Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), poet and novelist, was the first African American author to gain national recognition and a wide popular audience.
Born the son of a former slave in Dayton, Ohio, Paul Laurence Dunbar achieved a formal education through high school, graduating in 1891. He had served as editor of the school paper and as class poet. Unable to go to college, Dunbar worked as an elevator operator. He published his first book of poems, Oak and Ivy, in 1893 at his own expense, and his second, Majors and Minors, 2 years later. Seeing the second book, William Dean Howells, then one of America's most distinguished literary critics, urged the young poet to concentrate on dialect verse.
With the publication of Lyrics of Lowly Life, for which Howells wrote a laudatory preface, Dunbar's professional career got an auspicious start. Demand for his work was soon sufficient to enable him to earn his living as a writer. He took Howell's advice to study the "moods and traits of his own race in its own accents of our English," so that his art was best shown in those "pieces which … described the range between appetite and emotion … which is the range of the race." (This was Howells's limited view of African Americans.)
Dunbar wanted to satisfy the popular taste for the light, romantic, comic, and sentimental. His short stories, which began appearing in popular magazines in the 1890s, usually depict African American folk characters, Southern scenes, and humorous situations. His first novel, The Uncalled (1898), like two of the three that followed—The Love of Landry (1900) and The Fanatics (1901)—is a sentimental tale about white people. These novels are competent but undistinguished. His last long fiction, The Sport of the Gods (1902), is notable only for his failure to realize the potential in the story of an agrarian African American family's urbanization.
In 1898 Dunbar married Alice Moore; the marriage was unhappy, and the couple separated in 1901, when Dunbar went to Washington, D.C., as a consultant to the Library of Congress. He was unhappy with his writing too. At about this time he confided to a friend, "I see now very clearly that Mr. Howells has done me irrevocable harm in the dictum he laid down regarding my dialect verse."
Dunbar had contracted tuberculosis and tried all the "cures"; alcohol brought temporary relief, and he became addicted. He continued to turn out short stories and poems. Sick, and discouraged by the lukewarm reception of The Heart of Happy Hollow (1904), a collection of short stories, and of Lyrics of Love and Sunshine (1905), which contains some of his best verses in pure English, he returned to Dayton, where he died on Feb. 9, 1906. The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1913; still in print) shows how well he succeeded in capturing many aspects of African American life.
Further Reading on Paul Laurence Dunbar
Two full-length biographies of Dunbar are Benjamin Brawley, Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet of His People (1936), and the better-balanced Paul Laurence Dunbar and His Song (1947) by Virginia Cunningham. Jean Gould, That Dunbar Boy (1958), is for children. Dunbar gets brief treatment in Sterling A. Brown, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee, Negro Caravan (1941); Hugh M. Gloster, Negro Voices in American Fiction (1948); and James A. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross, Dark Symphony (1968).