Skip to main content

Other nineteenth-century African American poets anticipated Paul Laurence Dunbar’s question concerning "why the caged bird sings." James Monroe Whitfield appears to speak for several of his contemporaries when he has the speaker in "The Misanthropist" say, "In vain thou bid'st me strike the lyre, / and sing a song of mirth and glee." For Whitfield, James Madison Bell, and Albery Allson Whitman, the thoughts that troubled their minds--the evils of slavery, the hope of freedom, struggles with oppression and violence--were frought "with gloom and darkness, woe and pain." These poets continued the tradition of protest begun by Horton. However, James Edwin Campbell and Daniel Webster Davis made mirth their dominant lyric and wrote dialect poems that mimicked the stereotypes of the popular plantation tradition. Other poets such as Ann Plato and Henrietta Cordelia Ray took the route of romantic escapism.

With the publication of Oak and Ivy in 1893, Paul Laurence Dunbar inaugurated a new era in African American literary expression, revealing himself as one of the finest lyricists America had produced. His second book, Majors and Minors (1895), attracted the favorable attention and endorsement of the literary critic William Dean Howells. Howells's now classic introduction to Dunbar's third volume of poems, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), became the quintessential literary piece of damning praise that elevated Dunbar's dialect poems above his poems written in standard English. It ensured his acceptance and popularity among an audience of white readers who were warmed by the good cheer of the hearthside and comforted by the aura of pastoral contentment, hallmarks of Dunbar’s bucolic verse. His obligatory mimicking of the plantation tradition conventions popularized by Irwin Russell, Joel Chandler Harris, and Thomas Nelson Page resulted in a perpetuation of these conventions. However, there was no denying for many the immense popularity, freshness, humor, and catchy rhythms of his memorable dialect poems. Nonetheless, Dunbar’s meteoric rise to fame did not accommodate a thorough and broad appreciation of the other side of his genius displayed in his nondialect poems. Tragically, the young poet lived a scant ten years after the publication of Lyrics of Lowly Life, years that were filled with regret that the world had ignored his deeper notes "to praise a jingle in a broken tongue."


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.