One hundred and twenty years ago the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar published the volume that propelled him into wider prominence: Majors and Minors. This was Dunbar’s second volume of poetry. His first, Oak and Ivy, appeared in 1892. Both books were the products of a 19th century self-publishing deal. Dunbar contracted on credit with the United Brethren Publishing Company in Dayton to publish Oak and Ivy. Dunbar sold every one of his copies of Oak and Ivy for a dollar apiece with the help of friends, some of them bought by workers in the office building where he was employed as an elevator operator. The young man’s talent and technique impressed his readers, and Dunbar began to attract crowds when he gave public readings. Dunbar was helped by the support of two white patrons and friends from Toledo, Ohio: a lawyer named Charles A. Thatcher and a doctor named Henry A. Tobey. Buoyed by his success, Dunbar brought out another book of poetry with Tobey and Thatcher advancing money for its publication.
When a copy of Majors and Minors found its way to fellow Ohioan William Dean Howells, editor of The Atlantic and America’s premier man of letters, Dunbar’s days as an elevator operator were numbered. Howells praised the book in The Atlantic. Before long publications were clamoring for Dunbar’s work and the public outside of Dayton wanted to hear him recite. And there was one important difference between Oak and Ivy and Majors and Minors. The second volume had a frontispiece portrait of the author, making it clear to anyone who came upon the book that these poems were the work of a black writer.
Howells’ review is an important incident in Dunbar’s career. There is a strong element of paternalism in the review (“Mr. Dunbar’s race is nothing if not lyrical, and he comes by his rhythm honestly.”). However, Dunbar was understandably thrilled by such a response and wrote a note of thanks to Howells (both can be read by clicking one of the links at the end of this post). But in years to come, Dunbar had mixed feelings about the review, and his feelings were connected to the poems Howells praised most highly. The section of the book marked as “Majors” consists of poems in standard English that show the influence of poets such as John Keats. The “Minors” section is made up of Dunbar’s poems in black dialect. The dialect poems drew the greatest enthusiasm from Howells. This “Majors and Minors” dichotomy would be a central feature of Dunbar’s work in poetry. Dunbar wanted to be recognized for his mastery of traditional English verse, and grew tired of attention for his dialect work. However, Dunbar had a real gift for dialect verse and was drawn to it. He also admired and was influenced by Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley, much of whose work is in Hoosier dialect.
At the same time, there is more subtlety and complexity in Dunbar’s dialect work than might appear at first glance. Commentary on race relations and black identity can be found in his dialect verse. As Joanne M. Braxton notes in her introduction to The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the poet produced “sophisticated dialect verse that located the black speaker, uniquely for Dunbar’s time, at the center of experience.” She also writes that “While it is true that Dunbar’s dialect poetry, much of it written in a comic and sometimes sentimental vein, was popular with whites, it was also popular with blacks of the post-World War I generation, who entertained each other with recitations of Dunbar’s verse at slabtown and at other all-black gatherings that excluded whites.” Dunbar’s interest in dialect went beyond African-American dialects.
Braxton notes in her excellent introduction to Dunbar’s Collected Poetry that “Fascinated by the representation of regional language generally, Dunbar experimented with German-American, Irish-American, and Midwestern dialects. One such example of Dunbar’s experimentation with German-American dialect is “Lager Beer,” a humorous piece that appeared in the Dayton Tatler (sic) of December 13, 1890, signed with the Dunbar pseudonym Pffenberger Deutzelheim…” The Dayton Tattler was a newspaper Dunbar created geared towards the city’s black population. Dunbar’s good friends the Wright brothers printed the newspaper in their Dayton print shop.
Some of Dunbar’s best-known poems are found in Majors and Minors. Notable poems include “When de Co’n Pone’s Hot,” “Frederick Douglass,” “We Wear The Mask,” “When Malindy Sings,” and “The Colored Soldiers.” There are a variety of anthologies of Dunbar’s verse that are available, and most of them are likely to include selections from Majors and Minors. You can also read the book here:
The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Edited and with an introduction by Joanne M. Braxton. University of Charlottesville Press, Charlottesville and London, 1993.
Paul Laurence Dunbar by Peter Revell. Twayne Publishers, Boston.
The Howells review of Majors and Minors: