Der Dunbar: Paul Dunbar’s German-American Dialect Poem “Lager Beer”

Paul Dunbar

Paul Dunbar

It’s Oktoberfest season around the world, so I’ve decided to highlight an interesting poem of Paul Dunbar’s in honor of the occasion. Oktoberfest is a sixteen-day long beer and folk festival held in Munich each year in September that has inspired other similar celebrations around the world. The poem is “Lager Beer,” an early dialect work Paul Dunbar published in 1890. He was only eighteen years old when this appeared.

Paul Dunbar—poet, short story writer, novelist, librettist—was born on June 27, 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, the son of former slaves. Despite the racial injustice of the era in which he lived he had a remarkable career. In his short lifetime he was prolific, creating a rich body of work, particularly in poetry that alternated between standard English and dialect forms. Although much of his dialect verse was in African-American dialect, he also tried his hand at some other dialects—in this case, a German-American one.

Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in the late 1800s. The neighborhood was located north of the Miami-Erie canal route, now Central Parkway, and was home to hundreds of German immigrants. "The Rhine" was a local joking reference to the Miami Erie Canal since so many Germans lived on the other side of it.

Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in the late 1800s. The neighborhood was located north of the Miami-Erie canal route, now Central Parkway, and was home to hundreds of German immigrants. “The Rhine” was a local joking reference to the Miami Erie Canal since so many Germans lived on the other side of it.

Two aspects of nineteenth century culture are reflected in this poem. One is that literary works in dialect were common at this time, particularly in stories or poems with a rural “local color” setting. Comic works often employed dialect. One poet who was especially popular during Dunbar’s lifetime, and who influenced Dunbar, was Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley. Many of Riley’s poems were set in rural Indiana and featured rustic characters. The other cultural aspect is the widespread dissemination of German culture, particularly in the Midwest. German immigrants have powerfully shaped my own city, Cincinnati, as well as cities like St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. There is also a large German-American presence in Texas. Dunbar would have encountered Germans and German-Americans during his time in southwestern Ohio.

Here's a good lager beer made in Ohio: The Great Lakes Brewing Company's Dortmunder Gold. The company is based in Cleveland.

Here’s a good lager beer made in Ohio: the Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Dortmunder Gold. The company is based in Cleveland.

In “Lager Beer,” Dunbar experiments with German-American dialect for humorous purposes. “Lager Beer” appeared on December 13, 1890 under the pseudonym “Pffenberger Deutzelheim” in the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper Paul Dunbar created and edited to serve Dayton’s black community. His good friends the Wright brothers printed the paper. The poem has also been set to music recently.

Over-the-Rhine saloon in 1875.

Over-the-Rhine saloon in 1875.

The poem has a kind of lurching quality and a ponderous humor, which richly evokes the image of a drunken German man stumbling around the city (“shumps aroundt”) and getting himself in trouble. I can picture a German workingman, clad in the rough clothes and boots of the time, woefully reciting this to himself in his kitchen while watching his fellows troop down to the corner saloon.

Another view of Over-the-Rhine, courtesy of the University of Cincinnati archives.

Another view of Over-the-Rhine, courtesy of the University of Cincinnati archives.

The second and fourth lines of each stanza are indented, but the wordpress format is fighting me on this one. Anyway, here is the poem, which you might want to enjoy with a good lager beer.

“Lager Beer”

I lafs and sings, und shumps aroundt,
Und somedimes acd so gueer,
You ask me vot der matter ish?
I’m filled mit lager peer.

I hugs mine child, and giss mine vife.
Oh, my dey was so dear;
Bot dot ish ven, you know, mire friend,
I’m filled mit lager peer.

Eleetion gomes, I makes mire speech,
Mine het it vas so glear:
De beoples laf, und say ha, ha,
He’s filled mit lager peer.

De oder night I got me mad,
De beoples run mit fear.
De bleeceman gome und took me down
All filled mit lager peer.

Next day I gomes pefore de judge,
Says he, “Eh heh, you’re here!”
I gifs you yust five-fifty-five
For trinking lager peer.

I took mine bocket book qvick oud,
So poor I don’t abbear;
Mine money all vas gone, mine friend
Vas gone in lager peer.

Und den dey dakes me off to shail,
To work mine sendence glear;
Und dere I shwears no more to be
Filled oup mit lager peer.

Und from dot day I drinks no more,
Yah, dat ish very gueer,
But den I found de tevil lifed
In dot same lager peer.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Go easy on that lager beer!

Patrick Kerin

 

Resources:

The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited and with an introduction by Joanne M. Braxton. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville and London. 1993.

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