Paul Laurence Dunbar is considered the most influential African-American writer before the Harlem Renaissance. Through the use of lyrical poems that sometimes utilized vernacular, Dunbar wrote on a variety of themes including romance, the plight of African-Americans, humor and even racial upliftment.
Author and literary critic William Dean Howells argued that Dunbar was the first African-American poet to “feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically” while Mary Church Terrell firmly pronounced that Dunbar was the “poet laureate of the Negro race.”
- Born: June 27, 1872 in Dayton, Ohio
- Death: February 9, 1906 in Dayton, Ohio
- Parents: Joshua Dunbar, served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. His mother, Mathilda Dunbar, was a former slave
- Spouse: Alice Dunbar Nelson, poet and writer.
Early Life and Education
As the son of former slaves, Dunbar was taught at an early age about the oral tradition of storytelling, which would influence his writing in years to come. Attending public school in Dayton, Dunbar realized his interest in writing poetry and was inspired by the works of Romantic poets such as John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Burns. In addition, as Dunbar continued to hone his craft, he read American poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Whitcomb Riley. Yet, it was poet Irwin Russell who inspired Dunbar to infuse the stories of his parents’ oral tradition with lyricism, creating an authentic poetic tone.
While still a high school student, Dunbar published two poems, “Our Martyred Soldiers” and “On the River” in The Herald, a Dayton newspaper. Determined to become a writer, Dunbar became a journalist for Dayton’s African-American newspaper, The Tattler. Although the newspaper was only in publication for six weeks, the experience of writing inspired Dunbar to continue writing. Graduating from high school in 1891, Dunbar worked as an elevator operator and continued to write in his spare time. While working, poet James Newton Mathews encouraged Dunbar to read his poetry at the Western Association of Writers in 1892.
In 1893, Dunbar published his first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy. For the next 16 years, Dunbar published many collections of poetry, fiction and essays. His greatest works include:
- Majors and Minors (1895)
- 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 Ga (1904) Howdy, Honey, Howdy (1905)
- Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905).
Dunbar’s poetry was also published in literary journals such as Century, Lipincott’s Monthly, Atlantic Monthly and the Saturday Evening Post.
Dunbar wrote the lyrics for the first Broadway musical to be written and performed by an African-American cast, In Dahomey in 1903.
In addition to writing poetry, Dunbar was also a founding member of the American Negro Academy, an elite organization of African-American intellectual men who were dedicated to documenting their achievements.
Praise from African-Americans and Whites
Throughout Dunbar’s career, he received the praise of both white and African-American leaders.
In 1893, while promoting his first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy, Dunbar met Frederick Douglass. Admiring Dunbar’s work, Douglass hired him to manage the Haitian exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Following Douglass’ death in February of 1895, Dunbar wrote the poem, “Frederick Douglass” in honor of the former abolitionist and African-American leader.
James Weldon Johnson argued that Dunbar was “the first American Negro poet of real literary distinction.”
Howells, a fan of Dunbar’s second collection of poetry, Majors and Minors, stated that Dunbar’s writing was filled with “honest thinking and true feeling.” Howell felt so strongly about Dunbar’s poems written in dialect that he wrote the introduction for Lyrics of a Lowly Life in 1896.
Despite Dunbar’s prowess as a poet, he suffered from poor health, depression and alcoholism. Dunbar died in 1906 of tuberculosis.