The October 5, 1896 of the St. John, New Brunswick Daily Sun contained a article titled, A Real Negro Poet; Surprising Gifts of Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
This historic 1896 article is reproduced below:
First, some background.
Dunbar and Orville Wright were classmates at Central High School in Dayton, Ohio. They knew each other well. Paul helped Orville with his writing and literature assignments and Orville helped Paul with math and science.
Orville began a printing business while still in high school and was the first to print Dunbar’s writings including advertising flyers and tickets for poetry recitals. One
was a neighborhood newspaper edited by Dunbar named the Dayton Tattler.
Dunbar’s book of poems, Majors and Minors, came to the attention of William Dean Howells, a novelist and critic and the dean of late 19th century American letters.
Howell’s praise of the book in the Harper’s Review launched Dunbar into the big time among literary circles.
Dunbar often wrote and spoke about civil rights issues and was friends with other famous black leaders including Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B.
Here is the 1896 article:
“At last an intellectual bridge has been cast across the chasm dividing the black from the white race! At last, for the first time in the history of this country – or so far
as we are aware, in the history of any other country – a man of pure African blood has arisen to speak for his people in the person of Mr. Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
For several years poems bearing this name have been appearing in the leading magazines, but they bore on the surface no racial mark, and the fact that some of them
were in the Negro dialect counted for nothing since many white writers have attempted that, although with less success. It was not, therefore, until a slender, quiet,
shabby little volume of verse, dateless, placeless and without a publisher, drifted out of the west and accidentally reached Mr. Howells – who is always quick to see
and never reluctant to praise what is really good – that the young African-American poet was introduced to the larger audience which the importance of his work
Only then did it become generally known that the author was black, that his parents were slaves who learned to read after they were free, and that he himself had
stood shoulder to shoulder with the heaviest laden of his race. He was educated in the public schools of his birthplace, Dayton, Ohio and was until recently an elevator
As these facts came out the significance of Mr. Dunbar’s poetry stood revealed, and it was recognized not only for its intrinsic worth, for its lyrical beauty and metrical
quality, which are quite enough to lift into prominence, but as the first authoritative utterance of the inner life of a race which had hitherto been dumb.
The little book thus voicing what had never been before spoken was privately printed and called “Majors and Minors,” the Majors being in English, and the Minors in
dialect, sometimes the dialect of the Middle-South negroes and sometimes of the Middle-South whites, and in the case of negro dialect reproduced with a perfection
that no white writer has attained.
These poems, covering a wide range of thought and feeling, have been gathered with a number of new poems into a much larger volume soon to be published by
Dodd, Mead & Co.
Mr. Howells has written an introduction to the new work (Lyrics of a Lowly Life), and in it he says:
“What struck me in reading Mr. Dunbar’s poetry was what had already struck his friends in Ohio and Indiana, in Kentucky and Illinois. They had felt as I felt, that
however gifted his race had proven in music, in oratory, in several other arts, here was the first instance of an American negro who had evinced innate literature.
In my criticism of his book I had alleged Dumas in France, and had forgotten to allege the far greater Pushkin in Russia; but these were both mulattos, who might have
been supposed to derive their qualities from white blood vastly more artistic than ours, and who were the creatures of an environment more favorable to their literary
So far as I could remember, Paul Dunbar was the only man of pure African blood and American civilization to feel the negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically. It
seemed to me that this had come to its most modern consciousness in him, and that his brilliant and unique achievement was to have studied the American negro
objectively, and to have represented him as he found him to be, with humor, with sympathy, and yet with what the reader must instinctively feel to be entire
I said a race which had come to this effect in any member of it had attained civilization in him, and I permitted myself the imaginative prophecy that the hostilities and
the prejudices which had so long constrained his race were destined to vanish in the arts; that these were to be the final proof that God had made of one blood all
nations of men.
I thought his merits positive and not comparative; and I held that if his black poems had been written by a white man I should not have found them less admirable. I
accepted them as an evidence of the essential unity of the human race, which does not think or feel black in one and white in another, but humanly in all.”
It is a curious fact that until the acceptance of his book Dunbar had never earned any money by his literary work. After high school he couldn’t find work so he had to
settle for the position of elevator boy at the Callahan building in downtown Dayton. He earned $4 per week. The few books he wrote and which gave him a reputation
were published at the expense of himself and his friends, and brought him no immediate profit.
His rise has been a hard struggle with discouraging conditions. When the acceptance of his new book of poems was announced it was accompanied by a sum of $400.
This amount was in the form of four crisp $100 bills of the new design. The poet had never been the possessor of so much money in his life, and its unexpected receipt
sent him into a state of ecstasy. His success, however, has not made any change for the worse in the simple and unaffected youth, who until recently guided the
destinies of an elevator.”
Dunbar developed pneumonia and died at the young age of 34 on February 9, 1906. The City Fathers of Dayton offered to bury Paul in Library Park stipulating that he
would be the only person interned there. His mother, wanting to rest by her son, declined and he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery adjacent to his friends the Wright
The Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton has been designated one of 31 National Poetry Landmarks by the Academy of American Poets.
Laverne Sci, director of the Dunbar House State Memorial at 219 N. Paul Lawrence Dunbar St., said the selection puts Dunbar “in some wonderful company. I am
delighted at recognition for him that is both overdue and comes at a wonderful time.” (Dayton Daily News 08/05/2004)
Also see: Paul Lawrence Dunbar: The Wright Brothers Friend