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Summary Article: Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906)
from African American Almanac
Poet

The first black poet to gain a national reputation in the United States, Paul Laurence Dunbar was also the first to use black dialect within the formal structure of his work.

Born of former slaves in Dayton, Ohio, Dunbar went to work as an elevator operator after graduating from high school. His first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, was privately printed in 1893 and was followed by Majors and Minors, which appeared two years later. Neither book was an immediate sensation, but there were enough favorable reviews in such magazines as Harper's to encourage Dunbar in the pursuit of a full-fledged literary career. In 1896 Dunbar completed Lyrics of a Lowly Life, the single work upon which his subsequent reputation was irrevocably established.

Before his untimely death in 1906, Dunbar had become the dominant presence in the world of American Negro poetry. His later works included Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905), Li'l Gal (1904), Howdy, Honey, Howdy (1905), A Plantation Portrait (1905), Joggin'Erlong (1906), and Complete Poems, published posthumously in 1913. This last work contains not only the dialect poems that were his trademark, but many poems in conventional English as well. The book has enjoyed such enormous popularity that it has, to this day, never gone out of print. He also published four novels, including The Sport of Gods, The Love of Landry, The Uncalled, and four volumes of short stories.

Copyright © 2012 by Visible Ink Press®

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