Paul Laurence Dunbar


by English 102
August 4, 1995

Outline

Thesis: The major accomplishments of Paul Laurence Dunbar's life during 1872 to
1938 label him as being an American poet, short story writer, and novelist.

I. Introduction II. American poet
A. Literary English
B. Dialect poet
1. "Oak and Ivy"
2. "Majors and Minors"
3. "Lyrics of Lowly Life"
4. "Lyrics of the Hearthside"
5. "Sympathy" III. Short story writer
A. Folks from Dixie (1898)
B. The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900)
C. The Heart of Happy Hollow (1904) IV. Novelist
A. The Uncalled (1898)
B. The Love of Landry (1900)
C. The Fanatics (1901)
D. The Sport of the Gods (1902) V. Conclusion


Paul Laurence Dunbar attended grade schools and Central High School in
Dayton, Ohio. He was editor of the High School Times and president of
Philomathean Literary Society in his senior year. Despite Dunbar's growing
reputation in the then small town of Dayton, writing jobs were closed to black
applicants and the money to further his education was scarce. In 1891, Dunbar
graduated from Central High School and was unable to find a decent job.
Desperate for employment, he settled for a job as an elevator operator in the
Callahan Building in Dayton.
The major accomplishments of Paul Laurence Dunbar's life during 1872 to
1938 labeled him as an American poet. Dunbar had two poetic identities. He was
first a Victorian poet writing in a comparatively formal style of literary
English. Dunbar's other identity was that of the dialect poet, writing lighter,
usually humorous or sentimental work not merely in the Negro dialect but in
other varieties as well: Irish, once in German, but very frequently in the
hoosier dialect of Indiana. There is good reason to assert, however, that the
sources of Dunbar's dialect verse were in the real language of the people. The
basic charge of this criticism can be stated in the words of a recent critic,
Jean Wagner. Dunbar's dialect is, he says, "at best a secondhand instrument,
irredeemably blemished by the degrading things imposed upon it by the enemies of
the Black people" (Revell, Paul Laurence Dunbar, pg. 84). One of the most
popular of Dunbar's dialect poems was and is "When Malindy Sings" which builds
upon the natural ability of the race in song and is acknowledged to be Dunbar's
tribute to his mother's spontaneous outbursts of singing as she worked in the
kitchen. The message of the poem is of praise for simplicity of spirit and the
love of God.
Another of Dunbar's superb poems is entitled "Sympathy", written in
1895:

I know what the caged bird feels,
alas!
When the sun is bright on the
upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through
the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream
of glass;
When the first bird sings and
the first bud opens
And the faint perfume from its
chalice steals-
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats
his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch
and cling
When he fain would be on the
bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the
old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener
sting-
I know why he beats his wings!

I know why the caged bird sings
at me,
When his wing is bruised and
his bosom sore,-
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from
his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven
he flings-
I know why the caged bird sings!

"Sympathy" ("sym" meaning with and "pathy" meaning feeling) is a very emotional
poem about a caged bird trapped with no way to escape. "A poem like 'Sympathy'-
with its repeated line, 'I know why the caged bird feels, alas!'- can be read as
a cry against slavery, but was probably written out of the feeling that the
poet's talent was imprisoned in the conventions of his time and the exigencies
of the literary marketplace" (Revell, Paul Laurence Dunbar, 73). Dunbar's first
stanza in the poem uses the word 'alas' to mean anxiety. Throughout "Sympathy"
the caged bird is enduring distress due to his life's limitations. "And the
faint perfume from its chalice steals- I know what the caged bird feels!" These
two lines from "Sympathy" express the caged bird's thought of someone stealing
his ideas and thoughts. "I know why the caged bird beats his