Recently, while preparing for the 2016 College Language Association Conference, I went back and looked at more of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s writings. I examined some of his newspaper articles, short stories, and The Love of Landry (1900). During his career, Dunbar wrote four novels, and three of them focused on white, not African American, characters. The Love of Landry was Dunbar’s second novel, and the narrative, simply put, focuses on Mildred Osborne going out West to Colorado to improve her health. During her stay, she falls in love with Landry and agrees, at the end of the novel, to marry him. From a narrative standpoint, the novel is pretty straightforward and, at times, leans towards melodrama.
For many, Dunbar’s decision to write novels that focus on white characters while eschewing African American protagonists has led them to view him as an accomidationist rather than as an artist with a political voice. However, Dunbar was not alone in this practice, and through his novels, Dunbar “demonstrates the astonishing range of an African American writer working within the literary establishment in 1900 in America” (Martin, Primeau, Jarrett 105). Underneath the veneer, the novel, I would argue, comments on various aspects of Dunbar’s life at the turn of the century and on race relations as well.
In regards to Dunbar’s own life, the class distinctions that arise, then crumble, between Mildred and Landry mirror those that arose with Dunbar’s own relationship with Alice Ruth Moore
. Alice’s family did not want her to marry Paul because of his class but also because of the darkness of his skin. In the novel, Mildred’s Aunt Anna fears that her trip to Colorado will cause the young girl to “disgrace [her] family as to wear leggings and a buckskin shirt” (114). Throughout, even though she is thousands of miles away, Anna continues to admonish her niece not to get involved with someone of a lower position than herself. She writes Mildred and concludes her letter by saying, “The poor can afford to be humane. The rich cannot afford to be less than proper” (138). For Anna, being proper involves marrying within ones class.
Along with fearing that her niece will become enamored with a man who is ostensibly below her station, Anna cringes at the idea that Mildred may become accustomed to the “uncivilized” life of the West and forget her own station. She claims this, as has been seen, with her comments that Mildred should not come back wearing buckskins or riding horses astride. Even though Anna fears the “uncivilized” West, Colorado appears as a land populated by civilized and democratic individuals. The West becomes a land of democratization where class and station do not matter. Instead, the actions of a man become the focus. Mildred’s father John experiences this when he greets Landry for the first time.
While the novel deals with distinctions between different classes, I would also say that the novel, with its veneer of white characters, comments on race relationships as well. The novel contains one, possibly two, African American characters. A porter on the train assists Mildred and her father, and the family’s maid, Nina, follows them out to Colorado. It is unclear whether or not Nina is African American. These characters, however, do not play a large part in the story and do not really add anything to the discussion of race. It would seem fitting that the porter might, and he does to the extent that his scene can be seen in relation Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” but overall, he just serves as a character that expands the discussions of class.
While the porter provides another example of class division, Landry provides the broader view. In this way, I would argue that Landry presents a counter to class relations as a whole, as I mention earlier, but I would also argue that another way to view Landry would be in regards to race. Landry exists as “uncivilized,” at least initially to the characters in the novel, because he lives so far from civilization. Landry moved west to escape the corruption of the “civilized” society in New York.
By giving Landry a secret, Dunbar comments on the perceptions that individuals have of one another, a topic that arises again and again in his short fiction regarding the ways that whites perceive African Americans. Eventually, we find out that Landry is not what he initially appears to be; instead, he comes from an upper class, “civilized,” family. Aunt Anna perceives that Landry is an “uncivilized” cowboy who will taint her niece; however, this is not the case. Eventually, Anna acquiesces to the couple’s desire to wed, and she sees the man as he is. In this way, one could argue that Dunbar, by using white characters, slyly comments on the ways that perceptions create a false image of individuals, and taken in relation to his other works, it can be seen as a comment on the ways that whites view African Americans.
These thoughts, at this stage, are just preliminary. There is more here, especially in regards to Dunbar’s choosing to set the story in the West, a space of democratization. This, though, is a broader discussion for a later date. What are your thoughts here? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Love of Landry. The Collected Novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Eds. Herbert Woodward Martin, Ronald Primeau, and Gene Andrew Jarrett. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009. 109-165.
Martin, Herbert Woodward, Ronald Primeau, and Gene Andrew Jarrett. “Introduction.” The Collected Novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Eds. Herbert Woodward Martin, Ronald Primeau, and Gene Andrew Jarrett. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009. 105-108.