Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar attended grade schools and Central High School in
Dayton, Ohio. He was editor of the High School Times and president of
Philomathean Literary Society in his senior year. Despite Dunbar's
growing reputation in the then small town of Dayton, writing jobs were
closed to black applicants and the money to further his education was
scarce. In 1891, Dunbar graduated from Central High School and was
unable to find a decent job. Desperate for employment, he settled for a
job as an elevator operator in the Callahan Building in Dayton.
The major accomplishments of Paul Laurence Dunbar's life during 1872 to
1938 labeled him as an American poet. Dunbar had two poetic identities.
He was first a Victorian poet writing in a comparatively formal style of
literary English. Dunbar's other identity was that of the dialect poet,
writing lighter, usually humorous or sentimental work not merely in the
Negro dialect but in other varieties as well: Irish, once in German, but
very frequently in the hoosier dialect of Indiana. There is good reason
to assert, however, that the sources of Dunbar's dialect verse were in
the real language of the people. The basic charge of this criticism can
be stated in the words of a recent critic, Jean Wagner. Dunbar's dialect
is, he says, "at best a secondhand instrument, irredeemably blemished by
the degrading things imposed upon it by the enemies of the Black people"
(Revell, Paul Laurence Dunbar, pg. 84). One of the most popular of
Dunbar's dialect poems was and is "When Malindy Sings" which builds upon
the natural ability of the race in song and is acknowledged to be
Dunbar's tribute to his mother's spontaneous outbursts of singing as she
worked in the kitchen. The message of the poem is of praise for
simplicity of spirit and the love of God.
Another of Dunbar's superb poems is entitled "Sympathy", written in
I know what the caged bird feels,
When the sun is bright on the
When the wind stirs soft through
the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream
When the first bird sings and
the first bud opens
And the faint perfume from its
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch
When he fain would be on the
And a pain still throbs in the
And they pulse again with a keener
I know why he beats his wings!
I know why the caged bird sings
When his wing is bruised and
his bosom sore,-
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from
his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven
I know why the caged bird sings!
"Sympathy" ("sym" meaning with and "pathy" meaning feeling) is a very
emotional poem about a caged bird trapped with no way to escape. "A poem
like 'Sympathy'- with its repeated line, 'I know why the caged bird
feels, alas!'- can be read as a cry against slavery, but was probably
written out of the feeling that the poet's talent was imprisoned in the
conventions of his time and the exigencies of the literary marketplace"
(Revell, Paul Laurence Dunbar, 73). Dunbar's first stanza in the poem
uses the word 'alas' to mean anxiety. Throughout "Sympathy" the caged
bird is enduring distress due to his life's limitations. "And the faint
perfume from its chalice steals- I know what the caged bird feels!"
These two lines from "Sympathy" express the caged bird's thought of
someone stealing his ideas and thoughts. "I know why the caged bird
beats his wing till its blood is red on the cruel bars" expresses rage
the caged bird feels and the physical abuse the caged bird endures
trying to escape. During this period in Dunbar's life, he met George
Washington Carver in Dayton, James Whitcomb Riley in Indianapolis, and
he became lifelong friends with Dr. H.A. Tobey, a Toledo psychiatrist.
The major accomplishments of Paul Laurence Dunbar's life during 1872 to
1906 also labeled him as being a short story writer. Although Dunbar
experienced much criticism in his early career, he also enjoyed a good
deal of success. These successes, unfortunately, did not come without
some personal sacrifices and tribulations. He encountered rifts with his
closest friends and associates, often the result of his business and
artistic decisions. One such confrontation occurred when Dunbar decided
to sell certain works to George Horace Lorimer of the Saturday Evening
Post and Harrison Smith Morris of Lippincott's, two longtime friends of
Dunbar, to the dissatisfaction of his agent. Dunbar responded by
Both are my personal friends and I should feel myself rather niggardly
if I should withhold from them first sight of the things that are in
their line merely because now that my things are selling I could get
better prices elsewhere... I feel a sense of honor and obligation
towards these men which is a little beyond price. (Revell 108)
This determination of Dunbar to have his works printed in major literary
publications showed his sincere desire to have his more serious,
non-dialect short stories to be exposed to the public. Dunbar's short
stories include the works "Folks from Dixie", "The Strength of Gideon
and Other Short Stories", "The Heart of Happy Hollow" and others.
The last artistic accomplishment of Paul Laurence Dunbar's life was
labeled as a serious novelist. Dunbar wrote four novels between 1897 and
1901. The first two of these works, The Uncalled (1898) and The Love of
Landry (1900) are "white" novels in which all the characters are white
and no reference is made to the presence of Black people. The other two
novels, The Fanatics (1901) and The Sport of the Gods (1902) are
considered to be "black" novels. Dunbar's first novel, The Uncalled, was
written in England in 1897, and was published to little commercial
success. Critic Benjamin Brawley considers the work "only partly a
success" and remarks quite unjustly upon "the lack of local color and
the mediocre quality of the English" (qtd. in Revel p. 65). Robert Bone
opines that it is Dunbar's most successful novel and remarks
misleadingly that it is "widely regarded as his spiritual autobiography"
(Bone, pg. 39). The Uncalled is the story of the childhood and young
manhood of Frederick Brent. The story opens with the death of his mother
in circumstances of poverty. She has been abandoned by her drunken
husband and sells her soul to the devil. The plot thickens when the
question arises as to who will take care of young Frederick.
The Love of Landry, Dunbar's second novel, was a major commercial
disappointment. The writing in this book is fairly relevant to the
circumstances that brought Dunbar to Colorado and his experiences there.
In The Fanatics Dunbar tries to bring out the essential human values of
brotherly love, love between man and woman, family loyalty, tolerance,
and forgiveness that underlie and finally resolve the conflicts of
fanatical devotion to a cause. The Sport of the Gods is an attempt by
Dunbar to depict Black Americans living in social currents of his time.
Dunbar proved to be very disheartened by the fact that his audiences and
publishers relished so heavily on his works of dialect poetry. He felt
that acceptance of his serious work- primarily his standard English
poetry- faltered because of the demand for his dialect pieces. It is
commonly felt that Dunbar's perception of the severity of plantation
life for slaves was diffused and diluted by the stories he heard from
his mother as a youngster. His mother, like his father, was a former
slave, and her stories often failed to express the more brutal aspects
of plantation life. Dunbar's works have often been widely criticized
because of this "watering down" of the atrocities of slavery (Revell).
Dunbar's poems in literary English, his short stories and novels all
rely more or less on traditional forms and conventional
Baker, Houston A. Jr. "Paul Laurence Dunbar: An Evaluation." Black
World. 21 Nov. 1971: 30-37.
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,
Metcalfe, E.W.,Jr. Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Bibliography. Metachen, N.J.:
Scarecrow Press, 1975.
Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Twayne Publishers: 1979.
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