Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906)
From American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century
Born in Dayton, Ohio, seven years after the end of the Civil War to two former Kentucky slaves, Paul Laurence Dunbar was initially educated by his mother, who encouraged his early interest in literature. (His father, who escaped to Canada before the war and served with the Massachusetts 55th Regiment, divorced his mother soon after his birth and died when Paul was only twelve.) Dunbar was the only black student in his class at Dayton’s Central High, where he was editor of the school paper and the class poet. While he was still in school, he founded a paper, the short-lived Dayton Tattler that supported the Republican Party and covered the concerns of African Americans. The friend and classmate who operated the printing press was none other than future aviator Orville Wright.
Over the next few years, Dunbar worked as an elevator operator and, briefly, as a clerk to Frederick Douglass in Chicago. In 1893 Dunbar self-published his first collection of poems; he hand-sold every copy, and earned back his investment. Two years later, this time sponsored by white patrons, his second book, Majors and Minors, was published by a regional printer and eventually fell into the hands of William Dean Howells, the influential editor, novelist, and critic. Howells wrote an appreciation in Harper’s Magazine, praising Dunbar as “the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically.” (Many commentators made much of the fact that Dunbar’s ancestry was wholly African rather than multiracial.)
The review made Dunbar suddenly—and unexpectedly—famous. Overwhelmed with gratitude, the young poet wrote Howells:
Now from the depths of my heart I want to thank you. You yourself do not know what you have done for me. I feel much as a poor, insignificant, helpless boy would feel to suddenly find himself knighted. . . .In the collection that Howells reviewed, the “majors” were the poems written in standard English; the “minors” were dialect pieces, many of them humorous. When Howells revised his essay for the introduction of Dunbar’s third book, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), he made clear which he preferred:
In nothing is his essentially refined and delicate art so well shown as in these [dialect] pieces. . . . Some of [the poems in literary English] I thought very good, and even more than very good, but not distinctively his contribution to the body of American poetry. What I mean is that several people might have written them; but I do not know any one else who could quite have written the dialect pieces.The result of Howell’s recommendation was popular demand for Dunbar’s trademark dialect poems; he soon found it difficult to publish anything else. Nevertheless, before his life was cut short by tuberculosis at the age of thirty-three, he managed to publish a dozen volumes of poetry, four collections of short stories, and four novels, and he wrote the lyrics for In Dahomey, a minstrel- and vaudeville-influenced comedy that was the first full-length Broadway musical composed and performed by African Americans.
Below we present three of Dunbar’s poems: the Thanksgiving poem “Signs of the Times,” which a contemporary reviewer described as “an excellent example of Mr. Dunbar’s roguish humor”; “Compensation,” a superlative example, in two short stanzas, of his verse in standard English; and one of his most famous poems, “When Malindy Sings,” a tribute to his mother, Matilda.
Audio version: In October 1993 the novelist Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All) delivered a pitch-perfect reading of “When Malindy Sings” to a live audience at an event cosponsored by The Library of America at New York’s 92nd Street Y. Click here to listen to the recording of his performance.
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