Poetic License: American Dialect Poetry
My case for DCDE’s spring exhibit, “Poetic License: Seven Curators’ Poetry Selections from Distinctive Collections” focuses on American dialect poetry in our collections. Dialect poetry is a style of writing that attempts to replicate the sound and speech patterns of people from a particular region or social group. It has often been regarded with mixed feelings – enjoying immense popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but existing mostly outside of the literary canon. When we read these depictions of speech today our initial reaction is likely one of cringe-inducing disgust or dismissal. Yet these examples can be used by students, faculty, and researchers to think critically and open discourse on topics such as racism, stereotypes and bias, the immigrant experience (historically, as well as today), cultural appropriation and authenticity, and to promote cultural awareness and sensitivity.
The case highlights three particular poets writing in this style:
T. A. (Thomas Augustine) Daly, 1871-1948:
Daly attended Villanova College from 1880-1887 and went on to enjoy a prolific career in publishing and newspapers. Villanova holds several copies of his volumes, which sold widely, reaching numerous editions. Daly was best known for his humorous verse written primarily in Italian-American or Irish-American dialect. Critics and reviews in his day generally noted his portrayals of immigrant characters as distinguished by sympathy and understanding rather than as harmful or offensive.
Learn more about T.A. Daly in a previous online exhibit here: https://exhibits.library.villanova.edu/t-a-daly
Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1872-1906:
During his short life, Paul Laurence Dunbar published twelve books of poetry, four novels, and four books of short stories. He is regarded as one of the first African American literary figures to gain national and international recognition. Briefly married to Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson (1874-1935), a fellow writer later known for her activism in women’s rights, he died of tuberculosis at age thirty-three.
To a largely white audience, Dunbar’s dialect poetry, written in a style associated with Black speech of the antebellum American South, was seen as “authentic,” though he was born and educated in Dayton, Ohio. For Dunbar, this style of dialect was no more natural than it was for other popular writers also known for the style, such as Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Distinctive Collections holds several copies of illustrated volumes of Dunbar’s poetry first published by Dodd, Mead, and Co. between 1899 and 1904. These lovely editions are illustrated with photographs by the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) Camera Club, with book cover and interior decorations by noted book designers Alice Morse (1863-1961) and Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944).
Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” from Lyrics of the Hearthside (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1899) later inspired the title to Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969).
James Whitcomb Riley, 1849-1916:
One of the most well-known and best-selling poets at the time of dialect poetry’s height of popularity was James Whitcomb Riley. Known as the “National Poet,” the “Hoosier Poet,” or “Children’s Poet,” for his Indiana-based Midwest regional dialect, his homespun poetry was often humorous and sentimental. Riley began his career writing for newspapers and gained fame performing and reading his poetry on traveling public speaking circuits. Two of his best loved poems are “The Raggedy Man” and “Little Orphant Annie.”
Be sure to stop by Falvey’s first floor to see the entire exhibit in person this spring and watch the blog for most posts from the curators!
Rebecca Oviedo is Distinctive Collections Archivist at Falvey Memorial Library.
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