Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Nelse Hatton’s Vengeance” and the Plantation Tradition

In Tuesday’s post, I wrote about Charles Chesnutt’s “The Sheriff’s Children” and the plantation tradition. Today, I want to extend that conversation to include Paul Laurence Dunbar, an author who many have painted as an accomadationist that perpetuated African American stereotypes and played to the plantation tradition. However, as I argue elsewhere on this blog, Dunbar worked to subvert that tradition through his writing. (Look at my post on “The Tragedy of Three Forks” for an example.) Today, I want to briefly look at the ways that Dunbar counters stereotypical images in his story “Nelse Hatton’s Vengeance” from Folks from Dixie (1898).

paul-laurence-dunbarDunbar counters prevailing stereotypes of African American home life through his description of the Hattons’ home and their life within it. Rather than play into the stereotypical views of plantation literature and illustrations, Dunbar presents the Hattons as a “respectable” family that do not live within squalor. From the very beginning of the story, Dunbar pushes back against prevailing images of African American home life during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Dunbar describes the community in Dexter, Ohio, as a peasant place to live and raise a family, and the white community accepts and respects The Hattons, migrants from Kentucky after the war.

Nelse, through his hard work, earned enough money to purchase some property, and “[h]e was one among the number [in the community] who had arisen to the dignity of a porch” where he sits and reads the Evening News when his son tells him there is a man at the back door (87). Nelse has attained a level of respectability by having a porch on his house, and he exhibits social mobility through his thrift, hard work, and ability to read. By beginning the story in this manner, Dunbar sets up the reversal that will occur in the narrative when Nelse realizes that the stranger at the back door is his down-and-out old master, Tom.

Later, the narrator describes the Hattons’ home in more detail.

If this story was chronicling the doings of some fanciful Negro, or some really rude plantation hand, it might be said that the “front room was filled with the conglomeration of cheap but pretentious furniture, and the walls covered with gaudy prints”–this sees to be the usual phrase. But in it the chronicler too often forgets how many Negroes were house-servants, and from close contact with their master’s families imbibed aristocratic notions and quiet buy elegant tastes. (91)

At the beginning of this paragraph, Dunbar, through the use of quotation marks, informs his readers of the widely held notions of what an African American family’s home would look like. However, he undercuts these assertions by reminding his readers about the “close contact” between formerly enslaved individuals and their masters and the cultural exchange that undoubtedly occurred. We could take this assertion as a way of placating white readers because it reads as if the masters taught the enslaved, thus privileging the master’s position. However, within the full context of the story, we need to read this comment in another manner.

To expand our reading, we need to think about the title of the story, “Nelse Hatton’s Vengeance.” On the surface, one would expect Nelse to enact some sort of physical vengeance on his old master Tom, as his wife suggests that he does, but this is not the revenge that Nelse administers. Instead, Nelse, through his social mobility, enacts a psychological revenge on Tom and on white readers of the story. As Andrea Williams argues, “While not enacting physical violence upon Tom, Nelse presents the more material threat of black class achievement that risks unsettling both the economic and ideological bases of white superiority” (95). Nelse’s respectability, in a way, causes us to think about Booker T. Washington’s work at Tuskegee.

In “The Tuskegee Meeting,” Dunbar talks about what he sees as the greatest contribution of the Tuskegee conference, the home life. He writes, “It teaches people what they have never yet known, how to enjoy home life” (188). Social mobility, in regard to home life and respectability, worked to confront racist imagery and perceptions of African Americans as lazy, shiftless, and unable to care for themselves, thus leading to continued paternalistic rhetoric from whites. Throughout his writings, Dunbar challenges these images by presenting African American families as hard working individuals who can carve out a home life even in a society that seeks to strip them of their rights.

thesportofthegodsDunbar attacks the plantation tradition and continued stereotypes in the first chapter of The Sport of the Gods (1902). Here, Dunbar begins with, “Fiction has said so much in regret of the old days where there were plantation overseers and masters and slaves, that it was good to come upon such as household as Berry Hamilton’s, if for no other reason tan that it afforded a relief from the monotony of tiresome iteration” (315). Just as he does when describing the Hattons’ home, Dunbar directly confronts the mythological representations of the South in the very first lines of The Sport of the Gods.

He continues by describing Berry and Fannie Hamilton’s home. Slaves before the war, the Hamiltons still live on the Oakley’s plantation, working as servants. However, rather than residing within a slave cabin, the family lives in “a neatly furnished, modern house, the home of a typical, good-living Negro” (315). Again, it could be argued that Dunbar falls into the trap of continuing stereotypes by having the Hamiltons remain in the service, albeit paid service, of their former masters. However, like the Hattons, the Hamiltons reverse the moral perceptions at the beginning of the novel by being upright and respectable when compared with the Oakleys.

These are only a couple of examples of how Dunbar pushes back against the plantation tradition that sought to idealize the mythological South and the belief that African Americans did not have “respectable” home lives. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “Nelse Hatton’s Vengeance.” Folks from Dixie. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008. 86-94.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Sport of the GodsThe Collected Novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Eds. Herbert Woodward Martin, Ronald Primeau, and Gene Andrew Jarrett. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009. 315-392.
Williams, Andrea. Dividing Lines: Class Anxiety & Post-Bellum Black Fiction. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.

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