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Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

Many of Mitch Capel's sto'etries were written by the great poet  Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 - 1906). 

BIOGRAPHY

Paul Laurence Dunbar is widely acknowledged as the first important African-American poet in American literature. He enjoyed his greatest popularity in the early twentieth century following the publication of dialectic verse in collections such as Majors and Minors and Lyrics of Lowly Life. But the dialectic poems constitute only a small portion of Dunbar's canon, which is replete with novels, short stories, essays, and many poems in standard-English. In its entirety, Dunbar's literary body has been acclaimed as an impressive representation of black life in turn-of-the-century America. As Dunbar's friend James Weldon Johnson noted in the preface to his Book of American Poetry: "Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the United States to show a combined mastery over poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal innate literary distinction in what he wrote, and to maintain a high level of performance. He was the first to rise to a height from which he could take a perspective view of his own race. He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, its short-comings; the first to feel sympathetically its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and to voice them all in a purely literary form." W.S. Scarborough in A.M.E Review (October 1914) said of Dunbar, “Again, he did not inherit, he originated.”  Robert Thomas Kerlin in Southern Workman (October 1921) said of Dunbar, “He was a prophet of a new generation”.

Paul Laurence Dunbar began showing literary promise at the age of six and continuing in high school in Dayton, Ohio, where he lived with his widowed mother. The only African-American in his class, he became class president, head of the debate team, class poet, editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and president of the prestigious literary club, “The Philomathean Society”.  By 1889, two years before he graduated, he had already published poems in the Dayton Herald and worked as editor of the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper for African-American published by classmate Orville Wright, who later gained fame with his brother Wilbur Wright as inventors of the airplane. He also wrote the class song sung at his graduation at the Dayton Opera House on June 16, 1891. Paul Laurence Dunbar had dreams of attending Harvard and aspiring to a career in law, but his mother's meager financial situation precluded his university education. He consequently sought immediate employment with various Dayton businesses, including newspapers, only to be rejected because of his race. He finally settled for work as an elevator operator in the Callahan Building, a job that allowed him time to continue writing. At this time Dunbar produced articles, short stories, and poems, including several in the dialect style that later earned him fame. In 1892 Dunbar was invited by one of his former teachers to address the Western Association of Writers then convening in Dayton. At the meeting Dunbar befriended James Newton Matthews, who subsequently praised Dunbar's work in a letter to an Illinois newspaper. Matthews's letter was eventually reprinted by newspapers throughout the country and thus brought Dunbar recognition outside Dayton. Among the readers of this letter was poet James Whitcomb Riley, who then familiarized himself with Dunbar's work and wrote him a commendatory letter. Bolstered by the support of both Matthews and Riley, Dunbar decided to publish a collection of his poems. He obtained additional assistance from Orville Wright and then solicited a Dayton firm, United Brethren Publishing that eventually printed the work, entitled Oak and Ivy, for a modest sum.

In Oak and Ivy Dunbar included his earliest dialect poems and many works in standard-English. Among the latter is one of his most popular poems, "
Sympathy," in which he expresses, in somber tone, the dismal plight of his people in American society. In another standard-English poem, "Ode to Ethiopia," he records the many accomplishments of his fellow African-Americans and exhorts them to maintain their pride despite racial abuse. The popularity of these and other poems inspired Dunbar to devote himself more fully to writing.  Shortly after the publication of Oak and Ivy Dunbar was approached by attorney Charles A. Thatcher an admirer sympathetic to Dunbar's college education; Dunbar, however, was greatly encouraged by sales of Oak and Ivy and so rejected Thatcher to pursue a literary career. Thatcher then applied himself to promoting Dunbar in nearby Toledo, Ohio, and helped him obtain work there reading his poetry at libraries and literary gatherings. Dunbar also found unexpected support from psychiatrist Henry A. Tobey, who helped distribute Oak and Ivy in Toledo and occasionally assisted Dunbar financially.

In 1893, when he was twenty-one, Dunbar traveled from his home in Ohio to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the first world’s fair, carrying copies of his Oak and Ivy to sell.  There he met Frederick Douglass, who was US Minister to Haiti and commissioner of the Haitian exposition at the time and assumed a kind of fatherly role and gave Dunbar a job paying him five dollars a week out of his own pocket.  Douglass also introduced Paul Laurence Dunbar to other prominent African-American writers and artists including Will Marion Cook, Charlotte Forten Grimke’, James Corruthers, and James Campbell and said of Paul, “I regard Paul Laurence Dunbar the most promising young colored man in America!”  Like Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington and all who met Dunbar were warmly drawn to him.

Henry A. Tobey eventually teamed with Charles A. Thatcher in publishing Dunbar's second verse collection, Majors and Minors in 1895.  In this book Dunbar produced poems on a variety of themes and in several styles. He grouped the more ambitious poems, those written in standard-English, under the heading "Majors" and he gathered the more superficial dialect works as "Minors." Although Dunbar invested himself most fully in his standard poetry—which bore the influences of such poets as the English romantics and Americans such as Riley—it was the dialect verse that found greater favor with his predominantly white readership, and it was by virtue of these dialect poems that Dunbar gained increasing fame throughout the country. Instrumental to Dunbar's growing popularity was a highly positive, though extremely patronizing review by eminent novelist William Dean Howells. Writing in Harper's Weekly, Howells praised Dunbar as "the first man of his color to feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically" and commended the dialect poems as faithful representations of the black race; however, he went on to devalue Dunbar’s standard verse. 

Through Thatcher and Tobey, Dunbar met an agent and secured more public readings and a publishing contract. He then published Lyrics of Lowly Life in 1896, a poetry collection derived primarily from verse already featured in Oak and Ivy and Majors and Minors. This new volume sold impressively across America and established Dunbar as the nation's foremost black poet. On the strength of his recent acclaim Dunbar commenced a six-month reading tour of England. There he found publishers for a British edition of Lyrics of Lowly Life and befriended musician
Samuel Coleridge
-Taylor, with whom he then collaborated on the operetta "Dream Lovers."

When Paul Laurence Dunbar returned to the United States in 1897 he obtained a clerkship at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Soon afterwards he married
Alice Ruth Moore, a young writer, teacher and proponent of racial and gender equality who had a master's degree from Cornell University.  Alice Ruth Moore
, who regarding William Dean Howells’s “dictum” wrote, “Say what you will, or what Mr. Howells wills, about the ‘feeling the Negro life aesthetically and expressing it lyrically,’ it was the pure English verse that the poet expressed himself”. Although his health suffered during the two years he lived in Washington, the period nonetheless proved fruitful for Dunbar. In 1898 he published his first short story collection, Folks From Dixie, in which he delineated the situation of blacks in both pre-and post-emancipation United States. Although these tales, unlike some of his dialect verse, were often harsh examinations of racial prejudice, Folks From Dixie was well received upon publication.

Dunbar's first novel, The Uncalled, was published in 1898 recalled Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter in probing the spiritual predicament of a minister, Frederick Brent, who had in childhood, been abandoned by an alcoholic father and then raised by a zealously devout spinster, Hester Prime. After securing a pastor's post, Brent alienated church-goers by refusing to reproach an unwed mother. He resigns from his position as a pastor and departs for Cincinnati. After further misadventure—he ends his marriage engagement and encounters his father, now a wandering preacher—Brent finds fulfillment and happiness as minister in another congregation.

At the end of 1898, his health degenerating still further, Dunbar left the Library of Congress and commenced another reading tour. He published another verse collection, Lyrics of the Hearthside. In the spring of 1899, however, his health lapsed sufficiently to threaten his life. Ill with pneumonia, the already tubercular Dunbar was advised to rest in the mountains. He therefore moved to the Catskills in New York State, but he continued to write while recovering from his ailments.

In 1900, after a brief stay in Colorado, Paul Laurence Dunbar returned to Washington, DC. Shortly before his return he published another collection of tales, The Strength of Gideon, in which he continued to recount black life both before and after slavery. Reviewers at the time favored his pre-emancipation stories full of humor and sentiment, while ignoring more volatile accounts of abuse and injustice. More recently these latter stories have gained greater recognition from critics eager to substantiate Dunbar's opposition to racism. Dunbar followed The Strength of Gideon with his second novel, The Love of Landry, about an ailing woman who arrives in Colorado for convalescence and finds true happiness with a cowboy. His next novel, The Fanatics, was about America at the beginning of the Civil War. Its central characters are from white families who differ in their North-South sympathies and spark a dispute in their Ohio community.

The Sport of the Gods, published in 1902 was Dunbar's final novel and presented a far more critical and disturbing portrait of black America. The work centers on butler Berry Hamilton and his family. After Berry is wrongly charged with theft by his white employers, he is sentenced to ten years of prison labor. His remaining family—wife, son, and daughter—consequently find themselves targets of abuse in their southern community, and after being robbed by the local police they head north to Harlem. There they encounter further hardship and strife: the son becomes embroiled in the city's seamy nightlife and succumbs to alcoholism and crime; the naive daughter is exploited by fellow blacks and begins a questionable dancing career; and the mother, convinced that her husband's prison sentence has negated their marriage, weds an abusive profligate. A happy resolution is achieved only after Berry's accuser confesses, while dying, that his charge was fabricated, whereupon Berry is released from prison. He then travels north and finds his family in disarray. But the cruel second husband is then, conveniently, murdered, and Hamilton is reunited in matrimony.  Although its acclaim was hardly unanimous, The Sport of the Gods nonetheless earned substantial praise as a powerful novel of protest. By this time, however, Dunbar was experiencing considerable turmoil in his own life. Prior to writing The Sport of the Gods he had suffered another lapse of poor health, and his problems were compounded by the prescribed alcohol for his illness. And after The Sport of the Gods appeared in 1902, Dunbar's marital situation degenerated due to frequent separations because of his wide popularity on the lecture circuit for the past four years, poor health and to the antagonism from his wife's parents.

Paul Laurence Dunbar and his wife separated in 1902, but that separation only contributed to his continued physical and psychological decline. The next year following another bout of pneumonia, Dunbar managed to assemble another verse collection, Lyrics of Love and Laughter, and another short story collection, In Old Plantation Days. With Lyrics of Love and Laughter he confirmed his reputation as America's premier African-American poet. The volume contains both sentimental and somberly realistic expressions and depictions of black life, and it features both dialect and standard-English verse. In Old Plantation Days is comprised of twenty-five stories set on a southern plantation during the days of slavery.  If In Old Plantation Days was hardly a pioneering work, it was at least a lucrative publication and one that confirmed the preferences of much of Dunbar's public. With the short story collection The Heart of Happy Hollow (1904) he presented a greater variety of perspectives on aspects of black life in America.  Dunbar followed The Heart of Happy Hollow with two more poetry collections, Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905) and Howdy, Honey, Howdy, (1905) both of which featured works from previous volumes. Dunbar's health continued to decline even as he persisted in producing poems. But his reliance on alcohol to temper his chronic coughing only exacerbated his illness, and by the winter of 1905 he was fatally ill. He died on February 9, 1906, at age thirty-three…in his home, with his devoted mother, Matilda Glass Murphy Dunbar, at his side…while reciting the twenty-third psalm.
Dunbar ultimately produced 12 books of poetry, four books of short stories, a play and five novels.


In the years immediately following his death, Paul Laurence Dunbar's standing as America's foremost African-American poet seemed assured, and his dialect poems were prized as supreme achievements in African-American literature. In the ensuing decades, however, his reputation was damaged by scholars questioning the validity of his often stereotypic characterizations and his apparent unwillingness to sustain an anti-racist stance.  More recently Dunbar's stature has increased markedly. He is once again regarded as America's first great African-American poet, and his standard-English poems are now prized as his greatest achievements in verse. Contemporary champions include Addison Gayle, Jr., whose Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar, is considered a key contribution to Dunbar studies, and poet
Nikki Giovanni, whose prose contribution to A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited by Jay Martin, hails Dunbar as "a natural resource of our people." For Giovanni, as for other Dunbar scholars, his work constitutes both a history and a celebration of black life. "There is no poet, black or nonblack, who measures his achievement," she declared, “even today…he wanted to be a writer and he wrote."

CAREER
 
Paul Laurence Dunbar was a poet, novelist and short story writer; Dayton Tattler, Dayton, OH, founder and editor, 1889-1890; elevator operator, Callahan Building, Dayton, OH 1891-1893; Indianapolis World, Indianapolis, IN, temporary editor, 1895; court messenger, 1896; Library of Congress, Washington DC, assistant clerk, 1897-98; served as guest editor, Chicago Tribune, 1903.

BIBLiOGRAPHY

POETRY
  • Oak and Ivy (also see below), Press of United Brethren Publishing House, 1893.
  • Majors and Minors (also see below), Hadley & Hadley, 1896.
  • Lyrics of Lowly Life (includes poems from Oak and Ivy and Majors and Minors), introduction by William Dean Howells, Dodd, Meade 1896.
  • Lyrics of the Hearthside, Dodd, Meade 1899.
  • Poems of Cabin and Field (collection of eight previously published poems), illustrated by wife, Alice Morse, photographs by Hampton Institute Camera Club, Dodd, Meade 1899.
  • Candle Lightin' Time, Dodd, Meade 1901.
  • Lyrics of Love and Laughter, Dodd, Meade 1903.
  • When Malindy Sings, Dodd, Meade 1903.
  • Li'l Gal, Dodd, Meade 1904.
  • Chrismus Is a Comin', and Other Poems, Dodd, Meade 1905.
  • Howdy, Honey, Howdy, Dodd, Meade 1905.
  • Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow, Dodd, Meade 1905.
  • A Plantation Portrait, Dodd, Meade 1905.
  • Joggin' Erlong, Dodd, Meade 1906.
  • The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Dodd, Meade 1913.
  • Speakin' o' Christmas, and Other Christmas and Special Poems, Dodd, Meade 1914.
  • Little Brown Baby: Poems for Young People, edited and with biographical sketch by Bertha Rodgers, illustrated by Erick Berry, Dodd, Meade 1940.
  • I Greet the Dawn: Poems, edited and with an introduction by Ashley Bryan, Atheneum, 1978.
FICTION
  • The Uncalled (semi-autobiographical novel), Dodd, Meade 1898.
  • Folks From Dixie (short stories), Dodd, Meade 1898.
  • The Love of Landry (novel), Dodd, Meade 1900.
  • The Strength of Gideon, and Other Stories, illustrated by Edward Windsor Kemble, Dodd, Meade 1900.
  • The Fanatics (novel), Dodd, Meade 1901.
  • The Sport of the Gods (novel), Dodd, Meade 1902, reprinted, with an introduction by Kenny J. Williams, 1981, published in England as The Jest of Fate: A Story of Negro Life, Jarrold, 1902.
  • In Old Plantation Days (short stories), illustrated by B. Martin Justice, Dodd, Meade 1903.
  • The Heart of the Happy Hollow (short stories), Dodd, Meade 1904.
  • The Best Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited and with an introduction by Benjamin Brawley, Dodd, Meade 1938.
OTHER

  • Dream Lovers: An Operatic Romance (libretto for operetta with music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor), Boosey, 1898.
  • (Author of lyrics) In Dahomey (stage show), with music by Will Marion Cook, produced in Boston, then at Buckingham Palace, England, in honor of the birthday of the Prince of Wales, 1903.
  • (Contributor) The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes, James Pott, 1903.
  • (Contributor) Selected Songs Sung by Students of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (contains "The Tuskegee Song"), Tuskegee Institute, 1904.
  • The Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited and with biography by Lida Keck Wiggins, J. L. Nichols, 1907.
  • The Letters of Paul and Alice Dunbar: A Private History, two volumes, edited by Eugene Wesley Metcalf, University Microfilms, 1974.
  • The Paul Laurence Dunbar Reader, edited by Jay Martin and Gossie H. Hudson, Dodd, 1975.
  • The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited and with introduction by Joanne M. Braxton, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville), 1993.
  • Selected Poems, Dover Publications, 1997.

Also author of Uncle Eph's Christmas (one-act musical), produced in 1900. Author of lyrics to songs such as "Jes Lak White Folk," "Down De Lover's Lane: Plantation Croon," and "Who Knows." Contributor to newspapers and periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Blue and Gray, Bookman, Chicago News Record, Century, Dayton Herald, Denver Post, Detroit Free Press, Harper's Weekly, Independent, Lippincott's, Nation, New York Times, and Saturday Evening Post. Work represented in anthologies. Author's papers and letters are included in collections at the Ohio Historical Society, the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library, and the Houghton Library, Harvard University.


FURTHER READINGS

BOOKS

  • Alexander, Eleanor, Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore: A History of Love and Violence Among the African American Elite, New York University Press, 2002.
  • Best, Felton O., Crossing the Color Line: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co. (Dubuque, IA), 1996.
  • Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.
  • Brawley, Benjamin, Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet of His People, University of North Carolina Press, 1936.
  • Contemporary Black Biography, Gale, Volume 8, 1995.
  • Cunningham, Virginia, Paul Laurence Dunbar and His Song, Dodd, 1947.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 51: Afro-American Writers From the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, 1987, Volume 54: American Poets, 1880-1945, Third Series, 1987.
  • Gayle, Addison, Jr., Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Anchor/Doubleday, 1971.
  • Gentry, Tony, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Melrose Square Pub., (Los Angeles), 1993.
  • Gould, Jean, That Dunbar Boy, Dodd, 1958.
  • Inge, M. Thomas, Maurice Duke, and Jackson R. Bryer, editors, Black American Writers: Bibliographical Essays, Volume 1, St. Martin's Press, 1978.
  • Lawson, Victor, Dunbar Critically Examined, Associated Publishers, 1941.
  • Martin, Jay, editor, A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Dodd, 1975.
  • Metcalf, E. W., Paul Lawrence Dunbar: A Bibliography, Scarecrow Press, 1975.
  • Poetry Criticism, Gale, Volume 5, 1992.
  • Revell, Peter, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Twayne, 1979.
  • Short Story Criticism, Gale, Volume 8, 1991.
  • Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 2, 1979, Volume 12, 1984.
  • Wagner, Jean, Black Poets of the United States, University of Illinois Press, 1973, pp. 73-125.

 

 

 

 

 PERIODICALS 

  • A. M. E. Church Review, April, 1902, pp. 320-327.
  • Denver Daily News, September 24, 1899.
  • Journal of Negro History, January, 1967, pp. 1-13.
  • Ohio Historical Quarterly, April, 1958, pp. 95-108.
  • Texas Quarterly, summer, 1971.
  • Voice of the Negro, January, 1906, p. 50.

 

 

 

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