I first noticed the phenomenon
of "Dialect" poetry when I purchased an ancient and decrepit copy of The
Grand Army Speaker by George M. Baker. This slim volume, published in
1888, was composed of sentimental verses and prose intended to be read
aloud by public speakers. Politicians, civic club leaders and Sunday school
teachers probably dipped into volumes like this to find crowd-pleasing material
with which to fill out their allotted times.
In the back of this particular Speaker
is a listing of similar volumes which could be purchased from Mr. Baker's
publishers, Lee & Shepard of Chicago, Illinois, including
Irish Dialect Recitations
Yankee Dialect Recitations
Medley Dialect Recitations
(A multicultural approach, perhaps?)
One could also subscribe to
their Reading Clubs, which offered similar fare: humorous or sentimental prose
and poetry, with a number of individual selections in Irish, Yankee, Colored, or
I don't have - nor do I aspire
to - the academic ballast which would allow me to claim that these examples
preserve some linguistic nuances that have otherwise been forgotten, though
there might be something to that idea.
From all appearances - not least
of which would be the all-inclusive nature of the selections - I'm judging that
these were never intended to be personally offensive to the Irish, the Germans,
the Yankees, the Southerners, or to African-Americans. Indeed, popular
prejudices of the day would imply that several of those groups would never be
able to read them, much less be offended by them.
I suspect that the phenomenon of
"Dialect Poetry" was simply a passing fancy in 19th-century
entertainment tastes, and that is the spirit in which I present these examples
to you today.