Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) - Study Guides on Works and Writers

Realism and Regionalism 1865–1914 - Gary Scharnhorst and Thomas Quirk 2010

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
Study Guides on Works and Writers

Paul Laurence Dunbar is regarded as one of the most significant African American writers. He was born in Dayton, Ohio, on 27 June 1872, the son of Matilda (a former slave) and Joshua (a former slave, plasterer, and soldier), who married six months before his birth and divorced by the time he was three. Raised by his mother, he had three siblings: two older brothers from his mother’s first marriage and a younger sister, who died at age three of malnutrition. Like his sister he was sickly and his mother took every precaution and spared no expense, despite their overwhelming poverty, to maintain his health and ensure his education. Unlike his brothers, who had to leave school to work and support the family, Dunbar completed high school. His mother’s efforts paid off, as Dunbar earned high marks and evidenced a bright intellect and artistic ability. He presented his first original poem (“An Easter Ode”) at thirteen; had his first published poem (“Our Martyred Soldiers”) appear in the Dayton Herald at seventeen; and started the short-lived Dayton Tattler, an African American newsletter printed by Orville and Wilbur Wright, at eighteen.

Though he is mostly noted for poetry, Dunbar’s works span several other genres—short fiction, letters, nonfiction, reviews, essays, plays, musicals, lyrics, librettos, and novels. Moreover, they address a wide range of multicultural, social, and political themes and issues affecting Americans of all stations in the post-bellum, post-Reconstruction era. Consequently, from his first published writing Dunbar painted America “for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health” with a broad brush, which in retrospect has been seen as an experiment with forms of literary masking. During his short life he produced twelve books of poetry, four novels, more than one hundred short stories, numerous librettos and lyrics, as well as numerous essays, articles, and lectures.

His experience as the only black student in his class at the integrated Central High in Dayton was a surprisingly positive one, given the troubled racial times. He was senior class president, was editor in chief of the school newspaper, was elected to the prestigious Philomathean Literary Society, was named class poet, won two literary awards, and composed the school song for his 1891 graduating class. Without the means to afford college and unable to gain employment as a journalist because of racial discrimination (despite his publications in the Dayton Herald, his excellent educational background, and his reputation as a writer), Dunbar took a job as a janitor and shortly thereafter (due to his unsuitability for physical labor) as an elevator operator. Thus employed, Dunbar made good use of both the time and money afforded him. He purchased a home for himself and his mother, spent time reading literature and composing works, gave public recitals, and sold his first short story (“The Tenderfoot,” 1891). During this time he also made important connections that would lead to the publication of his first two books of poetry: Oak and Ivy (1893) and Majors and Minors (1895). Invited by a former teacher, he gave a well-received recitation of a welcome poem—before a predominately white audience—at the meeting of the Western Association of Writers in Dayton in 1892, which marked a turning point in his career. The audience was intrigued by the incongruity of the talent and tincture of this black poet.

James Newton Matthews met the man he described that day as “the rising laureate of the colored race.” Reflecting on the despondency in the poet’s voice that accompanied requested samples of his poetry, Matthews lamented the racism that kept a literary gem like Dunbar “chained like a galley slave to the ropes of a dingy elevator at starvation wages.” Encouraged by Matthews’s personal correspondence and public recognition in his letter to the Indianapolis Journal (1892); his newfound friendship with one of the most popular poets of the time, James Whitcomb Riley; and prompted by his longtime friend Orville Wright, who suggested United Brethren Publishing House for binding and printing of his book, Dunbar assembled Oak and Ivy (1893). It was purchased by people on his subscription list, former classmates, elevator patrons, and curiosity seekers for $1.00 each. In three weeks time he had earned enough to repay the $125.00 production costs and to buy Christmas gifts for his mother. Rather than immediate substantial financial gain, the publication of Oak and Ivy garnered the poet recognition and increased public-speaking opportunities.

Traveling with copies of his new publication for sale, in 1893 he moved to Chicago, securing employment as a hotel waiter, janitor, and, most important, as Frederick Douglass’s personal assistant at the World’s Columbian Exposition. During this time Dunbar met many of the best and brightest of the black men and women of this era, among them Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Alexander Crummell. Upon his return to Dayton and his elevator job, Dunbar found the years from 1893 to 1895 some of the most difficult financially as he struggled to maintain a home for him and his mother. He worked briefly as a court page and as temporary editor of the Indianapolis World, applied unsuccessfully for several teaching positions, depended on friends for financial assistance, and at his most despondent moment contemplated suicide. Fortunately, friends such as Dr. H. A. Tobey not only provided financial support that enabled him to keep his home but also recommended him for public presentations and recitations and backed his second book of poems, Majors and Minors.

The years that followed (1895-1898) were bittersweet ones for the poet. He suffered the loss of his friend and mentor Frederick Douglass, but William Dean Howells glowingly reviewed his dialect poetry. He courted Alice Moore almost entirely in letters between 1895 and 1897 before they secretly wed in 1898. Ultimately, they separated in 1902 after a troubled marriage. After their divorce and his relocation to Dayton, Dunbar spent the rest of his life writing prolifically, lecturing nationally and internationally, and dealing with his failing health. He died on 9 February 1906, of tuberculosis.


  • 1. Given that Dunbar’s fame is acknowledged as having come on the heels of Howells’s review of his dialect poetry rather than any significant praise for his standard English verse, the poet’s work can be studied from a perspective that considers the cultural contexts within which his work was first received. Students might want to consider how the caste of color prejudice, racism, and post-Reconstruction ideas about what a new American identity and literature should represent may have impacted nineteenth-century white and black American views of early black poetry. One important topic to explore along these lines is how the “color line” that W. E. B. Du Bois had so carefully articulated and the “double consciousness” he assigned to the black American psyche challenged the conventions of regional, local color, and vernacular American literature. Questions concerning American concepts of what constitutes black authenticity (from Dunbar’s time to ours) are important ones to consider: What, for example, makes Dunbar a more authentically black poet than say Phillis Wheatley or Jupiter Hammon? Why are the subjects and themes in Dunbar’s work both applauded and denounced? What is most appreciated, and what is most problematic, about Dunbar’s use of the plantation tradition in his poetry and fiction?
  • 2. Other topics for research and discussion might consider Dunbar’s use of signifying (playful goading) in his depiction of Negro and white characters. Specifically, students might approach Dunbar’s use of stereotypes from multiple perspectives—as an expression of the poet’s ambivalence, accommodation, or concession about political race issues in post Reconstruction, or perhaps as his attempt to creatively transcend (through his work) the racism of his era.
  • 3. An alternative view of reading his writing is to analyze Dunbar the man as a key element, or extension, of his works. That is, Dunbar might be considered within a context that sees him as being caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he might be viewed as one whose success as a poet depended on the patronage and support of such influential men as Howells and white readers who harbored certain expectations of black people. On the other, he might be read in light of those expectations of him as a man of “race” whose job it was to confront the very stereotypes his work sometimes appeared to endorse. Students might want to research the contradictions inherent in his relationship and attitude toward his contemporaries as a way of understanding the complicated nature of his works. For instance, how do we explain his simultaneous reverence for Frederick Douglass, his respect and admiration for Booker T. Washington’s organizational and administrative skill, and his fundamental agreement with the goals and ideals advanced by W. E. B. Du Bois?
  • 4. One of the most recent and provocative perspectives on Dunbar comes from research in the intersecting areas of gender and race. In particular, scholars such as Eleanor Alexander have called into question the extent to which Dunbar’s own troubled marriage and his relationship with women in general might serve as a model for understanding not only his work, but also black male/female relationships in the nineteenth century. Students interested in pursuing this topic will want to consider the many critical questions that emerge. One vital question should not be overlooked: given that both his womanizing and his violence toward women—Alice Dunbar-Nelson, in particular—was well documented, why has this issue been largely ignored by critics (during and immediately after his life and in recent scholarship)? Research that considers Dunbar’s work from this perspective will necessarily guide students into research that considers the less-than-celebratory aspects of this nineteenth-century iconic figure. It may also suggest connections between Dunbar and such contemporary celebrities as Chris Brown.

The cultural influences, formal aesthetics, and his personal history are only a small sampling of the many ways of studying and exploring Dunbar’s work. Clearly, they unearth many questions and point to avenues of research that support the need for modern readers to further probe the complexities of this poet’s life and work.


Primary Works

The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited by Joanne M. Braxton (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993).

The “largest, most authoritative collection of Dunbar’s poetry ever published.” This book does important work of contextualizing and reclaiming his work “for a new generation of lovers of verse.” It includes the lost poems, previously not in other editions of collected works of Dunbar’s poetry. Moreover, Braxton’s introduction unpacks and critically surveys the most heated controversies surrounding Dunbar’s work.

The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited by Gene Andrew Jarrett and Thomas Lewis Morgan (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005).

Provides 103 previously uncollected short stories that, as Shelley Fisher Fiskin puts it, enable readers to “watch the author develop as a professional writer increasingly aware” of cultural limitations of his work and how those obstacles impacted his writing.

In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited by Herbert Woodward Martin and Ronald Primeau (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002).

A valuable anthology of Dunbar’s drama, poetry, essays, short fiction and nonfiction, including previously unpublished and uncollected works.


Eleanor Alexander, Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore (New York: New York University Press, 2001).

The most important contribution to recent Dunbar studies, as it deals with the significant controversies in his life and marriage to Alice Dunbar-Nelson. It fills a gap left by earlier biographers, who gave little more than a nod to their “troubled” relationship.


African American Review, Special Issue, Paul Laurence Dunbar, 41 (Summer 2007). Twenty-five essays taken from the 2006 Paul Laurence Dunbar Centennial Conference at Stanford that “uncover neglected aspects . . . challenge [existing] assumptions” and analyze “forms and genres [he] helped to pioneer, such as epistolary dialect poetry.”

—April Langley