Paul Laurence Dunbar
PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR
Renowned African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar rose from a poor childhood in Dayton, Ohio to international acclaim as a writer and as an effective voice for equality and justice for African-Americans (Howard, Revell). He met and associated with other historical men such as Fredrick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and his Dayton neighbors Orville and Wilbur Wright (Harvard, Columbus). Dunbar’s personal story, as well as his writings, are still an inspiration to all Americans (Poupard).
Dunbar was born June 27,1872 in Dayton, Ohio to Matilda and Joshua Dunbar, former slaves from Kentucky (Van Doren 296, Columbus). Their family was extremely poor because Joshua was not able to get a job. Racism was still strong in Ohio even though slavery was against the law at the time. To help their parents, Paul and his two half-brothers did chores like gathering firewood, raking leaves, and cutting grass (Howard). Matilda always provided inspiration to her children by reading to, supporting, and encouraging them to be creative. She loved storytelling, songs, and poetry. This affected Paul throughout his life, and it was she who instilled in him the desire to achieve (Columbus). Dunbar’s parents separated in 1874, after having two children. In spite of this, Paul was still able to achieve. He wrote his first poem at age six and recited publicly at age
nine (Howard). His first public reading was on his birthday in 1892. After Joshua left, Matilda was forced to work in Dayton as a washerwoman to support her family (Columbus). Joshua died when Paul was just twelve years old (Poupard). The death of Joshua only strengthened the bond between Paul and his mother (Revell).
Dunbar was very popular among his classmates at Central High School. He was the only Negro in his class and was a member of the Literary Society, editor of the student publication, and composer of the class song at his graduation (Van Doren 296, Columbus). Dunbar’s first published poem was called Our Martyred Soldiers. It appeared in the Dayton Herald on June 8, 1888. In 1891 Paul graduated from Central High School (Revell 11-12). After graduation, Paul had to work as an elevator boy in Dayton’s Callahan Building and later as a page at a Dayton court house(Revell 11 ). He was forced to work at places such as these because some businesses were reluctant to hire him because of his race (Columbus). Dunbar’s first poetry collection, Oak and Ivy was published in 1892 (Howard). Oak and Ivy consisted of fifty-six poems, thirty-six of which were later discarded by Dunbar (Revell p.29) To help pay for the publishing fee and printing supplies he sold the book of poem to customers who rode the elevator for $1.00 (Columbus). meanwhile he continued writing for various national newspapers and magazines for a little extra income. Paul
quickly achieved a reputation in his hometown as a poet and frequently was invited to recite his works for various clubs and organizations. Many times people would recommend his books to friends, spreading word of his talents (Howard).
In general, Dunbar’s poetry was accepted and well-liked (Poupard). This landed him an invitation to recite his poetry at the first World’s Fair at Chicago in 1893. Here, he worked as clerk at a Haitian pavilion where he met Fredrick Douglass and other black speakers and writers (Revell 102). Douglass called Paul Laurence Dunbar The most promising young colored man in America. (Howard).
1895 brought Dunbar’s move to Toledo, Ohio and the publishing of his second collection of poetry, Majors and Minors (Columbus). Eleven poems from Oak and Ivy were printed in Majors and Minors. (Revell, p.224). It’s publishing was financed by his friends Dr. Henry A. Tobey and Charles H. Thatcher, an attorney. Majors and Minors caught the attention of a famous literary critic William Dean Howells. Howells’ favorable review of Dunbar in the Harper’s Weekly made him nationally known overnight (Columbus). Howells pointed out that in history Negros have been gifted and successful in music, oratory, and many of the other arts, but Majors and Minors was the first
instance of and African-American who had evinced innate distinction in literature (Poupard). Following Howells’ review, New York publishing firm Dodd-Mead and Company combined Dunbar’s