Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1857
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.
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.
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 poems, arguing that they presented black people as uneducated, illiterate buffoons much like the exaggerated black characters presented by the minstrels of that day. On the other hand, white readers, some of them prominent in literary circles, applauded the dialect poems while dismissing Dunbar’s poems in standard English as derivative and ordinary.
The publication of Oak and Ivy brought Dunbar to the attention of a prosperous Toledo attorney, Charles A. Thatcher, who was sufficiently impressed by Dunbar’s writing that he offered to pay the poet’s expenses if he wished to attend Harvard University. Bent on promoting his career as a writer, however, Dunbar rejected Thatcher’s generous offer. Thatcher, nevertheless, did what he could to advance Dunbar’s career, as did Thatcher’s friend, Toledo psychiatrist Henry A. Tobey, who helped Dunbar through many difficult periods by lending him money and promoting his books.
Thatcher and Tobey encouraged Dunbar to publish a second volume of verse, Majors and Minors (1895). The book was divided into two sections: “Majors,” or poems in standard English, and “Minors,” or dialect poems. The publication of this volume drew considerable praise from William Dean Howells, probably the most prominent man of letters in the United States at that time. Although Howells’ criticism of Dunbar’s poems in standard English was somewhat dismissive, he heaped praise upon the dialect poems, calling Dunbar “the first man of his color to study his race objectively.” The authenticity that Howells found in the dialect poems stemmed directly from Dunbar’s early exposure to the tales his father and mother spun for him as he was growing up.
The publication of Majors and Minors marked the emergence of Dunbar as a nationally significant literary figure. Through Thatcher and Tobey, he was accepted as a client by Major James B. Pond, a New York City literary agent who represented such illustrious authors as Mark Twain, Henry Ward Beecher, and Frederick Douglass, whom Dunbar had met in 1893 and to whom he was close until Douglass’ death in 1895. Pond persuaded Dunbar to leave Dayton and move to New York, which Paul did in the summer of 1896. Pond arranged numerous engagements for Dunbar to speak and to read his poetry. More important, however, he introduced him to publishers who were eager to offer him contracts.
Finally, Dodd, Mead offered the poet a four-hundred-dollar advance against royalties (an astronomical advance for a poet to receive at that time) and a generous royalty arrangement. The book for which Dodd, Mead contracted, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), which essentially drew poems from his two earlier volumes, was a resounding success among white readers and clearly established Dunbar as the leading black poet of his day. The success of this book led to a six-month reading tour of England.
Dunbar realized that the move to New York had been wise. Meanwhile, he began a correspondence with Alice Ruth Moore, a writer and teacher with whom he had fallen in love. Alice’s parents discouraged her from marrying a writer whose income was uncertain at best. In 1897, however, Dunbar received a clerkship at the Library of Congress, affording him the means to marry Alice. The two moved to Washington, D.C., where Dunbar published his first collection of short stories, Folks from Dixie (1898), whose incisive insights into racial prejudice were well received by liberal white audiences.
Critics dismissed Dunbar’s first novel, The Uncalled (1898), based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), as trite and unconvincing. The book received little popular acceptance. The following year, however, a new collection of his poems, Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899), redeemed his literary reputation.
Long plagued by lung and respiratory problems made worse by Washington’s climate and by the dust from the books he constantly handled at the Library of Congress, Dunbar was forced to quit his job in 1898. He immediately undertook another lecture tour, but within a few months his health had deteriorated so badly that he had to move first to New York’s Catskill Mountains and then to Colorado for long periods of rest.
In The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900), which presented disturbing vignettes about black people during the days of slavery and emancipation that followed, Dunbar wrote passionately but without his usual humor about racial injustice. His next novel, The Love of Landry (1900), dealt with white characters and was generally unconvincing. His next novel, The Fanatics (1901), also focused on white characters and presented its minor black characters as caricatures. It was dismissed as an inconsequential work. Despite these setbacks, Dunbar was sufficiently esteemed to be an honored guest at the inauguration of President William McKinley in 1901.
Dunbar’s last novel, The Sport of Gods (1902), was a strident protest novel focusing on a black servant falsely accused of theft who was vindicated only after serving time in prison and seeing his family disintegrate. It was followed by three more collections of poetry, bringing the total number of volumes of verse he produced in his lifetime to fourteen. Racked by illness, Dunbar controlled his pain by drinking. When Alice left him in 1902, Dunbar returned to Dayton, where he continued to write and from which he still made occasional speaking trips. His lungs destroyed by tuberculosis, he died in Dayton on February 9, 1906.
Paul Laurence Dunbar brought views of plantation life, slavery, and racial inequality to a white reading public and became an influential voice in the struggle of black citizens to obtain their rightful place in American society. Dunbar also established black dialect as a reputable and legitimate literary vehicle, even though many black readers in his day, including his own wife, considered it demeaning and much preferred the work he produced in standard English.
McKissack, Patricia C. Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Poet to Remember. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1984. Directed toward an adolescent audience, this book provides an accurate and engaging overview of Dunbar’s life and writing.
Martin, Jay, ed. Singers in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972. Valuable contributions by scholars who participated in the Centenary Conference on Paul Laurence Dunbar at the University of California, Irvine, in 1972. Balanced and intellectually sound.
Redding, J. Saunders. To Make a Poet Black. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939. This critical assessment by a major black author demonstrates the black bias against Dunbar’s dialectal writing and the preference for his writing in standard English.
Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Following the usual format of Twayne’s United States Authors Series, Revell presents a readable and accurate account of the author, his work, and his critical reception.
Wiggins, Lida Keck. The Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Nashville, Tenn.: Winston-Derek Publishers, 1992. This profusely illustrated volume contains Dunbar’s complete poetry and his best stories and anecdotes. It also includes William Dean Howells’ introduction to Lyrics of Lowly Life and Wiggins’ complete biography of the writer.