Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar was an influential Black American poet, novelist, and essayist, known best for his poems written in an African American dialect. Some of his most celebrated poetry collections are Majors and Minors (1895) and Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896). Dunbar was one of the first Black American writers to receive international attention for his sketches of race and racism in late 19th- and early 20th-century America.

Dunbar was born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio to a formerly enslaved couple. In 1892, his exceptional poetic talent was noticed by poet James Whitcomb Riley, through whose encouragement he would publish his first poetry collection, Oak and Ivy (1893). The successful publicity of Dunbar’s debut allowed him to present at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and also work for civil rights activist Frederick Douglass. In 1895, his second collection Majors and Minors received a highly positive review by a renowned American critic, William Dean Howells, in the June 27, 1896 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Howells spotlighted Dunbar’s dialect poetry and his pioneering career as a Black American poet.

Dunbar continued to publish poetry, following his successful 1895 collection with Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899), Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903), and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905). He also wrote various works of prose, such as the short story collections Folks from Dixie (1899) and The Strength of Gideon (1900) and the novel The Uncalled (1898). Dunbar wrote extensively about Black life in America, capturing moments of racial injustice with both sober realism and humor. The public welcomed his humorous writing, as well as his poems in dialectical verse, while dismissing his more serious portraits of abuse.

In 1906, Dunbar passed away at the age of thirty-three, after battling tuberculosis and other related chronic illnesses. While some scholars in the twentieth century argued that Dunbar's poetry displays internalized racism and perpetuates racial stereotypes, more recently Dunbar has been celebrated as a trailblazing Black American poet of exceptional poetic virtuosity.

Study Guides on Works by Paul Laurence Dunbar

The first African-American poet to rise to that level of accomplishment and fame which critics designate as the status of “major poet” was Paul Laurence Dunbar. The most famous line of verse he ever wrote can be found in “Sympathy” although the...