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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Paul Laurence Dunbar

In his brief lifetime, Paul Laurence Dunbar achieved nationwide fame for his dialect poetry depicting a romanticized plantation life of southern blacks. Born in Dayton, Ohio, to former Kentucky slaves, the sickly child was fascinated by his mother's stories and by tales of his father's experience as a Union soldier during the Civil War. He early exhibited an interest in writing, and before he completed high school, a few of his pieces had been published in local newspapers. They already manifested the late-nineteenth-century romantic strains and sentimental elements that were to become characteristic of his mature work.

Upon graduation, Dunbar could find work only as an elevator operator at four dollars per week. However, he continued to read widely and began to write fiction. Selling his first story, "The Tenderfoot," to the Kellogg Syndicate of Chicago for six dollars made him realize the commercial potential of authorship. There followed a series of lucky coincidences including the printing of Oak and Ivy with the help of Orville and Wilbur Wright (close friends from his school days) as well as an invitation to join the Western Association of Writers when the organization met in Dayton.

With the promised opening of the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, Dunbar went to Chicago to seek work and met several outstanding blacks, including Frederick Douglass, who, as Consul General to the Republic of Haiti, hired Dunbar in the Haitian Pavilion. Dunbar's experience in Chicago led to lasting friendships and resulted in his "Columbian Ode," by far the best—albeit the least known—of the many poems written for that occasion. When the Exposition ended, Dunbar returned to Dayton and his job as elevator operator. Shortly thereafter, the noted actor James A. Herne publicly recited a Dunbar poem and was instrumental in introducing the poet's work to William Dean Howells, who reviewed Majors and Minors in Harper's Weekly (June 27, 1896) and persuaded Dodd, Mead to publish Dunbar's third volume of verse.

Lyrics of Lowly Life appeared with the now-famous introduction by Howells. Claiming that Dunbar "is the first black man" to express "the life of the Negro aesthetically and...lyrically," the influential critic provided a testimony that led to Dunbar's celebrity. By the time he was twenty-four, with three books to his credit, he had received the acclaim that few writers achieve in a lifetime.

Despite Dunbar's success, he was criticized as a supporter of negative racial stereotypes. If James Weldon Johnson's record of a late conversation is accurate, Dunbar was saddened that many critics and much of his public wanted nothing more than dialect pieces from him. Some of this self-reproach undoubtedly found its way into "The Poet," which begins: "He sang of life, serenely sweet, / With, now and then, a deeper note," and ends with the realization "But, ah, the world, it turned to praise / A jingle in a broken tongue." That some of these "jingles in a broken tongue" were to become famous for the wrong reasons is unfortunate. Many, including Howells and later critics, overlooked the fact that while Dunbar used the plantation tradition, he was not particularly adept at producing an authentic black speech pattern—relying instead upon Hoosier dialect like that popularized by James Whitcomb Riley.

Because Dunbar is so closely associated with tales and poems of southern life, other aspects of his work have been overlooked. He devoted a great deal of creative energy to "raceless" verse and stories: his earliest published tales, "The Tenderfoot" and "Little Billy," are westerns; his first novel, The Uncalled, is set in the Midwest and is a sentimental work whose action is not dependent upon the race of the characters. Dunbar recognized that racial problems were not regional; and like other nineteenth-century romantics, he believed that life could not flourish in an urban setting. Thus, despite the negative portrait of the South in The Sport of the Gods, the North—represented by New York City—does not provide an adequate alternative.

The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories, composed of twenty narratives that range from plantation tales to realistic portrayals of contemporary life, is one of Dunbar's best short story collections. In some, the imagined loyalty of ex-slaves is treated both tenderly and sarcastically; others examine the hostility of the northern environment and the shortcomings of urban life. The tales of Reconstruction, set in a time when blacks were attempting to become part of the body politic, remain pertinent today. Perhaps nowhere is the indifference of the white political structure more poignantly presented than in "Mr. Cornelius Johnson, Office-Seeker."

Like such diverse personalities as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington, who dealt in their respective ways with America's racial problems, Dunbar used his talents to write "protest" pieces in essay form. Among his most perceptive analyses of American society, which also reflect the range of his concerns, are "The Race Question Discussed" (Toledo Journal, December 11, 1898), "Is Negro Education for the Negro Hopeless?" (Philadelphia Times, June 10, 1900), and "The Fourth of July and Race Outrages: Paul Laurence Dunbar's Bitter Satire on Independence Day" (New York Times, July 10, 1903).

Dunbar's non-dialect verse has received little attention in recent years, much of it outdated by its sentimentality and didacticism. There are, however, moments of innovation and poetic insight to indicate that Dunbar was more than just an imitative versifier. Moreover, much of his poetry reflects the protest elements seen in his essays. There are, for example, poems in praise of such figures as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alexander Crummell, and Booker T. Washington. And upon the death of Frederick Douglass in 1895, Dunbar—who had formed an unusually strong bond with the older man—paid homage to the man who had become a legend.

The growing unhappiness of Dunbar resulted in an uncharacteristic pessimism that was undoubtedly caused in part by his short-lived marriage to Alice Moore and in part by his painful illness—now recognized as tuberculosis. Toward the end of his life, as he longed for the day when people would be judged by their work rather than by the color of their skin, he began to understand the mirage-like quality of the American dream.

Kenny J. Williams
Duke University

In the Heath Anthology
Mr. Cornelius Johnson, Office-Seeker (1899)
from Lyrics of Lowly Life
      An Ante-Bellum Sermon (1896)
      Frederick Douglass (1896)
      We Wear the Mask (1896)
      When Malindy Sings (1896)
from Lyrics of the Hearthside
      Sympathy (1899)

Other Works
Oak and Ivy (1893)
Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896)
Majors and Minors (1896)
Folks from Dixie (1898)
The Uncalled (1898)
The Love of Landry (1900)
The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900)
The Fanatics (1901)
The Sport of the Gods (1902)
In Old Plantation Days (1903)
Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903)
The Heart of Happy Hollow (1904)
Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905)

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Digital Text Collection
More than 200 poems, scanned book covers, and photos.

Paul Laurence Dunbar Site
Brief biography, many poems (including some in RealAudio format), and links to other Dunbar sites.

Stamp on Black History
Student site with brief biography created for the US Postal Service.

Treasures of the University of Delaware Library
Brief biography.

Secondary Sources

Benjamin Brawley, Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet of His People, 1936

Joanne M. Braxton, ed., The Complete Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1993)

Virginia Cunningham, Paul Laurence Dunbar and His Song, 1947

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet Laureate of the Negro Race, 1914

Addison Gayle, Jr., Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1971

Jean Gould, That Dunbar Boy, 1958

Doris Lucas Laryea, "Paul Laurence Dunbar," Dictionary of Literary Biography, 50 (1986):106-122

Victor Lawson, Dunbar Critically Examined, 1941

Jay Marin, ed., A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1975

Peter Revell, Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1979

Lida Keck Wiggins, The Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1907