American Literature Paul Laurence Dunbar
by
Gene Andrew Jarrett
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0076

Introduction

Paul Laurence Dunbar (b. 1872–d. 1906) was the first African American writer born after slavery to make a professional living by his literary pen alone. He was born in Dayton, Ohio to Joshua Dunbar and Matilda Murphy, both former slaves. His parents’ experiences as slaves and their stories of plantation life provided crucial inspiration for Dunbar’s writing. After marital difficulties based on Joshua’s alcoholism and unemployment, Matilda left her husband and went to live with her mother. Joshua died when Paul was only thirteen, but Matilda would prove a strong, formative influence on her son. He attended school as the only African American in his class, and was friends with classmate Orville Wright. Dunbar published his poetry in his school and local newspapers, and served as editor of both his school paper and the short-lived African American publication The Tattler, published by Orville and his brother, Wilbur Wright, who owned a printing house. After delivering a poetic address at the convention of the Western Association of Writers in Dayton in 1892, Dunbar garnered so much positive attention that he self-published his first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, in 1893. Between that volume and his death at only thirty-three in 1906, he published a dozen collections of verse, four books of short stories, and four novels; he also wrote the lyrics and text for several operettas and librettos. His work interested such notable figures as Frederick Douglass and William Dean Howells (b. 1837–d. 1920), whose praise brought Dunbar national attention. In 1898, Dunbar eloped with Alice Ruth Moore (b. 1875–d. 1935), another successful African American literary figure, but their marriage deteriorated quickly and Alice left Paul in 1902. After serious struggles with pneumonia, tuberculosis, and alcoholism, Paul Laurence Dunbar died in the care of his mother, Matilda, in Dayton in 1906. Dunbar’s critical reception has been complicated over the last century. While many have celebrated his contributions to American literature, particularly African American poetry, others have argued that his work helped to popularize negative stereotypes about black Americans. But he was also uniquely positioned to understand and represent—both as a cultural celebrity and in his widely circulated writings—the challenges of African Americans as they transitioned from the curse of slavery to the promise of freedom and franchise. Over the past century since his death, many scholars have compiled editions to restore interest in his prodigious writings—which included poetry, short stories, novels, plays, and essays, many of which he released individually in periodicals, and quite a few in book collections, all before his death. The republications have not only enabled some of Dunbar’s writings to achieve canonical status; they have also helped to inspire or renew scholarly interest in them.

General Overviews

Many scholars have written about both the personal life and political context of Paul Laurence Dunbar in the years since he first published. Martin 1975 reevaluates Dunbar’s place among other African American writers of his time, and includes an excellent essay by Nikki Giovanni. In Harrell 2010, many critics investigate the choices made by Dunbar and try to offer an alternative to the traditional debate regarding accommodation versus protest. Dunbar’s archival collections online (see Archives) and in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio have ensured that generations of scholars and enthusiasts will be able to experience his life and work.

  • Fishkin, Shelley Fisher, Gavin Jones, Meta DuEwa Jones, Arnold Rampersad, and Richard Yarborough, eds. Paul Laurence Dunbar Special Issue. African American Review 41.2 (2007): 200–401.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection of essays drawn from papers delivered at the Paul Laurence Dunbar Centennial Conference (held 10–11 March 2006), featuring the latest approaches to Dunbar’s life and literature.

  • Harrell, Willie, Jr., ed. We Wear the Mask: Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Politics of Representative Reality. Kent, OH: Kent State University, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    This watershed collection examines the difficult literary and social choices that Dunbar was forced to make in order to navigate the publishing world of late-19th-century America, and leaves behind the traditional dichotomy of accommodation or protest that has often been used to define the writer’s work.

  • Martin, Jay, ed. A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975.

    E-mail Citation »

    This work, originally taken from the Centenary Conference on Paul Laurence Dunbar at the University of California at Irvine in 1972, offers a reassessment of Dunbar’s work in light of contemporary research.

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