“After it is all over, after he has passed through the first pangs of strangeness and homesickness, yes, even after he has got beyond the stranger’s enthusiasm for the metropolis, the real fever of love for the place will begin to take hold upon him. The subtle, insidious wine of New York will begin to intoxicate him. Then, if he be wise, he will go away, any place, – yes, he will even go over to Jersey. But if he be a fool, he will stay and stay on until the town becomes all in all to him; until the very streets are his chums and certain buildings and corners his best friends. Then he is hopeless, and to live elsewhere would be death. The Bowery will be his romance, Broadway his lyric, and the Park his pastoral, the river and the glory of it all his epic, and he will look down pityingly on all the rest of humanity.” – Paul Laurence Dunbar The Sport of the Gods (1902)
The above quote appears in Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods, just as young Joe Hamilton and his family have moved from their home in the South and settled in New York. The passage instantly became one of my favorite literary descriptions of what it means to live in New York, and how the city has a way of insinuating itself into your bones.
I had never read Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods before a few days ago, and had never seriously read Dunbar at all. (I know, I know, shameful for someone getting a PhD in English and specializing in black literature.) William Andrews provides an informative introduction to the novel in the Signet Classic edition. I didn’t realize that this was Dunbar’s last work, or that he had died so young (at the age of 33 from tuberculosis in 1906).
The novel is a captivating story about the Hamiltons, a Southern black family who suffers a grave injustice when the hardworking devoted family patriarch, Berry Hamilton, is accused of stealing money from Maurice Oakley, the white landowner for whom they worked. When Berry is thrown in jail, the rest of his family is shamed and ostracized from their community, and unable to find any work because of Berry’s conviction. Eventually they give up and decide to move to New York City and start a new life.
Sport of the Gods is in itself an early document of the “great migration” of blacks from the South to Northern cities beginning around the turn of the century. As a novel about New York, it is a compelling snapshot of pre-Harlem black life. It is set in “the Tenderloin,” the district of Midtown Manhattan where some black New Yorkers settled in the mid to late 1800s. As a naturalist novel it illustrates the legal and cultural grip that white supremacy had on the lives of blacks in the North and South, and shows how racism polluted the consciousness of black and white America alike. And in its darker moments the novel foreshadows the plague of violence and despair that would riddle black inner cities throughout the 20th century.
I’ve avoided Dunbar’s writing in the past, mainly because dialect writing has never really appealed to me. I’ve found it laborious to wade through all the phonetic representations of black English. (That’s one reason why I’ve never been all that fond of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God either.) However, reading Sport of the Gods I can see why Dunbar is considered a master of the style. I could recognize some of those country pronunciations from my own Southern upbringing, and I was impressed with his ability to convey them into written English. That said, I wonder how the book would read to someone who does not have that context. (This is always a concern for the teacher of literature. How will students respond to a text without the cultural background and/or extensive reading experience that makes novels pleasurable for us as literary scholars?)
All in all, I’m glad I took the time to knock this “classic” off my embarrassing list of books I should have read a long time ago.