Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Biography

| Bibliography | Dunbar in PBO | Teaching Tools | Selected Readings | Online Resources |


Candle-lightin' Time
(Dodd, Mead & Co., 1901)

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio. His parents, Matilda and Joshua, were bother former slaves. Joshua, who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War, left the family in 1874, so Dunbar was raised primarily by his mother. Matilda passed on her love of poetry, songs, and storytelling to her children, and encouraged their education.

Dubar attended Dayton High School as the only African American student. He was a very successful student, editor of the school paper, and president of the literary society. He briefly edited a newspaper called The Tattler, which he and his classmate Orville Wright created. By the age of fourteen, Dunbar's first poems were published in the Dayton Herald. After high school, Dunbar had difficulty finding employment due to racial discrimination. He secured a job as an elevator operator, and continued submitting his poems to newspapers and magazines with limited success.

Lyrics of Lowly Life
(Dodd, Mead & Co, 1896)

Dunbar gave his first public reading on his twentieth birthday for the Western Association of Writers. His work was enthusiastically received, and Dunbar began drawing regional attention. In 1893, Dunbar printed his first poetry collection, Oak and Ivy, at his own expense. He sold copies to his elevator patrons for a dollar. Later that year, Dunbar went to Chicago for the first World’s Fair. There be befriended Frederick Douglass, the renowned writer and abolitionist. Douglass arranged for Dunbar to recite poetry at the fair, calling him, “the most promising young colored man in America.”

Dunbar’s second collection of poetry, Majors and Minors, was published in 1895. This book finally propelled Dunbar to national fame, thanks in large part to a favorable review from prominent literary critic William Dean Howells. Indeed, Howells was so impressed with Dunbar’s work, he arranged for publication of a third anthology entitled Lyrics of a Lowly Life, which combined Dunbar’s first two books. In 1897, Dunbar traveled to England for a six-month literary tour.


Poems of Cabin and Field
(Dodd, Mead & Co., 1900)

After returning from England, Dunbar married Alice Ruth Moore, a black Creole teacher, writer, and proponent of racial and gender equality. Dunbar had initiated correspondence with Alice in 1895, and married her in secret over the objection of friends and family. Although they resided in Washington for just more than a year, the Dunbars greatly influenced the art and culture of the city. Their home in LeDroit Park was a social center of African American life. Dignitaries, politicians, and literary figures traveled to visit Dunbar from all over the country. Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. but it is believed that dust from old books and manuscripts aggravated his tuberculosis, forcing him to leave.

Dunbar relocated to Colorado, and later to the Catskills. He devoted his time to writing and giving recitals. Over the next decade, Dunbar published four collections of short stories, four novels, poetry, plays, and music. Forty of his poems were set to music by famous composers of his time, and fifteen of his short stories appeared in renowned periodicals.

Although Dunbar’s career won him fame and success, he continued to suffer from tuberculosis. Dunbar increasingly used alcohol to ease pain of his illness. His eventual addiction led to the end of his marriage after only four years, and further damaged his health. Dunbar returned to Dayton in 1904, and died two years later at the age of thirty-three.

Bibliography (full text available for hyperlinked titles)

The Uncalled, 1898.
The Love of Landry, 1900.
The Fanatics, 1901.
The Sport of the Gods, 1902.

Short Stories
Folks From Dixie, 1898.
The Strength of Gideon, 1900.
In Old Plantation Days, 1903.
The Heart of Happy Hollow, 1904.

Dream Lovers: An Operatic Romance, 1896.
Uncle Eph's Christmas, 1900.
In Dahomey (author of lyrics for stage show), 1903.

Oak and Ivy, 1893
Majors and Minors, 1895.
Lyrics of Lowly Life, 1896.
Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899.

Poems of Cabin and Field, 1900.
Candle-Lightin’ Time, 1901.
Lyrics of Love and Laughter, 1903.
When Malindy Sings, 1903.
Li’l Gal, 1904.
Chris’mus Is A-Comin’, 1905.
Howdy, Honey, Howdy, 1905.
Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow, 1905.
A Plantation Portrait, 1906.
Joggin’ Erlong, 1906.

Search the PBO database for books by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online

Dialect Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 6-12 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file.

Dialect Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, handout: Word document or PDF file.

Selected Readings

Jarret, Gene Andrew and Thomas Lewis Morgan, ed. The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Forward by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005.

Related Online Resources

Paul Laurence Dunbar, American Memory, Library of Congress

Paul Laurance Dunbar: Dayton Native, National Treasure

Paul Laurence Dunbar Digital Collection, Wright State University Libraries

Paul Laurence Dunbar's Legacy of Language, NPR

Paul Laurence Dunbar, Modern American Poetry

Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ohioana Authors

Paul Laurence Dunbar Scrapbook, Ohio Memory

Paul Laurence Dunbar: The People's Poet, American Experience, PBS

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