Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio on June 27, 1872, the son of former slaves, Matilda and Joshua Dunbar. Matilda had two children from a former marriage. His father fought in the Civil War, with both the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Division and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Calvary Regiment. In 1874, the elder Dunbars separated, leaving Matilda Dunbar in even deeper poverty as a single mother in the 1870s.
Even as a child, Paul Laurence Dunbar was writing original poetry, after enjoying poetry read to him by his mother. At the age of just eleven years old, the young Dunbar recited an original poem, “Easter Hymn,” on Easter Sunday at church.
It was his mother’s work as a washerwoman that made her acquaintance with the family of Wilbur and Orville Wright, whom her son Paul attended Central High School with. Dunbar’s command for literary genius was recognized in high school where he was a member of the debate team and literary society. He was soon writing for local newspapers and producing a paper for African-American readers with assistance from his friends, Wilbur and Orville Wright.
In spite of his well-recognized literary talent, he had considerable difficulty securing employment because of being African-American. With no money for college, Paul Laurence Dunbar became an elevator operator in Dayton.
In 1893, Dunbar’s first collection of poetry, titled “Oak and Ivy” was self-published. It was a collection of fifty-six poems, of just five-hundred copies. He initially sold the book for one dollar to people who rode his elevator. His next work, published in 1895, “Majors and Minors” is as rare as “Oak and Ivy.” Major and Minors was different than his all-dialect works in Oak and Ivy. In Majors and Minors, the “Majors” were poems that were written in Standard English, while the “Minors” were poems Dunbar wrote in dialect.
Dunbar’s work was well-recognized and encouraged by other poets, such as James Whitcomb Riley. In 1896, “Lyrics of Lowly Life” was published with an introduction by novelist and literary critic, William Dean (W.D.) Howells. Howells stated that “I cannot undertake to prophesy concerning this; but if he should do nothing more than he has done, I should feel that he had made the strongest claim for the negro in English literature that the negro has yet made. He has at least produced something that, however we may critically disagree about it, we cannot well refuse to enjoy; in more than one piece he has produced a work of art.
Some of Dunbar’s most beloved poems can be found in “LYRICS OF LOWLY LIFE,” such as “WHEN MALINDY SINGS,” and “WE WEAR THE MASK.”
Children particularly enjoy the mischievousness of some of Dunbar’s poems such as “PROMISE.”
I grew a rose within a garden fair,
And, tending it with more than loving care,
I thought how, with the glory of its bloom,
I should the darkness of my life illume;
And. Watching, ever smiled to see the lusty bud
Drink freely in the summer sun to tinct its blood.
My rose began to open, and its hue
Was sweet to me as to it sun and dew;
I watched it taking on its ruddy flame
Until the day of perfect blooming came,
Then hasted I with smiles to find it blushing red-
Too late! Some thoughtless child had plucked my rose and fled!
After returning from England, a trip with which Paul Laurence Dunbar was disappointed since he was billed with acts such as those in freak show performances, he secretly married Alice Ruth Moore in 1898, even though her family and friends objected. The following year, Dunbar produced “LYRICS OF THE HEARTHSIDE,” with the dedication “To Alice.”
From “LITTLE BROWN BABY”
…He ain’t no tramp, ner no straggler, of co’se;
He’s pappy’s pa’dner an’ playmate an’ joy.
Come to you’ pallet now-go to yo’ res’;
Wisht you could allus know ease an’ cleah skies;
Wisht you could stay jes’ a chile on my breas’-
Little brown baby wif spa’klin eyes!
After publishing his short story collection “FOLKS FROM DIXIE,” which features numerous pictures of people from the time period, and novel, “The Uncalled,” Dunbar continued writing some of the most famous and widely acclaimed poetry.
In 1899, Paul had his first indication of serious illness, when in New York, after collapsing from what was initially diagnosed as pneumonia. It was soon confirmed that Dunbar had tuberculosis. He quit his job at the Library of Congress, convinced that the dust caused or contributed to the worsening of his medical condition.
In 1902, amid rumors of domestic violence, Alice returned home. They were never divorced but remained separated.
By 1903, Dunbar’s tuberculosis was advanced and as he became more ill, he realized he may not live much longer. Still, he continued producing more poetry, beloved by even the most conservative of critics.
In 1904, he purchased a home on Summit Street in his native hometown of Dayton, Ohio, where he moved to with his mother. His tuberculosis, along with excessive drinking contributed to his declining health and on February 9, 1906, Paul Laurence Dunbar died. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery, not far from the final resting place of his childhood friends, Wilbur and Orville Wright.
It is one of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s own poems which may best describe the loss suffered when he died at the age of just thirty-three.
TO A DEAD FRIEND
It is as if a silver chord
Were suddenly grown mute,
And life’s song with its rhythm warred
Against a silver lute.
It is as if a silence fell
Where bides the garnered sheaf,
And voices murmuring, “It is well,”
Are stifled by our grief.
It is as if the gloom of night
Had hid a summer’s day,
And willows, sighing at their plight,
Bent low beside the way.
For he was part of all the best
That Nature loves and gives,
And ever more on Memory’s breast
He lies and laughs and lives.