Paul Laurence DunbarJun 8th, 2010 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1872 – 1906 Once called the “poet Laureate of the Negro Race,” and praised as “the first American Negro poet of real literary distinction,” Paul Laurence Dunbar was popular with both Black and White turn of the century readers. Although he lived only to the age of 33, Dunbar published eleven books of poetry, four novels, numerous librettos, songs, plays, essays, and short stories, championing the cause of civil rights and higher education for African Americans in such mainstream publications as Century, Lipincott’s Monthly, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Saturday Evening Post, before succumbing to a years-long battle with tuberculosis.
Writing Poetry at Age Six
Born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, the son of escaped slaves, Dunbar learned from his parents the stories and the distinctive dialect that would later be a staple in his work. His father, Joshua Dunbar, was a veteran of the Civil War, but it was his mother’s love of poetry, songs, and storytelling that inspired and instilled in him the oral traditions of Black America. He wrote his first poem at age six, and recited publicly at age nine.
Although he was the only African American in Dayton Central High School, Dunbar was distinguished among his peers not by his race but by his academic prowess and achievement. He was the editor of his school newspaper; wrote, edited and published (with the help of his friends and neighbors Orville and Wilbur Wright) his own newspaper for Blacks; was elected class president; named to the school debating society; became president of the prestigious Philomathean Literary society; graduated with honors, and recited his class’ graduation poem.
Despite his academic achievement and literary talent, Dunbar was unable to find work after graduation and was forced to take a job as an elevator operator, augmenting his meager wages by freelancing for a variety of national newspapers and magazines.
Published at Age Twenty
In 1892, at the age of twenty, Paul Laurence Dunbar published his first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy. Although the sale of the book barely covered his cost to have it printed, word of mouth helped to spread the news of his talent. He was invited to recite at the 1893 World’s Fair, where he was first introduced to Frederick Douglass. Douglass gave Dunbar a job, and would later remark that Dunbar was “the most promising young colored man in America.”
Dunbar’s second book of poetry, Majors and Minors, caught the eye of famed literary critic, William Dean Howells, whose favorable review of the book in Harper’s Weekly made Dunbar an overnight national figure in America literature. Dunbar’s first two books of poetry were combined in one volume and published under the title Lyrics of a Lowly Life, winning wide acclaim and securing Dunbar’s place in American literary history.
In much of his writings, Dunbar used the Southern dialect gleaned from his mother’s storytelling and from listening to the speech patterns of others to write in a distinctly Black cadence about the difficulties faced by turn-of-the-century African Americans.
As his fame increased, Dunbar was distinguished by an invitation to ride in President McKinley’s inaugural parade. Still, his health was declining, and in 1906, at the young age of 33, Dunbar succumbed to tuberculosis in his Dayton, Ohio home.
His mother, Matilda Dunbar, continued to live in the family home until 1934. On July 23, 1936, the house was dedicated as a memorial by the Ohio legislature and its care given to the Ohio Historical Society. The Dunbar House was the first state memorial to honor an African American.