December 31, 2011

To give full time to his literary work

The records at the Library of Congress are simple in recording the loss of one of its most talented employees: "Paul Laurence Dunbar, appointed from New York to position assistant in Reading Room, Library of Congress... Resigned December 31, 1898, to give full time to his literary work." Dunbar, who earned a $720 salary, left the job after one year and two months.

His main motivation for the job was basic: he needed money. Though his poetry had been popular, he was financially strapped and, if he ever wanted to marry the beautiful Alice Ruth Moore, he had to secure an income. Dunbar also hoped that access to the great Library of Congress would enrich his mind and, in turn, his literary output. His time there, however, was ultimately not positive.

After putting in a full day's work, Dunbar would attempt to work on his writing from home (by this time, more prose than poetry) but found himself exhausted. Two months into the job, he wrote to a friend, "I am working very hard these days, so if it is only for the idle that the devil runs his employment bureau, I have no need of his services." Adding to his busy schedule, Dunbar was also traveling to give public recitations. His throat was beginning to suffer; he attributed the problem to the dusty books.

Dunbar also missed his home town of Dayton, Ohio and that is where he focused on his "full time" devotion to his "literary work." Unfortunately, however, that period would be short-lived. By 1900, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Six years later, he was dead at the age of 33.

While working at the Library of Congress, Dunbar was also writing The Uncalled, a semi-autobiographical novel. Here's one scene:

"I've been hard at work all my life."

"Eh, that so? You don't look like you'd done much hard work. What do you do?"

"I — I — ah — write," was the confused answer.

Perkins, fortunately, did not notice the confusion. "Oh, ho!" he said: "do you go in for newspaper work?"

"No, not for newspapers."

"Oh, you 're an author, a regular out-and-outer. Well, don't you know, I thought you were somehow different from most fellows I've met. I never could see how you authors could stay away in small towns, where you hardly ever see any one, and write about people as you do; but I suppose you get your people from books."

"No, not entirely," replied Brent, letting the mistake go. "There are plenty of interesting characters in a small town. Its life is just what the life of a larger city is, only the scale is smaller."

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