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Highlights of a Life

When he died of tuberculosis at the age of 33, Paul Laurence Dunbar had already established a reputation as a highly-talented young writer. He had produced a remarkable 12 volumes of poetry, a play, four novels and volumes of short fiction, and numerous essays. Had he lived longer, Dunbar might have approached the heights he aspired to.

Like John Keats, the English poet whose works he studied and admired, Dunbar felt that his literary legacy was incomplete. In response to John Weldon Johnson’s praise for his having perfected the dialect poem, Dunbar replied, “I have never really gotten to the things I wanted to do.”  His childless marriage to the African American poet Alice Ruth Moore had ended after just four years. Though he had built an international reputation, the work he had hoped to do -- an epic perhaps -- went unattempted. When Dunbar died, he could not have guessed how strong an influence he would have on coming generations of African American writers such as Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou.

It was almost as if the poetic idiom he needed did not yet exist. The works he had read and admired as a student were largely written by poets in the Romantic and Victorian tradition; their ornate formality was ill-matched to his time, place and heritage. His poem, “Douglass,” is a fine example of a 19th century elegy. It begins, 

Ah Douglass. We have fall’n on evil days,
Such days as thou, not even thou didst know…

This carefully crafted poem and many like it seemed too connected with a different era. On the other hand, the dialect poem -- which he handled with great skill -- did not suit the tone of his serious themes either.

Paul Laurence Dunbar
Portrait of Paul Laurence Dunbar by photographer Estella Kile, Dayton, Ohio, February 1904.

Dunbar’s vast talent came to the attention of influential people who tried to advance his career and help to put him in the company of educated mentors. The great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, arranged for Dunbar to perform his work at the first world’s fair in Chicago. William Dean Howells, the eminent critic, novelist, and editor of Harper’s Weekly, wrote the introduction of one of Dunbar’s early books, Lyrics of a Lonely Life. This collection of poems sold impressively throughout the U.S. and launched his reputation as the nation’s leading black poet. Dunbar’s acclaim secured him a six-month reading tour of England.

Others helped him to attend Harvard University as a special student and to find work for him as an aide in the Library of Congress. Still, he had to find a voice of his own, free from overblown rhetoric on the one side, and from the comedic sentiment of popular dialect verse on the other.

This is not to say that the dialect poems were not solidly enduring. Many of them still stand up as the best of their kind. His often anthologized favorites are “An Ante-Bellum Sermon,” “When Malindy Sings,” and “A Cabin Tale.”  Dunbar had the feel for black dialect, though he did not live in the midst of it. His parents had been slaves, yet he had been able to thrive in the white community of Dayton, Ohio, where, like his schoolmate, Orville Wright, he got his start.

The standard English of the educated classes was his; nevertheless, Dunbar was a master practitioner of American dialect -- not only black, but also Hoosier and German as well. The popularity of dialect writings as composed by James Whitcomb Riley, Joel Chandler Harris and Mark Twain, among many others, provided a way to publication. Yet he was so successful in this vein that he had trouble breaking free from it.

At about the same time, fiction provided Dunbar with a new outlet for his ideas. And the novel proved to be the genre in which he would make serious inquiries into a human predicament complicated by fate and heredity. In the final four years of his life, Dunbar wrote four volumes of short fiction and four novels, some of them resembling in tone and theme the work of the “naturalists” such as Theodore Dreiser. Sport of the Gods (1902), for example, wasa treatment of the conflict black Americans faced as they moved back and forth between rural and urban life.

Dunbar's writing room
Dunbar's writing room

The obstacles that Paul Dunbar overcame on his way to lasting fame as an American author were many. He was poor and black in a white world; yet he managed to complete high school, which was more than most people of his era could do. Despite his academic success, the only job he could find was that of an elevator operator. Ironically, even his recognition as a poet came too soon for him to catch the rising tide of the Harlem Renaissance, which would not peak until decades after his death. If he has been faulted for treating the topic of plantation life in the south too sentimentally to suit late 20th century expectations, he used his literary voice to call attention to racial injustice. His poem “We Wear the Mask” shows that Dunbar knew there was a long road ahead for blacks after emancipation. It ends,

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

In the months before his death, Dunbar wrote feverishly, leaving behind more than 200 unpublished works. While most were published posthumously, his final verse, like the poet who wrote it, faded from existence. Pages were found years later on atop his desk, the words bleached by a sunny window in the study of his Dayton home.

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