1898, The New York Times published a favorable review of Paul Laurence Dunbar's first novel, The Uncalled. Paul was 26 years old and known mostly for poetry rather than fiction.
Mr. Dunbar has caught the spirit of humanity and of human interest, and what he writes is not a dry essay, but a living, breathing life. The presentation reveals no little dramatic power on the part of the author. The art is there undeniably, no matter what prejudice may say. "The Uncalled" is not a great novel, but a good one. Mr. Dunbar has entered upon the writing of romance with as much success as that which characterized his verse and emphasizes the fact that a good story does not depend upon race or color or any such thing. The plot, while not involved, is skillfully and adroitly handled. The situations while at times appearing overdrawn, are yet not unnatural or unlikely.
"Reviews of Books: Dunbar's 'The Uncalled.'" The New York Times (New York, New York). October 22, 1898. Page 15.
The Uncalled is about a young man from Ohio whose adoptive mother tries to compel him to become a preacher. All of the main characters in the book are white, and some of them speak in Midwestern dialect. A day after the New York Times article was published, an unfavorable review appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, the colored poet, has written a novel. In the words of Uncle Remus, "He had'n oughter 'ave gone to dun hit," for he has dealt his literary reputation a solar plexus blow. He has told a story which had no need to be told and has written it in an unexcusable fashion. The book is entitled "Uncalled," and tries to tell the story of an Ohio youth, who, born to misfortune and orphanage, finds guardianship in the local Methodist Episcopal congregation. He is brought up to the church and enters its pulpit at the immature age of 18 years, but without that necessary grace of "a call." Mr. Dunbar has failed to give polemic value to his book, and he has not made any kind of a story. There is no trace of the color question in the book, his characters being apparently all of the Caucasian race.
"One Week's List of New Novels." The Philadelphia Times (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). October 23, 1898. Page 24.
Paul wrote The Uncalled while he was in England in 1897. During the trip, he carried a pocket calendar in which he jotted down notes and tracked expenses. On one page, he wrote a few ideas about The Uncalled.
Liphalet Hodges who is brought to sense of his age and proposal by the death of his nag.
You ain't never had no -- ahem -- no experunce with children an' I think it's a resky thing.
Calendar booklet, February 1897. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 3).
In the finished novel, a character named Eliphalet Hodges decides to make a marriage proposal after his horse dies. The dialogue is similar to Paul's rough draft.
"A child, Miss Hester, don't you think that it's a leetle bit resky? You ain't never had no -- that is -- you ain't had much experunce in the bringin' up o' childern, specially boys."
Excerpt from Chapter 4 of The Uncalled, by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Published in 1898.
The Uncalled first appeared in the May 1898 issue of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, and was later republished in book form by Dodd, Mead & Co., but a struggle took place between the two firms. To Paul, it was a deeply personal matter. He had been engaged to Alice Ruth Moore for nearly a year, but they couldn't afford to get married. Paul was eager for The Uncalled to be published so he could get paid, bringing his marriage to Alice closer.
There is somewhat a hitch in the novel proceedings between Messrs Dodd and Lippincott. Dodd wants the latter to sign a contract promising not to get out a special edition of his magazine when my novel comes out. Lippincott refuses and the fight proceeds while I look on.
Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, December 21, 1897. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 5).
I have something good to tell you. While I sat here writing, -- it seems like a good omen for us -- there came a letter from Dodd & Mead saying that things had been adjusted. Lippincott will publish in April, they in September, if I make the required changes in the next two weeks when I will be paid. The same mail brought an order for a story and poem at my own price. Dear, it makes me happy because it seems to bring you nearer to me and make the happy day when we shall be one seem not so vague and mistily distant.
Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, January 4, 1898. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).
I want you for my own, darling, and soon. I cannot come at once to you -- the reason being that I am broke, my literary creditors having been slow in their payments, but the time cannot, must not be long until I see you. Another letter came from Dodd & Mead. They and Lippincott's are still fighting. Lippincott won't agree not to print more of the magazine with my story in than usual and insist that Dodd & Mead do not bring out the book until five months after their publication; the latter want me to decide. If I decide for Lippincott I lose the friendship of Dodd. If I decide for Dodd, I lose $350.00 and a big opening. I have no one with whom to advise. I am discouraged and worried to death. Dear, do let us talk plain business. I want to marry you at once very much; but the wedding is totally impossible for months to come. I cannot afford it. I am not complaining. I only want you to know the state of affairs. But a letter does not express me. It is so cold. It cannot indicate all the current of longing love and yearning for you that underlies these ugly, discouraging facts, so I will come to you as soon as possible when we can talk it over.
Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, January 5, 1898. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).