Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first African American poets to gain national recognition, was born on June 27, 1872, in Dayton, Ohio, to Joshua and Matilda Murphy Dunbar, both of whom were enslaved in Kentucky prior to their being emancipated. His parents separated shortly after his birth, but Dunbar would draw on their stories of enslavement and plantation life throughout his writing career. By the age of fourteen, Dunbar had poems published in the Dayton Herald. While attending Dayton Central High School, where he was the only student of color, Dunbar further distinguished himself by publishing in the high school newspaper, and then by serving as its editor-in-chief. He was also president of the school’s literary society and was class poet. In his free time, he read the works of the Romantic poets, including John Keats and William Wordsworth, as well as the works of the American poets John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Despite being a fine student, Dunbar was financially unable to attend college and took a job as an elevator operator in the Callahan Building in downtown Dayton. In 1890, he edited the short-lived African American newspaper, the Dayton Tattler, printed by his former high school classmate, Orville Wright, of the Wright brothers. Two years later, a former teacher, the poet James Newton Matthews, invited Dunbar to read his poems at a meeting of the Western Association of Writers. Dunbar’s poetry impressed the audience to such a degree that the popular poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote him a letter of encouragement. In 1893, Dunbar self-published his first collection, Oak and Ivy. To help pay the publishing costs, he sold the book for a dollar to people riding in his elevator.
Later that year, Dunbar moved to Chicago, hoping to find work at the first World’s Fair. He befriended Frederick Douglass, who found him a job as a clerk, and also arranged for Dunbar to read a selection of his poems at the exposition. Douglass said of Dunbar that he was “the most promising young colored man in America.”
By 1895, Dunbar’s poems began appearing in major national newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times. With the help of friends, he published his second collection, Majors and Minors (Hadley & Hadley, 1895). The poems that were written in standard English were called “majors,” while those in dialect were termed “minors.” Although the “major” poems outnumber those written in dialect, it was the dialect poems that brought Dunbar the most attention. The noted novelist and critic William Dean Howells gave a favorable review to the poems in Harper’s Weekly.
Howells’s recognition helped Dunbar gain national and international acclaim, and, in 1897, he embarked on a six-month reading tour of England. He also produced a new collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1896). Upon returning to America, Dunbar received a clerkship at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter, he married the writer Alice Ruth Moore. While living in Washington, Dunbar published a short story collection, Folks from Dixie (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1898); a novel entitled The Uncalled (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1898); and two more collections of poems—Lyrics of the Hearthside (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1899) and Poems of Cabin and Field (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1899). He also contributed lyrics to a number of musical reviews.
In 1898, Dunbar’s health deteriorated; he believed the dust in the library contributed to his tuberculosis. He left his job to dedicate himself full time to writing and giving readings. Over the next five years, he would produce three more novels and three short story collections. Dunbar separated from Alice Dunbar in 1902 and, soon thereafter, he suffered a nervous breakdown and a bout of pneumonia. Although ill, Dunbar continued to write poems. His collections from this time include Lyrics of Love and Laughter (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1903); Howdy, Howdy, Howdy (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1905); and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1903). These books confirmed his position as America’s premier Black poet. Dunbar’s steadily deteriorating health caused him to return to his mother’s home in Dayton, Ohio, where he died on February 9, 1906, at the age of thirty-three.