Paul Laurence Dunbar

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar
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Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906) was a seminal American poet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dunbar gained national recognition for his 1896 Lyrics of a Lowly Life, one poem in the collection being Ode to Ethiopia. His poems were written mainly in black dialect, which publishers preferred to his poems in standard English.


  • 1 Biography
  • 2 Usage of dialect
  • 3 Publications
  • 4 See also
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links


Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio to parents who had escaped from slavery; his father was a veteran of the American Civil War, having served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment. His parents instilled in him a love of learning and history. He was the only black student at Dayton Central High School and he participated actively as a student. During college, he was both the editor of the school newspaper and class president, as well as the president of the school literary society.

He wrote his first poem at age 6 and gave his first public recital at age 9. Dunbar's first published work came in a newspaper put out by his high-school friends, Wilbur and Orville Wright, who owned a printing plant. The Wright Brothers later invested in the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper aimed at the black community edited and published by Dunbar.

His first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy was published in 1892 and attracted the attention of James Whitcomb Riley, the popular "Hoosier Poet". Both Riley and Dunbar wrote poems in both standard English and dialect. His second book, Majors and Minors (1895) brought him national fame and the patronage of William Dean Howells, the novelist and critic and editor of Harper's Weekly. After Howells' praise, his first two books were combined as Lyrics of a Lowly Life and Dunbar started on a career of international literary fame that was cut short by his early death.

He moved to Washington, D.C., in the Le Droit Park neighborhood. While in Washington, he attended Howard University.

His wife Alice Dunbar-Nelson was a famous poet as well. A graduate of Dillard University, in New Orleans, Moore's most famous works include a short story entitled, "Violets". She and her husband also wrote books of poetry as companion pieces. An Account of their love, life and marriage was depicted in a play by Kathleen McGhee-Anderson titled Oak and Ivy.[1]

He kept a lifelong friendship with the Wrights, and was also closely associated with Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Brand Whitlock was also described as a close friend.[2] He was honored with a ceremonial sword by President Theodore Roosevelt.

He wrote a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, and a play. His essays and poems were published widely in the leading journals of the day. His work appeared in Harper's Weekly, the Saturday Evening Post, the Denver Post, Current Literature and a number of other publications. During his life, considerable emphasis was laid on the fact that Dunbar was of pure black descent, with no white ancestors.

Dunbar's work is known for its colorful language and use of dialect, and a conversational tone, with a brilliant rhetorical structure.

Dunbar traveled to England in 1897 to recite his works on the London literary circuit. He met the brilliant young black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who set some of his poems to music and who was influenced by Dunbar to use African and American Negro songs and tunes in his future compositions.

After his return, Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. In 1900, Dunbar was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and moved to Colorado with his wife on the advice of his doctors. Dunbar died at age thirty-three on February 9, 1906, and was interred in the Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.

Usage of dialect

Some of Dunbar's work was written in conventional English, but others appeared in Dialect, and he never escaped the suspicion that there was something demeaning about producing a dialect poem despite its evident popularity.

He is quoted as saying

I am tired, so tired of dialect. I send out graceful little poems, suited for any of the magazines, but they are returned to me by editors who say, Dunbar, but we do not care for the language compositions.

For benefit of the modern reader who has not seen a dialect poem, here are two short similar stanzas one in standard English, another in dialect. It should be evident that Dunbar was a fine poet of standard English.

What dreams we have and how they fly
Like rosy clouds across the sky;
Of wealth, of fame, of sure success,
Of love that comes to cheer and bless;
And how they whither, how they fade,
The waning wealth, the jilting jade —
The fame that for a moment gleams,
Then flies forever, — dreams, ah — dreams!

(From Dreams)

"Sunshine on de medders,
Greenness on de way;
Dat's de blessed reason
I sing all de day."
Look hyeah! What you axing'?
What meks me so merry?
'Spect to see me sighin'
W'en hit's wa'm in Febawary?

(From A warm day in winter)


  • L. K. Wiggins, compiler, Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1907)
  • Complete Poetical Works, with W. D. Howells's introduction to "Lyrics of Lowly Life" (new impressions, New York, 1913)

See also

  • African American literature
  • Dunbar High School (Washington, D.C.)
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (Bessemer, Alabama) (closed 1960)
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (Fort Worth, Texas)
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (Fort Myers, Florida)
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (Lexington, Kentucky)
  • Paul Lawrence Dunbar Middle School for Innovation (Lynchburg, Virginia)
  • Dunbar Gifted and Talented International Studies Magnet Middle School (Little Rock, Arkansas)
  • Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park
  • Samuel Coleridge-Taylor black composer
  1. ^
  2. ^
  • University of Dayton's Paul Laurence Dunbar biography
    • Paul Laurence Dunbar state historical site
    • Dunbar's home is also part of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park which includes both the Wright Brothers bicycle shop and Dunbar's home (with a Wright bicycle they gave him).
    • Dunbar's Legacy of Language, an NPR story marking the 100th anniversary of Dunbar's death; including is a poetry reading.
    • Works by Paul Laurence Dunbar at Project Gutenberg
    • The Life and Works of Paul Lawrence Dunbar by Lida Keck Wiggins, issued by Winston-Derek in 1992 ISBN 1-55523-473-9
    • [1]
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