In a letter to a literary editor about promising American writers, William Dean Howells asserted that "a book of entirely black verse" from the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar "would succeed." Howells's appreciation of the racial authenticity of Dunbar's dialect poetry belongs to a larger critical and commercial demand for "minstrel realism" in postbellum nineteenth-century American culture. The racialism of blackface minstrelsy created a cultural precondition in which postbellum audiences regarded Black minstrelsy (that is, minstrelsy performed by Blacks) as realistic. This reaction resulted from the commercialization of Black minstrelsy in American culture as an avant-garde cultural performance of racial authenticity. An analogous reaction, I suggest, occurred in 1896, when Dunbar published Majors and Minors and Howells reviewed it in Harper's Weekly. By situating the ideological politics of Howells's criticism of African American literature, I show that Howells ignored the characteristic eschewal of romance and sentiment in Anglo-American literary realism, while also de�ning African American literary realism in these very terms. This apparent inconsistency results from Howells's subscription to racialism, which then helped to perpetuate this de�nition in the dramatic and literary cultures of minstrelsy. Ultimately, the relationship between Howells and Dunbar and the implications for African American writers confronting a White-dominated literary marketplace might be an overwhelmingly familiar story. Less intuitive or obvious, however, are the precise ways in which the racialism of Howells and this marketplace arbitrated the realism of African American literature.
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