Paul Laurence Dunbar, born on June 27, 1872, was one of the first African-American poets to achieve national acclaim. Joshua and Matilda Murphy Dunbar, his parents, were freed slaves from Kentucky. His parents divorced soon after his birth, but Dunbar would draw on their plantation stories throughout his writing career. Dunbar had poems published in the Dayton Herald by the age of fourteen. He edited the Dayton Tattler, a short-lived black newspaper published by classmate Orville Wright, while in high school.
Despite being a good student, Dunbar was unable to attend college due to financial constraints, so he worked as an elevator operator. In 1892, a former teacher invited him to read his poems at a Western Association of Writers meeting; his work so impressed the audience that popular poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote him a letter of encouragement. Dunbar self-published the collection Oak and Ivy in 1893. He sold the book for a dollar to people riding in his elevator to help pay for the publishing costs.
Dunbar moved to Chicago later that year, hoping to find work at the first World’s Fair. He befriended Frederick Douglass, who helped him find work as a clerk and arranged for him to read some of his poems. Dunbar was described by Douglass as “the most promising young colored man in America.” Dunbar’s poems began to appear in major national newspapers and magazines, such as The New York Times, by 1895. Majors and Minors, his second collection, was published with the assistance of friends.
Poems written in standard English were referred to as “majors,” while those written in dialect were referred to as “minors.” Although the “major” poems outnumber the dialect poems, it was the dialect poems that drew the most attention to Dunbar. The poems received a positive review in Harper’s Weekly from noted novelist and critic William Dean Howells.
Dunbar’s national and international acclaim grew as a result of this recognition, and in 1897 he embarked on a six-month reading tour of England. Lyrics of Lowly Life, his new collection, was also released. After returning to America, Dunbar accepted a clerkship at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and married the writer Alice Ruth Moore shortly afterwards. While living in Washington, Dunbar published Folks from Dixie, a novel called The Uncalled, and two more poetry collections, Lyrics of the Hearthside and Poems of Cabin and Field. He also wrote lyrics for several musical reviews.
Dunbar’s health deteriorated in 1898, and he left his job to devote himself full-time to writing and giving readings, believing that the dust in the library contributed to his tuberculosis. He would write three more novels and three short story collections over the next five years. Dunbar divorced his wife in 1902, and he soon suffered a nervous breakdown and a bout of pneumonia. Dunbar continued to write poems despite being sick and drinking excessively to relieve his coughing.
Lyrics of Love and Laughter, Howdy, Howdy, Howdy, and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow are among his collections from this period. These books cemented his status as America’s foremost black poet. Dunbar’s failing health forced him to return to his mother’s home in Dayton, Ohio, where he died on February 9, 1906, at the age of thirty-three.