Black Naturalism, White Determinism: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Naturalist Strategies
Studies in American Naturalism
Paul Laurence Dunbar was born into a country with already existing expectations regarding African Americans. While this is not a novel observation, it is intended to acknowledge the differing assumptions critics and readers, both then and now, bring to his work. As a black male author in a predominantly white literary world, Dunbar had to navigate the racial presumptions of editors and readers alike in order to succeed. To be financially successful while maintaining his political and aesthetic stance, Dunbar had to create literary strategies capable of critiquing the social, political, economic, and cultural problems facing African Americans that, at the same time, would not explicitly confront white readers’ internalized beliefs regarding blacks. As Gene Jarrett argues in Deans and Truants (2007), Dunbar’s experience with the racial realism of William Dean Howells led to Dunbar’s experimentation with literary naturalism. It is this experimentation that informs Dunbar’s naturalist depictions of white determinism. While I am broadly concerned with Dunbar’s larger naturalist strategies, my specific interest is in the naturalist strategies Dunbar employs to represent the interactions between African American and white characters, strategies intended to subvert socially sanctioned white assumptions regarding African Americans. In this sense, Dunbar’s experimentation with naturalist strategies early in his career— in the short fiction he was writing at the same time as his early novels— allows him to present white determinism as a corrective to the biological assumptions perpetuated by white literary naturalism.
International Theodore Dreiser Society
Morgan, Thomas Lewis, "Black Naturalism, White Determinism: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Naturalist Strategies" (2012). English Faculty Publications. 24.