Oak and Ivy, 1893
Majors and Minors, 1895
Lyrics of Lowly Life, 1896
Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899
Lyrics of Love and Laughter, 1903
Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow, 1905
Complete Poems, 1913
The Uncalled, 1898
The Love of Landry, 1900
The Fanatics, 1901
The Sport of the Gods, 1902
Folks from Dixie, 1898
The Strength of Gideon, and Other Stories, 1900
In Old Plantation Days, 1903
The Heart of Happy Hollow, 1904
In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 2002
Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first black writer in the post-Civil War United States to gain national prominence and acceptance by both the black and the white communities. Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872, Dunbar learned of slavery from his parents, both of whom had served different slave masters in Kentucky. Joshua Dunbar, his father, had escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad and had returned to the United States at the start of the Civil War. Growing up in Dayton, young Dunbar usually was one of a small group of black students who attended predominantly white schools. In fact, when he entered Central High School in Dayton in 1886, he was the only black student in his class. Involved in literary, debate, and journalistic activities at high school, Dunbar excelled and suffered no apparent racial prejudice. His white friends remained constant throughout his life and included Ezra Kuhns, a Dayton lawyer, and Orville and Wilbur Wright, who gave substantial financial support to Dunbar in 1890, when he attempted to launch the Dayton Tatler, a newspaper for a black readership.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Dunbar sought clerical work in a law office after high school graduation in 1891, but, as positive as race relations had been in high school, he quickly discovered racial discrimination in the working world. He finally accepted a job as an elevator operator in Dayton. He had begun writing poetry and anecdotes as early as age sixteen, and he never dismissed his literary aspirations. Dunbar continued writing poetry and, in the tradition of Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Ben Franklin, had his writings published in various newspapers. Despite his unsuccessful experience with the Dayton Tatler, which clearly suggested that he wanted to write for a black audience, he remained true to his objectives in his early poems: celebrating the accomplishments of his race and conveying a sense of racial pride. Besides writing poetry, he began to give readings to white and racially mixed audiences. He recognized early in his career that to be successful in his day a writer had to learn to entertain a predominantly white audience, which for a black meant some compromise. Nevertheless, Dunbar’s early work reveals a desire to speak to and for blacks.
Through the reprinting of his poems in various newspapers, Dunbar’s recognition grew. Between 1892, when he published Oak and Ivy, his first collection of poetry, and 1896, when he negotiated a contract with Dodd, Mead to publish his third collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life, Dunbar became a recognized name. In the process, his poetry and his fiction evolved into literature rich with local color.
Dunbar’s increasing recognition gained the attention of the black leaders W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, whom he met in 1896 and 1897, respectively. Although increasingly he felt the pull to produce poetry and fiction for a mass and largely white audience, his racial inheritance would never allow that. Some people found an “Uncle Tom” attitude in some of Dunbar’s work, yet Dunbar’s feeling about his race never changed, and as the hope for black justice increasingly faded in the 1890’s, he turned to themes of protest. Many of his later newspaper writings, in fact, place him closer in spirit to Du Bois than to Washington. Although he was able to live reasonably comfortably from his writings after 1898, his final years were marred by a failed marriage, an addiction to alcohol, and tuberculosis, which caused his death in 1906 at age thirty-three.
Although Dunbar wrote short stories and novels, his early recognition as a poet tended to obscure consideration in these other areas. Among the more than four hundred poems he wrote during his life, his earliest are regarded as his best. Lyrics of Lowly Life contains 105 poems, all but 11 of which had been included in his first two collections. This volume became the commercial basis for his career as well as his first commercial publication. Dunbar wrote in both literary English and black dialect in his early collections. He preferred literary English, for through that style he displayed his themes of racial pride and faith for his race in the future, themes he believed were compromised in the publicly preferred black dialect poems. Moreover, the nondialect poems on black themes work because, although the form was traditional, the statement was new, and he could reach both the black and the white audiences.
As in his poetry, Dunbar in his fiction focused from the beginning on black themes, from the plantation tale that glorified life in the Old South to protest stories that looked indignantly at racial prejudice. Of his four collections of short stories, his second, The Strength of Gideon, and Other Stories, ranks as his best fictional expression of racial consciousness. Of the four novels, his first two are “white” novels; they deal exclusively with white characters, with virtually no reference to blacks within the culture. His last two novels deal with blacks–his final one, in fact, is a portrayal of black culture coming close to breaking the mold of the white world.
Extremely prolific, Dunbar was at best an uneven writer. Nevertheless, within the substantial body of work during a very short life, he produced much of quality. Moreover, although not the first African American writer, he was the first to achieve national prominence as well as acceptance among both blacks and whites.