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David Levering Lewis : Paul Lawrence Dunbar

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David Levering Lewis Paul Lawrence Dunbar had the benefit of a parent who had escaped from slavery on the Underground Railroad, gone to Canada, then returned to the United States and donned the Union uniform and fought in the Civil War and a mother who, though not particularly well educated prized education. And that background of militancy and learning certainly --he took those things in with his mother's milk, as it were. I think his mother was a much greater influence upon him than his father, however. But, in any case, he shares that ambition to succeed through talent that is so characteristic of at least one tier of the African American community. And, of course, it helps that he's a genius. It's no easier for him, but, on the other hand, it's more certain that he's going to try. And so he does quite spectacularly. He is part of that Washington community, for example, we were talking about. He has a position at the Library of Congress, a plum of a job for those times at that place. His wife doesn't quite like the position for some reason. He gives it up and tries to make his living as a poet, which must have been quite an insane risk for a black man in 1900 with very little behind him except the recognition of William Dean Howells by that time, that he could actually make a living as a poet. But he doesn't do such a bad job.

He represents the best of what is possible and from what I do know of Dunbar his tragedy isn't that he's a poet in a philistine culture. Poet's don't do well in America. They never have. But it's that Dunbar is being appreciated as the wrong kind of poet. His life is short. He's dead by 1906 and before he dies, he says, "I believe that man," speaking of Howells, "did me no favor at all. He fixed an identity for me,"that he increasingly came to resent. And so in his poetry and in his writings, his novel, the autobiographical novel, The Uncalled, the protagonist is a white protagonist who is to represent him, so that there is a schizophrenia in Dunbar that, curiously enough, Dubois, though I suppose he did not specifically have Dunbar in mind -- at least he says so -- Dubois identifies and underscores in the book three years later in 1902, The Souls of Black Folk, when he talks about the divided self, that desetting division within the soul of the African American, an American negro, two warring bodies and two warring souls in one body. And certainly Dunbar exemplified that kind of polarity

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