July 13, 2011

Dunbar: to be a worthy singer

Paul Laurence Dunbar was an intelligent young man in high school, where he was a member of the literary society, the debate team, and the school newspaper. As an adult, he took whatever job he could get to earn money, including a stint as an elevator operator. At age 23, however, he described his greater ambitions in a letter dated July 13, 1895:

Yes, I am tied down and have been by menial labor, and any escape from it so far has only been a brief respite that made a return to the drudgery doubly hard. But I am glad to say that for the past two or three years I have been able to keep my mother from the hard toil by which she raised and educated me. But it has been and is a struggle.

...I did once want to be a lawyer, but that ambition has long since died out before the all-absorbing desire to be a worthy singer of the songs of God and nature. To be able to interpret my own people through song and story, and to prove to the many that after all we are more human than African

Dunbar had published his first poem when he was 16. By the time he wrote this letter, he had also published first book, Oak and Ivy (1893), though it did not earn him much money. He was giving sporadic readings in the hopes of earning extra cash and boosting his literary reputation. He hoped to attend college some day (he never did) and anticipated a trip around the country: "I have hoped year after year to be able to go to Washington, New York, Boston and Philadelphia where I might see our northern negro at his best, before seeing his brother in the South," he noted in his letter.

About a year later, a review by William Dean Howells would launch Dunbar into the national spotlight. His career, however, was cut short by his early death at the age of 33.


  1. What a contrast to writers like Goethe that lived so long and were so productive.

  2. I'm writing my PhD on Dunbar. I quoted the above letter in my dissertation. However, I don't know in what page is that quote. Would you help me please if you have access to the following:

    Paul Laurence Dunbar to Henry A. Tobey, July 13, 1895, Paul Laurence Dunbar Collection, Series 1, Box 1, Ohio Historical Society (OHS), Columbus.

  3. I don't normally publish comments on posts more than a couple weeks old, but I made an exception here. I'm not sure what "page" you're looking for in reference to the archives you noted. I found it quoted in an early biography of Dunbar, easily accessible as it is now in the public domain. Good luck with your dissertation.