THE SPORT OF THE GODS
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Signet Classics, 176 pages
reviewed by Dylan Cook
For the best experience, I recommend reading The Sport of the Gods outside on a cloudy day, rain threatening. As you fall in step with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s rhythmic prose, it’ll be easy to forget that you’re at nature’s mercy. Let the clouds decide whether or not you get to read uninterrupted. Subject to this force, you may more easily understand what the Hamilton family endures in this novel. As deceits and misfortunes pile on top of each other, the Hamiltons decide that nature can’t help but rain down upon them. Their breakdown is more than plain bad luck can explain, so they know that they are fighting, “against some Will infinitely stronger than their own.”
Even if you haven’t heard of Paul Laurence Dunbar, you’ve likely read lines of his poetry. Maya Angelou immortalized his poem “Sympathy” when she borrowed a line for the title of her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Discussing her influences, Angelou lauded Dunbar in the same breath as Shakespeare. Dunbar was born to former slaves in Ohio in 1872, right in the middle of the Reconstruction era. He began writing seriously as a teenager, the only Black student in his high school. He had some early publishing help from his friends Wilbur and Orville Wright (yes, those Wright Brothers) before publishing his first poetry collection, Oak and Ivy. From this collection’s success, Dunbar launched a prolific career that spanned over a dozen poetry collections, three short story collections, and a handful of novels. In nearly all of his work, he seamlessly transitioned between standard and vernacular English, a feat that earned him both praise and criticism. Perhaps most miraculously, he produced all of this work amid recurring bouts of tuberculosis and alcoholism. Dying at the age of 33, Dunbar left behind a sprawling body of work that’s yet to be properly explored.
At the height of his literary power, Dunbar wrote The Sport of the Gods over the course of a month in 1901. The narrative centers on the Hamilton family, with parents Berry and Fannie and their children Joe and Kitty. Berry, a former slave, works as a butler for Maurice Oakley, a man who believes that, “there must be some good in every system, and it was the duty of the citizen to find out that good and make it pay.” Despite many years of loyal work, Berry Hamilton is expendable to Maurice. This tenuous relationship comes to a head when Maurice’s brother claims his money has been stolen. After years of saving, Berry happens to have amassed a fortune roughly equal to the amount that was stolen. For Maurice, this circumstantial evidence is enough to ensure that Berry is sentenced to ten years of hard labor.
With Berry’s good name defaced, the Hamilton family is ostracized from their community. They regroup and head north:
They had heard of New York as a place vague and far away, a city that, like Heaven, to them had existed by faith alone. All the days of their lives they had heard of it, and it seemed to them the center of all the glory, all the wealth, and all the freedom of the world. New York. It had an alluring sound.
The Hamiltons’ move to New York represents an overlooked moment in American history: the southern diaspora before the one we now consider the Great Migration. Before World War I and the Red Summer drove African Americans north, and before the Harlem Renaissance redefined literature, music, and art, there was a thriving Black population in New York City laying the groundwork. Dunbar’s novel introduces us to a turn of the century New York that contemporary authors like Edith Wharton never touched. Joe and Kitty, being young and ambitious, both make connections and find success working in music clubs. For the first time in a long time, the Hamiltons seem to be on the rise.
Even if you haven’t heard of Paul Laurence Dunbar, you’ve likely read lines of his poetry. Maya Angelou immortalized his poem “Sympathy” when she borrowed a line for the title of her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Only Fannie, the matriarch, can see the shadow still looming over the family. She comes the closest to forming a theory for the Hamiltons’ suffering. Fannie can’t bring herself to be happy for Kitty or Joe because she sees them being corrupted, commodified, and used by their friends and employers. From the moment she lays eyes on a music club, she sees it as, “a social cesspool generating a poisonous miasma and reeking with the stench of decayed and rotten moralities.” The life they’ve built in New York, successful as it may seem, is built on the same shaky foundation that crumbled under Berry. No matter where they are, north or south, they can never let themselves get too comfortable. At any moment, the people whom they trust may turn on them, just like Maurice turned on Berry, and the Hamilton family will collapse again.
Reducing The Sport of the Gods down to its key themes may give the impression that the novel is overwhelmingly pessimistic, perhaps even nihilistic. This is a dangerous assumption. The novel does carry the weight of the Hamiltons’ grief, but it’s not hopeless. After all, both Berry and his children are able to find precarious levels of success. Dunbar balances two nearly opposing ideas. On one hand, he shows that success for African Americans is possible in spite of the racist systems that hinder it; on the other, he claims that this success isn’t success at all if others can take it away so easily. In this way, The Sport of the Gods vacillates between comedy and tragedy so frequently that the dividing line becomes useless. The overall effect may appear pessimistic, but it’s the productive kind of pessimism that mobilizes action. Joe eventually notices this, realizing that, “his horizon had been very narrow, and he was angry that it was so.”
Paul Laurence Dunbar died more than a hundred years ago, but one must still mourn a brilliant writer whose career was cut short. It would be decades before authors like Richard Wright and Ann Petry would take up the mantle and raise Dunbar’s questions with the same kind of intensity.
Still, it’s difficult to read The Sport of the Gods and not wish for more. More, not because the novel is incomplete, but because it raises the kind of high-stakes questions that linger and nag long after it’s finished. Paul Laurence Dunbar died more than a hundred years ago, but one must still mourn a brilliant writer whose career was cut short. It would be decades before authors like Richard Wright and Ann Petry would take up the mantle and raise Dunbar’s questions with the same kind of intensity. Had he lived longer, maybe his subsequent novels would have shepherded us towards a satisfying answer, but we can only speculate. As it stands, Dunbar’s work is an important literary bridge between Reconstruction and the Harlem Renaissance, bringing the whole picture into much clearer focus.
Dylan Cook is a student at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies English, with a concentration in creative writing, and Biology. He often reads and writes, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected].
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