"'To Struggle up the Thorny Path of Literature': Biblical Intertextuality in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 'Ohio Pastorals'" by Willie J. Harrell, Jr.
Willie J. Harrell, Jr., PhD, is Associate Professor of English at Kent State University, USA. Email:
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Ohio Pastorals,” five short stories serialized in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (August-December, 1901), are surely to stimulate latent interest in academia and encourage new scholarly interests in Dunbar’s prolific oeuvre. Published at the behest of Lippincott’s (Cunningham 22) editor and uncollected until 1975, these narratives remain largely “marginal in Dunbar criticism and African American literary criticism in general” (Jarret and Morgan xxxvii). Arguably one of the most prevailing factors explaining the dearth of “Ohio Pastorals” in current scholarship would be the fact that Dunbar “identifies neither the characters nor the settings of these stories in explicit racial terms.” Instead the short narratives become “local color narratives about an Ohio village” (Jarret and Morgan xxxvii) near Baldwin’s Ford, a close-knit community in Montgomery County. Nevertheless, Dunbar reflects on the pastoral tradition while presenting rural life in the stories, at the same time works outside of the “pastoral depictions that restricted black identity to stereotypically limited and historically regressive ideas” (Morgan 213) that late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth century fiction had previously situated within the American mindset. Containing many episodes in which white characters speak “in an Ohio dialect” (Revell 91), “Ohio Pastorals” liberates Dunbar from the restraints of writing in black dialect while offering him the opportunity to expand his range as an author and examine the idyllic life styles of upper class rural whites (Revell 171). Void of racial depictions, religion, then, becomes the most obvious focus of “Ohio Pastorals” as it is intertextually entwined, both literally and figuratively, within the narratives through Dunbar’s biblical exegesis. Extracted from their original textual environment, Dunbar contextualizes biblical verses, adapting the inscriptions within the traditional American rustic literary landscape. Confronted by the complexity of bucolic Ohio, then, the characters in “Ohio Pastorals” preserve the dialectal voice and the language of religious devotion.
In an effort to stimulate interests in Dunbar’s neglected works, this essay analyzes the narrative approaches he employs in “Ohio Pastorals” through his use of biblical intertextuality. While doing so, I suggest that Dunbar’s use of the pastoral tradition illuminates his interpretation of rural life in Ohio as crucial spaces for depicting issues concerning religious practices and beliefs. I attempt to not just catalogue the biblical illusions that appear in the text but also to offer an examination of their prominence. What I am suggesting is when Dunbar cites or alludes to biblical verse in “Ohio Pastorals,” he links his narratives to the Bible in a topological sense. Therefore, a typological interpretation of scripture in “Ohio Pastorals” means to draw meaning from an extensive and critical study of biblical intertextuality that goes beyond interpreting the stories as mimetic, metaphoric or metonymic representation that simply allude to biblical passages. In addition, while considering the intertextuality present in “Ohio Pastorals,” one will readily perceive a form of intratextuality in which Dunbar connects the narratives themselves. Several characters will reappear in other stories to aid in interpreting the thematic concerns of the present or later narrative and to create “a sense of continuity despite the actually serial format” (Jarret and Morgan xxxviii) of the narratives. Overall, in “The Mortification of the Flesh,” “The Independence of Silas Bollender,” “The White Counterpane,” “The Minority Committee,” and “The Visiting of Mother Danbury,” the five short narratives that appear in Dunbar’s pastorals, the author intertextualizes biblical verse as a means of idealizing religious practices and interpretations of rural Ohioians.
Dunbar’s Biblical Intertextuality
Poststructuralist Julia Kristeva coins the term intertextuality in her 1966 essay “Word, Dialogue and the Novel.” Texts, according to Kristeva, are ontologically connected to other texts: “Any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another” (Kristeva 37). Critical of Kristeva’s implied textual connections, William Irwin argues that intertextuality “has come to have almost as many meanings as users, from those faithful to Kristeva’s original vision to those who simply use it as a stylish way of talking about allusion and influence” (227-228). In spite of Irwin’s criticism, however, scholars continue to dialogue concerning the intricacies of intertextual associations. Owen Miller writes that intertextuality “addresses itself to a plurality of concepts. One might with some justice speak of it in the plural as intertextualities to cover the variety of ways it has been conceived in theoretical terms and deployed in methodological strategies” (Miller 19). Margaret Drabble and Jenny Stringer define intertextuality as “modern critical term [that] usually covers the range of ways in which one ‘text’ may respond to, allude to, derive from, mimic, or adapt another” (“Intertextuality”). Joining the ongoing discussion, Thaïs Morgan situates the concept “at the border between the literary text and its manifold relations to a broad spectrum of other texts” (246) whereas Don Fowler figures intertextuality as analytical of what he identifies as a textual system, “a matrix of possibilities constituted of earlier texts.” It is impossible, according to Fowler, to read individual texts void of their matrix—their context (117). Chris Baldick adds to the previous characterizations by rationalizing intertextual links as “anagram, allusion, adaptation, translation, parody, pastiche, imitation, and other kinds of transformation” (128) while J. D. Thomas views intertextuality as borrowing “allusions and analogies from the discourses of previous generations” (20). What intertextuality boils down to is an illustration of how texts allude to other texts—either implicitly or explicitly—and how this interaction expresses a social dialogue. In each of the short narratives in “Ohio Pastorals,” intertextuality is visible through Dunbar’s exegesis of the words of the apostles.
While considering biblical intertextuality, however, problems may surface. Most notable, translational issues point to what essentially biblical intertextuality is. Rich Lusk, for example, argues that because of the many different translations of the Bible, an “echo or allusion may be obscured” by inconsistency and interpretation. “New Testament writers often use the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament predating the New Testament,” Lusk continues, which can be quite different from the “Masoretic text” on which the English Old Testament is based (“The art of Biblical Theology in Practice”). Using the general terms found in biblical text, Dunbar navigates this challenge by not identifying the exact origins of the biblical verse he intertextualizes. Readers are left to draw their own interpretations.
To understand the process of intertextuality more fully, however, it is useful to consider the ways in which it may be invoked (Latham 215). Through biblical imagery, Dunbar enriches the texture of “Ohio Pastorals” by creating echoes of meaning as maintains a universal mastery of biblical language through two predominant intertextual techniques— allusion and collage. According to Baldick, allusion is the ‘‘indirect or passing reference to some event, person, place, or artistic work’’ but without any explanation as to the significance of the reference, while collage is the adaptation of explicit portions or quotations from other works into a new work (Baldick 7, 44). Given that intertextual connections come in all shapes and sizes, sometimes in just a single word or phrase, how concrete are the connections in Dunbar’s “Ohio Pastorals”? With only a minute amount of actual Bible verse in fact infused into the stories, how much does authorial intent play in Dunbar’s biblical intertextuality? Dunbar’s borrowing and alternating biblical text patterns what James E. Porter labels “presupposition,” which “refers to assumptions a text makes about its referent, its readers, and its context—to portions of the text which are read, but which are not explicitly ‘there.’” In his analysis, Porter argues that “texts not only refer to but in fact contain other texts” (35). Dunbar presupposes that his audience is affluent enough in biblical idiom to recognize and comprehend his references and apply them to their own circumstances. At the same time, however, a strategic, probably deliberate, allusion is presumed by the series’ title. Religious undertones—from one word phrases to multiple word phrases—appearing in “Ohio Pastorals” suggests that readers should objectively view them for their rendering of spirituality, since the term “pastoral” also refers to a letter from a pastor to his congregation. Does Dunbar stand behind the podium and deliver “Ohio Pastorals,” his epistles, to his audience? Does he presume that his audience will interpret his biblical intertextuality beneath, not only in the narratives’ title, but also the stories themselves?
Since intertextual associations derive “from readers’ transaction(s) with the text in which [they] apply their knowledge of literary and social convention to that text” (The Literacy Dictionary 122), Dunbar’s use of biblical intertextuality in “Ohio Pastorals,” minimal yet resonant, reveals ideas and themes emerging that extend his narratives beyond the literal sense in order to bring into the consciousness of the reader what he or she already knows or holds in high esteem religiously. Dunbar establishes a sense of belonging and identity, supporting, perhaps, his own religiosity in the series of narratives. “His theology was one of humanism,” Benjamin Brawley contends, “he had little sympathy with dogma, and hated hypocrisy” (35). Dunbar attempts, then, to capture the reverence according to his biblical exegesis and redirect this veneration to a secular origin which greatly involves active participation of the reader. This type of intertextuality is referred to as “obligatory,” in which “several important constraints on the connections” of intertexualtiy are imposed by the readers, who draw their own “choice of intertext” and “choice of relational procedures” (Miller 30).
Kristeva suggests that “If we are readers of intertextuality, we must be capable of…identifying with the different types of texts, voices, and semantic, syntactic, and phonic systems at play in a given text (“Intertextuality: An Interview”). Since the reader performs the meaning of the text, a major challenge for readers engaged in interpreting Dunbar’s biblical intertextuality is to break through his intrinsic presuppositions. However, Dunbar does not simply request that readers discover his biblical intertextuality; instead, the biblical quotes and allusions are restructured when, incorporated into a diverse context, they facilitate various readings on the part of the reader. An intertextual reading of “Ohio Pastorals” may well continue relentlessly revealing with every new reading and new interpretation of biblical verse new literary fragments. After all, biblical verse itself is meant to be interpreted. As the following discussion will illustrate, clearly “Ohio Pastorals” presupposes familiarity with biblical text as Dunbar implicitly and explicitly makes allusions to both Old Testament and New Testament texts. In short, Dunbar invites his readers to explore the rich fabric of his intertextual associations and to become active participants devising meaning of his work.
Dunbar’s Dialect Pastoral
Early in his literary career, Dunbar reveals what would become for him a perpetual internal struggle. “I am a writer,” he insists, “one trying to struggle up the thorny path of literature, with the summit of Parnassus not yet in sight (428). Despite his revelation, Dunbar is able to navigate the complexities of literary achievement. By the time he imagines “Ohio Pastorals” in 1901, for example, he is regarded “not as an American poet, or a western poet, or even a southern poet.” Despite being confined in a “prison-house of literary dialect” (Scott-Childress 373), though, Dunbar rightfully dons the admiration of poet “laureate of the Negro race.” In 1901, both his publishing and political careers continue to bring him well-deserved respect. His ongoing political standing, for example, is demonstrated by his invitation—and acceptance—to participate in the inauguration parade of President William McKinley as “honorary rank of colonel” (Cunningham 217). Likewise, the publication of Candle-Lightin’ Time, a collection of poems, and his third, and perhaps most controversial novel, The Fanatics, upholds his achievements as an author, who, as Frederick Douglass previously describes, “the most promising young colored man in America” (qtd. in The Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar 39). While entering the short story genre, however, Dunbar accesses the narrative style of the pastoral publishing “no stories dealing with the misery of whites at the bottom of society.” Portraying “white society at the other extreme of the social scale,” Dunbar does suggest, however, there is “as little, or less, nourishing life in the white upper-class culture as exists” in any other cultural traditions (Martin and Hudson 65-66). Thus, as Darwin Turner maintains, he assumes the “good life for the uneducated to be the life of a farmer in a small western or mid-western settlement” (Turner 3-4). One need not look far to see his presentation in pastoral, serene tones.
However, scholarship attempts to redefine what is meant by pastoral. As Paul Alpers suggests, the definition of pastoral “must first give a coherent account of its various features—formal, expressive, and thematic—and second, provide for historical continuity or change within the form” (441). Critic Lawrence Buell argues that American literature has been “preoccupied with nature and rurality as setting, theme, and value in contradistinction from society and the urban” (1). Pastoral literature not only represents depictions of the landscape, architect and idyllic life but also a portrayal of regional dialect while seeking to illustrate an earnest representation of rural simplicity and content. In Dunbar’s use of pastoral, in both short fiction and poetry, he illuminates the tradition through his use of dialect, which is a common trait of the pastoral. Dunbar, however, feels critical assessment of his overt pastoral depictions work against him as a writer. As early as 1896, he contextualizes some of the intrinsic problems with his employment of pastoral, which he reflects as an effort to historicize both the form and meaning of a linguistic expression: “I am sorry to find among intelligent people those who are unable to differentiate dialect as a philological branch from the burlesque of Negro minstrelsy” (qtd. in Primeau 59). Dunbar’s struggles further lead him to conclude: “One critic says a thing and the rest hasten to say the same thing, in many instances using the same identical words. I see now very clearly that Mr. Howells has done me irrevocable harm in the dictum he laid down regarding my dialect verse” (“Unpublished Letters 73). Dunbar recognizes the unrecoverable damage William Dean Howells’ criticism has on his art (Jarrett and Morgan xvii). While David Bradley suggests that Dunbar “meant reviewers rather than scholars,” (361) however, Gayle Pemberton writes that Howells’ analysis “had given a loud and contagious kiss of death to Dunbar by praising the dialect poems over those filled with high seriousness, believing that the only niche for Dunbar was in the evocation of a rural, folk black world” (217). Reluctantly, Dunbar concedes to the forces of literary expectations feeling that his social messages where being underscored by his pastoral depictions. “I’ve got to write dialect [poetry],” he reveals; “it’s the only way I can get them to listen to me” (qtd. in Huggins 297). Dunbar’s insight can also be applied to his short fiction, especially “Ohio Pastorals” as they come to symbolize his attempts to write beyond this stigma, although he would continue to characterize his people through a dialect voice.
Turner, however, argues that Dunbar “could not delineate slaves and freedmen authentically because, born, reared, and educated in the North, he did not know southern Negroes” (Turner, “Introduction,” ii). Given his Northern rearing, how well, then, does Dunbar portray Northern rural whites? Unquestionably, Dunbar’s “Northern assimilative experience” (Hudson 439) plays a major role in his characterization of “not only so-called Negro dialect, but imitations of the speech of Westerners, Midwesterners, German- Americans, and Irish-Americans” (Huson 439). Therefore, Dunbar is attentive to representing the consciousness of the rural lifestyle of “white characters, not Negroes” (Cunningham 222) in “Ohio Pastorals,” in which he attempts to portray “an ironic comedy of upper-class white life” (Revell 171). Gossie H. Hudson writes:
With respect to his regional heritage, Dunbar, unlike almost all of the writers of his time, did not write of the same region over and over again. He was really concerned with the relations between regions and thus portrayed several kinds of American life. Each of the author’s stories exists in a larger social, temporal, and spatial context. (437)
Saturating “Ohio Pastorals” “in regional or local color dialect,” (Hudson 437) Dunbar’s presentation of local color invokes a folk voice of Ohio pastoral culture.
While preparing “Ohio Pastorals,” Dunbar has “several plots in mind—rural settings with a touch of humor” (Cunningham 222). Rather than explicitly isolating the narratives in the past, however, Dunbar never reveals the time period relative to the stories’ occurrences. Readers only assume, then, that the stories take place during an earlier period of Ohio’s history. Equally important, because Dunbar connects the narratives so skillfully, readers get the feeling that the occurrences take place during the five month span in which they were published. Within this interconnectedness, Dunbar negotiates a space not only for his dialect pastoral rendering but also constructs narratives of religious zealots, and by so doing, presents their lives as texts to be interpreted. Through Dunbar’s astute handling of biblical intertextuality, the characters in “Ohio Pastorals,” then, come to function as exemplars of devout spiritualists who should be read as both literal and figurative.
“The Mortification of the Flesh”
The two opening narratives in “Ohio Pastorals” introduce the enduring acquaintance of “Nathan Foster and his life-long friend and neighbor, Silas Bollender” (Dunbar 414) and focus on their struggles “with the politics of marriage, powerful women, male individualism, and provincialism” (Jarret and Morgan xxxviii). “The Mortification of the Flesh,” the first of these two stories, contains two types of intertextuality: biblical and the popular “b’gosh fiction” of the day. According to biographer Virginia Cunningham, Dunbar intertextualizes “The Mortification of the Flesh” with the “sly, country-cured flavor of the popular novel, David Harum” (Cunningham 222) a novel that, like Dunbar’s narrative, contains a forced love story. Posthumously published, David Harum: A Story of American Life, written by Edward Noyes Westcott, is a novel of rural life that represents the “the beginning of the so-called b’gosh school of fiction” (Mchenry and Van Doren 331). One contemporary critic writing in the New York Times identifies the “b’gosh school of fiction” as “one of the most profitable branches of the great American literary industry” (“Essay Lessons in Fiction”). Dubbed “b’gosh fiction” by the “publishing fraternity” (Sullivan 530) for its tales of bucolic life, this fiction characterizes the style of literature that portrays American rural life. Not only do the two authors’—Dunbar and Westcott— lives parallel, but also the action and setting of their narratives are analogous. Like Dunbar, who was born in Dayton, Ohio June 27, 1872, died of tuberculosis February 9, 1906, and situates the action in “Ohio Pastorals” in the state of his birth, many of the scenes of David Harum take place in central New York, where Westcott was born September 24, 1847, and where he died of consumption March 31, 1898. Much like the narrative structure of Westcott’s main character, David Harum, an investment banker, Dunbar’s character, Nathan, an affluent farmer, is a love story which is characterized by sympathetic treatment and a constantly increasing interest.
Dunbar establishes the boundaries of his biblical intertextuality in “The Mortification of the Flesh,” however, through authority and material circumstances. Through the use of collage, Dunbar intertextualizes the title of the narrative, for example, with Saint Paul’s admonition to mortify the flesh: “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Romans 8:13). To the Romans, Paul condemns what he internalizes to be iniquitous: putting great significance on what one should eat and drink. Paul also denounces man-made pleasures such as carnivals or festivals. These types of celebrations where to be viewed as worthless, valueless and insignificant to the Christian faith, and therefore rejected. Paul’s recommendation that believers avoid these opportunities and make his spiritual ideal an everyday social reality is infused in “The Mortification of the Flesh.” For example, afraid to fall from grace, Nathan undergoes a radical transformation. The focus of this narrative is centered on whether Nathan will remain a bachelor versus with the complexities of practicing self-denial of his body and worldly appetites. Dunbar characterizes Nathan as someone who is spiritual but troubled by his own wealth. In one of the more intertextually-webbed passages of “Ohio Pastorals,” Dunbar writes:
[p]eople of Montgomery County spoke of him as a rich old bachelor. He was a religious man, and with the vision of Dives in his mind his wealth oppressed and frightened him. He gave to his church and gave freely. But he had the instinct for charity without he faculty for it. And he was often held back from good deeds by a modesty which told him that his gifts would be looked upon as ‘Alms to be seen of men. (Dunbar 416)
The above passage illustrates a superb example of presupposition in which Dunbar infuses two biblical references. First, based on a “true account of a real history of two men” (Biblical Commentary 1285), Dunbar draws on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Through intertextuality, Dunbar parallels the parable with Nathan’s struggles through accepting his wealth—the key to uniting the rich and the poor. In the parable, the Rich Man, however, lives in ostentatious luxury and holds disdain for the poor, Lazarus. After both men pass away, Lazarus is carried by the Angels to be by Abraham’s side. The Rich Man, though, immediately goes to hell, where “in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away” (Luke 16:23). The Rich Man’s sin, like Nathan’s, does not rest in being rich, for Abraham was among the wealthiest of his day, but is in his worldly unbelief in the spiritual and the eternal. Dunbar uses Dives, the name properly given to the Rich Man in the parable, although not revealed in the biblical verse, as a metaphor to Nathan and his prosperity. For example, in keeping with the Christian belief of urging not one’s goodness or greatness, but questioning one’s sin, Nathan goes through the process of examining his own affluence. “Sich luck as I’m a-havin’ is achilly skeery” he reveals to Silas, “it don’t seem right.” To keep from becoming as worldly and materialistic as Dives, Silas advises Nathan to “mortify yore flesh yit to keep from bein’ purse-proud” (Dunbar 415). If the parallel between Nathan and Dives is to be interpreted as being total and literal, then Nathan’s “mortification of the flesh” becomes an essential religious allegory. One could argue that Dunbar’s purpose here is to create a Christian metaphor, as religion plays a significant role in Nathan’s struggle.
The second reference to biblical text in the passage above is Dunbar’s allusion to “Alms to be seen of men,” which is taken from Matthew 6:1: “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.” Since Nathan openly gives to charity, but does not possess the understanding of his deeds, Dunbar suggests that Christians should beware of practicing their righteousness before others only to be seen doing so. The presupposition also seems to suggest that what would redeem Nathan, of course, would be his righteous behavior of emulating true Christians. The parallel between Nathan and Dives, then, moves towards other endeavors. The religious imagery enriches the artistic effect of the narrative, while at the same time the correlation between Nathan and Dives enables Dunbar to emphasize Nathan’s suffering, courage, endurance, and dignity.
The best way for Nathan to mortify his flesh and sacrifice his worldliness, according to Silas, is to take a bride:
Then, you see…you’d be shore to accomplish both. Fur pure mortification of the flesh, I don’t know nothing more thorough-goin’ er effective than a wife. Also she is a vexation of the sperrit. Look at me an’ Mis’ Bollender, fur instance. Do you think I need a hair shirt when I think I’m gittin’ overfed? No. Mis’ Bollender keep me with a meek an’ subdued sperrit. You raaly ought to marry. (Dunbar 416)
The conversation between Nathan and Silas results in the explicitly ennobling act of choosing a wife, inspired by Nathan’s resistance with the destructive human consequences of his own attempt to constrain love. Dunbar’s exegesis of Romans 8:13 suggest that Nathan must not give himself to a lifestyle that is characterized by the flesh. In passage above, Dunbar references the phrase “vexation of the spirit,” which appears seven times book of Ecclesiastes. At his request, Solomon, king of Israel, is granted wisdom from God. Living an extravagant life, Solomon is led astray by his love for women, marrying 700 wives and taking 300 concubines. Growing older, however, Solomon looks back on his life and concludes that “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all [is] vanity and vexation of spirit” (Ecclesiastes 1:14), believing that there has been nothing solid and substantial in the world. Therefore, Silas is suggesting that, through exasperation and vexation, a wife will keep Nathan on the path to righteous. While achieving his affluence, Nathan has not only caused weariness to his flesh, but, when he reflects on it, he has caused pain and uneasiness to his spirit. “Mebbe I’m a-gittin’ puffed up over my goods without exactly knowin’ it” (Dunbar 415) he reveals to Silas. A wife, then, will aid in breaking the spirit and cleansing it from all wrong doing.
Because religions attempt to derive values and ideals from sources which believers think are transcendent, it is possible for believers to at least attempt to step outside some of the cultural assumptions of their contemporaries. Initially, Nathan believes that Silas is advising him to take a desperate step toward mortification. Nonetheless, he considers the counsel and ultimately proposes to the “Widow Young” Lizzie, a vivacious, “buxom woman who has seen forty busy summers pass.” The widow’s husband had passed and left her struggling to take care of two children. Readers learn, however, that Nathan could not admit to Silas “that he had been thinking hard of the Widow Young even before he had thought of mortifying his flesh with a wife.” Nathan’s proposal, though, is rather a wretched attempt at achieving his goal. Hesitating to tell the widow why he wants to marry her, he stumbles: “Widder, you’re the morti—I mean the salvation of my soul. Could you—would you—er—do you think you’d keer to sheer my blessin’s with me—an’ add another one to ’em?” Readers learn that “the marriage gook place very soon after the wooing was done” (Dunbar 417). Silas, however, contextualizes Nathan’s marriage and mortifying his flesh as a double blessing: “The Lord ’u’d have two special reason fur blessin’ you then; fur you’d be mortifyin’ yore flesh an’ at the same time a-helpin’ the wider an’ orphans” (Dunbar 417); Nathan acquiesces. Dunbar writes: “Nathan thought…of the good his money would do the struggling woman, of the brightness it would bring into her life. ‘Well, it’s good,’ he murmured; ‘I’ll be killin’ two birds with one stone…What I want partic’lar to know is, whether it wouldn’t be best to tell Lizzie’” (Dunbar 417). Nathan decides, however, that telling the widow is the right action to take. “Well, I’ll agree not to tell her right away,” he tells Silas, “but ef she consents, I must tell her a week er so after we’re married” (Dunbar 418). Even after the wedding, Nathan’s struggle to tell Lizzie why he marries her continues. Dunbar writes: “But the widow had been settled in Nathan’s home over a month before he had even thought of telling her of the real motive of his marriage, and every day from the time it occurred to him it grew harder for him to do” (Dunbar 419).
At the end of the story, however, Nathan finally reveals to Lizzie why he marries her: “Widder, I’ve got to tell you, your’re a mortification of the flesh an’ a vexation to the sperrit; long may you continuer fur the good of my soul” (Dunbar 420). Readers are not given a clue as to how Lizzie responds to Nathan’s revelation; however, readers learn that she “can’t say no” (Dunbar 419) when Nathan proposes, which gives readers an insight to her accepting Nathan’s hand in matrimony as a good deed. Nathan subsequently discovers, however, that a wife is a “blessing, not a mortification, and all ends happily” (Cunningham 222).
“The Independence of Silas Bollender”
“The Independence of Silas Bollender,” the first narrative to reveals Dunbar’s use of intratextuality by continuing the story of the rural lives of Nathan Foster and Silas Bollender, illustrates sin, a sin that all should be aware of while mortifying their flesh. This narrative, along with “The Minority Committee,” the fourth in the collection, illustrates Dunbar’s “long-felt rebellion against narrow religious dogmas” (Cunningham 223). In “The Independence of Silas Bollender,” Dunbar intertextualizes his exegesis of 1 Corinthians 10:12: “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” Whether taken alone or in context, this verse refers to the danger of rejecting religious beliefs. Dunbar’s alluding to 1 Corinthians here is pertinent because he suggests that this possibility is omnipresent. In this narrative, however, Dunbar shifts the focus to Silas, who not only attends the local carnival but also discovers that he appreciates the festivities, which is against, according Paul in the book of Romans, the will of God. Nathan, who previously attends the carnival, says to Silas: “I don’t ’low I have to furgit my Christian duty jest because I go to the fair” (Dunbar 222). The dialogue between Nathan and Silas continues:
Oh, no offense, Nathan, no offense; I was jest a-jokin’.
An’ I do say, Nathan went on indomitably, that ef it’s them things you’re a-goin’ to the fair fur, you’d better take yore wife along er stay as home, fur there’s a many snare there fur the wicked an’ onwary.
Don’t you mind me, Nathan, I kin take keer o’ myself if I go.
‘Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall,’ was the solemn reply.
Ah, Nathan, I ain’t a goin’ on like you, mortifyin’ my flesh.
Well, well, Silas, go yore way, but ricollect that many a man who won’t learn to mortify his flesh, ends up by mortifying his flesh and blood. (Dunbar 222-23)
In Christian pedagogy, a man who boasts of his grace has little grace in which to display. Silas imagines his grace can keep him from falling, not understanding that he must continually admonish his grace or he will, as some point, lose it. Nathan’s reply (“Well, well, Silas, go yore way, but ricollect that many a man who won’t learn to mortify his flesh, ends up by mortifying his flesh and blood”) suggests that he is imploring Silas to take heed in his glory not in his grace and in Christ and His strength, for only He can keep him from falling. Nathan’s advice also serves as a warning that if Silas goes to the fair without his wife, Mollie, he should instead carry with him faith and confidence in Christ. Mollie, too, warns Silas of the impending doom of attending the carnival: “Why, like ez not I’d have you back on my hands robbed, an’ mebbe murdered…Now, all I got to say is, you go ef you want to; but I don’t take no responsibility of it. I wash my hands of the whole thing” (Dunbar 423).
According to Silas’ religiosity, the cultural projection attached with the carnival is not effectively detached from biblical specificity. For example, as if breaking the Sabbath, Silas relates attending the carnival to a sort of religious “instruction.” For Silas this instruction equates to not only personal independence from Mollie, who is “a little bit over-keer-takin’” (Dunbar 424), but also instruction on the sins of mankind. Silas, however, revolts against his wife’s control and asserts: “I’m tried o’ bein’ tied to yore apern-strings, an’ I’m goin’ to be independent fur once” (Dunbar 423). Attending the fair Thursday, “the big day” (Dunbar 421), readers learn that his guilt weighs heavily: None could have “gone forth more guiltily than he” (Dunbar 426). Notwithstanding, Silas takes pleasure in the fact that he not only asserts his independence from Mollie but also that he finds an appreciation for the sinful carnival:
It may be that all the years of hard work and repression, the restraint, first, of a plodding boyhood, and then of a narrow married life, had slipped off his shoulders as the miles had rolled away between him and his home, and he had found for the first time what freedom meant; anyway, he enjoyed himself. He ate gingerbread, rode the merry-go-around and someone even saw him coming out of one of the many minstrel shows with a seraphic smile on his face. (Dunbar 424)
Even in his non-racial narratives, it appears that Dunbar was unable to resist a reference to the authority of minstrel shows on the American mindset. The passage above is significant for two reasons. First, one could argue that given the abundant minstrel performances and their popularity, white carnival-goers would have most certainly been entertained by such spectacles. However, since Dunbar mentions minstrels only once in “Ohio Pastorals,” my reading offers a more in-depth analysis of this occurrence. Through his criticism of the influence of minstrel performances, Dunbar creates a space where Silas slips on his fringed pretense of contentment void the influences of family and friends and is entertained by the adversity of an entire race of people who are pegged as ignorant, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, joyous, and musical. On the other hand, by taking pleasure in these performances, Silas’ “instruction” —previously discussed above—may also be suggestive of an indiscernible association between black peoples’ and Northern working-class whites’ plight. Either way, Silas’ space is critical to his growth and development as an independent person. Therefore, “The Independence of Silas Bollender” could possible relate to another form of self-determination: awareness of one’s dilemma through the plight of others. It can be argued that at the very moment Silas attends the minstrel, he is truly an individual, since for the first time in his life he understands what independence symbolizes. The second reason why this passage is of great consequence is because minstrels—oftentimes performed at traveling carnivals—reach their apex from 1850 to 1870 (“Blackface! Minstrel Shows”). Dunbar’s reference here to “the many minstrel shows,” then, may also bring the reader closer to the time period in which “Ohio Pastorals” takes place.
Emerging from the minstrel performance with “a seraphic smile on his face,” Dunbar, nevertheless, connects Silas’ merriment to having a sweet nature befitting an angel or cherub. His high spirits, however, do not last long as he quickly learns that independence has a cost. When religious and social value is to be derived, however, Silas should not mind attempting to pay the price. After realizing that his watch and wallet had been stolen, Silas’ seraphic qualities diminish as he laments: “Mollie was right, after all. Bless her!” (Dunbar 425). Later, Mollie’s reaction to the news illustrates the Foucauldian instrument of power, of retributive punishment and satisfaction taken in the fact that she was right. She acts as the “avenging Fate” (Dunbar 425) when Silas returns from the carnival, attempting to indemnify his salvation by imposing on him a law of truth which in her consciences she recognizes as valid. “I ’low you’ll listen to me next time, an’ not go junketin’ around for all the world like an idiot,” Mollie exhorts (Dunbar 425). Silas’ waywardness, however, is transformed into the cultural ideal of manhood and independence. Dunbar deliberately uses biblical imagery to promote what might be called his views of manhood. Emphasizing Silas’ struggle against the forces of temptation and Mollie’s dogged attempts at controlling him, Dunbar signifies that Silas’ resistance itself belies notions that his salvation is based upon how well he handles the struggle.
“The White Counterpane”
The narrative structure of Dunbar’s third pastoral, “The White Counterpane,” centers on a mother’s desperate attempts “to cope with the potential loss of her son she struggled to raise and support to a woman ironically similar to her in strength and will” (Jarret and Morgan xxxviii). Dunbar employs intertextuality through his exegesis of Psalm 6, a prayer for mercy often time recited in time of trouble: “I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.” In this narrative, John Stearns wants to marry the love of life, Maria Holden. However, readers learn that John will not, nor can he, marry Maria without the expressed permission and blessing of his mother, Mrs. Streans. Therefore, as an alternative to a traditional wedding and as a means to assert his manhood, John suggests: “Couldn’t we slip away an’ git married on the quiet like?” To this, Maria replies: “I won’t never marry you until you’ve got yore mother’s consent full and free” (Dunbar 428). Believing that he has hurt Maria’s feelings by suggesting they elope, John apologizes. Maria, however, reveals that throughout her life, she has endured many challenges and temptations, learned the lessons, and is beginning to move on to receive the crown of life:
I’ve jest commence to feel that I got feelin’s. I been a-goin’ along like an animal a-takin’ hurts and only knowing’ in a dull sort of way that they was hurts. But I feel keener now, and mebee on that account things’ll pass me by. They say the Lord tempers the wind to the shorn lamb; mebbe He tempers His blows to a thin skin. (Dunbar 428)
Through Maria’s voice, Dunbar intertextualizes two passages of biblical text. The first, “things’ll pass me by” is visible in I Corinthians 10:12-13: “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” Since Maria begins to “feel keener now,” she is beginning to realize that with her re-birth, of sorts, come temptations. Maria’s suggestion that “things’ll pass me by” illustrates her realization that God will provide her with the necessary tools to not simply avoid temptation, but more importantly to meet it successfully and to stand firmly against it. In the second connection, Dunbar unites the metaphorical and historical connotations of Psalm 6—“the Lord tempers the wind to the shorn lamb”—by suggesting that since Maria has already been a victim of circumstance burden with tribulations, she will not be burden with more than she can bear. Historically in the Christian belief system, God mercifully ensures that misfortune does not overwhelm the weak or helpless; He delivers those whose trust is divine. Just as He delivers the Israelites, God will “tempers His blows to a thin skin.”
Even the counterpane, which is usually not used for warmth, only for aesthetic purposes, has biblical inferences. Described as a bedspread, the use of a counterpane, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, “is an extremely ancient custom” referred to in the Bible (“Coverlet”): “I have decked my bed with coverings of tapestry, with carved works, with fine linen of Egypt” (Proverbs 7:16). Seemingly the most prevalent metaphor in the story is Mrs. Stearns’ “white counterpin,” [sic] given to her by her late husband’s mother (Dunbar 432), the story itself is centered on John’s struggles with not only his manhood, but also family tradition. Thus, the “white counterpane” of the story’s title only serves as a metaphor for purity and family tradition.
When intratextuality occurs in “The White Counterpane,” it tends toward secular piety. Nathan Foster from the previous two tales appears in the narrative in conversation between Mrs. Stearns, John’s mother, and Mother Judkins, presumably a next door neighbor. Nathan’s appearance is linked to “special providence.” “It did jest seem like a special providence that Nathan Foster woke up at last and took Lizzie Young,” says Mrs. Stearns, “but, mercy sakes, what a long time he was a-comin’ to it!” (Dunbar 431). Incidentally, the idea of providence, of God’s conceived power guiding human destiny, is referred to a few times in “Ohio Pastorals.” By connecting Nathan’s marriage to providence, however, Mrs. Stearns makes his act of marriage a metaphor that functions prominently within “The Counterpane”: Mrs. Stearns sees Nathan’s marriage as divine. While resurrecting text from “The Mortification of the Flesh” and interweaving it into “The White Counterpane,” Dunbar initiates an intratextual process of thematic concern. Commonalities between the scriptures in the narratives in “Ohio Pastorals” must therefore be viewed as divinely intended.
Furthermore, Dunbar layers the idea of biblical blindness in “The White Counterpane.” What should be added to Dunbar’s notion of blindness and its effect on readers is the reader’s willing acceptance of the religious language he employs. Those familiar with biblical text, for example, will note that throughout the Bible, blindness as a trope appears in both the new and old testaments. In “The White Counterpane,” however, Dunbar judicially interxtualizes 1 Peter 2:9: “you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” to parallel how Mrs. Stearns is delivered from her metaphorical blindness. Early in the narrative, readers discover, through conversation between John and Maria, that Mrs. Stearns will not bless their marriage. Maria says: “It does look to me like I was jest a-kinder standin’ around waitin’ fur yore to die. Now I don’t want to be a-hankerin’ fur no dead woman’s place, so don’t you think that we’d both better give up an’ stop thinkin’ about it?” (Dunbar 427). Mrs. Stearns’ sin, however, is that she cannot see. By creating her own metaphorical blindness in revolt to John’s wishes, Mrs. Stearns’ blindness is a stark object lesson of how spiritually blind she is before she realizes how much her action scars John. For example, she rediscovers a letter from her “swain,” her belated husband, Jim, in which Jim seals his love for her. The letter reads:
Dere Annie: Father’s put the ’dition to the house an’ bort the field jinin’ ours. Mother’s give me her white counterpin fur you, an’ I’ve got fifty dollars saved up an’ our waitin’ is over. I’m happy, ain’t you? Set the day, now, an’ make it soon. Yores, JIM. P.S. Uncle Sypahx has give me a colt. (Dunbar 432)
Peppered with the idyllic atmosphere of the pastoral tradition, readers discover that the letter also brings back feelings of nostalgia: “The counterpane had long ago been worn out and its place supplied by a finer one,” Dunbar writes, “and Barney the colt had died in a green old age” (Dunbar 433). Mrs. Stearns’ excessive mourning of her loved one, then, is a problem in terms of consequences not only for her but also for John. Although she tells John, “I jest want to see you satisfied” (Dunbar 429) her blindness toward his sense of responsibility and manhood, thus, results from her own loss. Dunbar writes: “The very tone in which Mrs. Stearns spoke was an accusation against her son. ‘Behold,’ it said, ‘what a mother am I. How gentle. How solicitous of my son’s well-being. Did the world ever see such another one? Can anyone imagine a son’s supplanting such a mother by a wife? Surely never’” (Dunbar 429). Determined and self-willed, her pain, accordingly, becomes her own doom. Remorseful and apologetic regarding her blindness, however, Ms. Stearns reveals to John: “I were wrong…I were wrong, John, but I’ve—repented” (Dunbar 433). Blindness in “The White Counterpane,” however, works on another level. Readers learn that Mother Judkins is blind to Mrs. Stearns’ feelings toward her only son getting married. While discussing John and Maria’s courtship, Mother Judkins, Dunbar writers, “whose mild, kindly eyes never saw anything, went blindly on: ‘It does seem to me so funny that every harum-scarum young scamp that you can’t put no dependence on ups an’ gits married, while the stiddy, dolidy men go along single.” Mother Judkins’ metaphorical blindness is intertextualized from Job 21:14: “We do not even desire the knowledge of Your ways.” Not wishing, or willing, to understand how Mrs. Stearns feels about John marrying Maria, Mother Judkins reveals her assessment of the situation as an outsider, “unconscious that her simple words had helped increase a brewing storm” (Dunbar 431).
At the end of the story, as with any one who has accepted the gospel, Mrs. Stearns’ “eyes” are opened to the prospect of accepting Maria into the family. She says to John: “you’ve opened my eyes…I been blind, but—there, there’s my white counterpane fur M’ri!” (Dunbar 433). There is progressive development in this metaphor. Allegorically Dunbar reveals his exegesis of John 9:1-12 in which Jesus heals the blind man. Dunbar is referencing the spiritual awakening of the blind man by pointing out the spiritual blindness of Mrs. Stearns as she incorporates this spiritual trope into her own enlightenment, her own state of figurative blindness. However, this figurative blindness is also a literal one: Mrs. Stearns’ blindness becomes not only scripturally, a metaphor for spiritually being in the dark, but also she is blind to the rite of passage of the “white counterpane.” Thus, Mrs. Stearns’ spiritual awareness represents her willingness to strip away the unnecessary tradition or dogma she previously espouses and in an ultimate distillation, discover her own personal growth and development—her conscious attention to becoming better than before.
“The Minority Committee”
The fourth narrative in “Ohio Pastorals,” “The Minority Committee,” is a story in which Dunbar triggers an atmosphere of controversy, a “generational conflict” (Jarret and Morgan xxxviii) between old vs. new/tradition vs. progression. “The Minority Committee” evokes a political battle; two warring fashions, members of Apostle’s Chapel, are debating whether or not “to modernize hymnal accompaniment for church service” by purchasing an organ (Jarrett and Morgan xxxviii). The Minority Committee in the narrative consists of “the conservative part of the congregation, collectively known as ‘older heads’” (Dunbar 434) who are against “purchasing an organ to assist in the services.” They believe that an organ added to Sunday services is an “onreligious desecration” (Dunbar 435). Meanwhile, the younger members of the church, the “advanced thinkers” (Dunbar 436) hold the belief that adding an organ to Sunday services would be beneficial. Additionally, the name Dunbar elects for the church, “Apostle’s Chapel,” belies a notion of intertextuality: biblical exegesis reveals that an Apostle is one of the original 12 disciples chosen by Christ to preach his gospel. Hence, the church serves as not only a place of worship for its congregation, but also a metaphor for a vehicle through which the gospel is received.
Associations to biblical text appear early in this story with Dunbar’s exegesis of 2 Samuel 1:27: “How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!” Charged by the younger generation to submit “minority reports, the “older heads” deliberated the future of the church so that they may report back to the church-goers. At their meeting, held at Abram Judkins’, Brother Elisha Harvey boasts: “I calcilate we’ll stir ’em up some” with their decision to vote against the addition of the organ. Acknowledging that the “older heads” have lost the battle, Harvey continues: “I feel like rejoicin’ an’ cryin’ aloud, ‘How air the mighty fallen’” (Dunbar 434). The dispute between the “older heads” and the “advanced thinkers” is metaphorically positioned in the manner of the battle between David and the Amalekites in 2 Samuel. In the biblical narrative, David laments of the death of his son, Jonathan, who died in battle, and the death of Saul. Says he: “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen!” (1:19). “How the mighty have fallen” is repeated twice more in 2 Samuel, the last time along with the phrase “and the weapons of war perished!” Harvey’s conception of the phrase (“How air the mighty fallen”) in “The Minority Committee” symbolically parallels the “older heads” situation: they understand that they have lost the battle. In spite of this, and resistant to the very end, the “older heads” stick to their beliefs. Harvey’s contextualization of “How air the mighty fallen” could also relate to the growing consciousness that “the older heads” have failed not by losing the battle over the organ, but they have failed the younger generation by not providing the necessary leadership and guidance to preserve their cultural heritage. “The older heads” believe that “their present manner of worship had been good enough for their fathers and was good enough for them…The Apostle’s should remain as it had been” (Dunbar 434).
Later in the narrative, however, Dunbar alludes to Jeremiah 11:19, in which lambs are standing at the gate waiting to be slaughtered: “But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” Both fashions, feeling betrayed by the other, have decided to discuss the issue of the organ at a Sunday service. The “superintendent of the Sunday-school,” however, agrees to “open the doors of the church” to accept newcomers in which Harvey counters by revealing that the meeting is “a business meeting and hardly the time for taking in members.” The superintendent replies that he is “quite aware” that the meeting is a “business meeting, but…hoped never to see the day when Apostle’s Chapel should behold lambs standing at the gate of the fold and refuse to let them come in, on the chance of their never being persuaded again.” Dunbar’s reference here suggests that the trusting and unsuspecting “lambs” who may want to join Apostle’s Chapel are unaware of the impending catastrophe: the political battle over the inclusion of the organ. The pastor reveals, however, that “fellowship would be extended to the new accessions on the following Sunday.” Following the vote at the meeting, however, readers learn that “those for the organ have it by one vote” (Dunbar 436).
Dunbar’s intratextual associations continue with the appearance of Mother Judkins from “The White Counterpane” as of major concern in the narrative. After returning home, Abram discovers that his wife, Mother Judkins, votes in favor of the organ. Feeling betrayed, Abram reveals: “It seems like a special chastisement from the Lord.” Revealing that whomever the Lord loves, He chastens, Dunbar parallels Abram’s struggles with the many chastisements occurring in the Bible. Feeling betrayed, Abram decides to refrain from Sunday services after the installation of the organ and seek the gospel elsewhere. In an effort save her husband’s salvation, Mother Judkins inquires: “do you think that you kin go on this way without spiritual food an’ keep up yore spiritual stren’th?” To this, Abram replies: “I ain’t a-goin’ to eat the Lord’s bran mixed with the devil’s mash.” Dunbar uses food as a metaphor for the gospel, manna Abram needs to mortify his flesh. Manna, according to the Bible, is eaten by the Israelites during their travels in the desert. Dunbar’s reference here is critical because while Abram refuses to attend Apostle’s Chapel, he travels in search of another place of worship in which he can receive manna, food for his soul. “I’m a-crucifyin’ it fur its own good,” he reveals. “There’s other feddin’ places” Mother Judkins believes. However, Abram supposes: “Ef I can’t git unmixed food one place, mebbe I kin another” (Dunbar 438). He discovers, however, that “he could no longer do without his regular soul-food.” Readers learn that “his heart yearned for his own church and his own preacher, to whose well-worn sermons he had been so long accustomed” (Dunbar 439). Therefore, Abram decides church hop. Dunbar writes: “He would slip into the church after the conclusion of the opening hymns, remain during the service in a back seat, and then glide out again when he saw the organist begin to turn the leaves of his music. It was not altogether satisfactory to him, but then he got his food unmixed” (Dunbar 439). While Abram searches for his “unmixed food,” readers discover that Mother Judkins takes ill and passes away. At her funeral, held at Apostle’s Chapel, her “favorite hymn” is performed: “Asleep in Jesus, blessed sleep / From which none ever wake to weep,” taken from 1 Thessalonians 4:14: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” The serene calmness of this passage lies in its expressive view toward death and re-birth: Mother Judkins’ death is paralleled with Harvey’s return (or re-birth) to Apostle’s Chapel. Thinking that his homecoming will take him “nearer” to Mother Judkins, Harvey reveals, “that vote o’ hern was the workin’ of a special Providence.” Again, Dunbar uses providence as a noteworthy metaphor: the prudence and care exercised by someone in the management of resource, in this case Mother Judkins’ vote for the organ, which Abram sees as “special Providence.” One could argue that her death serves as a mechanism in aiding Abram’s mortification of his flesh. Abram’s return to Apostle’s Chapel, his return to grace, is further illustrated by his attending church the next Sunday and sitting “under the sound of the organ with rapt face” (Dunbar 440).
“The Visiting of Mother Danbury”
The final narrative in “Ohio Pastorals” is “The Visiting of Mother Danbury,” in which two grandmothers disagree “over the right care for their first grandchild” (Cunningham 232). In this story, readers find intratextual connections when a character from “The Minority Committee,” Felix, surfaces, although not mentioned by name in the previous narrative. From the beginning of “The Visiting of Mother Danbury” there exists an intertextual web of statements that place religious beliefs in the middle of a controversy between two families: the Danburys and the Dicksons. In the story, Felix, who “had led the fight for an organ to be used in the house of worship” and serves as “chorister at Cory church [sic]” in “The Minority Committee,” marries Martha Dickson, daughter of the Widow Dickson. The sorrow in the story is centered not only on Felix’s leaving “the state of bachelorhood,” but also on the fact that once Felix has married Martha, his marriage “meant his loss to the community” as he “promised to go and take up his abode” with his “betrothed” at “the village of Baldwin’s Ford” (Dunbar 440). Hinged on deconstructing the traditional values where the wife goes to live with the husband’s family, Dunbar writes: “Usually the woman follows the man, but in this instance, old Mrs. Dickson, who was also a widow, had protested so loud and long against separation from her only child that he lover was completed to assure her that she would gain a son rather than lose a daughter” (Dunbar 440). Understanding, Mother Danbury agrees that Felix should live with Martha and Mrs. Dickson and agrees to visit “Baldwin’s Ford.” Soon after Mother Danbury’s arrival, Martha gives birth to a boy, Jeff, who “weighs nine pounds” (Dunbar 442). Providence, again, appears in the narratives in conservation between Mother Danbury and Widow Dickson. After Jeff is born, the new grandmothers debate the newborn’s comfort. Within this conversation, readers learn that one of Mother Danbury’s three children had passed away. Mother Danbury reveals, however: “She didn’t die till she growed to be quite a girl, so it was the will o’ Providence an’ no fault o’ mine” (Dunbar 443). As Mother Danbury reveals that she was not derelict in providing for her daughter, Dunbar’s allusion to providence relates to the guardianship and power exercised by a deity who controlled the unnamed girl’s destiny. After constantly dealing with Widow Dickson’s taking control over mothering Jeff, Mother Danbury decides, however, to leave Baldwin’s Ford and return home.
Later in the narrative, readers learn that Jeff “smiled in his sleep.” Believing that a baby’s smile is strictly a reflection of the infant’s internal response to something engaging, Dunbar suggests that, while sleeping, a baby’s smile has very little to do with what the adage reveals that babies smile in their sleep because of angels’ interaction. “It is a pretty fallacy that says babies smile thus because angels are whispering to them,” Dunbar writes. “In most cases, as in this, the little ones, wise from other scenes, are smiling at the foibles of those greater infants whom we are pleased to call grown people” (Dunbar 444). Sadly, however, Jeff takes ill and eventually passes away. When word reaches Mother Danbury that the newborn is sick, readers learn that she returns “like an angel of peace to the stricken household.” The idea of the coming angel is visible in Hebrews 1:14: “Are not angels all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” Mother Danbury’s return brings to the “stricken household” a reminder that peace can be found in every moment. While consoling Felix, she reveals: “The Lord giveth an’ the Lord taketh away” (Job 1:21). Under the circumstances—the death of an infant—this is rather an astonishing statement for Mother Danbury to make. Through her voice Dunbar reveals, perhaps, his most authoritative biblical intertextualized statement in the narratives: people are merely stewards of their lives, not the possessors. God owns them; He has every right to take them away when He sees fit. “An hour later,” Dunbar writes, “the child breathed its last” in the Widow Dickson’s arms, who fears the baby’s death is “a judgment” because she was “so hard an’ jealous about the pore little creeter.” Realizing that she has “done wrong,” Widow Dickson grieves to Mother Danbury, “an’t the Lord’s took it. Fergive me, fergive me!” Serving as the voice of reason, the ministering “angel of peace,” Mother Danbury, replies: “The child wasn’t ours, it was His, an’ he has showed us His sign.” What sign God has given is not revealed in the text. One could argue, though, that the sign points toward reconciliation and offers the household faith, something to hold onto. Sadly Jeff’s death—like Mother Judkins’ death in “The Minority Committee”—serves a divine purpose: to draw the two families closer together: “That afternoon sun stole in and kissed the little, wax-like face as the old women stood with clasped hands looking down upon the dead grandchild” (Dunbar 445).
If “Ohio Pastorals” are to be regarded as pastorals, as interpretations or developments or use of the representative narratives of rustic lives, readers can understand and acclimatize the critical self-consciousness Dunbar infuses into them. What is striking about Dunbar’s neglected works—if readers approach the narratives with the usual notions of pastoral—is that an investigation into his intertextualization of scripture will yield a valuable tool in which to continue navigating his oeuvre for its contribution to the American literary tradition. What specifically does Dunbar accomplish, however, through his overt use of biblical intertextuality? First, he demonstrates a tremendous respect for biblical verse through his engagement of the pastoral tradition and encourages his readers to consider the interrelationships between biblical texts and the narratives. Second, Dunbar facilitates in each of the narratives rustic characters that display an overwhelming dedication to their beliefs and insist that their religious devoutness is reasonable and just. Finally, Dunbar consciously retains intertextual associations to invoke multiple layers of meaning beyond what any single work could convey by encouraging readers not only to make connections among multiple texts, but also to connect with the biblical texts he incorporates. For readers who recognize Dunbar’s intertextual connections and who are interested in exploring them in more depth, a richer, enhanced reading experience awaits. Surely readers will discover intertextual connections between Dunbar’s sizeable body of short stories, poems, essays, and novels.
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