Paul Laurence Dunbar

Feb. 18, 2005, midnight | By Seema Kacker | 16 years, 3 months ago


Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first black poets to be nationally recognized by both blacks and white readers. He was born in Ohio in June 1872 to two freed slaves and died at the young age of 33 in February of 1906. At a young age, Dunbar developed a love of reading and storytelling from his mother, who often retold her children poems and stories she had heard read by the family she worked for when she was a slave. This inspired Dunbar, and he began to read and write poetry at the age of six.

He attended predominantly white schools in Dayton, Ohio, and consequently had many white friends, including the Wright brothers. At his high school, Dunbar served as editor-in-chief of his school paper, president of the literary society and class poet. Despite his talent, Dunbar was forced to accept the job of an elevator operator in a Dayton hotel after he graduated from high school. Even so, he continued writing poetry in his spare time and acquired the name "elevator boy poet."

In 1893, Dunbar published his first volume of poetry, "Oak and Ivy." He attended the World's Columbian Exposition, where he was able to sell copies of his book and gained the support of dignitaries such as Frederick Douglass. Two years later, Dunbar moved to Toledo, Ohio, with the help of attorney Charles A. Thatcher and psychiatrist Henry A. Tobey, both of whom were fans of Dunbar's poetry. Thatcher and Tobey arranged for Dunbar to recite his poems at local libraries and literary gatherings and propelled him to publish his second book, "Majors and Minors."

This second book was highly praised by William Dean Howells, a novelist and respected literary critic for "Harper's Weekly," and launched Dunbar into being a nationally-recognized poet. He later published nine more volumes of poetry, including "Lyrics of Lowly Life" (1896), "Lyrics of the Hearthside" (1899), "Poems of Cabin and Field" (1899), "Candle-Lightin' Time" (1901), "Lyrics of Love and Laughter" (1903), "When Malindy Sings" (1903), "Li'l Gal" (1904), "Howdy, Honey, Howdy" (1905) and "Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow" (1905). He also published a number of fiction novels, including "The Uncalled" (1898), "Folks from Dixie" (1898), "The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories" (1900), "The Fanatics" (1901) and "The Sport of the Gods" (1902).

Dunbar's poems used two distinct voices - standard, classical English in addition to dialect from the turn-of-the-century black community in America. His poems of this second kind of voice were often the objects of criticism from both whites and blacks. Some whites claimed that Dunbar misread black history and wrongly represented black folk language in his verse, while some black critics argued that Dunbar's poetry perpetuated racist stereotypes. Despite this criticism, many writers praised Dunbar's work, including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes.

Dunbar later fell into a period of depression and developed a dependence on alcohol, which greatly damaged his health. He eventually died from tuberculosis at his Dayton home. Today, Dunbar's home is a nationally-recognized historic site.

Last updated: April 27, 2021, 12:56 p.m.

Tags: print

Seema Kacker. Seema is a senior in the magnet this year, and is thrilled to be a part of the Online senior staff. She also plays tennis. More »

Show comments


No comments.

Please ensure that all comments are mature and responsible; they will go through moderation.