The Dayton, Ohio-born Dunbar had secured the job through the help and influence of a friend. Throughout his life, he had worked a series of odd jobs (including elevator operator), eking out a living while also writing both poetry and prose.
Yet, as early as 23 years old, he complained about "menial labor" and harbored an "all-absorbing desire" to be a writer. His first widely-circulated poem was published when he was 16. True to his word, he gave up on his job in the Reading Room after only a year and three months. The official record at the Library of Congress gives his reasoning "to give full time to his literary work." Though Dunbar lived a short life, he did live long enough to see his reputation as a writer blossom. Dunbar's poem "One Life":
Oh, I am hurt to death, my Love;
The shafts of Fate have pierced my striving heart,
And I am sick and weary of
The endless pain and smart.
My soul is weary of the strife,
And chafes at life, and chafes at life.
Time mocks me with fair promises;
A blooming future grows a barren past,
Like rain my fair full-blossomed trees
Unburdened in the blast.
The harvest fails on grain and tree,
Nor comes to me, nor comes to me.
The stream that bears my hopes abreast
Turns ever from my way its pregnant tide.
My laden boat, torn from its rest,
Drifts to the other side.
So all my hopes are set astray,
And drift away, and drift away.
The lark sings to me at the morn,
And near me wings her skyward-soaring flight;
But pleasure dies as soon as born,
The owl takes up the night,
And night seems long and doubly dark;
I miss the lark, I miss the lark.
Let others labor as they may,
I'll sing and sigh alone, and write my line.
Their fate is theirs, or grave or gay,
And mine shall still be mine.
I know the world holds joy and glee,
But not for me,—'tis not for me.