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FURTHER READING
Related Prose
Poetry Landmark: The Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton, OH
Walking Tour: Langston Hughes’s Harlem of 1926
A Brief Guide to the Harlem Renaissance
Other Harlem Renaissance Poets
Arna Bontemps
Claude McKay
Countee Cullen
James Weldon Johnson
Jean Toomer
Langston Hughes
Other Poet Novelists
Alice Walker
Denis Johnson
James Dickey
John Updike
Michael Ondaatje
Robert Graves
Robert Penn Warren
External Links
Paul Laurence Dunbar Digital Text Collection
More than 200 poems, at the Wright State University Library site.
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
Compiled and Prepared by Cary Nelson for the Modern American Poetry site.
PAL: Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
From Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide, by Paul P. Reuben.
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Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Born on June 27, 1872, Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first African-American poets to gain national recognition. His parents Joshua and Matilda Murphy Dunbar were freed slaves from Kentucky. His parents separated shortly after his birth, but Dunbar would draw on their stories of plantation life throughout his writing career. By the age of fourteen, Dunbar had poems published in the Dayton Herald. While in high school he edited the Dayton Tattler, a short-lived black newspaper published by classmate Orville Wright.

Despite being a fine student, Dunbar was financially unable to attend college and took a job as an elevator operator. In 1892, a former teacher invited him to read his poems at a meeting of the Western Association of Writers; his work impressed his audience to such a degree that the popular poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote him a letter of encouragement. In 1893, Dunbar self-published a collection called Oak and Ivy. To help pay the publishing costs, he sold the book for a dollar to people riding in his elevator.

Later that year, Dunbar moved to Chicago, hoping to find work at the first World's Fair. He befriended Frederick Douglass, who found him a job as a clerk, and also arranged for him to read a selection of his poems. Douglass said of Dunbar that he was "the most promising young colored man in America." By 1895, Dunbar's poems began appearing in major national newspapers and magazines, such as The New York Times. With the help of friends, he published the second collection, Majors and Minors (1895). The poems written in standard English were called "majors," and those in dialect were termed "minors." Although the "major" poems outnumber those written in dialect, it was the dialect poems that brought Dunbar the most attention. The noted novelist and critic William Dean Howells gave a favorable review to the poems in Harper's Weekly.

This recognition helped Dunbar gain national and international acclaim, and in 1897 he embarked on a six-month reading tour of England. He also brought out a new collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896). Upon returning to America, Dunbar received a clerkship at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and shortly thereafter he married the writer Alice Ruth Moore. While living in Washington, Dunbar published a short story collection, Folks from Dixie, a novel entitled The Uncalled, and two more collections of poems, Lyrics of the Hearthside and Poems of Cabin and Field (1899). He also contributed lyrics to a number of musical reviews.

In 1898, Dunbar's health deteriorated; he believed the dust in the library contributed to his tuberculosis and left his job to dedicate himself full time to writing and giving readings. Over the next five years, he would produce three more novels and three short story collections. Dunbar separated from his wife in 1902, and shortly thereafter he suffered a nervous breakdown and a bout of pneumonia. Although ill and drinking too much in attempt to soothe his coughing, Dunbar continued to write poems. His collections from this time include Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903), Howdy, Howdy, Howdy (1905), and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905). These books confirmed his position as America's premier black poet. Dunbar's steadily deteriorating health caused him to return to his mother's home in Dayton, Ohio, where died on February 9, 1906, at the age of thirty-three.


Multimedia

From the Image Archive
Poems by
Paul Laurence Dunbar

A Negro Love Song
Beyond the Years
Frederick Douglass
In Summer
In Summer Time
Invitation to Love
Phyllis
Ships That Pass in the Night
Signs of the Times
Summer in the South
Sympathy
The Debt
We Wear the Mask
When Malindy Sings

Prose by
Paul Laurence Dunbar

Letter to Alice Nelson-Dunbar

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