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Paul Laurence Dunbar Biography | Poet

Photo of Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on 27th June 1872 in Dayton, Ohio and died on 9th February 1906 in the same place. Dunbar was a novelist and a poet, and he was the first African American to receive national and popular recognition. His works are a mirror of the African American life during his time. He mainly focused on African American accomplishments and pride.

Paul was born to slave parents who both enjoyed reading. While he was four years old his mother taught him how to read. Dunbar entered Central high school in the year 1886 in Dayton. As the only African American in the class, Dunbar made many Caucasian friends. In High school, he received formal education and graduated in 1891. As a student, he excelled and served as an editor for the school newspaper and as a class poet.

Major Achievements and Works

In 1890, Dunbar tried to establish a newspaper for African American readers. After graduating from high school he was unable to join college and experienced discrimination based on racial grounds, he began to look for work in a law office, but later took up an elevator operator job. He kept his hope of becoming a writer alive. However, he succeeded in publishing his poems in newspapers.

His first publication of poems was in 1893 with the title, Oak and Ivy using his money, his second book, Majors and minors, came up two years later. One of America’s most distinguished literature critics then, William Dean Howells, read his second book and encouraged him to keep writing about the genre he was building on – the African American style of English.

In 1896, he made a publication; Lyrics of Lowly Life for which the American critic wrote a positive review, this was when Dunbar’s career got a fabulous start. He began to earn his living as a writer after his works began to sell. His decision to study the traits and moods of his race was supported by Howell’s advice, and his art was best displayed in those pieces that described a range between emotion and desire, that was the range of a race.

His desire was to satisfy the popular taste for, the romantic, the light, the sentimental and the comic. His short stories made an appearance in the popular magazine in the 1890s and were often depicted as African American folk characters, humorous situations, and Southern scenes. He wrote his first novel in 1898 – The uncalled which was followed by two others, The Love of Landry in 1900 and The Fanatics in 1901 is a tale sentimental about white people.

The Sport of the Gods (1902), was his last long fictional work and is significant for his failure to recognize the breakthroughs in the story in a rural African American family living in the city.

Towards the end of 1898, his health deteriorated, and Dunbar exited the Library of Congress and picked up another reading marathon. He made a publication in verse collection, Lyrics of the Hearthside and overcame any status he might have put at stake when he published the uncalled.

In 1899 in spring, however, his healthy became very poor and threatened to take his life. Suffering from Pneumonia, Dunbar who was already suffering from tuberculosis was advised to take a break in the mountains. He then relocated Catskills in New York State. However, he continued his writing career while recovering from his sickness.


After a brief stay in Colorado in 1900, he returned to Washington D.C. He returned to publishing another collection of tales, The Strength of Gideon, in which he talks about black history before and after slavery. Scholars and reviewers during that time were in favour of his stories that were full of humour and sentiment while looking over the recounts of injustice and volatile instances of abuse. In recent times, the latter stories have received more recognition from critics who yearn to substantiate the opposition Dunbar championed for against racism.

In recent times, Dunbar’s stature has increased remarkably, and once again he is regarded America’s first great black poet. Moreover the standards of his English are, perhaps surprisingly, ranked as his best achievements in verse. Addison Gayle, Jr., is one of the contemporary champions; whose Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar, is regarded a major contributor to Dunbar studies, plus black poet Nikki Giovanni, whose great contribution to A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar, which was edited by Jay Martin, praises Dunbar as "a natural resource of our people." 

Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poems | Best Poems | Short Poems | Quotes