English 567: Dunbar’s Sport of the Gods
Article Expert: Amy Goldman
Jarrett, Gene Andrew. “Second-Generation Realist: or, Dunbar the Naturalist.” African American Review 41.2 (2007): 289-94.
- Core Claim: Accurate assessment of naturalist literary trends at the turn of the twentieth century must include attention to the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar and to his first novel, The Uncalled.
- In late 1890s, a “wider, generational, and largely Anglo-American shift […] was resisting realism as a theoretical idea and literary practice” (290). Crane and Norris were reacting against the literary realism represented by Howells, who is himself is aware of the new literary current. Jarrett quotes an interview with Stephen Crane in which Howells replies to Crane’s assertion of a “‘a change in the literary pulse of the country’” that he too has “‘seen it coming…. I suppose we will have to wait and see’” (290). Jarrett notes Dunbar as an essential author in this change.
- Dunbar experiments with “literary ways of stretching realism in naturalist directions” in his first novel, The Uncalled (291), and letters he wrote during its composition in 1897 demonstrate his awareness of the “generic tension” between realism and naturalism (289). Jarrett calls attention to the fact that Dunbar was experimenting this way prior to Norris and Dreiser, who became critically established as the “second-generation realists” even as Dunbar’s contributions were was generally ignored.
- The Uncalled received critical praise from British reviewers. Jarrett argues that, aside from a positive review in the New York Times, the novel was overlooked in the United States due to the “racial exclusionism” of literary circles “beginning, of course, with Howells” (290). Jarrett elsewhere credits Howells’s 1896 review of Dunbar’s poetry with securing Dunbar’s status as “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race” (289), but here notes that critics had difficulty responding—or simply chose not to respond—to a novel that “submerg[ed] the conventional markers of racial realism—including black portraiture and political subject matter—that were expected of black-authored literature in the late nineteenth century” (293).
- The naturalism of The Uncalled has evaded appropriate scholarly discussion in part because Dunbar “tailors [naturalism] to accommodate ideas of human uplift and redemption” (290). Shockingly, the protagonist of The Uncalled overcomes the social stigma of his “immoral” family origins and even reconciles with his father before the latter’s death, then goes on to redeem his own life through the positive influence of a healthy romantic relationship.
- The Uncalled also resists the “masculinist ‘plot of decline’” present in many naturalist works and instead “illustrates the importance of individual will to overcoming environmental forces, even within the city” (293). Jarrett here characterizes The Uncalled as a “novel of triumph, which captures Dunbar’s revision of this genre” (293). Note the contrast with naturalist works we have read; see questions below.
Thoughts on the Article:
Main Contributions to Understanding Sport of the Gods:
- Makes a solid case for Dunbar’s inclusion as a founding member of the naturalist club.
- Analyzes how Dunbar approaches and “revises” naturalist genre expectations.
- Jarrett credits Dunbar as both a pioneer of the naturalist genre and with “revision of this genre” (293). It’s not quite clear to me how he can simultaneously be a creator and reviser of the genre.
- In The Uncalled, Dunbar presents the importance of individual choice in overcoming environmental influences. Given our experiences with naturalism so far, does this disqualify The Uncalled as a naturalist novel, or do we agree with Jarrett that such agency could co-exist with the determinism typical of the genre?
- Jarrett points out that critics weren’t quite sure what to do with The Uncalled because it was not clearly tied to racial concerns. Racial issues are certainly present in Sport of the Gods, but does Dunbar still resist the “black portraiture and political subject matter” expected from “black-authored literature” of the era? If so, to what effect?