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Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR Renowned African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar rose from a poor childhood in Dayton, Ohio to international acclaim as a writer and as an effective voice for equality and justice for African-Americans (Howard, Revell). He met and associated with other historical men such as Fredrick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and his Dayton neighbors Orville and Wilbur Wright (Harvard, Columbus). Dunbar’s personal story, as well as his writings, are still an inspiration to all Americans (Poupard). Dunbar was born June 27,1872 in Dayton, Ohio to Matilda and Joshua Dunbar, former slaves from Kentucky (Van Doren 296, Columbus).

Their family was extremely poor because Joshua was not able to get a job. Racism was still strong in Ohio even though slavery was against the law at the time. To help their parents, Paul and his two half-brothers did chores like gathering firewood, raking leaves, and cutting grass (Howard). Matilda always provided inspiration to her children by reading to, supporting, and encouraging them to be creative. She loved storytelling, songs, and poetry. This affected Paul throughout his life, and it was she who instilled in him the desire to achieve (Columbus).

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Dunbar’s parents separated in 1874, after having two children. In spite of this, Paul was still able to achieve. He wrote his first poem at age six and recited publicly at age 2 nine (Howard). His first public reading was on his birthday in 1892. After Joshua left, Matilda was forced to work in Dayton as a washerwoman to support her family (Columbus).

Joshua died when Paul was just twelve years old (Poupard). The death of Joshua only strengthened the bond between Paul and his mother (Revell). Dunbar was very popular among his classmates at Central High School. He was the only Negro in his class and was a member of the Literary Society, editor of the student publication, and composer of the class song at his graduation (Van Doren 296, Columbus). Dunbar’s first published poem was called Our Martyred Soldiers. It appeared in the Dayton Herald on June 8, 1888.

In 1891 Paul graduated from Central High School (Revell 11-12). After graduation, Paul had to work as an elevator boy in Dayton’s Callahan Building and later as a page at a Dayton court house(Revell 11 ). He was forced to work at places such as these because some businesses were reluctant to hire him because of his race (Columbus). Dunbar’s first poetry collection, Oak and Ivy was published in 1892 (Howard). Oak and Ivy consisted of fifty-six poems, thirty-six of which were later discarded by Dunbar (Revell p.29) To help pay for the publishing fee and printing supplies he sold the book of poem to customers who rode the elevator for $1.00 (Columbus).

meanwhile he continued writing for various national newspapers and magazines for a little extra income. Paul 3 quickly achieved a reputation in his hometown as a poet and frequently was invited to recite his works for various clubs and organizations. Many times people would recommend his books to friends, spreading word of his talents (Howard). In general, Dunbar’s poetry was accepted and well-liked (Poupard). This landed him an invitation to recite his poetry at the first World’s Fair at Chicago in 1893.

Here, he worked as clerk at a Haitian pavilion where he met Fredrick Douglass and other black speakers and writers (Revell 102). Douglass called Paul Laurence Dunbar The most promising young colored man in America. (Howard). 1895 brought Dunbar’s move to Toledo, Ohio and the publishing of his second collection of poetry, Majors and Minors (Columbus). Eleven poems from Oak and Ivy were printed in Majors and Minors.

(Revell, p.224). It’s publishing was financed by his friends Dr. Henry A. Tobey and Charles H. Thatcher, an attorney. Majors and Minors caught the attention of a famous literary critic William Dean Howells. Howells’ favorable review of Dunbar in the Harper’s Weekly made him nationally known overnight (Columbus). Howells pointed out that in history Negros have been gifted and successful in music, oratory, and many of the other arts, but Majors and Minors was the first 4 instance of and African-American who had evinced innate distinction in literature (Poupard).

Following Howells’ review, New York publishing firm Dodd-Mead and Company combined Dunbar’s first two books and published them under the title Lyrics of a Lowly Life , for which the Howells wrote the introduction (Howard). Dunbar often traveled to England to recite his works. After returning from a recitation in 1898, he married Alice Ruth More, a young writer and teacher. After marriage, Paul took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington DC , where he worked for a year (Columbus). In 1899, a selection of Dunbar’s earlier poems was assembled and dedicated to Alice Dunbar.

It was called Lyrics of the Hearthside (Revell 11). The tedious work at the Library took its toll on his health and aggravated a steadily worsening case of tuberculosis. Dunbar was forced to quit his work at the Library of Congress and although he was supposed to rest, devoted all his time to writing and giving recitals. In 1902 Paul and Alice decided to separate (Howell). Dunbar drank alcohol to ease the pain of tuberculosis and his depression, but became addicted (O’Neill 473). To get away from things in the city, he traveled to Colorado to visit his half-brother before returning to live with his mother in Dayton in 1904 (Columbus).

There he died on February 9, 1906, at the age of 33 (G. & C. Merriam Co. 450). Adermann 5 Dunbar had many different and unique styles of writing. He wrote poetry in standard English about traditional poetic subjects and heroes of black Americans.

He also wrote comic and sentimental poetry in dialect about black and white Americans (Revell 101). Many of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poems were written in Iambic tetrameter (Howard). However his fame rests chiefly on his poems written in Negro dialect. Dunbar many times used personification and elaborate phrasing, which produced ringing lines (Revell). He most often wrote and spoke about civil rights issues as in one of his most famous poems, We Wear the Mask. We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,- – This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.

In this poem, Dunbar is writing about the mask that human beings use in front to others to disguise any pain, sadness, or turmoil that they may be going through at the time. The writer of this particular biography, C.J. Howard, feels that the words Dunbar chooses to use to get his point across are used well (Howard). 6 In 1936, the Dunbar house was dedicated by the Ohio legislature as a memorial to Paul Laurence Dunbar and was opened to the public. When Dunbar died he had written a total of twelve books of poetry as well as five novels, a play, and four books of short stories (Howard).

Dunbar was known to have stood for justice and equality in the eyes of all African-Americans of his time (Revell). He was the first black author to gain national recognition and a wide popular audience (O’Neill 143), and even today is thought of as an inspiration to most all Americans (Poupard). Poetry Essays.


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