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Paul Laurence Dunbar
 

Paul Laurence Dunbar

“He saw through every cloud a gleam — he had his dream.”



Paul Laurence Dunbar, was a black writer born in the receding shadows of slavery, whose elegant poetry and prose could not be suppressed by racism, poverty, or alcoholism.

Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872, in Dayton, Ohio, to two former slaves. His mother taught him how to read when he was 4 years old. Paul’s words flowed easily between places he’d never known – the cotton fields of Dixie and the drawing rooms of privilege – propelling him into a place of unprecedented celebrity for a young black man.

He was a teenager when his hometown newspaper, The Dayton Herald, in Ohio published some of his poetry. Literary recognition came early, but no publisher followed. Undaunted, he self-published his first collection of poems, Oak and Ivy, when he was 20. He sold the book to people riding the elevator he operated.

His fortunes soon changed. Literary critic William Dean Howells read his second book, Majors and Minors, and told him to concentrate on writing in black dialect. Dunbar then published Lyrics of Lowly Life, which Howells praised in a review. He then published short stories in popular magazines, and wrote his first novel, The Uncalled, in 1898, then wrote The Love of Landry in 1900 and The Fanatics in 1901.

He rejected dialect

Dunbar’s acclaim came at the expense of a part of his soul. He came to public attention primarily for his poetry written in dialect that he likened to the language of minstrel shows. He preferred to write about the realities of black life in standard English. Most white readers preferred the comforting tongue of happy, dancing blacks on the plantation.

A 1903 review in The New York Times said that when Paul eschewed dialect in favor of standard English, “the result is disappointing . . . One cannot help wishing that he would be content to harp on his one melodious string, would confine himself, in literature, to delivering the message of the colored race.”

Dunbar refused to limit himself to the narrow dictates of the masses, but, for expediency and money, he compromised.

Oak and Ivy included poems in dialect, along with many others in standard English. Among the latter is “Sympathy,” his second poem of that title. It laments the plight of all black Americans; it is the personal lamentations of his heart tinged with hope. It ends: “I know why the caged bird sings!”

He died in Dayton Feb. 9, 1906, of the tuberculosis that had plagued him for much of his life.

 

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