The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> American Literature >> 19th Century
Paul Laurence Dunbar

the first African-American to gain national eminence as a poet

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, on June 27, 1872. His parents separated in 1874, leaving his mother to support the family. Although poor, she saw to it that her children received an education, and was supportive of Paul's writing ambitions. Paul was reciting and writing poetry by the age of six, and had had poems published in the Dayton Herald by the age of 14. Although he attended predominantly white schools, he experienced little of the rampant racism that dominated many other school systems. At Dayton Central High School, where he was the only black student, he was a member of the debating society, editor of the school paper, and president of the school's literary society. One of his close friends in school was Orville Wright, later of aviation fame, who helped him print a newspaper for black readers, called the Dayton Tattler. He had to abandon the project after only three issues, however, because it was not economically feasible. Financially unable to attend college, Dunbar took a job as an elevator operator after high school, but continued writing. In 1892, one of his former teachers invited him to read his poems at a meeting of the Western Association of Writers.

In late 1892, Dunbar self-published his first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy. To help pay the publishing costs, he sold the book for one dollar to people riding in his elevator. Later that same year, he went to Chicago in hopes of finding work at the World's Fair. While there he met Frederick Douglass, who found him a job as a clerk and arranged for him to read a selection of his poems. By 1895, Dunbar's poems were appearing in major national newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times.

Dunbar's second major collection, Majors and Minors, was published in 1895. A very favorable review by William Dean Howells led to Dunbar becoming the first African-American to gain national eminence as a poet, as well as the first to be popular with both black and white readers. His third collection of poetry, Lyrics of Lowly Life , published in 1896, was the first of his works to be published by a major publishing house.

After a six-month reading tour of England in 1897, Dunbar became a clerk at the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. Soon after moving to Washington, he married Alice Ruth Moore, a college-educated writer. His health began to deteriorate in 1898, possibly due to the dust in the library, and he left the job that year to devote his full energies to writing and giving readings.

Over the next few years Dunbar published four short story collections, including Folks from Dixie ; four novels, including, The Uncalled; and two more poetry collections, Lyrics of the Hearthside and Poems of Cabin and Field (1899). He also contributed lyrics to several musical reviews. Dunbar and his wife separated in 1902, soon after which he suffered a nervous breakdown and a bout of pneumonia. He also began drinking heavily, which further weakened his constitution. He continued writing, however, and his collections from this time include: Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903), Heart of Happy Hollow (1904), Howdy, Honey, Howdy (1905), and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905).

By 1904, Dunbar's ever failing health had forced him to return to his mother's home in Dayton. He died there on February 9, 1906.


Academy of American Poets

See Also

June 27
Chicago World's Fair
Frederick Douglass
William Dean Howells
February 9

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> American Literature >> 19th Century

This page was last updated on 02/09/2019.