Paul Laurence Dunbar was born June 27, 1872, in Dayton, Ohio to former slaves. Following their emancipation, his mother, Matilda, moved to Dayton. His father, Joshua, escaped bondage prior to the war and joined the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment. Both regiments were the first Black units to serve in the war.
By the age of six, Dunbar had written his first poem. By the age of nine, he gave his first public recital where he read selections of his poetry. His parents had a rough relationship. After they had their second child, Dunbar’s sister, they separated. His father died shortly thereafter in 1885. Dunbar was 12 years old.
Dunbar’s mother learned to read in order to assist him with his education. Her determination helped immensely. He became president of the school’s literary society and the editor of the school newspaper. And although he was the only Black student at Central High School, he was well-liked.
At the age of 16, Dunbar published his poems in The Herald newspaper. By 1890, he founded The Tattler, Dayton’s first weekly Black newspaper. He served as a writer and editor. The paper only lasted six weeks.
Oak and Ivy
After completing high school in 1891, Dunbar began working as an elevator operator. He had plans to study law but was unable to fund his education. He compiled a manuscript of poems written in standard English and dialect titled Oak and Ivy. It was published by the United Brethren Publishing House in 1893.
Poet James Whitcomb Riley took notice of Dunbar. Soon thereafter, attorney Charles A. Thatcher and psychiatrist Henry A. Tobey took an interest in him. Thatcher funded his writing endeavors while Tobey assisted with the distribution of his book. With their support, Dunbar was able to write his second collection of poetry, Majors and Minors.
Lyrics of Lowly Life
Despite having the support of Thatcher and Tobey, Dunbar struggled to support himself and his mother. He found himself in debt by the mid-1890s. In 1896, William Dean Howells published a review of Majors and Minors. The review brought Dunbar national attention and enabled him to compile his first two books into one, titled Lyrics of Lowly Life.
In his later years, Dunbar continued writing poetry, as well as short stories, novels, and a play. Although his collections of poetry and short stories received favorable reviews, his novels did not. He was the first Black author to write about White society but critics were not sold on his novels.
In the late 1890s, Dunbar took a job with the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and got married. In 1900, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and moved to Colorado with his wife. After he and his wife separated, he developed a dependency on alcohol. He moved back to Ohio to live with his mother. Paul Laurence Dunbar died on February 9, 1906. He was 33 years old.
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