A Prolific Young Writer
Although he lived a mere thirty-three years, Paul Laurence Dunbar published six volumes of poetry, four novels, and quite a few volumes of short stories. Altogether, he authored no fewer than twenty books. For all this prodigious productivity and in spite of his widespread reputation as the first African American to master the art of writing poetry, Dunbar, a lyricist of tremendous ability, has come down to modern readers primarily as a poet of “Negro” dialect. In the process, he also acquired the reputation of being a superb reader of his own poetry. As poet and reader, he was eagerly sought after, and whether it was in London, New York, Washington, the South, or his birthplace, Dayton, Ohio, his soft, musical voice induced his listeners to take note of his poetic abilities, his devotion to his art, and his determination to live as a professional artist.
Encumbered by sorrow, ill-health, frequent financial difficulties, unfulfilled love, and an unhappy marriage, he persevered; with a heroic resilience, Dunbar composed throughout his entire life, each composition showing promise of greater literary achievement than the one before. Even in the midst of failing health and a crushed spirit, he could produce poetry full of love, laughter, and sunshine. From all accounts, his untiring devotion to his mother, and hers to him, must have gone a long way in maintaining this equanimity in the midst of trying times.
Pigeonholed as a Dialect Poet
Though more than two-thirds of Dunbar’s poems are written in Standard English, these are not the works that made him famous, nor are they the ones that have secured him a place in the history of American literature. The qualities that he displays in his standard poetry—such as the detailed attention to nature, the skillful manipulation of imagery, the masterful experimentation with rhyme and meter, and the controlled handling of serious philosophical themes—have traditionally been ignored in favor of the rhythmic, narrative, and pleasing delineation of black peasant life that characterizes much of his dialect poetry.
Little did Dunbar know that when one of America’s most influential literary critics—William Dean Howells—favorably reviewed Oak and Ivy and Majors and Minors, it not only would bring the poet instant fame but also would place severe limitations on him as an artist. Scarcely twenty years old, Dunbar had written Oak and Ivy in 1892 and followed this collection of poetry with another in 1895, Majors and Minors. Being very poor, he found himself reduced to selling copies of these collections himself; the favorable review of these volumes by Howells in Harper’s Weekly was more than welcome news to Dunbar at the time.
Howells not only arranged for the publication of Lyrics of Lowly Life in 1896 but also wrote an introduction to the volume, describing Dunbar as “the first instance of an American negro who had evinced innate distinction in literature.” Howells proceeded to characterize him as “the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically.” Though Howells admitted that some of Dunbar’s poetry in literary English was quite good, he was emphasizing that these were not “distinctively his contribution to the body of American poetry.” For him, that distinction belonged to the dialect pieces, in which he saw the poet presenting black life with a humor and sympathy as had never been done before.
While Dunbar must have initially felt honored by Howells’s promises, he soon came to regard them as a mixed blessing. One year later, Dunbar wrote a friend with the complaint that “Mr. Howells has done me irrevocable harm in the dictum he laid down regarding my dialect verse.” This dictum made it difficult for the young poet from Ohio to be accepted as a serious artist.
After Lyrics of Lowly Life, Dunbar published his Lyrics of the Hearthside in 1899, followed by Lyrics of Love and Laughter in 1903 and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow in 1905, thus...
(The entire section is 3,303 words.)