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Dunbar's Life and Career

Joanne M. Braxton

Paul Laurence Dunbar published in such mainstream journals as Century, Lipincott’s Monthly, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Saturday Evening Post. A gifted poet and a precursor to the Harlem Renaissance, Dunbar was read by both blacks and whites in turn-of-the-century America.

Dunbar, the son of two former slaves, was born in Dayton, Ohio, and attended the public schools of that city. He was taught to read by his mother, Matilda Murphy Dunbar, and he absorbed her homespun wisdom as well as the stories told to him by his father, Joshua Dunbar, who had escaped from enslavement in Kentucky and served in the Massachusetts 55th Regiment during the Civil War. Thus, while Paul Laurence Dunbar himself was never enslaved, he was one of the last of a generation to have ongoing contact with those who had been. Dunbar was steeped in the oral tradition during his formative years and he would go on to become a powerful interpreter of the African American folk experience in literature and song; he would also champion the cause of civil rights and higher education for African Americans in essays and poetry that were militant by the standards of his day.

During his years at Dayton's Central High, Dunbar was the school's only student of color, but it was his scholarly performance that distinguished him. He served as editor in chief of the school paper, president of the literary society, and class poet. His poetry grew more sophisticated with his repeated readings of John Keats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Burns; later he would add American poets John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Whitcomb Riley to his list of favorites as he searched ardently for his own poetic voice. But it was his reading of Irwin Russell and other writers in the plantation tradition that led him into difficulty as he searched for an authentic poetic diction that would incorporate the voices of his parents and the stories they told.

After graduating from high school in 1891, racial discrimination forced Dunbar to accept a job as an elevator operator in a Dayton hotel. He wrote on the job during slack hours. He became well known as the "elevator boy poet" after James Newton Mathews invited him to read his poetry at the annual meeting of the Western Association of Writers, held in Dayton in 1892.

In 1893 Dunbar published his first volume of poetry, Oak and Ivy, on the press of the Church of the Brethren. That same year he also attended the World's Columbian Exposition, where he sold copies of his book and gained the patronage of Frederick Douglass and other influential African Americans.

In 1895 Dunbar initiate a correspondence with Alice Ruth Moore, a fair-skinned black Creole teacher and writer originally from New Orleans. Three years later he married Alice in secret and over the objections of her friends and family. During the years of their marriage, Dunbar began to suffer from tuberculosis and the alcohol prescribed for it. The Dunbars separated permanently in 1902 but remained friends, and Alice continued to be known as "the widow of Paul Laurence Dunbar" even after her 1916 marriage to publisher Robert J. Nelson. The Dunbars had no children.

Dunbar published eleven volumes of poetry including Oak and Ivy (1893), Majors and Minors (1895), Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899), Poems of Cabin and Field (1899), Candle-Lightin' Time (1901), Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903), When Malindy Sings (1903), Li'l Gal (1904), Howdy, Honey, Howdy (1905), and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905). Dunbar’s so-called Complete Poems were published posthumously in 1913. The most complete edition of Dunbar’s poetry, The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, containing a selection of sixty poems not published in 1913, did not appear until 1994. Dunbar's published fiction includes The Uncalled (1898), Folks from Dixie (1898), The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900), The Fanatics (1901), and The Sport of the Gods(1902), but he remains best known for his poetry.

Much of the controversy surrounding Paul Laurence Dunbar concerns his dialect poetry, wherein some scholars, such as the late Charles T. Davis, felt that Dunbar showed the greatest glimmers of genius. Sterling A. Brown, writing in Negro Poetry and Drama in 1937, asserted that Dunbar was the first American poet to "handle Negro folk life with any degree of fullness" but he also found Dunbar guilty of cruelly "misreading" black history. This points to the basic flaw in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s attempts to represent authentic African American folk language in verse. He was not able to transcend completely the racist plantation tradition made popular by Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, Irwin Russell, and other white writers who made use of African American folk materials and who showed the "old time Negro" as if he were satisfied serving the master on the antebellum plantation.

While Dunbar sought an appropriate literary form for the representation of African American vernacular expression, he was also deeply ambivalent about his undertaking in this area. He recognized that many of his experiments yielded imperfect results and he was concerned that prominent white critics such as William Dean Howells praised his work for the wrong reasons, setting a tone that other Dunbar critics would follow for years as they virtually ignored his standard English verse and his published experiments with Irish, German, and Western regional dialects.

Some African American critics saw a concession to racism evident in Dunbar's black dialect poetry, and while it is unlikely that any perceived concession was intentional, it can certainly be argued that dialect poems like "Parted" and "Corn Song" were more derivative of the plantation school than they were original productions of African American genius. Yet, during his lifetime, Dunbar’s work was praised by Frederick Douglass, Booker T Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois, among others.

Negative treatment of Dunbar’s poetry by black critics including scholar-poet James Weldon Johnson did not surface

The historic home of Paul Laurence 
Dunbar in Dayton, Ohio

 fully until the New Negro movement of the 1920s. On the other hand, poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes publicly admired and emulated Dunbar. A considered reading of poems like "We Wear the Mask," "When Malindy Sings," "Frederick Douglass," "The Colored Soldiers," or "The Haunted Oak" affirms Dunbar's loyalty to the black race and his pride in its achievements, as well as his righteous anger over racial injustice.

In the second half of the twentieth century Paul Laurence Dunbar was rediscovered, In 1972 centenary conferences marking the hundredth anniversary of Dunbar’s birth were held at the University of Dayton and the University of California at Irvine, with prominent black poets and writers in attendance. At the Irvine conference, poet Nikki Giovanni suggested that Dunbar’s "message is clear and available ... if we invest in Dunbar the integrity we hope others will give us."

Anew edition of Dunbar's poems subsequently put long out-of-print Dunbar poems back on the classroom shelf, making it possible for teachers to acquaint a new generation of poets and scholars with Dunbar’s work.

See Also: Addison Gayle, Jr., Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1971. Jay Martin, ed., A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1975. Jay Martin and Gossie Hudson, eds., Paul Laurence Dunbar Reader, 1975. Peter Revell, Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1979. Joanne M. Braxton, ed., The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1993.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press. , 1997. Copyright 1997 by Oxford University Press.

William L. Andrews and Patricia Robinson Williams

Dunbar's desk at his Dayton home

Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) was Paul Laurence Dunbar’s first commercially published book and probably the best-selling volume of African American poetry before the Harlem Renaissance. Of the 105 poems in the volume, 97 had been previously published in Dunbar’s Oak and Ivy (1893) and Majors and Minors (1895), suggesting that Lyrics of Lowly Life was designed to serve as a showcase anthology of what the poet and his supporters felt was an under-recognized literary achievement. The popular appeal and literary significance of Lyrics of Lowly Life was enhanced by the introduction that William Dean Howells, a well-established white literary critic, wrote for the volume. The major literary influences on the poems in Lyrics of Lowly Life are British Romantic poets such as John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and American regional poetry, particularly the work of the Indiana writer James Whitcomb Riley. What made Dunbar's poetry most notable to readers in his own time, however, were his evocations of the flavor of life and the folkways of 'down home' black America through the speech and dialect of rural African Americans.

The contents of Lyrics of Lowly Life may be conveniently divided between poems written in standard English and the dialect poetry that gained Dunbar international fame. Among the poems in Lyrics of Lowly Life written in so-called Negro dialect are such favorites from previous Dunbar volumes as "When Malindy Sings," "A Negro Love Song," "An Ante-Bellum Sermon," "The Party," and "When de Co'n Pone's Hot." Dunbar’s dialect verse displays his talent in rendering melodies associated with popular songs and ballads, such as "The Old Apple-Tree" and "A Banjo Song." In the introduction to Lyrics of Lowly Life, Howells reserved special praise for Dunbar’s dialect poems, judging them a product of the poet's innate ability to "feel the negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically." Dunbar showed his appreciation of Howells's support by dedicating Lyrics of Lowly Life to the white critic as well as to Dunbar's mother, but the poet came to believe that Howells’s praise of the dialect poems deflected attention away from his more serious verse in standard English.

Lyrics of Lowly Life contains a wealth of Dunbar’s most thoughtful and ambitious verse. "Frederick Douglass" commemorates in a dignified style the life and example of the great freedom orator and abolitionist. Two odes, "Ode to Ethiopia" and "Columbian Ode," adapt a traditional Romantic poetic form to commemorate both racial and national patriotism. Many of Dunbar's poems about nature, love, and death betray the poet’s tendency to indulge in idealized and conventional responses to time-worn themes. But in such classic lyrics as "Not They Who Soar," which cautions that "flight is ever free and rare," and "We Wear the Mask," which warns of "the mask that grins and lies," Dunbar spoke eloquently and individually to the complexity of his struggle to articulate an African American poetic voice to a white American audience.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press. , 1997. Copyright 1997 by Oxford University Press.

Joanne V. Gabbin

Other nineteenth-century African American poets anticipated Paul Laurence Dunbar’s question concerning "why the caged bird sings." James Monroe Whitfield appears to speak for several of his contemporaries when he has the speaker in "The Misanthropist" say, "In vain thou bid'st me strike the lyre, / and sing a song of mirth and glee." For Whitfield, James Madison Bell, and Albery Allson Whitman, the thoughts that troubled their minds--the evils of slavery, the hope of freedom, struggles with oppression and violence--were frought "with gloom and darkness, woe and pain." These poets continued the tradition of protest begun by Horton. However, James Edwin Campbell and Daniel Webster Davis made mirth their dominant lyric and wrote dialect poems that mimicked the stereotypes of the popular plantation tradition. Other poets such as Ann Plato and Henrietta Cordelia Ray took the route of romantic escapism.

With the publication of Oak and Ivy in 1893, Paul Laurence Dunbar inaugurated a new era in African American literary expression, revealing himself as one of the finest lyricists America had produced. His second book, Majors and Minors (1895), attracted the favorable attention and endorsement of the literary critic William Dean Howells. Howells's now classic introduction to Dunbar's third volume of poems, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), became the quintessential literary piece of damning praise that elevated Dunbar's dialect poems above his poems written in standard English. It ensured his acceptance and popularity among an audience of white readers who were warmed by the good cheer of the hearthside and comforted by the aura of pastoral contentment, hallmarks of Dunbar’s bucolic verse. His obligatory mimicking of the plantation tradition conventions popularized by Irwin Russell, Joel Chandler Harris, and Thomas Nelson Page resulted in a perpetuation of these conventions. However, there was no denying for many the immense popularity, freshness, humor, and catchy rhythms of his memorable dialect poems. Nonetheless, Dunbar’s meteoric rise to fame did not accommodate a thorough and broad appreciation of the other side of his genius displayed in his nondialect poems. Tragically, the young poet lived a scant ten years after the publication of Lyrics of Lowly Life, years that were filled with regret that the world had ignored his deeper notes "to praise a jingle in a broken tongue."

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press. , 1997. Copyright 1997 by Oxford University Press.

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