William Dean Howells’s review of Dunbar’s Majors and Minors appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1896. At the beginning of the review, Howells mentions the photo of Dunbar that can be seen on one of the first pages of the book. In reference to the photo, Howells says, “In the present case I felt a heightened pathos in the appeal from the fact that the face which confronted me when when I opened the volume was the face of a young negro, with the race traits strangely accented” (630). Howells grounds the review in a photograph of Dunbar, thus causing him to read the collection through a prefabricated lens. Visual representations play a large role when thinking about the reception of Dunbar’s work as a whole.
Today, I want to briefly discuss the illustrations and photos that accompany some of Dunbar’s works, specifically as they appear in his short story collections and photo book collections by the Hampton Camera Club. I will not be able to speak about each of these in a very in depth manner, but I hope that the brief discussion will highlight the role that these images play in relation to the works. Along with this, I hope to provide a little background that may help students begin to think about how to discuss images in relation to the text on the page. In the comments below, let me know what techniques you use in the classroom to teach students how to do this.
E.W. Kemble, the
illustrator who drew pictures to accompany Mark Twain’s books, most notable Huckleberry Finn, served as the
illustrator for three of Dunbar’s short story collections. Along with providing
illustrations for Twain’s and Dunbar’s works, he composed A Coon Alphabet (1898), a book that contains stereotypical images of African Americans. What does having someone like Kemble illustrate Dunbar’s story collections do to the reception? Kemble
illustrated Folks from Dixie (1898), Dunbar’s first short story collection, and the characters that he chose to
illustrate work to undermine the true meaning of Dunbar’s stories. As Adam Sonstegard says, “Dunbar’s characters live through epochal social changes, fumbling with its personal implications, but Kemble transports them nostalgic settings that erase social advances. He reassures Euro-American readers that pastoral plantations endure into 1898’s more turbulent political climate” (120-121).
The illustration above accompanies “Nelse Hatton’s Vengeance” The story focuses on Nelse Hatton, a former slave who has become successful and gained the respect of the white community he lives in in Ohio. One day, a white transient knocks on his door seeking support to get back home to Kentucky. During the conversation, the two men realize they know each other. It turns out that the white man used to be Nelse’s master. After contemplating whether or not he should injure his former master for the abuse he inflicted, Nelse decides to help the man out by providing him with money and clothes to make it back to Kentucky. The story does not center on African Americans fishing. In fact, the entirety of the story takes place in Nelse’s house. What does the image of the fisherman say about the story? Ultimately, it works to subvert the true meaning of the story by reducing the visual image to a stereotype.
Along with the illustrated short stories, the Hampton Camera Club compiled six collections of Dunbar’s poetry with photographs. Ray Sapirstein has written extensively on the Hampton Camera Club books, and if you would like more information about them, check out his 2007 article in African American Review entitled “Picturing Dunbar’s Lyrics” (327-339). Sapirstein points out that the 450 images that appear in the Hampton Camera Club editions represent the largest, apart from the Farm Security Administration’s pictures during the 1930s, of African Americans to date (327). The Hampton Camera Club consisted of faculty at the college, and with very few exceptions, the club did not contain African American members, partly because the faculty was white at the time.
One of the poems that the club decided to include was “A Banjo Song,” a poem that recollects community, not an idealized bygone plantation era. None of the images that appear present a glamorizing past; in fact, the images show people longing and sorrowful, never truly looking at the camera. While some say that “A Banjo Song” can be seen as an accomidationist dialect poem, the meaning shows more than that. It highlights community, and at times, that loss of community in a new setting, something migration narratives would take up in the twentieth century. The Hampton Camera Club’s pictures highlight the poem, not representing it as a work that seeks to recapture a horrendous past.
What are your thoughts on this topic? What other authors would we look at in regards to illustrations or pictures that accompany his or her works? Let me know in the comments below.
Howells, William Dean. “Life and Letters.” Harper’s Weekly 21 June 1896: 630. Print,
Sonstegard, Adam. “Kemble’s Figures and Dunbar’s Folks: Picturing the Work of Graphic Illustration in Dunbar’s Short Fiction.” We Wear the Mask: Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Politics of Representative Reality. Willie J. Harrell Jr. Kent: Kent State UP, 2010. 116-137. Print.