This sample Paul Laurence Dunbar Essay is published for informational purposes only. Free essays and research papers, are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality essay at affordable price please use our custom essay writing service.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first black American to achieve national renown as a writer. A prolific writer in both prose and verse, he has in recent years received increasing recognition for his novels and short stories, but it was as a poet that he won his fame and continues to be best remembered. Dunbar was the first black writer to have his work published by major American magazines and publishing houses, which guided the literary tastes of an almost entirely white audience. Like many artists who died young, Dunbar was remarkably prolific right up to the end.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Child of Slaves
Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872, in Dayton, Ohio, the child of freed slaves who had made their way north from Kentucky. His parents, who divorced in 1876, told Dunbar stories of their experience as slaves, and he would later draw on these tales in writing many of his dialect poems and plantation stories. Dunbar s childhood and schooling in Dayton were happy, fulfilling, and almost untouched by racial prejudice. He began writing poetry in earnest at age twelve, publishing his first three poems in the Dayton Herald when he was fourteen.
After graduation Dunbar took a job as an elevator boy in an office building, finding himself shut out of Dayton s business and professional worlds. But he kept writing and publishing poems, articles, and stories, and passed time in the elevator reading and rereading his favorite poets, including William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Tennyson, and—perhaps most important of all—James Whitcomb Riley, at that time probably the most popular and widely read poet in America. Riley’s use of dialect and humor were to be especially influential on Dunbar’s later work. Dunbar’s short story, ”One Man’s Fortunes,” written later in his career, reflects this period of his life.
In the summer of 1892 the Western Association of Writers met in Dayton, where one of Dunbar’s former high-school teachers arranged for him to read his work at a meeting. His listeners were impressed enough to ask Dunbar to join their association, and one even wrote a piece about him that was reprinted in newspapers across the Midwest. It caught the attention of James Whitcomb Riley, who sent Dunbar a letter of encouragement. Dun-bar decided to publish a collection of poems, Oak and Ivy at his own expense, paying the printer by installments from the proceeds of sales of the book to subscribers and audiences at his readings.
The World Beyond Ohio
In June 1893 Dunbar determined to try his luck in the big city and made his way to Chicago, where he hoped to find work in the World’s Columbian Exposition, the first world’s fair. There he made the acquaintance of Frederick Douglass, the fore most black abolitionist leader in nineteenth-century America, who arranged for Dunbar to read a selection of his poems at the Colored American Day celebrations at the Exposition. Through Douglass, Dunbar also met a number of young black writers and performers, including the composer Will Marion Cook, with whom he would later collaborate writing musicals for black theaters.
After the stimulating experience of Chicago, Dunbar returned to Dayton to work on his next collection. His work had continued to be accepted in local newspapers and in 1895 it began to appear in major newspapers such as the New York Times and in popular and national magazines such as the Independent and the Century magazine. With the financial assistance of his friends and patrons, Dunbar published his second book, Majors and Minors (1895). The book shows the influence of a burgeoning civil rights movement in the African American community that began to coalesce in response to the passage of numerous so-called Jim Crow laws—laws designed to keep black Americans from exercising their voting right and segregate them from white society. Such laws received support at the highest levels of the U.S. government; for example, the Supreme Court decision Plessy V. Ferguson (1896) maintained that African Americans could legally be separated from white Americans in the public school system. Coupled with the increase in laws discriminating against blacks was a dramatic surge in violence against blacks, especially in the South. Lynchings by such hate groups as the Ku Klux Klan had been common in the period immediately following the American Civil War (1861-1865), but had diminished for some years before spiking again in the 1890s. In 1892 alone, 161 African Americans were killed by mobs. In all, more than 700 African Americans were lynched in the 1890s.
A copy of Majors and Minors eventually reached the hands of William Dean Howells, the most influential literary critic in America. His review of Dunbar’s volume of poems was life-changing. (See ”Works in Critical Con text” for more on Howells’s review.) In 1896 Dunbar was invited to New York, where he met Howells and Major James B. Pond, a well-known entrepreneur of the literary-lecture circuit. Dunbar, who was already an accomplished reader of his own work, gave a number of readings in the New York area and became a new kind of celebrity, attracting offers from publishers. The best offer, from Dodd, Mead, including an advance payment of $400 for Dunbar’s next book, Lyrics of Lowly Life, which included an introduction by Howells. Only 11 of the 105 poems in this volume were new, and none of this new material was particularly significant, but the volume was the most important Dunbar ever produced because it introduced his work to a nationwide audience.
Marriage, and Making It as a Writer
In 1896 and 1897 Dunbar also met many important people, notably two of the major black leaders of the time, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, with whom he often appeared on public platforms, reciting his own work in support of various black causes. Dunbar’s deepest feelings on racial matters were expressed in a number of news paper articles, published between 1898 and 1903, which reflect his hatred of oppression of African Americans as practiced in the South and often condoned in the North.
In February 1897 Dunbar met Alice Moore, whom he married in 1898. The two settled in Washington, where Dunbar’s career entered its most buoyant and productive phase. His work was sought eagerly and accepted readily. In 1899, Dodd, Mead published Lyrics of the Hearthside.
While his career boomed, Dunbar’s relationship with his wife was deteriorating. They separated permanently in 1902. Dunbar went on to collaborate on various theatrical ventures, from 1898 onward, with Will Marion Cook; the shows were considered by some to be racially degrading. Dunbar contributed the lyrics to some productions, including Clorindy (1898), Uncle Eph’s Christmas (1899), Jes Lak White Fo’ks (1900), and In Dahomey (1902). In Dahomey became the first all-black show staged in the heart of New York’s theater district; after a successful run there it was taken to London and achieved even greater success, including a command performance at Bucking ham Palace. The shows were highly successful, yet the price of his success became apparent when one of the reviews of Uncle Eph’s Christmas referred to Dunbar as the ”prince of the coon song writers.”
Decline, but No Fall
Dunbar’s health began to decline in 1899 following a bout with pneumonia that brought on latent tuberculosis. However, he continued give readings, and the four years following the onset of his illness were astonishingly prolific. His last years were troubled and unhappy, and not only because of the certainty of an early death and the failure of his marriage; he also felt that he had compromised his artistic talent for the sake of commercial success. Dunbar died in Dayton on February 9, 1906.
Works in Literary Context
By the early stages of his short career Dunbar was remark ably well-read in the classic English and American poets. The stanza forms and formal diction of John Milton, John Dryden, Thomas Gray, and William Cowper, as well as established nineteenth-century American standards, are discernible in all his work.
African-American Dialect Works and Racial Stereotypes
Despite his grounding in the classics of Western literature, Dunbar is mostly remembered for his “dialect” poems—poems that represent the speech and culture of African American living in the late nineteenth century. Of the fifty-seven poems in Oak and Ivy, only six are in dialect. This ratio would change dramatically as Dunbar realized how popular his dialect works were. Affican American dialect as a poetic voice was a natural and significant choice for Dunbar. It was a well-established mode in poetry and song for both black and white writers by the 1870s, and it had a tendency to present stereo-typical and offensive portraits of black Americans. The two African American dialect pieces in Oak and Ivy,” A Banjo Song” and ”Goin’ Back,” avoid the more grotesque exaggeration of comic verse by writers such as Thomas Nelson Page (author of romanticized stories of Southern slave life, such as those in In Ole Virginia, 1887), but they match very closely the characterization and sentiment of Page’s stories about plantation blacks. They are the first intimation of what was to become Dunbar’s heavy dependence, in verse and prose, on the largely degrading stereo types of black character and language developed in the plantation tales and minstrel shows which had gained increasing popularity since the 1830s.
Dunbar’s endeavors to express the life and soul of his race in poetry had not been simple or uncomplicated for him. There was immense difficulty in finding appropriate language and style, since there was no real precedent for Dunbar apart from minstrel shows (popular entertainments in the nineteenth century that offered up buffoonish and insulting versions of black characters for comic purposes) and the humor of a few dialect poets. But Dunbar also aspired to be more than a poet of racial themes. The larger proportion of his work in verse was without any racial connotation in style or subject. Yet his simple love poems, pastorals, meditative reflections, and poems of homespun philosophy are competent but usually unremarkable expressions in the mainstream verse tradition established principally by Longfellow, with an admixture of influence from Alfred Tennyson, John Keats, and such Americans as Bayard Taylor and Thomas Bailey Aldrich. The love poems are the strongest of these nonracial poems.
Works in Critical Context
Dunbar achieved national fame almost overnight, when his book Majors and Minors was reviewed by William Dean Howells. Howells, a fellow Ohioan, had in the past introduced many other young writers to a wider public. His lengthy and reflective review of the book in Harper’s Weekly for June 27, 1896, brought the young poet’s name to the attention of readers throughout America, but it set a direction of criticism of Dunbar’s work that persisted throughout his career and, as Dunbar himself came to feel, limited the development of his talent.
Majors and Minors
Howells rightly assumed that the Majors” were poems in standard English and the ”Minors” (about a quarter of the total and at the end of the book) were poems in dialect, but he declared that there was nothing in the standard-English poems that except for the Negro face of the author” one could find especially notable. It is when we come to Mr. Dunbar’s Minors that we feel ourselves in the presence of a man with a direct and a fresh authority to do the kind of thing he is doing.” He found some poems that ”recall the too easy pathos of the pseudo-negro poetry of the minstrel show” but singled out ”When Malindy Sings” for special praise as ”purely and intensely black” and responded to ”the strong full pulse of the music in all these things.” He remarked that Dunbar was ”the first man of his color to study his race objectively, to analyze it to himself, and then to represent it in art as he felt it and found it to be; to represent it humorously, yet tenderly, and above all so faithfully that we know the portrait to be undeniably like.” Dunbar well merited the accolade, first bestowed by Booker T. Washington and later repeated by critics and admirers of both races, of ”Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.” At his death and long afterward, his position as the first black writer in America to achieve national acclaim by his expression of the thoughts and feelings of his race was accepted without demur, but in the 1940s and 1950s a sharp reaction, typified by Victor Lawson’s markedly hostile critical study, sought to emphasize Dun-bar’s concessions to the detrimental stereotyping of black life imposed by the demands of white publishers and editors. In recent years a critical reappraisal has begun, assisted by the publication of much previously uncollected work in The Paul Laurence Dunbar Reader (1975) and by the new historical awareness engendered by the development of black studies, which has made it possible to see Dunbar in the context of his own times. This reappraisal has so far gained most strength from study of the novels and stories, but there is a growing understanding of the particular merits of the poetry and an increased realization that the dialect poems are, in poet Nikki Giovanni’s words, ”the best examples of our plantation speech,” that at their best they transcend the degrading tradition from which they appear to spring.
- Brawley, Benjamin. Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet of His People. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1936.
- Cunningham, Virginia. Paul Laurence Dunbar and His Song. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1947.
- Gayle, Addison, Jr. Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1971.
- Lawson, Victor. Dunbar Critically Examined. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1941.
- Martin, Jay, Ed. A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975.
- Metcalf, E. W., Jr. Paul Laurence Dunbar: A References. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1975.
- Redding, J. Saunders. To Make a Poet Black. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939.
- Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Trans. Kenneth Douglas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.
- Alexander, Eleanor. Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore: A History of Love and Violence Among the African American Elite. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
- Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
Free essays are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom essay, research paper, or term paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price. UniversalEssays is the best choice for those who seek help in essay writing or research paper writing in any field of study.