October 19, 2012

Dunbar: give up reading entirely

At the turn of the century, Paul Laurence Dunbar was at the height of his fame. His poetry and prose had attracted first a regional then a national audience. He worked hard to be prolific and supplemented his income (and fame) by givng public readings. Throughout it all, he was dying of tuberculosis.

For the frequent coughing fits, sometimes bloody ones, doctors told Dunbar to try alcohol. He chose whisky as his drink of choice but his attempts to solve his problematic health resulted in another problem: alcoholism. The pain from his disease seemed a good enough reason to rely on the bottle, but his personal depression and the challenges in his personal life were equally good excuses. And so, Dunbar drank more heavily.

On October 19, 1900, his personal troubles spilled over into his professional poetic life. That day, in Evanston, Illinois, Dunbar took to the podium for a reading in a Methodist church. Dunbar showed up late and obviously drunk. He had been known for his commanding voice; instead, he mumbled and coughed frequently. One by one, those in attendance left in disgust (Evanston was a center for the temperance movement).

The press picked up the story, causing further embarassment particularly for his wife Alice Dunbar (with whom he would become estranged in two years). Dunbar himself wrote a letter to the editor apologizing for his performance, noting his ill health and the use of alcohol for medicinal purposes. His friend James Weldon Johnson invited him to his home in Florida to rest. Dunbar recognized that things had changed for him, writing soon after to the friend who had helped arrange the Evanston appearance that he had disgraced himself and ashamed his friend. He concluded, "I have cancelled all my engagements and given up reading entirely." His poem "The Debt" (1895):

This is the debt I pay
Just for one riotous day,
Years of regret and grief,
Sorrow without relief.

Pay it I will to the end —
Until the grave, my friend,
Gives me a true release —
Gives me the clasp of peace.

Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best —
God! but the interest!


  1. Dunbar is perhaps the most underappreciated American poet today. No one really knows how beautiful his books were. He was the first poet to use photography as an essential feature of his books, often making the photographs (taken at the Hampton Institute) tell their own story, parallel to the poem they "illustrated." His bindings were decorated by one of the last great commercial book cover artists, Margaret Armstrong. He deserves to be be dragged out of the niche of the African-American poet and apologist for slavery in which he has ended up and recognized as a great precursor of literary modernism.

  2. Christoph: Thanks for your comment. I agree that Dunbar is underrated, and the photography was such an interesting marketing idea. I think his poetry has a certain minimalism (like "The Debt"; so much is said in that final line). I only recently also turned to some of his prose, and I hope to explore more of that.