Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 - 1906) was an African American poet, playwright, and novelist from Dayton, Ohio. He was a prolific writer best known for his use of dialect and natural dialog. His parents were slaves in Kentucky before the Civil War; his father escaped to Massachusetts and served in the 55th Infantry Regiment, one of only two African American units in the war.

As a young boy, Dunbar showed an interest in writing poetry. He was the only African American at his Dayton high school, elected president of the literary society, editor of the school paper, and in the debate club. He was classmates with future airplane inventor, Orville Wright. The Wright Brothers printed Dayton's first African American newspaper, which Dunbar wrote and edited at sixteen. They also helped him find a printer to publish his first book of poetry, which caught the attention of author and fellow "hoosier" James Whitcomb Riley, who shared his passion for writing natural dialect and English verse.

Dunbar lacked the funds to attend law school, so he worked as an elevator operator, before dedicating himself to writing, trying to subside and support his mother on earnings from his poems and public readings. He gained national recognition in 1896 when William Dean Howells, novelist and Harper's Weekley editor, published a positive review of Dunbar's second collection of poetry, Majors and Minors, particular praising the dialect poems.

In his short career, Dunbar published twelve poetry collections, four short story collections, four novels, lyrics and a play. His first collection of short stories, Folks From Dixie (1898), got positive reviews as a "harsh examination of racial prejudice." Through his writing, Dunbar met influential African American leaders and authors, Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass.

In 1898, Dunbar married the author, journalist and first generation free African American, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, whose short stories are featured in our African American Library. Dunbar's writing career was cut short; he died at the age of 33 from tuberculosis.

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