Places: The Sport of the Gods

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: serial, 1901; book, 1902

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSouthern town

Southern Sport of the Gods, Thetown. The unnamed southern town is supposed to represent a typical place in the South following the Civil War. While from appearances things appear to be looking up for former slaves remaining in the South, Dunbar shows that once the veneer of gentility and goodwill lifted, the South was the same wretched place it had always been, so far as its black citizens were concerned.

Hamilton cottage

Hamilton cottage. Home of the Hamilton family in the yard of the Oakley family mansion; a play on words that reflects the facade of improved conditions for African Americans. The Hamiltons’ “cottage” is a former slave cabin, but as the means and status of the Hamiltons seem to improve, so the cabin takes on a new appearance of its own and becomes a “bower of peace and comfort,” furnished mostly with discarded items from the Oakley mansion. Indeed, its edenic appearance is further exemplified by the many blooming flowers in its yard and the profusion of morning glories and Virginia creeper that hang over the entranceway. Also, Berry Hamilton, his wife Fannie, and his children Joe and Kitty appear to have garnered for themselves a life of freedom and high standing. Not only are they gainfully employed, but they have both the time and means for a full complement of social and cultural activities, and they seem to be living quite well in the South that only a few decades earlier was plagued by the evils of slavery. However, Dunbar holds this myth up to ridicule once Berry is wrongly accused of theft of money from the Oakley mansion. Not only does his employer turn against Berry Hamilton, but so do the others of the town, white and black. Berry, though innocent, is imprisoned for ten years at hard labor, and his family is turned out of their jobs and cottage and become virtual outcasts in the small southern town.


*Harlem. African American section of New York City to which the remaining members of the Hamilton family go after Berry is imprisoned in the South. There they hope to begin anew, away from the southern prejudices and backlash. Although Harlem is never mentioned by name, it is clear from signs and markers in the text that Dunbar is portraying it during its pre-Harlem Renaissance days.

Although the Hamiltons find lodgings easily enough and have some money from savings and the sale of household items, their disintegration as a family begins almost immediately upon their arrival. Ill equipped to deal with city life, the Hamiltons are too unsophisticated to avoid being easy prey for crafty Harlemites trying to exploit new arrivals. This is evidenced by the porter Mr. Thomas, who clearly has ulterior motives in recommending Mrs. Jones’s rooming house to Fannie Hamilton and her children. Also, while Mrs. Jones appears to run a decent house, it becomes clear that she is not above taking advantage of others whenever opportunities to do so arise.

Most important, what becomes abundantly clear is that the Hamilton’s New York is no promised land. Dunbar is even more cynical when he shows time after time that while in the South the Hamiltons are taken advantage of by whites, in the North they are at the mercy of fellow African Americans, who are agents of their destruction at every turn. In the course of their stay in New York, Joe is imprisoned for killing a woman; Kit becomes a stage girl–the very antithesis of the church girl she once was–and Fannie, in order to survive, is forced to marry a man who beats her. Once again, Dunbar shows that appearances are misleading, for the newness, largeness, and sophistication of New York prove to be the downfall of the Hamilton family. Interestingly enough, through the persistence of a white reporter for a New York paper, Berry’s innocence is proved and he is pardoned, and after a painful reconciliation with Fannie, the two of them move back to their southern home in the yard of the now mad and deranged former employer Maurice Oakley, a move welcomed and made possible by Mrs. Oakley.

BibliographyBest, Felton O. “Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Protest Literature: The Final Years.” The Western Journal of Black Studies 17 (Spring, 1993): 54-64. Argues that Dunbar used plantation settings to help counteract the plantation myth that was prevalent at the turn of the century. Also argues that Dunbar was more active in the protest movement than some critics have given him credit for being.Candela, Gregory L. “We Wear the Mask: Irony in Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods. ” American Literature 48 (1976): 60-72. An important reassessment of the novel, placing it in the tradition of protest literature. Candela argues that Dunbar’s use of irony undercuts his occasional resort to stereotypes.Gayle, Addison, Jr. Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. A critical biography that deals equally with Dunbar’s life and works. Gayle writes extensively of the tragic results of Dunbar’s efforts to free his work from racial stereotypes while dealing with powerful white publishing firms.Larson, Charles R. “The Novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Phylon 29 (Fall, 1968): 257-271. An essay that places all of Dunbar’s novels in a critical context. Places The Sport of the Gods in the category of protest novel.Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Part of the Twayne series on American writers, this critical biography covers all of Dunbar’s poetic and fictional works. Revell emphasizes the naturalistic elements of Dunbar’s fiction and discusses Dunbar’s work in relation to French naturalism. Revell states that The Sport of the Gods is Dunbar’s most successful novel and places it at the center of the African American tradition of novel writing.Von Rosk, Nancy. “Coon Shows, Ragtime, and the Blues: Race, Urban Culture, and the Naturalist Vision in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods. ” In Twisted from the Ordinary: Essays on American Literary Naturalism, edited by Mary E. Papke. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003. Elucidates the relationship between African American cultural traditions and literary naturalism in Dunbar’s text.
Categories: Places