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Paul Laurence Dunbar:
"Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the United States to shoe a combined mastery over poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal innate literary distinction in what he wrote, and to maintain a high level of performance. He was the first to rise to a height from which he could take a perspective view of his own race. He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, it yearnings, its aspiration, and to voice them all in a purely literary form." Say's James Weldon Johnson
Dunbar's works have more often been a reflection of racial, issues in American history than a dispassionate assessment of his literary production (DISCovering Authors). Paul recounted stories his mother had told him about the life of a slave and recounted them in his many works. In Paul Laurence Dunbar's writings his childhood upbringing affected his dialect, the theme of plantation life, and the use of the Civil War.
Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio on June 27, 1872, to Joshua and Matilda Murphy Dunbar, both natives of Kentucky. His mother was a former slave and his father escaped from slavery and served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and in the 5th Massachusetts Colored Calvary Regiment during the Civil War. Though the Dunbar family own little material wealth, Matilda always supported Dunbar as his literary stature grew. She taught Paul to love songs and she loved to tell him stories about her childhood. Having heard poems read by the family she worked for when she was a slave, Matilda learned to love poetry and encouraged her children to read. Dunbar listened to stories his mother told him about her early life on the Kentucky plantations, often omitting the more brutal aspects of slavery from her stories. Dunbar was inspired by his mother, and he began reciting and writing poetry as early as age six. During his short career Paul Dunbar 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 died on February 9, 1906 from a severe case of tuberculosis. It is thought that from working in a library during Dunbar's later part of his life, the dust on the books probably helped aid in the cause of him getting tuberculosis.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first black American writers to benefit from a large public following (Giles 154-59), due to being recognized at a young age. His early success is because of his mothers devotion to teaching her children how to read and reciting poetry to them. He published an African-American newsletter in Dayton, the Dayton Tattler. 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 acknowledgment 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. Dialect was a common literary device in the late nineteenth century, but "Dunbar's work in the genre is considered especially realistic and sensitive"(DISCovering Authors). Like other dialect writers, Dunbar was primarily concerned with humorous situations. "Still he portrayed these events with ironic tenderness that conveys the emotions and thoughts of his uneducated, indistinct subjects.(DISCovering Authors)" Even Dunbar's detractors admit that his dialect poetry vividly captures the people and beliefs of late nineteenth-century black Americans (DISCovering Authors). His predominately comic black-dialect poetry were widely admired by turn-of-the- century American readers (Giles 154-59). It is also was what the editors wanted. One of those editors said to Dunbar, "I'll take anything you write in dialect." So Dunbar wrote in dialect. This decision was not made solely in the interest of making a quick profit. "Most of his biographers have attributed to him a sophistication that he did not possess. He was incapable of divining the sinister forces at work in the society; and he believed that once he had established himself as a poet through the medium of dialect, his white audience would accept
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Paul Laurence Dunbar, Dunbar, James Whitcomb Riley, Paul Laurence Dunbar House, Alice Dunbar Nelson
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