From Goodreads: In this extraordinary novel, Paul Laurence Dunbar tells the story of a displaced Southern family’s struggle to survive and prosper in early Harlem. “The Sport of the Gods” was one of the first novels to depict the harsh realities of ghetto life and the revolutionary truths it uncovered still resonate today.
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February is Black History Month here in the United States, and so it is not surprising that the Classic Club Event focuses on African American literature this month. I was considering rereading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, but I’ve felt a little restless these past weeks and didn’t think I could do the book justice at the moment. So I did a little research and noticed this book, The Sport of the Gods, pop up on a few recommended reading lists—even though it is called “a minor classic.” I had never heard of it, or the author, so I decided to read it.
The book takes place in the late nineteenth century, after slavery had been abolished but the situation of the African American population in the South had not much improved since the Civil War. After the abolition of slavery, Berry Hamilton struggled to find work but finally became butler to Maurice Oakley. He married the Oakley’s housekeeper Fanny, and the couple lived in the former slave quarters with their son Joe and their daughter Kit. When the book starts, Berry has been with the Oakleys for twenty years.
When money goes missing in the great house, Berry is an immediate suspect because he had unrestricted access to the room where the money was stored. He is subsequently convicted of theft, though there is no evidence of his guilt, and sentenced to twenty years of hard labor. Fanny, Joe, and Kit are forced to leave because they are left with no place to stay and no jobs. They decide to move to New York City, where they end up in Harlem.
Of course, the place was a social cesspool, generating a poisonous miasma and reeking with the stench of decayed and rotten moralities. There is no defence to be made for it. But what do you expect when false idealism and fevered ambition come face to face with catering cupidity?
Without a father and a weakened mother, Joe and Kit soon break with their mother and go their own ways. Joe, a little too full of himself, falls in with a group of people who are happy to take advantage of him while giving him a false sense of belonging. Kit becomes a singer and dancer in a traveling show. Fanny, looking for some security, finds herself in an abusive marriage. While each one at one point recognizes that his or her life has taken a wrong turn, there is little they can do to change anything.
In a twist of events that I found a bit hard to believe, Berry is ultimately released from prison as it becomes clear that the money was not stolen, but gambled away by Maurice Oakley’s half-brother. Maurice, who had been harboring the secret instead of helping to free Berry, goes crazy. Berry and Fanny move back south and end up living in their old cottage that Mrs. Oakley has made available to them. There, “they [sat] together with clasped hands listening to the shrieks of the madman across the yard and thinking of what he had brought to them and to himself.”
Paul Laurence Dunbar, the author, was the first African-American poet to garner national acclaim. He wrote a large number of dialect poems, standard English poems, essays, novels, and short stories. It took me some time to get used to the parts of the book that were written in dialect. Maybe it is because I am not a native speaker that I often have to read this type of dialect out loud in order to understand it. That slowed my reading progress a bit, and it also provided a sometimes odd contrast to the writing in other parts of the book, which I found quite lyrical.
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.
While The Sport of the Gods is not necessarily a unique story, it is worth reading. Dunbar’s own story is also noteworthy. He was born in Dayton, Ohio, to a mother and father who were both former slaves. Dunbar was the only African American in his high school, and while he had trouble finding work because of his race, he was very successful at school: he was a member of the debating society, editor of the school paper, and president of the school’s literary society. He wrote for the Dayton community newspapers and went on to publish an African-American newsletter. With the help of sponsors, he was able to publish his writing and slowly, he became known nationally. He went to the 1893 World’s Fair, where he met Frederick Douglass, and even traveled to England to read from his works. He died young, at age 33, due to illness.