Study Guide

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111204581-Dunbar.jpg(Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Dunbar’s writing is recognized as providing the most authentic representations of African American life in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Early Life

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s parents, Joshua and Matilda Murphy Dunbar, were slaves until the early or mid-1860’s. Matilda had been married to another slave, Willis Murphy, with whom she had two sons, both born in slavery. Willis, who joined the Union army and was never heard from again, sent his wife and sons to Dayton, Ohio, where they remained, presuming Willis was dead.

Matilda, ever eager to learn, attended night school. She soon became literate and mastered enough mathematics to keep her own accounts. In 1871, Matilda married Joshua Dunbar, who was twenty years her senior. In the following year, their first child, Paul Laurence Dunbar, was born.

Joshua never tired of telling his young son about his exploits, about how he clandestinely learned to read and write when slaves were punished, sometimes even killed, for trying to achieve literacy. Joshua recounted to his fascinated son details about his escape from slavery with the help of abolitionists via the Underground Railroad and his subsequent enlistment in the Fifty-fifth Division of the Union army, where he achieved the rank of sergeant. The tales Joshua wove eventually found their way into Dunbar’s writing, which his mother had encouraged from Dunbar’s earliest days. When Joshua and Matilda’s second child, Elizabeth, died before her first birthday, Matilda focused all her attention and centered all of her hopes upon Paul.

Meanwhile, Joshua, unable to find work despite being literate and having a spotless military record, began to drink, causing dissension in the household. To relieve tension, Matilda spun tales about plantation life, which helped create a basis for much of Dunbar’s later writing. Matilda finally divorced Joshua, after which Joshua spent his remaining years in the Soldier’s Retirement Home in Dayton, where Dunbar often visited him.

Dunbar, who was the only African American in his high school graduating class, was class president and class poet. While still in high school, Dunbar published poetry in the Dayton Herald and worked as an editor for the Dayton Tattler. One of his fellow students was Orville Wright, who, along with his brother Wilbur, constructed and flew the first airplane. Dunbar and Orville remained good friends throughout their lifetimes.

Too poor to attend college, Dunbar discovered that Dayton offered few desirable jobs to African Americans at that time. He finally took a job as an elevator operator, which gave him time to write. He produced a number of stories and poems during this period, some of them written in the black-dialect style that first drew national attention to his writing.

Dunbar was invited to address the Western Association of Writers at its 1892 convention in Dayton. This initial appearance was arranged by Helen Truesdell, one of Dunbar’s high school English teachers. At this meeting, Dunbar met James Newton Matthews, who wrote a letter praising Dunbar’s writing. This letter was published in an Illinois newspaper and was subsequently reprinted in newspapers throughout the United States, bringing Dunbar considerable celebrity. James Whitcomb Riley read Matthews’ letter and wrote an admiring letter to Dunbar. It was the encouragement the young poet received from Matthews and Riley that led him to collect his poems into the volume Oak and Ivy (1893). Printed at Dunbar’s own expense, the poet quickly repayed the $125 printing costs by selling copies of the collection to people who rode his elevator.

Life’s Work

The publication of Oak and Ivy changed the course of Dunbar’s life. The collection contained many poems in standard English, which had been drilled into the young Dunbar by his mother. His “Ode to Ethiopia” remains among his most influential poems, recording as it does the accomplishments of African Americans and entreating them to have pride in their race. “Sympathy” focused on the dismal status of black people in American society. The poems that caught the attention of the white community, however, were the collection’s dialect poems that presented vivid portraits of plantation life and ruminated on the feelings of both free and enslaved black people. Many members of the black community resented Dunbar’s dialect...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)

Paul Laurence Dunbar Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111201206-Dunbar.jpgPaul Laurence Dunbar. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, on June 27, 1872, the son of Joshua and Matilda Glass Burton Murphy Dunbar, former slaves from Kentucky. Matilda Dunbar had two sons, William and Robert Murphy, by a previous marriage to R. Weeks Murphy prior to the emancipation; Paul Laurence Dunbar, born shortly after Matilda’s marriage to Joshua Dunbar, was the only child that Joshua and Matilda had together.

Dunbar’s parents were divorced when he was still a small boy, and his father died when Dunbar was twelve. After her two older sons left home, Matilda Dunbar focused all of her attention on young Paul. Not only did she teach him to read, but she also exposed him to a number of literary works. More important, both mother and father passed on a number of stories from slavery days. These stories triggered a strong interest and imagination in Dunbar and became the basis for his most popular and enduring works.

Dunbar’s interest in writing dated back to his high school days at Dayton’s Central High School. Although he was the only black student in his class, he was immensely popular. Dunbar’s first published poem appeared when he was about sixteen years old, and as he continued publishing, he also became class president, editor of the high school newspaper, class poet, and president of the literary society. In addition, Dunbar founded the short-lived Dayton Tattler, a newspaper which reported news of Dayton’s black community.

Because of a lack of funds, Dunbar was not able to attend college upon his graduation from high school in 1891; instead, he accepted a job as an elevator operator in the Callahan Building in downtown Dayton. This was one of very few reasonably respectable jobs open to African Americans at the time. For his services, Dunbar earned only four dollars per week, but the job gave him plenty of time to read and write poetry and to write articles which he published in various newspapers. In addition, Dunbar wrote several short stories during this period.

Shortly before Dunbar’s twentieth birthday, he got the break that brought him to the attention of the literary establishment and launched his career as the United States’ foremost black poet. At the...

(The entire section is 916 words.)

Paul Laurence Dunbar Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Dunbar strived to address real concerns about the lives of black people throughout his relatively short career. In his poetry, short stories, novels, and song lyrics, he was often caught between becoming an artistic or a popular success, yet Dunbar rarely compromised his sincerity in treating his subject matter or his craft. This fact has earned for him an enduring place in American literature.

Paul Laurence Dunbar Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The child of former slaves, Joshua and Matilda Glass Burton Murphy Dunbar, Paul Laurence Dunbar was raised in Dayton, Ohio; his younger sister died when he was three and his father when Paul was twelve. In high school, he was the only African American, but perhaps both despite and because of this he became president of his class, managing editor of his school newspaper, president of the school literary club, and class poet. While still in high school, he published poems in local newspapers and served as editor for the Dayton Tattler, published by classmate Orville Wright, coinventor of the airplane. Despite Dunbar’s scholastic excellence, Dayton’s discriminatory policies forced the young graduate to take a menial...

(The entire section is 230 words.)

Paul Laurence Dunbar Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

ph_0111201206-Dunbar.jpgPaul Laurence Dunbar. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s creative genius and personal and professional tragedies have often been misunderstood by readers who neglect to consider the poet in the context of his time, which was not just marked, but defined, by all-encompassing racial politics. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, commonly referred to by scholars of African American history as the nadir, Dunbar was a singular phenomenon, trapped between his audience’s demands that he be the voice of his race and his own creative mandate that he not be restricted to any given subject matter. Dunbar wrote not merely evocative but enduring work, particularly as a poet. In addition to six volumes of verse, he also wrote four...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

Paul Laurence Dunbar Biography (Poets and Poetry in America)

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born to former slaves Joshua Dunbar and Matilda J. Murphy Dunbar on June 27, 1872. He spent his early childhood in Dayton, Ohio, where he attended Central High School. Dunbar began to write at age sixteen and gained early patronage for his work, and he was introduced to the Western Association of Writers in 1892.

The next few years of his life found him in the presence of great black leaders. He met Frederick Douglass, Mary Church Terrell, and Ida B. Wells at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He met W. E. B. Du Bois in 1896 and Booker T. Washington in 1897. These encounters influenced Dunbar’s literary tone and perspective significantly. He blended the creative perspective...

(The entire section is 255 words.)

Paul Laurence Dunbar Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201206-Dunbar.jpgPaul Laurence Dunbar. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first black writer in the post-Civil War United States to gain national prominence and acceptance by both the black and the white communities. Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872, Dunbar learned of slavery from his parents, both of whom had served different slave masters in Kentucky. Joshua Dunbar, his father, had escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad and had returned to the United States at the start of the Civil War. Growing up in Dayton, young Dunbar usually was one of a small group of black students who attended predominantly white schools. In fact, when he entered Central High School in Dayton in 1886, he was the only black student in his class. Involved in literary, debate, and journalistic...

(The entire section is 888 words.)