Paul Laurence Dunbar was never enslaved himself. However, he heard the stories from his parents. Growing up, he experienced the lingering racism of nineteenth century America. Because of this, he spent the rest of his life recreating the voices of African-American culture, using both formal language and dialect writing taken from the popular "plantation style." He was the first African-American writer to experience widespread popularity when alive; but after his death, he left a complex legacy. Sterling A. Brown, in Negro Poetry and Drama in 1937, lauded Dunbar as the first American poet to "handle Negro folk life with any degree of fullness." The same writer also condemned him for "misreading" black history. His use of dialect verse has been remembered as both an homage to the culture and a "sell-out" to Caucasian audiences.
Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, to Matilda and Joshua Dunbar. Both parents were former slaves. His father escaped from bondage and served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Calvary Regiment during the Civil War. His parents separated when Dunbar was two years old, and his mother supported the family by cleaning houses and taking in washing. Despite their situation, Matilda pushed her children to go to school and invested her own love of poetry into her youngest son, Paul.
In high school, Dunbar was best friends with Orville and Wilbur Wright, future aviation pioneers. At the time they owned Wright Brothers Bicycle Shop and helped him build his bike. Later they copublished a newspaper together. Dunbar was the only African American in his class at Dayton Central High. During his high school years, he was a member of the debating team, editor of the school paper, and president of the literary society. Dunbar had started reading poetry at the age of six, so by this time he was fully immersed in the work of John Keats, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He continued to study the works of various poets as he searched for his own poetic voice.
Despite his performance in high school, racial discrimination forced him to take a job as an elevator operator at Dayton's Callahan Building. After graduation, Dunbar worked there during the day and wrote poetry and freelance newspaper articles on his breaks and at night. His professional life began on his twentieth birthday, when a former teacher arranged for him to read at the annual meeting of the Western Association of Writers. There, he received attention from several writers, one of whom wrote to an Illinois newspaper, praising his work. His fame spread through the literary circles by word-of-mouth, and by 1892, Dunbar published a collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy.
Instant fame did not lead to instant wealth, however, and Dunbar returned to his elevator shift to pay off the costs of his first book. While working, he sold his book to people on the elevator for a dollar. Again, as more and more people read his poetry, recognition grew from local to national. He read at the World's Fair in 1893 where he met Frederick Douglass; the famed abolitionist author later called him "the most promising young colored man in America."
After moving to Toledo in 1895, Dunbar published another collection, Majors and Minors. He continued to read at local gatherings, funded by friends and associates from the professional world. Dunbar's popularity was given another huge boost when William Dean Howells, Harper's Weekly editor, wrote a column praising his new book. New York publishing firm Dodd Mead and Co. jumped on the chance to combine Dunbar's two books into a new collection, Lyrics of a Lowly Life. The collection was cited as, most likely, the best-selling work of African-American poetry before the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1895, Dunbar began a letter to another African-American poet, educator Alice Ruth Moore. He started writing her concerning her poetry, but the correspondence soon shifted from that of critics to friends. After he returned from an 1897 reading trip to Europe, they were married-despite objections from Moore's family and friends.
Back in the United States, Dunbar started working at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Numerous problems forced him to quit, but that gave him the opportunity to write full time. He grew dependant on the alcohol prescribed for his tuberculosis (which no doubt had been aggravated by the dust in the Library of Congress) and separated from his wife in 1902. His health declined and he sunk into a depression; in 1904 he returned to Dayton to live with his mother, and died there on February 9, 1906. After publishing twelve books of poetry, four books of short stories, a play, and five novels, Dunbar succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of thirty-three.
In The Poet, Dunbar wrote of a world that ignored a writer's "deeper notes" to praise "a jingle in a broken tongue." Though his folk-style poems were highly important to him, he lamented the neglect of his other, more formal writing. He was highly educated in all forms of poetry, and even wrote in Irish and German dialects, but the public preferred his dialect verse, and that is what sold. Dunbar recognized the concessions he had to make in expressing the African-American experience to his primarily Caucasian audience; he was able to transform the potentially racist plantation tradition to a writing style that celebrated a love of storytelling he had learned first from his mother. Despite some criticism, Dunbar has survived as a landmark in American literature. At the 1972 anniversary celebration of his birth, modern poet Nikki Giovanni stated Dunbar's "message is clear and available ... if we invest in Dunbar the integrity we hope others will give us."