Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African-American to gain national eminence as a poet. Born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, he was the son of ex-slaves and classmate to Orville Wright of aviation fame.
Although he lived to be only 33 years old, Dunbar was prolific, writing short stories, novels, table de pythagore (multiplications), librettos, plays, songs and essays as well as the poetry for which he became well known. He was popular with black and white readers of his day, and his works are celebrated today by scholars and school children alike.
His style encompasses two distinct voices – the standard English of the classical poet and the evocative dialect of the turn-of-the-century black community in America. He was gifted in poetry – the way that Mark Twain was in prose – in using dialect to convey character.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African-American poet to garner national critical acclaim. Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872, Dunbar penned a large body of dialect poems, standard English poems, essays, novels and short stories before he died at the age of 33. His work often addressed the difficulties encountered by members of his race and the efforts of African-Americans to achieve equality in America. He was praised both by the prominent literary critics of his time and his literary contemporaries.
Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872, to Matilda and Joshua Dunbar, both natives of Kentucky. His mother was a former slave and his father had escaped from slavery and served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Calvary Regiment during the Civil War. Matilda and Joshua had two children before separating in 1874. Matilda also had two children from a previous marriage.
The family was poor, and after Joshua left, Matilda supported her children by working in Dayton as a washerwoman. One of the families she worked for was the family of Orville and Wilbur Wright, with whom her son attended Dayton’s Central High School. Though the Dunbar family had little material wealth, Matilda, always a great support to Dunbar as his literary stature grew, taught her children a love of songs and storytelling. Having heard poems read by the family she worked for when she was a slave, Matilda loved poetry and encouraged her children to read. Dunbar was inspired by his mother, and he began reciting and writing poetry as early as age 6.
Dunbar was the only African-American in his class at Dayton Central High, and while he often had difficulty finding employment because of his race, he rose to great heights in school. He was a member of the debating society, editor of the school paper and president of the school’s literary society. He also wrote for Dayton community newspapers. He worked as an elevator operator in Dayton’s Callahan Building until he established himself locally and nationally as a writer. He published an African-American newsletter in Dayton, the Dayton Tattler, with help from the Wright brothers.
His first public reading was on his birthday in 1892. A former teacher arranged for him to give the welcoming address to the Western Association of Writers when the organization met in Dayton. James Newton Matthews became a friend of Dunbar’s and wrote to an Illinois paper praising Dunbar’s work. The letter was reprinted in several papers across the country, and the accolade drew regional attention to Dunbar; James Whitcomb Riley, a poet whose works were written almost entirely in dialect, read Matthew’s letter and acquainted himself with Dunbar’s work. With literary figures beginning to take notice, Dunbar decided to publish a book of poems. Oak and Ivy, his first collection, was published in 1892.
Though his book was received well locally, Dunbar still had to work as an elevator operator to help pay off his debt to his publisher. He sold his book for a dollar to people who rode the elevator. As more people came in contact with his work, however, his reputation spread. In 1893, he was invited to recite at the World’s Fair, where he met Frederick Douglass, the renowned abolitionist who rose from slavery to political and literary prominence in America. Douglass called Dunbar “the most promising young colored man in America.”
Dunbar moved to Toledo, Ohio, in 1895, with help from attorney Charles A. Thatcher and psychiatrist Henry A. Tobey. Both were fans of Dunbar’s work, and they arranged for him to recite his poems at local libraries and literary gatherings. Tobey and Thatcher also funded the publication of Dunbar’s second book, Majors and Minors.
It was Dunbar’s second book that propelled him to national fame. William Dean Howells, a novelist and widely respected literary critic who edited Harper’s Weekly, praised Dunbar’s book in one of his weekly columns and launched Dunbar’s name into the most respected literary circles across the country. A New York publishing firm, Dodd Mead and Co., combined Dunbar’s first two books and published them as Lyrics of a Lowly Life. The book included an introduction written by Howells. In 1897, Dunbar traveled to England to recite his works on the London literary circuit. His national fame had spilled across the Atlantic.
After returning from England, Dunbar married Alice Ruth Moore, a young writer, teacher and proponent of racial and gender equality who had a master’s degree from Cornell University. Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He found the work tiresome, however, and it is believed the library’s dust contributed to his worsening case of tuberculosis. He worked there for only a year before quitting to write and recite full time.
In 1902, Dunbar and his wife separated. Depression stemming from the end of his marriage and declining health drove him to a dependence on alcohol, which further damaged his health. He continued to write, however. He ultimately produced 12 books of poetry, four books of short stories, a play and five novels. His work appeared in Harper’s Weekly, the Sunday Evening Post, the Denver Post, Current Literature and a number of other magazines and journals. He traveled to Colorado and visited his half-brother in Chicago before returning to his mother in Dayton in 1904. He died there on Feb. 9, 1906.
Herbert Woodward Martin, University of Dayton professor emeritus, is an acclaimed scholar and interpreter of Dunbar’s works. Join audiences around the world in celebrating the beauty of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s words, embodied by Martin. Download RealPlayer.
Poems newly recorded by Herbert Martin:
After a Visit
Ante-Bellum Sermon, An
Death Song, A
Easy Goin’ Feller, An
Farm House by the River, The
Haunted Oak, The
He Had His Dream
In the Morning
Invitation to Love
Little Brown Baby
Making Up, The
Negro Love Song, A
Not They Who Soar
Ode for Memorial Day
Ode to Ethiopia
Poet and His Song, The
Right to Die, The
Toast to Dayton
We Wear The Mask
When Dey 'Listed Colored Soldiers
When Malindy Sings
For printed volumes of Dunbar’s work, see:
￼The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar
Edited by Joanne M. Braxton
(University Press of Virginia, 1993)
In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar
Edited by Herbert Woodward Martin & Ronald Primeau
(Ohio University Press, 2002)
With help from Herbert Woodward Martin, the Dayton Opera commissioned the new one-act production, “Paul Laurence Dunbar: Common Ground,” and hosted a lavish premiere Feb. 10, 1995, in the fully restored Victoria Theatre in Dayton.
He wrote of little brown babies and a man who had his dream. He revealed the mask worn by many and penned an ode to Ethiopia.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, a native Daytonian and the first black American to gain national prominence as a poet, ignited the literary world with his turn-of-the-century works and now has inspired two contemporary university professors to celebrate his poetry with operatic splendor.
“Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul;
Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll
In characters of fire.”
So begins the new opera, with stanzas from “Ode to Ethiopia” and “Compensation,” which give “a sense of striving for that which is worthwhile,” says the librettist.
Dayton Opera commissioned the new one-act production, “Paul Laurence Dunbar: Common Ground,” and hosted a lavish premiere Feb. 10 in the fully restored Victoria Theatre in Dayton. Over the next three months, the four cast members took the 35-minute production to about 70 junior and senior high schools in an 11-county area surrounding Dayton, introducing students to Dunbar and the art of opera. An additional 40 performances were given for community groups.
Herbert Woodward Martin, English professor and poet-in-residence at the University of Dayton, selected the 12 poems to be included in the opera and wrote the libretto. Dialogue is delivered in between the poems to provide a narrative thread, and it links the works to Dunbar’s life, calling attention to the guidance offered by his parents, his love for his wife, Alice, and the tragedy of his death at the age of 33 in 1906. “The poetry is extraordinarily singable. There’s an inordinate amount of music already in the poems,” Martin says. He calls the opera “charming and quite delightful. I think it’s accessible, that it’s a cohesive piece that makes sense right away.”
The opera’s composer is Adolphus Hailstork, professor of composition at Norfolk State University. “When I discovered Dunbar’s work, I realized that he was my artistic ancestor, because I write music that reflects a double cultural experience, that of my standard European-oriented education and that of my ethnic heritage.” Hailstork blended the two influences in the opera, using standard harmonic and melodic styles for some pieces while choosing a musical style reflective of African-American blues and gospel in others.
“A Love Letter” and “A Frolic” are light-hearted poems written in African-American dialect, the form that brought Dunbar his initial fame. They set up a courtship theme that dominates the middle of the production and are followed by two serious and heartfelt love lyrics written in standard English, “The Awakening” and “Thou Art My Lute.”
Designed to fit easily into schoolday schedules, the production is also extremely portable, with only costumes and folding screens to set the mood on stage. Props such as chairs and podiums were borrowed from each school, and conductor Jeffrey Powell provided piano accompaniment. Powell and sopranos Marcia Porter and Angela Powell, tenor Ray M. Wade Jr. and baritone Kirk A.Walker answered questions from the audience following each school performance.
“Little Brown Baby,” one of Dunbar’s best-known dialect poems, reintroduces a playful note to the opera, portraying a father alternately teasing and cuddling his young son, “pappy’s pa’dner an’ playmate an’ joy” for whom he wishes “ease an cleah skies.”
Is the opera successful in teaching a new generation about Dunbar? Yes, says the librettist. “The person who is unfamiliar with Dunbar sees how clever he was and how ingenious he was,” says Martin, a Dunbar scholar who dresses in period clothes and takes on the voice of the poet for readings in some of his UD classes as well as for local, regional, national and international groups. “The person who is already familiar with Dunbar sees again the lasting effects he’s created, how well he created his characters and how alive they all are. Each group comes away with something quite marvelous.”
Tender teasing quickly gives way to good-hearted goading in “A Negro Love Song” for the two men in the cast and nosy inquisitiveness in “Discovered” for the two women. The poems are energetic and humorous and showcase Dunbar’s genius for relating human nature. “Dunbar’s characters are all different, they all have an individuality that comes across as being real and vibrant,” Martin says.
He does not claim to have contributed the definitive work on Dunbar, though. “Every generation has to find out how he or she can read Shakespeare or Chaucer, and I think Dunbar falls into that category too,” Martin says. “I’m sure that there are other ways of looking at those poems and finding another sense of humor in them, another sense of seriousness in them, and that’s okay.”
“What we tried to do is suggest that there is a kind of common pursuit and struggle that’s related to everyone’s life,” Martin says. “We wanted to capture the atmosphere and the tone of Dunbar’s reaction to the world around him.”
“Accountability” sets the stage for the reverent passion of “A Hymn” and “An Ante-Bellum Sermon,” leading to the prophetic “He Had His Dream.” At the end, the singers offer a reprise of “Ode to Ethiopia” and “Compensation,” strong voices and lyrics interwoven in a powerful wall of sound that begins at the stage and rolls outward, embracing the audience.
“Because I had loved so deeply,
Because I had loved so long,
God in His great compassion
Gave me the gift of song.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education, the nation’s leading higher education periodical, profiles Herbert Woodward Martin performing as Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Enter the Paul Laurence Dunbar House here and you will find the original Remington typewriter that the turn-of-the-century black writer used to pound out his poetry, scraps of time-worn paper on which are scrawled early drafts of his 100-year-old poems, and a bicycle he purchased from his childhood friends, the Wright brothers.
Every so often, you may also discover in the house a man, wearing a morning coat and striped trousers, who bears a striking resemblance to the dead poet.
But Herbert W. Martin, a professor of English at the University of Dayton and a poet himself, is not Paul Laurence Dunbar; he just plays him on television – in an educational video – and in a one-man show for audiences at countless schools, clubs, and libraries across Ohio and the rest of the country. Dressed in late-19th-century-garb, Mr. Martin recites the poet’s work, including his popular dialect poems, and brings Dunbar vibrantly to life.
‘A star professor’
As a child, Mr. Martin often was teased by fellow classmates about his eerie likeness to the poet. But it wasn’t until Mr. Martin came to the University of Dayton in 1970 that his fascination with the city’s favorite hometown poet began.
Mr. Martin’s performances, which have made him a local celebrity or, according to the April 1992 Ohio Magazine, a “star professor,” have also allowed him to get some exposure for his own work.
“I’ve made a rule that I will read maybe 35 minutes of Dunbar and during maybe the last 10 or 15 minutes, I will read two or three of my own poems, before answering questions about Dunbar,” he says. “So I feel that it has been of some kind of a benefit for the both of us.”
Mr. Martin does not mind that he has become better known for reciting Dunbar’s poetry than for his own.
“I don’t feel like I’m in competition with him, and I don’t feel overshadowed by him, and certainly do not envy his short life,” he says.
Dunbar died of tuberculosis in 1906 at the age of 33. But in his brief life, Dunbar, who is widely regarded as the first black person to achieve national eminence as a poet, was very prolific, publishing six volumes of poetry as well as short stories, novels, librettos, songs, and essays. Mr. Martin recently found an original manuscript of a three-act play of Dunbar’s that has never been published.
As a poet himself, Mr. Martin has had his successes. He has published four books of poetry, including the latest in 1980. The books focus on diverse subjects – from the loneliness of the city to racism and the frustrations of being black in America to sexuality and love.
Mr. Martin has continued writing and has succeeded in publishing many individual poems, but he has had little luck lately getting his works published as books. “It has been a difficult time for poets to get books in print, especially with the recessed economy,” says Mr. Martin, adding, “It would take a very long time to find somebody who spends their extra money on a book of poetry.”
Competing for recognition
To get books published these days, he notes, poets must enter contests, competing with hundreds of others for recognition. “The whole market seems to have swung to contests, so that means, in a small contest, they are likely to get anywhere from 200 to 500 entries, and only one book can win, when there are probably at least 10 there that would be good,” he says.
It is a very different time from the 1960s when poets, including Mr. Martin, flooded the coffeehouses of New York City’s Greenwich Village for public poetry readings. Then, publishers like Broadside Press hunted down young, aspiring black poets with the goal of getting them into print.
It was an exciting time, says Mr. Martin, who worked some of the same clubs as Bob Dylan. “The poets took to the streets, and they captured the American imagination,” he says, putting their “pulse” on the concerns of their audiences. “And people started buying books of poetry like they hadn’t done since anybody could tell in a month of Sundays.”
Since then, he says, poets have generally focused more on the personal than on the political. And the public, he says, has generally lost interest in what poets have to say.
Still, Mr. Martin loves to write and feels that his next book contract is not too far away. He says he never lets himself get discouraged: “I think you are called to be a poet, like ministers are called to be ministers, and doctors are called to be physicians. Something touches you and says this you can do, and you can do it well.”
What would Dunbar think?
He has been shopping around three manuscripts for books: one about a man dying of AIDS, another about his mother’s battle with cancer and a third titled The Log of the Vigilante, which chronicles the voyages of a slave-trade ship.
Sitting in the study of the Dunbar House, the room in which Dunbar composed much of his poetry, Mr. Martin wonders out loud what the famous poet would have thought of his poems.
“I would hope that he would like my poetry, but beyond that there’s no guessing. Even if he liked only one or two, that would be OK,” he says. “I guess I’m the only one who’s supposed to like them all, since they are my children. Some are more successful than others, some are better constructed than others, some have excellent bodies, and no ideas, some have excellent ideas, and no bodies, so you have to take it like you catch it, as Dunbar said in one of his poems.”
(Nov. 3, 1993)
Copyright 1997, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on the University of Dayton’s Paul Laurence Dunbar Web site, http://www.plethoreum.org/dunbar/. This article may not be published, reposted, or distributed without permission from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
A UD professor breathes life into Dunbar’s poetry with passionate study and performance. A poet himself, Herbert Woodward Martin “borrows” Dunbar’s voice to recreate the fury, humor and rhythm of his works.
When Herbert Martin was a child growing up in Birmingham, Ala., his classmates taunted him when he read aloud Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry.
The youth bore an uncanny resemblance to Dunbar, a Dayton native and the first black American to achieve national eminence as a poet. Because the schoolchildren had to memorize Dunbar’s works, “they took out their dislike for poetry on me,” remembers Martin. “Either I’ve repressed that or gotten over it.”
Now himself a poet, Martin hears only applause when he reads Dunbar’s work today. Well, “reads” is not exactly the right word. Dressed in a turn-of-the-century morning coat and striped trousers, Martin “borrows” Dunbar’s voice to bring the poet’s verse to life. At times, he exhibits the spiritual frenzy of a black preacher in a folk sermon. In other moments, he delivers Dunbar’s humorous refrains with the rat-a-tat speed and perfect timing of a successful late-night TV comedian.
“I try to show that the dialect poems are accessible,” says Martin, who became seriously interested in Dunbar’s work in 1972 when he organized a centennial birthday celebration in the poet’s honor at the University of Dayton. “Looking at his poems on the page, they seem really kind of difficult to read. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is a feeling in this country that dialect means that you are uneducated and unintelligent and to use it or speak it somehow makes you second rate or second class. (Mark) Twain has gotten away with it, but I think black people have been embarrassed by dialect.”
The son of ex-slaves, Dunbar stepped in and out of dialect for effect, never losing his distinctly black voice. “In ‘An Ante-Bellum Sermon,’ he presents ideas about freedom in a very humorous, satirical way, but when he is extraordinarily furious, he moves just slightly to the right of dialect. He plays both sides of the fence it seems to me. He involves the reader in such a way that you cannot miss the point.”
Juggling two “acting” engagements per week on top of his teaching load in the University’s English department Martin has taken his one-man show to schools, libraries, and clubs around the state. He’s even performed for the official Paul Laurence Dunbar Reading Club in New Castle, Pa., and one Fortune 500 company – the Mead Corp. Black Entertainment Television, a national cable station, has featured Martin as “English professor by day, Paul Laurence Dunbar by night.”
Like Dunbar, whose notebooks contained several drafts of the same poem, Martin incessantly revises his work. The creative process starts before dawn. Arising early “before the house wakes,” he scribbles out poems in longhand and slowly punches them into a word processor. Then he revises and revises and revises.
The University of Dayton’s poet-in-residence for over two decades, Martin has published four books of poetry and a monograph on Paul Laurence Dunbar and is trying to interest a publisher in a book-length collection of poems about people with AIDS and a long series of poems called “Final W” about his mother dying from cancer. His poems have been published in academic publications and such national magazines as Poetry and the George Washington Review.
The words don’t come easy: “When you look at that flat sheet of paper, it’s pretty fearsome and awful to think that you’re trying to create a world on a sheet of paper that’s 8 1/2 by 11 to bring it (the poem) to life so that the reader feels the emotion,” says Martin. “All of that is pretty worrisome, especially if you’re calling yourself a professional. When one of my books comes out, I always think, ‘well, here I am being foolish in print again.’”
Martin, also an accomplished Shakespearean and musical theater performer, says he often feels the same way when he’s behind the footlights. Whether performing or writing he tries to rely on what he calls a sense of youthful arrogance. “If you begin to have serious and second doubts as you go on the stage, the audience is not going to believe that you are who you say you are,” he observes. “I think readers can also recognize that lapse and falseness in tone.”
At Scott High School in Toledo, Martin remembers writing a series of “really dreadful” poems that he claims to have “burned by my own hand and destroyed so they can’t come back and haunt me.” In the '60s he began reading his poetry in New York coffee houses. His work has run the gamut from militant themes to unrequited love, and he says he’s still trying to find his own “voice.”
At first, he says, "(TS) Eliot and (Ezra) Pound held sway. Everything I wrote in the early days had that echo. Slowly I began to write poems that could not have Eliot’s or Pound’s or anyone else’s perspective.
“The voice I’m still trying to find is occasionally humorous, maybe even has a twinkle in it somewhere. It’s serious, I would hope that it’s highly lyrical and that much of my voice is informed by music and that it is in some ways elevated, not out of the reach of the general public, but not so low and mundane that everybody just sort of tramples on it and takes it for granted,” he muses.
Not surprisingly, Dunbar, too, heard music in poetry. Says Martin, “It echoed in his work.”
See suggestions for teaching using Dunbar’s poetry in middle and secondary schools.
See information on video and audio tapes of Herbert Woodward Martin performing as Dunbar.
To learn more about Dunbar’s home in Dayton, visit the Paul Laurence Dunbar House
The Paul Laurence Dunbar House was awarded a grant worth nearly $117,030 by President Clinton’s Save America’s Treasures program. For more information click here.
Wright State University in Dayton has an experimental database of Dunbar’s works.
William Grant Still, an African-American composer, set some of Dunbar’s poem to music. To read about the Afro-American Symphony, see this Duke University site. To learn more about African-American history and literature, visit Keele University’s American literature site, which includes information about other African-American writers and links to other African-American literature sites.
The Black Collegian, a career and self-development site, has compiled a list of African-American writers, artists, activists, scholars and politicians with links to profiles of these important historical figures.
Mark Twain, a contemporaty of Dunbar’s, also used dialect in his extraordinary writings of American life. To learn more about Twain and his unique style, see this comprehensive site, which includes excerpts and critcal essays.
To learn more about Dunbar’s life and career, see The Modern American Poetry’s Paul Laurence Dunbar page, which includes literary criticism and examples of Dunbar’s illustrated poems.
University of Dayton
University of Dayton Quarterly, an eclectic look at UD
University of Dayton admission information
UD professor, Herbert Woodward Martin sits at Paul Laurence Dunbar’s desk.
The historic home of Paul Laurence
Dunbar located in Dayton, Ohio.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Herbert Woodward Martin
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s desk at his Dayton home.
The Paul Laurence Dunbar Web site is a project of the Public Relations office of the University of Dayton.
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