February 11, 2012

Dunbar: an immortality in this world

When Paul Laurence Dunbar died in Dayton, Ohio in 1906, several gathered for a memorial service. One who could not attend was a friend of Dunbar's who was also the mayor of Toledo, Brand Whitlock. His letter to the memorial chairperson is dated February 11, 1906 (the day before the service):

I wish I could be with you all to-morrow to pay my tribute to poor Paul. But I cannot, and feeling as I do his loss, I cannot now attempt any estimate of his wonderful personality that would be at all worthy. If friendship knew obligation, I would acknowledge my debt to you for the boon of knowing Paul Dunbar. It is one of the countless good deeds to your credit that you were among the first to recognize the poet in him and help him to a larger and freer life.
For Paul was a poet: and I find that when I have said that I have said the greatest and most splendid thing that can be said about a man.

Whitlock's letter was addressed to Dr. Henry Archibald Tobey, who had assisted Dunbar financially and help promote his writing. In fact, it was Tobey that help publish Dunbar's second book, Majors and Minors, in 1895. Tobey read Mayor Whitlock's letter at the memorial gathering. The letter included praise not only because of Dunbar's ability to impress his own people (i.e. African Americans) but all people, regardless of race. "The true poet is universal," Whitlock wrote, and Dunbar was a true poet whose best quality was universality.

Whitlock also noted that he knew what really killed Dunbar, not the disease of tuberculosis, but melancholy. In saying so, he alluded to the poet's drinking problem and his marital strife. Whitlock singled out some of his favorites not only to read, but to hear Dunbar present aloud, including "We Wear the Mask" and "Ships that Pass in the Night." Whitlock's letter concluded:

We shall hear that deep, melodious voice no more: his humor, his drollery, his exquisite mimicry—these are gone. And to-morrow you will lay his tired body away, fittingly enough, on [Abraham] Lincoln's birthday. But his songs will live and give his beautiful personality an immortality in this world.

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