Discussion questions – Dunbar
Paul Lawrence Dunbar was a pioneering African-American literary artist. He was among the first black writers who achieved fame among predominantly white audiences with the accurate use of black vernacular and realistic depictions of the attitudes of African Americans while using the literary styles and conventions familiar to white writers. Only within the past twenty years have literary critics begun to appreciate the subtle and perceptive criticism of racial relations he provides beneath the smooth artistry of his works.
1. Dunbar’s “Mr. Cornelius” is extremely naturalistic, with Cornelius struggling against, and eventually losing to, large forces. What are the forces that are arrayed against him (2)? Find a passage that describes each force.
(Hint: Economics, discrimination, as well as emotional weakness are some examples of large forces.)
2. Dunbar was well aware of the story of the slave’s flight north to freedom, a traditional African-American narrative made famous by such works as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. How is Dunbar’s story an ironic, inverted version of the flight-to-freedom story? What is Dunbar trying to say about the status of African Americans in a society newly changed by slavery’s end?
(Hint: Cornelius is from the south. Washington D.C. is north. Does going north mean freedom for him? He must return south at the end—what does going south mean for him?)
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