Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Tragedy of Three Forks” appears in his 1898 short story collection The Strength of Gideon. The story’s narrative involves a woman burning down the house of a rival and blaming the arson on African Americans. The white press runs with the assumption that African Americans committed the crime, captures a group, and lynches them. Thomas L. Morgan speaks about this story, and others, in relation to “White Determinism” and the genre of Naturalism that took off around the turn of the twentieth century. For this post, though, I want to not the aspects of dialect that appear in the story.
When most people read Dunbar, they read his dialect poetry. The reason for this, as mentioned in earlier posts, comes from the fact that anthologies typically contain them. Along with this, the dialect poems lead some to view Dunbar as an accomadationist who reminisces about the bygone days of the Old South. This assumption cannot be further from the truth when reading Dunbar’s work as whole. Scholars such as Gene Andrew Jarrett, Nadia Nurhussein, and others have worked to dismiss this characterization of Dunbar and his work. In this post, I would like to add to those voices by showing, briefly, how dialect works in “The Tragedy of Three Forks.”
Taking place in Central Kentucky, the story begins on a dark, stormy night. The narrator describes the scene, mentioning an unidentified girl can be seen in the night: “It was hardly a night on which a girl should be out. And yet one was out, scudding before the storm, with clenched teeth and wild eyes, wrapped head and shoulders in a great blanket shawl, and looking, as she sped along like a restless, dark ghost” (269). Notice that the narrator does not mention whether or not the girl scurrying through the storm is white or African American. She only appears covered in a blanket and resembling a “dark ghost.” When the girl speaks for the first time, certain assumptions may be brought to the forefront of readers’ minds. She says,
“‘Tain’t the first time, ’tain’t the first time she’s tried to take me down in comp’ny, but—” and the sob gave way to the dry, sharp note in her voice, “I’ll fix her, if it kills me. She thinks I ain’t her ekals, does she ? ‘Cause her pap’s got money, an’ has good crops on his lan’, an’ my pap ain’t never had no luck, but I’ll show ‘er, I’ll show ‘er that good luck can’t alius last. Pleg-take ‘er, she’s jealous, ’cause I’m better lookin’ than she is, an’ pearter in every way, so she tries to make me little in the eyes of people. Well, you’ll find out what it is to be pore—to have nothin’, Seliny Williams, if you live.” (270)
The girl’s speech provides readers with an idea about her identity. She says that the rival “thinks I ain’t her ekals” which signifies a distinction of class, and quite possibly race. However, we still do not get any idea about whether or not the girl is African American or white until later in the story.
The indeterminability regarding the girl’s race from the beginning of the story works to disrupt the narrative in the same way that the newspaper “scarehead” does later in the text. Readers, based on local color and regionalism of the period, may perceive that the girl is African American. However, Dunbar shatters this conception because she is white and burns the house of her rival out of anger. She goes along with the town people’s conjecture that African Americans set the fire and allows the lynchings to continue.
There is a lot more in regards to this story that could be discussed, but I think that challenging Dunbar’s use of dialect, and the way he deploys it in this story, serves an important purpose. We need to realize that Dunbar worked within a tradition that wrote in dialect. The “Hoosier Poet” James Whitcomb Riley became an inspiration to Dunbar, and that influence can be seen in the early dialect poems from Dunbar where he works to replicate Whitcomb’s dialect. As well, Dunbar can be seen, at eighteen, writing in a German dialect. His poem “Lager Beer” appears in the inaugural issue of the Dayton Tattler that Dunbar started in 1890.
What does all of this mean? Quite simply, it means that we do not need to pigeonhole Dunbar and his dialect poetry or writings. His writing does not just reflect the lives of Southern African Americans. His work shows various regions, races, and classes in the United States at the turn of the century. The essentialist views of Dunbar started by Howells has partly led to this emphasis on Dunbar’s dialect. This view needs to be refocused, and by looking at the entirety of Dunbar’s work, we can do that. What are your thoughts on Dunbar’s dialect? What other authors from that period do we need to think about in regards to dialect and the role dialect plays? Let me know in the comments below.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “The Tragedy of Three Forks.” The Strength of Gideon. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1898. 267-283. Print.