Paul Laurence Dunbar: Biography, Famous Poems & Awards

Instructor: Siobhan Yarbrough
Explore the man, the works, and the achievements of an esteemed poet who broke through barriers becoming one of the first famous African-American poets during the late 19th century through the early 20th century.

The Aspirations of a Young Man

Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first African-American poets. He gained fame from his writings and portrayals of black America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dunbar was born in Dayton, OH, on June 27, 1872. As a youth, Dunbar attended predominately white schools. While still in high school, he began to express a love for literature and submitted some of his earliest poems to the Dayton Herald. Also while in high school, he gained editing experience at the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper for blacks. Although Dunbar was the only black student in his class growing up during times of racial turmoil, he gained many close relationships with his classmates. One famed friend and later colleague was Orville Wright of The Wright Brothers.

Dunbar had aspirations of studying law, but due to his mother's financial situation, he instead tried to seek employment with the local newspaper company. Unfortunately, he was rejected for employment due to his race. Therefore, he settled for a work as an elevator operator. Some may call this a great misfortune, but accepting this job allowed him to focus more on his writings. During the time that Dunbar worked as an elevator operator, he produced various articles, short stories, and poems. Some were written in dialect, (a particular form of a language that is peculiar to a specific region or social group), which he shortly thereafter became well-known for.

One of the first famous African-American poets during the 19th to 20th centuries.

Gaining Recognition

Dunbar's experiences allowed him to gain exposure and build lasting relationships among some very notable people, including James Newton Matthews, Orville Wright, James Whitcomb Riley, and Frederick Douglass, to name a few. Dunbar remained close to the friends that he met in his youth, which proved to be beneficial as he progressed in his career. As his works became locally known, he gained the attention of a professor who invited him to recite poems at the Western Association of Writers. This caught the attention of James Whitcomb Riley, a famed poet, who wrote Dunbar a letter of encouragement. With the encouragement and guidance of Riley, Wright, and Matthews, Dunbar went on to publish many of his poems.

Dunbar's Collections

From this encouragement, Dunbar went on to publish the collection Oak and Ivy which included many of his dialect poems and other literature in the Standard English Language. With the support of Henry A. Tobey, Dunbar went on to publish Majors and Minors, a book loaded with poems in various style and composition. By 1895, his poems had gained so much attention and popularity that he found his works in the New York Times! From the works of Majors and Minors, Dunbar received a complimentary review which took his career to new heights.

Shortly thereafter, he journeyed to England for a six-month reading tour. Upon his return, he went on to work at the Library of Congress and married Alice Ruth Moore, also a published writer. As a resident of Washington, DC, Dunbar published various works, including short story compilations, novels, and collections of poems: The Heart of Happy Hollow, Poems of the Cabin and Fields and Lyrics of the Hearthside. Lyrics of the Hearthside contained one of his most notable poems, 'Sympathy'.

Famous Works

Dunbar gained fame for notable poems such as: 'We Wear the Mask', 'Sympathy', 'Signs of the Times', 'Dreams', 'The Old Apple Tree', 'The Paradox', 'A Death Song', 'An Easy Goin' Feller', 'The Party', 'Life's Tragedy', 'Parted', 'Dawn', 'A Choice', 'A Prayer', and 'Theology', to name a few. Of these poems, 'Sympathy' gained great acclaim, often being cited for these powerful lines, 'I know what the caged bird feels, alas!' and 'I know why the caged bird sings, ah me'. 'Sympathy' showed the interrelatedness of an oppressed black man who feels bound and imprisoned by society as a broken-winged bird in a cage. In fact, 'Sympathy' inspired Maya Angelou, world renowned African-American poet, educator, civil rights activist, dramatist, historian, and producer to title her autobiography 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings'.

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