Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

    Contributing Editors:
    Elaine Hedges and Richard Yarborough

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Although Paul Laurence Dunbar also produced novels, short stories, and a large number of poems written in conventional English, he is best known for his adoption in verse of what was presented as the language (or "dialect") of the black southern folk. Indeed, he has been viewed by some commentators as an artist who used negative stereotypes of his own people to satisfy a white audience, and there are still those who suggest that his work lacks substance.

    In his lifetime, however, Dunbar was generally considered a glowing symbol of African-American literary artistry and an apt representative of his race, and a close reading of his poetry reveals him to be far more than an unimaginative purveyor of antiblack images. In addition, few modern readers are aware of the essays on American race relations and other contemporaneous issues that Dunbar published at the height of his popularity. It is perhaps no wonder that from shortly after his death through the mid-twentieth century, his name was associated with numerous respected institutions in the African-American community. Practically gone now are the various Paul Laurence Dunbar Literary Societies that flourished throughout the country, but the schools and housing projects bearing his name still exist in many cities.

    In order for students to appreciate the enduring literary achievement represented by Dunbar's best work, they should be given some sense of the daunting obstacles arrayed against black authors at that time and, accordingly, of the complex constraints placed upon them by white editors and readers alike. To put it another way, students should be encouraged to consider not just what Dunbar wrote but why he wrote as he did.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    One cannot overemphasize the fact that Dunbar lived during a period when the access allowed blacks to major white publications was extremely limited. Although there were a number of important African-American periodicals in existence as well, for the ambitious black author eager to make his or her mark on the mainstream literary landscape, magazines such as Century and the Atlantic Monthly constituted the height of success. All too often, however, editors of these and similar periodicals expected African-American writers dealing with black material to follow the conventions of what has been termed the Plantation Tradition, which dominated the literary representation of black life and culture in the late nineteenth century. When coupled with the popularity of dialect verse of all kinds at the time, these conventions (perhaps best embodied in the fiction of Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page) exerted tremendous pressure upon aspiring African-American authors. As a result, one should urge students not to search Dunbar's work for outright protest and direct rejection of the dominant racial stereotypes of the day but rather to attend to the subtle use of irony and the often veiled allusions to the dilemmas of race that mark much of his writing.

    It is also important to recall that Dunbar wrote at a time when American poetry was in a state of transition. Authors such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Whitcomb Riley were seen as "true" poets, and such sentimental pieces as Eugene Field's "Little Boy Blue" and Will Carleton's "Over the Hills to the Poorhouse" were celebrated as the epitome of poetic genius. Although Emily Dickinson had died in 1886, her work was virtually unknown until the 1930s, and scant serious attention was paid to Ralph Waldo Emerson's poetic theory or Walt Whitman's free verse innovations. The invigorating literary experiments of the modernist period were still several years off.

    The state of American poetry at the turn of the century explains, to some extent, the diverse, occasionally conflicting formal strains in Dunbar's work. If, on the one hand, his dialect poems reflect his adoption of stylistic strategies of both James Whitcomb Riley and also the Plantation Tradition writers, on the other hand, he modelled his conventional English poetry after the popular sentimental magazine verse of his day. Ultimately, neither approach was conducive to a realistic rendering of either the psychology or the vernacular expressions of African-Americans. (One should also keep in mind that Dunbar was born and raised in the post-Civil War North and thus had little firsthand knowledge of southern life generally and none of slavery.)

    Original Audience

    Dunbar was read widely in both the black and the white communities, with the extraordinary sales of his books making him one of the most successful American writers of his time, regardless of race. Some attention should be given in the classroom to the possible consequences for Dunbar's art of this dual audience, especially given that most white readers were not just unaware of the complexities of African-American life and culture but possessed of attitudes toward blacks shaped primarily by the racist images disseminated in the popular press, on the minstrel stage, and by post-Reconstruction southern politicians.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Despite the creative and personal tensions that plagued his tragically brief career, Dunbar was, without question, the single most influential African-American poet before Langston Hughes, even if many of the writers of the generation that followed his rejected aspects of his work. Extremely useful comparisons can and should be drawn between Dunbar's poetry and that of the New Negro Renaissance.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    For "Mr. Cornelius Johnson, Office-Seeker":

    1. What did the Reconstruction Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (1865-70) accomplish? What did they fail to do?

    2. Given the method of character presentation, do you--as the reader--sympathize with Cornelius Johnson? Do you find any weaknesses in him that might tend to explain his predicament?

    For Dunbar's poetry:

    1. By "scanning" Dunbar's poetry, does a reader learn anything about Dunbar's poetic technique?

    2. Analyze Dunbar's representation of black southern life in "When Malindy Sings" and "An Ante-Bellum Sermon." In particular, consider the tactics he utilizes in attempting to undermine the stereotypes that his characterizations appear on the surface to endorse. How successful are these tactics? Examine the role of religion and the use of irony in both poems.

    3. From your knowledge of Frederick Douglass, does Dunbar's poem entitled "Frederick Douglass" transmit important information about the nineteenth-century leader?


    Gayle, Addison, Jr. Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Garden City: Anchor/Doubleday, 1971.

    Martin, Jay, ed. A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975.

    Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne, 1979.