Majors and Minors

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Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872—1906)


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(1895) was Paul Laurence Dunbar's second collection of poetry.Unlike the self-published Oak and Ivy (1893), Majors and Minors was underwritten by two of the poet's white benefactors and, after publication in Toledo, Ohio, achieved sufficiently wide circulation to be noticed by the prominent white literary critic William Dean Howells, who reviewed the volume in the 27 June 1896 issue of Harper's Weekly. Howells's admiring review, in which he praised Dunbar for displaying “white thinking and white feeling in a black man” (which Howells confessed never to have encountered before), gave the obscure twenty-four-year-old poet from Dayton, Ohio, a national reputation. What Howells most enjoyed in Dunbar was his dialect poetry, which was included under the rubric of “Humour and Dialect” in the second and shorter section of Dunbar's book. Most of the verse in Majors and Minors appears in the opening section, where Dunbar grouped sixty-nine poems in standard English.

Majors and Minors contains some of Dunbar's best-known poems in so-called Negro dialect. A few of these poems—“The Party” and “The Deserted Plantation,” for example—elicit racial stereotypes and nostalgia for preemancipation days that have earned Dunbar criticism for capitalizing on the popularity of the plantation tradition. But other dialect poems, such as “An Ante-bellum Sermon” and “A Negro Love Song,” richly evoke the communal lore and vernacular expression of the rural African American South. Although written in dialect, “When Malindy Sings,” a paean to the genius of an untutored but magnificently talented black woman singer, scarcely hides the impatience of the black speaker with the uninspired conventionality of white musical idiom.

Among the poems in standard English, Majors and Minors reveals Dunbar experimenting early in his career with a variety of styles, forms, and subject matter. Although many of Dunbar's poems on love and Nature evidence his technical competence and his debt to the lyricism of the English Romantic poets, these works often culminate in familiar sentiments and conventional moralizing. On the other hand, among the “majors” of Dunbar's volume are an outspoken celebration of racial pride—"The Colored Soldiers,” which memorializes the heroism and nobility of the black men who fought for the Union cause—and some provocative meditations on his situation as an African American poet struggling to negotiate a difficult passage between popularity and literary integrity. Among these brooding meditative verses are “Ere Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eyes,” which belies any impression of Dunbar as a simple comic poet, and “We Wear the Mask,” which warns the reader of the masked character of the poet's expression and of the need to peer behind appearances in order to appreciate Dunbar's complex situation and his achievement.

Peter Revell, Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1979.Donald A. Petesch, A Spy in the Enemy's Country: The Emergence of Modern Black Literature, 1989.

— William L. Andrews and Patricia Robinson Williams

Subjects: Literature.

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