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This review is taken from PN Review 268, Volume 49 Number 2, November - December 2022.

Cover of The life and times of a caged bird
James CampbellGene Andrew Jarrett, Paul Laurence Dunbar: The life and times of a caged bird (Princeton) £28
The Deserted Plantation

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) was two different poets and two different men. One of the poets wrote stately, well-formed verses that risked sounding out of date even in the 1890s, when Dunbar was in demand for recitals in both the United States and England. Some lines from ‘Harriet Beecher Stowe’ give the flavour:
Her message, Freedom’s clear reveille, swept
    From heedless hovel to complacent throne,
    Command and prophecy were in the tone
    And from its sheath the sword of justice leapt.
It was another sort of poem that audiences came to hear, though Dunbar felt patronized and feared he was mistreating his gift by catering for the demand. This was his Negro dialect verse, related – though only superficially – to the commercially successful minstrel shows, to what were known, among black and white alike, as ‘coon songs’ (and, in the century after, to the blues). Dunbar wrote numerous poems in dialect. Many are profound and poignant, such as ‘When Dey ’Listed Colored Soldiers’, written from the point of view of a mother whose son has been conscripted to fight in the Civil War; or the brilliant ‘The Deserted Plantation’, which gives a picture of desolation when the slaves have departed in the years after Emancipation, a loneliness felt not only in the fields but in the big house, too. An example of the wit that amused listeners is found in ‘Soliloquy of a Turkey’. As Christmas approaches, the bird senses that recent improvements in living conditions are not what they seem:
Folks ...

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