Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar circa 1890

Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906) was an African-American poet, novelist, and playwright of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Much of his popular work in his lifetime used a Negro dialect, which helped him become one of the first nationally-accepted African-American writers.  Much of his writing, however, does not use dialect.   These more traditional poems have become of greater interest to scholars.

Dunbar was born in a home at 311 Howard Street in Dayton, Ohio on June 27, 1872. His parents had escaped from slavery in Kentucky.  His father Joshua, was a veteran of the American Civil War, having served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment.  Dunbar's parents separated and Dunbar and his siblings lived with his mother Matilda.   His father Joshua died in 1884 when Dunbar was 12 years old.

Paul Laurence Dunbar The Complete Stories

Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Complete Stories 

Dunbar was the only African-American student during the years he attended Dayton's Central High School, and he participated actively as a student.  During high school, he was both the editor of the school newspaper and class president, as well as president of the school literary society.  He wrote his first poem at age 6 and gave his first public recital at age 9.  His mother Matilda assisted him in his schooling, having learned how to read expressly for that purpose.  She often read the Bible with him and thought he might become a minister for the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Dunbar's first professionally published poems were "Our Martyred Soldiers" and "On The River", published in Dayton's The Herald newspaper in 1888.  In 1890 Dunbar wrote and edited Dayton's first weekly African-American newspaper, The Tattler, printed by the fledgling company of his high school acquaintances, Wilbur and Orville Wright.  The paper lasted only 6 weeks.

When his formal schooling ended in 1891, Dunbar took a job as an elevator operator, earning a salary of four dollars a week.  The next year, Dunbar asked the Wrights to publish his dialect poems in book form, but the brothers did not have the facility to do so.  Dunbar was directed to the United Brethren Publishing House which, in 1893, printed Dunbar's first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy.  Dunbar subsidized the printing of the book himself, though he earned back his investment in two weeks by selling copies personally, often to passengers on his elevator.  The larger section of the book, the "Oak" section, consisted of traditional verse whereas the smaller section, the "Ivy", featured light poems written in dialect.

Paul Laurence Dunbar 2

Paul Laurence Dunbar

The work attracted the attention of James Whitcomb Riley, the popular "Hoosier Poet".  Both Riley and Dunbar wrote poems in both standard English and dialect.  Despite frequently publishing poems and occasionally giving public readings, Dunbar had difficulty financially supporting himself and his mother.  Many of his efforts were unpaid and he was left indebted by the mid-1890s.

On June 27, 1896, the novelist, editor, and critic William Dean Howells published a favorable review of Dunbar's second book, Majors and Minors.  Howells's influence made Dunbar famous and brought national attention to his writing.   Though he saw "honest thinking and true feeling" in Dunbar's traditional poems, he particularly praised Dunbar's dialect poems.   With his new-found international literary fame, Dunbar collected his first two books into one volume, Lyrics of Lowly Life, which included an introduction by Howells.  Dunbar maintained a lifelong friendship with the Wrights.  He was also associated with Frederick DouglassBooker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Brand Whitlock (who was described as a close friend).  He was honored with a ceremonial sword by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Paul Laurence Dunbar 1897

Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1897 sketch by Norman B. Wood

Dunbar wrote a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, and a play. He also wrote lyrics for In Dahomey - the first musical written and performed entirely by African-Americans to appear on Broadway in 1903.  The musical comedy successfully toured England and America over a period of four years - one of the more successful theatrical productions of its time.  His essays and poems were published widely in the leading journals of the day.  His work appeared in Harper's Weekly, the Saturday Evening Post, the Denver Post, Current Literature, and a number of other publications.  During his life, considerable emphasis was laid on the fact that Dunbar was of pure black descent.  He traveled to England in 1897 to recite his works on the London literary circuit.  He met the young black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who set some of his poems to music and who was influenced by Dunbar to use African and American Negro songs and tunes in future compositions.

Paul Laurence Dunbar 3

Paul Laurence Dunbar

After returning from England, Dunbar married Alice Ruth Moore on March 6, 1898, a teacher and poet from New Orleans who he had met three years earlier. He called her "the sweetest, smartest little girl I ever saw".  A graduate of Straight University (now Dillard University), her most famous works include a short story entitled "Violets".  She and her husband also wrote books of poetry as companion pieces.  An account of their love, life and marriage was depicted in a play by Kathleen McGhee-Anderson entitled “Oak and Ivy”.  Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington in October 1897.  He and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., in the LeDroit Park neighborhood.  Under the urging of his wife, however, he soon left the job to focus on his writing, which he promoted through public readings.

In 1900, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and his doctors recommended drinking whisky to alleviate his symptoms.  He moved to Colorado with his wife on the advice of his doctors.  Dunbar and his wife separated in 1902, but they never divorced. Depression and declining health drove him to a dependence on alcohol, which further damaged his health.  He moved back to Dayton to be with his mother in 1904 and died from tuberculosis on February 9, 1906, at age thirty-three. He was interred in the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton.

Dunbar's work is known for its colorful language and a conversational tone, with a brilliant rhetorical structure.  These traits were well matched to the tune-writing ability of Carrie Jacobs-Bond (1862–1946), with whom he collaborated.  Much of Dunbar's work was authored in conventional English, while some was rendered in African-American dialect.  Dunbar remained always suspicious that there was something demeaning about the marketability of dialect poems.  One interviewer reported that Dunbar told him, "I am tired, so tired of dialect", though he is also quoted as saying, "my natural speech is dialect" and "my love is for the Negro pieces".

Though he credited William Dean Howells with promoting his early success, Dunbar was dismayed by his demand that he focus on dialect poetry.  Angered that editors refused to print his more traditional poems, he accused Howells of "[doing] my irrevocable harm in the dictum he laid down regarding my dialect verse."  Dunbar, however, was continuing a literary tradition that used Negro dialect; his predecessors included Mark TwainJoel Chandler Harris, and George Washington Cable. Two brief examples of Dunbar's work, the first in standard English and the second in dialect, demonstrate the diversity of the poet's production:

(From "Dreams")

What dreams we have and how they fly

Like rosy clouds across the sky;

Of wealth, of fame, of sure success,

Of love that comes to cheer and bless;

And how they wither, how they fade,

The waning wealth, the jilting jade —

The fame that for a moment gleams,

Then flies forever, — dreams, ah — dreams!


(From "A Warm Day In Winter")

"Sunshine on de medders,

Greenness on de way;

Dat's de blessed reason

I sing all de day."

Look hyeah! What you axing'?

What meks me so merry?

'Spect to see me sighin'

W'en hit's wa'm in Febawary?

Paul Laurence Dunbar Stamp

Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1975 U.S. postage stamp.

Dunbar became the first African-American poet to earn nation-wide distinction and acceptance.  The New York Times called him "a true singer of the people — white or black."  In his preface to "The Book of American Negro Poetry" (1931) writer and activist James Weldon Johnson criticized Dunbar's dialect poems for fostering stereotypes of blacks as comical or pathetic and reinforcing the restriction that blacks write only scenes of plantation life.

Writer Maya Angelou called her autobiographical book "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" (1969) after a line from Dunbar's poem "Sympathy" at the suggestion of jazz musician and activist Abbey Lincoln.  Angelou named Dunbar an inspiration for her "writing ambition" and uses his imagery of a caged bird like a chained slave throughout much of her writings. 

In 2002, Molefi Kete Asante listed Paul Laurence Dunbar on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.  Dunbar's vaudeville song "Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd" may have influenced the development of "Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say gonna beat dem Saints?", the New Orleans Saints's chant.


List of works

  • Oak and Ivy(1892)
  • Majors and Minors(1896)
  • Lyrics of Lowly Life(1896)
  • Folks from Dixie(1898)
  • The Strength of Gideon(1900)
  • The Sport of the Gods(1902)
  • In Old Plantation Days(1903)
  • The Heart of Happy Hollow(1904)
  • Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow(1905)


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