Born In: Dayton, Ohio, United States
Died On: February 9, 1906
Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African American poet to achieve national and international fame. He was highly popular in United States in the 1900s. Such was his fame that Booker T. Washington referred to him as the "Poet Laureate of the Negro Race". Dunbar introduced the use of both dialect and Standard English in his poetry, which though common now, was a rare style in his times. Dunbar's poetry blended the humor, pathos, and determination of African Americans' struggle in and out of slavery. He skillfully used rhythm, satire, narrative, and irony to insist that white Americans see the humanity of a black community, which they often misunderstood. In 2002, Molefi Kete Asante listed Paul Laurence Dunbar on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. Though he died at an early age of thirty three, his impact on the African American movement and the outlook of Americans on Negros has been truly hard hitting. With the following lines, explore the life and works of Paul Laurence Dubar.
Childhood & Early Life
Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872 to Joshua, and Matilda. His parents were former slaves, but they taught themselves to read and write; skills that the slaves desperately wanted to have but were deprived of by law. As a youngster, Dunbar was educated by his mother who also succeeded in cultivating in him a sense of devotion to literature. Dunbar's parents told him and his brothers about their lives as slaves, and these stories became an important literary resource for Dunbar's poetry. Dunbar’s intelligence and literary talent soon became obvious as he became the only black student in his high school class. As a senior, he played the roles of the class president, the editor of his school's paper, and the president of the school's literary club. He was also the class poet, writing and delivering the class poem at graduation in June 1891.
At the age of sixteen, Dunbar had already published his poetry in the Dayton Herald. Encouraged by this, Dunbar set out to find work as a journalist when he graduated, but was denied all but the most menial work due to his race. He finally found work as an elevator operator for four dollars a week. In his free time, Dunbar read William Shakespeare, John Keats, and Alfred Tennyson and wrote poetry and articles. Invited by his former English teacher, Dunbar gave the opening address to the Western Association of Writers in 1892. His twenty-six-line poem drew the attention of many in the audience, specifically James Newton Matthews, who became one of Dunbar's patrons.
The Writer Arrives
Encouraged by Matthews and the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, Dunbar published a small volume of poetry in 1892, ‘Oak and Ivy’. The volume included Dunbar’s first use of dialect in the poem "A Banjo Song", as well as Standard English, in "Ode to Ethiopia". Throughout, Dunbar stressed upon the contributions made by blacks in the construction of the United States and the achievements during Reconstruction. Dunbar moved to Chicago in 1893 to work at the World's Columbian Exposition. It was there that he met a network of African American artists and intellectuals. Chief among his new acquaintances were Frederick Douglass, Angelina Weld Grimkè, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Hallie Brown, Mary Church Terrell, and fellow poets James D. Corrothers and James Edwin Campbell. At the conclusion of the exposition, Dunbar returned to Dayton and reluctantly resumed his job as an elevator operator. Though slightly famous now, he was still working tirelessly to make the ends meet.
In 1895, Century magazine published three of his poems, "A Negro Love Song," "Curtain," and The Dilettante." Other important literary magazines and newspapers followed suit, such as The New York Times, Blue and Gray, and the Independent. He published a second volume of poetry, “Majors and Minors”, in the same year. William Dean Howells, the renowned novelist and critic, reviewed “Majors and Minors” in Harper's Weekly, and his praise helped establish Dunbar as an important American poet. Friends directed Dunbar to what would now be called a literary agent, Maj. James B. Pond, who had successfully managed tours for Mark Twain, Frederick Douglas, and George Washington Cable. Pond arranged a series of readings in New York City and located a publisher for Dunbar's poems. Also in 1896, Dunbar published “Lyrics of Lowly Life”, which became his best-selling book, thus introducing him to a national audience.
In 1898, Dunbar set off to London wherein US Ambassador John Hay arranged a reading of Dunbar's poetry for some of London's most prominent citizens. After six months in England, and again facing financial ruin, Dunbar returned to the United States and took a job in the Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Dunbar enjoyed the security of his work and the vibrant African American community in Washington, which at that time was the largest in the United states. He energetically turned out seven articles, a musical, two collections of short stories, two volumes of poetry, and a novel he had started in London. His royalties, fees, and salary from the Library of Congress gave him financial stability. In recognition of his achievements, Atlanta University bestowed upon him an honorary Master of Arts degree on June 5, 1899.
At the same time; Dunbar began writing short stories about the ongoing problem of racism faced by African Americans. In his collection of short stories “Folks from Dixie” (1898) he omitted the use of dialect that had won him fame from his white audiences. Instead, he used Standard English to rekindle African American awareness of the need for solidarity, pride, and, above all, dignity. “Folks from Dixie” won him more critical acclaim. In 1900, Dunbar's delicate health forced him to resign from the Library of Congress. Upon medical check-up, Dunbar was diagnosed with tuberculosis. However, despite his chronic illnesses, he toured the country giving readings and lectures. In the same year, Dunbar published a book of stories, “The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories”. During this time, his publisher republished eight of Dunbar's poems with a photo essay on southern African Americans.
To support himself, Dunbar also published novels during this period, most notably “The Sport of the Gods” (1902), considered the first major protest novel by a black American writer. In “In Old Plantation Days” (1903) Dunbar took what appeared to many African Americans a favorable and romantic view of slavery. Many black critics dismissed the book as an exemplification of white America. White audiences, however, enjoyed the book tremendously. Dunbar had resorted to using a delicate balance between accommodation and protest, in part so that his work would be published by a predominantly white publishing world. Yet even when his work appeared to accommodate racism, he continued to explore the social, economic, and political conditions facing blacks in the United States at the turn of the century. It was during this time that his work “Poems of Cabin and Field” became widely popular. Other illustrated editions of poems from Dunbar's previous volumes were published: “Candle-Lighting Time” (1901), “When Malindy Sings” (1903), “Li'l Gal” (1904), “Howdy”, “Honey, Howdy” (1905), and “Joggin Erlong” (1906).
In 1898, during his trip to London, Dunbar met his future wife, Alice Ruth Moore. A writer by profession, Alice too shared literary pursuits like Dunbar. The couple tie the nuptial knot the same year. However, the unison does not last long and the two got separated in the year 1902.
On February 9, 1906, Paul Laurence Dunbar breathed his last in his home in Dayton, while suffering from tuberculosis. He was interred in the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton.
1872: Paul Laurence Dunbar was born
1878: Wrote his first poem.
1884: Recited first original poem “Easter Hymn” at the Eake Street African Methodist Episcopal Church.
1891: Started working as an elevator boy at Callahan Building.
1892: Completed first volume of poems, “Oak and Ivy”.
1895: Second Book of poems, “Majors and Minors” published.
1897: Dunbar returned from England and secured a position as an assistant in the Library of Congress.
1898: Married Alice Ruth Moore.
1899: Published first novel, “The Uncalled”.
1900: Novels “The Strength of Gideon” and “The Love of Landry” are published.
1902: Dunbar and Alice Moor Dunbar get separated. He writes his last novel, “The Sport of the Gods”
1903: Dunbar returns to live in Dayton.
1906: Dunbar leaves for the heavenly abode on February 9.