Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Sport of the Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Early 20th century African American urban naturalism
Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African American poet, novelist, playwright, and writer of short stories. Born in Ohio, he was the son of former slaves. The Sport of the Gods, published in 1902, was his final novel, though he continued to publish poetry until 1906 when he died from tuberculosis at age 33.

The Sport of the Gods begins at an unspecified location in the American South. Berry Hamilton and his wife Fannie are former slaves who, following emancipation, found work as butler and housekeeper to a wealthy white landowner named Maurice Oakley. The Hamiltons live in a cottage on the Oakley estate with their teenaged children Joe and Kitty. One day Mr. Oakley’s younger brother, a guest at the estate, reports some money has been stolen from his room. Despite his twenty years of service, Berry is accused of the theft, based on a mixture of circumstantial evidence and Mr. Oakley’s refusal to believe a white gentleman would have committed such a crime. Though a detective expresses doubt as to the butler’s guilt, Mr. Oakley demands that Berry be prosecuted, and Berry experiences firsthand that the Southern justice system has little sympathy for a black man.

This all happens very quickly in the first few chapters of the novel. The story of Berry’s crime and punishment runs more toward melodrama than realism. It feels predictable and a bit rushed, as if Dunbar wished to get the crime out of the way so that he can focus on the book’s main concern, which is what happens to the Hamiltons after Berry is accused of the crime. The entire family are branded as outcasts. Joe, who is trained as a barber, can’t find work with either the white community, who considers him a criminal by association, or the black community, who resents the Hamiltons’ former association with the wealthy whites. Unable to make a living in their hometown, the family decides to follow the path of so many emancipated blacks and migrate north to New York City.

I’m a fan of naturalist literature for the way it frankly chronicles the living conditions and social forces at work in modern society. Relatively few African American writers around 1900 received positive recognition from the white literary establishment, so discovering Dunbar was a pleasant surprise. The Sport of the Gods, however, doesn’t really capture the African American experience in the same way that the novels of Charles W. Chesnutt do. Instead, the narrative that Dunbar creates with this novel could easily apply to just about any member of the poor working class. If there is a message here, it is not racially specific but rather that “Big cities breed bad morals.” Other naturalist writers have done a better job of illustrating a descent into alcoholism or prostitution, such as Emile Zola in L’Assomoir or Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie. In The Sport of the Gods, a much briefer work, this moral decline feels rushed, and the social commentary has to compete for space and attention with the potboiler plot of the legal drama.

Despite its flaws, this novel is deeply affecting at times. It may not be a masterpiece of American literary realism, but it is certainly worth a read for those interested in the literature of this time period. Given the obstacles Dunbar faced, his literary accomplishments are impressive, and his body of work certainly deserves further investigation.
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