When Malindy Sings

When Malindy Sings

When Malindy Sings by Paul Laurence Dunbar (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1903)
Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867 – 1944), binding designer
M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings, Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives, Delaware Art Museum

For several volumes in the series, Dodd, Mead & Co. hired Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867 – 1944) to design the cover and interior decorations. An amateur botanist as well as an artist, Armstrong developed an early interest in the natural world exploring the wooded surroundings of her family’s estate along the Hudson River.

After studying at New York’s Art Students League, Armstrong became a botanical illustrator and book designer. Over the course of her career, Armstrong designed approximately 314 book covers, with a distinctive style that balanced the deliberative lines of Arts and Crafts with the natural motifs of Art Nouveau, as well as her own fascination with botanical forms. When Malindy Sings is an excellent example of Armstrong’s style, with an Arts and Crafts-inspired trellis intwined by green vines and red flowers. Interior decorations include detailed renderings of native plants, including hollyhocks, bleeding hearts, and phlox.

When Malindy Sings

Photograph, not dated, from “When Malindy Sings” in When Malindy Sings by Paul Laurence Dunbar (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1903)
Hampton Institute Camera Club (est. 1893)
M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings, Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives, Delaware Art Museum

Because a great many people read Dunbar’s dialect poems in the form of the Dodd, Mead & Co., photo-texts, the content of the images helped determine the interpretation of Dunbar’s poems. In some cases, the photographs amplified or made explicit some of Dunbar’s subtly subversive content. The title poem “When Malindy Sings” pokes fun at a middle-class singer, Miss Lucy, who sings with a learned, technical prowress, but lacks the heart-felt expression of another singer, Malindy. The text itself does not specify the racial identity of Miss Lucy, though it implies Malindy’s African American identity. The photo-illustration provided by the Camera Club, however, pictures Lucy as a young white girl. As a result, the photo-text makes Dunbar’s statement about Lucy’s inferior “nachel o’gans” far more racially explicit and transgressive.