ABSTRACT

The October 1901 edition of The Southern Workman extols Paul Laurence Dunbar’s creative talents in his fourth novel, The Sport of the Gods (1901), stating that Dunbar includes “some bits of sarcasm that would not have been unworthy of Dickens, and shows on the whole a promise for the future of which no young novel writer need be ashamed.” 1 That said, The Sport of the Gods was destined to be not only Dunbar’s most successful novel but also his last and his only novel to focus almost exclusively on African-American characters. Often read as a text that reveals the cultural exigencies of African-American freedom, the political, cultural, and social identity of which was still forming during Dunbar’s life, The Sport of the Gods follows the downfall of the Hamilton family. The parents, Berry and Fannie, are among “the many slaves who upon their accession to freedom had not left the South, but had wandered from place to place in their own beloved section, waiting, working, and struggling to rise with its rehabilitated fortunes.” For their children, Joe and Kitty, the “two doting parents” created an environment that was “pleasant and carefully guarded.” As the novel opens, Berry and Fannie, servant and housekeeper, respectively, to Maurice Oakley and his wife, are living with their children in “the little servant’s cottage in the yard,” blissfully unaware of any imminent misfortune. However, as a decidedly naturalist work of fiction, the story, and thus the Hamiltons’ “stream of years” flowing for a time “pleasantly and peacefully,” appear destined to take a turn for the worst when Berry heads out one morning “cheerily to his work,” without any “shadow of impending disaster depress[ing] his spirits.” 2