Paul Laurence Dunbar published in such mainstream journals as Century, Lipincott’s Monthly, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Saturday Evening Post. A gifted poet and a precursor to the Harlem Renaissance, Dunbar was read by both blacks and whites in turn-of-the-century America.
Dunbar, the son of two former slaves, was born in Dayton, Ohio, and attended the public schools of that city. He was taught to read by his mother, Matilda Murphy Dunbar, and he absorbed her homespun wisdom as well as the stories told to him by his father, Joshua Dunbar, who had escaped from enslavement in Kentucky and served in the Massachusetts 55th Regiment during the Civil War. Thus, while Paul Laurence Dunbar himself was never enslaved, he was one of the last of a generation to have ongoing contact with those who had been. Dunbar was steeped in the oral tradition during his formative years and he would go on to become a powerful interpreter of the African American folk experience in literature and song; he would also champion the cause of civil rights and higher education for African Americans in essays and poetry that were militant by the standards of his day.
During his years at Dayton's Central High, Dunbar was the school's only student of color, but it was his scholarly performance that distinguished him. He served as editor in chief of the school paper, president of the literary society, and class poet. His poetry grew more sophisticated with his repeated readings of John Keats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Burns; later he would add American poets John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Whitcomb Riley to his list of favorites as he searched ardently for his own poetic voice. But it was his reading of Irwin Russell and other writers in the plantation tradition that led him into difficulty as he searched for an authentic poetic diction that would incorporate the voices of his parents and the stories they told.
After graduating from high school in 1891, racial discrimination forced Dunbar to accept a job as an elevator operator in a Dayton hotel. He wrote on the job during slack hours. He became well known as the "elevator boy poet" after James Newton Mathews invited him to read his poetry at the annual meeting of the Western Association of Writers, held in Dayton in 1892.
In 1893 Dunbar published his first volume of poetry, Oak and Ivy, on the press of the Church of the Brethren. That same year he also attended the World's Columbian Exposition, where he sold copies of his book and gained the patronage of Frederick Douglass and other influential African Americans.
In 1895 Dunbar initiate a correspondence with Alice Ruth Moore, a fair-skinned black Creole teacher and writer originally from New Orleans. Three years later he married Alice in secret and over the objections of her friends and family. During the years of their marriage, Dunbar began to suffer from tuberculosis and the alcohol prescribed for it. The Dunbars separated permanently in 1902 but remained friends, and Alice continued to be known as "the widow of Paul Laurence Dunbar" even after her 1916 marriage to publisher Robert J. Nelson. The Dunbars had no children.
Dunbar published eleven volumes of poetry including Oak and Ivy (1893), 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 Gal (1904), Howdy, Honey, Howdy (1905), and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905). Dunbar’s so-called Complete Poems were published posthumously in 1913. The most complete edition of Dunbar’s poetry, The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, containing a selection of sixty poems not published in 1913, did not appear until 1994. Dunbar's published fiction includes The Uncalled (1898), Folks from Dixie (1898), The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900), The Fanatics (1901), and The Sport of the Gods(1902), but he remains best known for his poetry.
Much of the controversy surrounding Paul Laurence Dunbar concerns his dialect poetry, wherein some scholars, such as the late Charles T. Davis, felt that Dunbar showed the greatest glimmers of genius. Sterling A. Brown, writing in Negro Poetry and Drama in 1937, asserted that Dunbar was the first American poet to "handle Negro folk life with any degree of fullness" but he also found Dunbar guilty of cruelly "misreading" black history. This points to the basic flaw in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s attempts to represent authentic African American folk language in verse. He was not able to transcend completely the racist plantation tradition made popular by Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, Irwin Russell, and other white writers who made use of African American folk materials and who showed the "old time Negro" as if he were satisfied serving the master on the antebellum plantation.
While Dunbar sought an appropriate literary form for the representation of African American vernacular expression, he was also deeply ambivalent about his undertaking in this area. He recognized that many of his experiments yielded imperfect results and he was concerned that prominent white critics such as William Dean Howells praised his work for the wrong reasons, setting a tone that other Dunbar critics would follow for years as they virtually ignored his standard English verse and his published experiments with Irish, German, and Western regional dialects.
Some African American critics saw a concession to racism evident in Dunbar's black dialect poetry, and while it is unlikely that any perceived concession was intentional, it can certainly be argued that dialect poems like "Parted" and "Corn Song" were more derivative of the plantation school than they were original productions of African American genius. Yet, during his lifetime, Dunbar’s work was praised by Frederick Douglass, Booker T Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois, among others.
Negative treatment of Dunbar’s poetry by black critics including scholar-poet James Weldon Johnson did not surface
The historic home of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dayton, Ohio
fully until the New Negro movement of the 1920s. On the other hand, poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes publicly admired and emulated Dunbar. A considered reading of poems like "We Wear the Mask," "When Malindy Sings," "Frederick Douglass," "The Colored Soldiers," or "The Haunted Oak" affirms Dunbar's loyalty to the black race and his pride in its achievements, as well as his righteous anger over racial injustice.
In the second half of the twentieth century Paul Laurence Dunbar was rediscovered, In 1972 centenary conferences marking the hundredth anniversary of Dunbar’s birth were held at the University of Dayton and the University of California at Irvine, with prominent black poets and writers in attendance. At the Irvine conference, poet Nikki Giovanni suggested that Dunbar’s "message is clear and available ... if we invest in Dunbar the integrity we hope others will give us."
Anew edition of Dunbar's poems subsequently put long out-of-print Dunbar poems back on the classroom shelf, making it possible for teachers to acquaint a new generation of poets and scholars with Dunbar’s work.
See Also: Addison Gayle, Jr., Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1971. Jay Martin, ed., A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1975. Jay Martin and Gossie Hudson, eds., Paul Laurence Dunbar Reader, 1975. Peter Revell, Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1979. Joanne M. Braxton, ed., The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1993.
From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press. , 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.