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Dunbar Greatest Gift To Literature


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on March 26, 1963
Dunbar Greatest Gift to Literature
     Paul Laurence Dunbar was Dayton’s greatest gift to the literary world.
      “The whole phenomenon of his career is one of the most notable in the history of his people and the nation,” according to Benjamin Brawley of the University of North Carolina.  “Dunbar understood not only the humor but also the striving of the Negro.”
      His was what the nation calls a natural.  With freedom and boldness he sang of the desires, the struggles, the ambitions, the aspirations of his people.  He had the genius to achieve high standing in American literature.
      Dunbar rose to literary distinction from grinding poverty.  His father, Joshua Dunbar, a plasterer who had escaped from slavery to freedom in Canada, died when Paul was 12 years old.  Paul’s mother, Matilda Murphy Dunbar, was a Kentucky slave before the Civil War. There was no admixture of Caucasian blood in Paul’s heritage.
      MATILDA Dunbar had no formal education, but she had initiative, wit and a keen sense of literary and spiritual values.  Her natural endowments helped her to understand and appreciate the glowing aspirations of her son.
      Paul was born June 17, 1872, in Dayton and died here Feb. 9, 1906.  He was graduated from the old Central high school in 1891, the only Negro in the class.  He had been editor-in-chief of the “High School Times” and he wrote the class poem.
      The bread-and-butter struggles of the mother and those of her ambitious son were truly heroic.  In sheer despair Paul took a job as elevator boy in the Callahan building (now the Gem City) at $4 a week.  Within two years he published his first book of verses, “Oak and Ivy,” with 56 titles on 62 pages.
      At least some Daytonians discovered his literary gifts, for he was asked to deliver the address of welcome at the meeting of the Western Association of Writers here in the summer of 1892.
      Judge Charles W. Dustin, a man with marked literary tastes, gave Paul a job as messenger in the Montgomery County Court House and at the same time opened the study of law to him.
      “I DID once want to be a lawyer,” Paul wrote later, “but that ambition has long since died out before the all-absorbing desire to be a worthy singer of the songs of God and nature, to interpret my own people through song and story, and to prove to the many that after all we are more human than African.”
      Dunbar’s poems came to the attention of novelist William Dean Howells, who made the young man famous by introducing him to the world through Harper’s Weekly magazine.  In later comment, Howells said:
      “Dunbar’s brilliant and unique achievement was to have studied the American Negro objectively, and to have represented him with humor, with sympathy, and yet with what the reader must feel instinctively to be entire truthfulness.”
      In 1896, the young poet toured England, reading and reciting his verses.  One of his admirers said that to hear Dunbar read from his works, with his deep rich baritone voice, with every action suited to the word, was to see him at his best.
      The maturity of intellectual power was manifested in his conversation as well as in his writing.  His sense of the ludicrous was highly developed and nothing ridiculous or funny escaped him.
      AFTER HIS return to the United States, he was named an assistant in the Library of Congress at a salary of $720 a year.  President William McKinley named Paul an honorary colonel so that he could act as an aide in the inaugural parade in 1897.  Dunbar accepted and rode in the procession up Pennsylvania Avenue.
      In 1898, Paul married Alice Ruth Moore, a school teacher and short story writer of New Orleans.  During a portion of that year he sought recovery from an attack of pneumonia in the Catskills and later in Colorado.  Divorce broke up his Washington home and he returned to Dayton, where he spent his last years in a hopeless striving for health and money.
      The witchery of his verses is illustrated in lines from his “Rain Songs”:
The rain streams down like harp strings from the sky,
The wind that world-old harpist, sitteth by;
And ever, as he sings his low refrain,
He plays upon the harp-strings of the rain.
      In addition to his poetry, Dunbar wrote eight volumes of prose, including four novels—“The Uncalled,” “The Love of Landry,” “The Fanatics” and “The Sport of the Gods.”
      Notable among his short stories were: “In Old Plantation Days,” “Folks from Dixie,” “The Strength of Gideon” and “The Heart of Happy Hollow.”
     LIDA KERK Wiggins wrote in her “Life and Works of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “I permitted myself the prophecy that the hostilities and the prejudices which had so long constrained his race were destined to vanish in the arts; that these were to be the first proof that God had made of one blood all nations of men.”
      In her judgment, it was the humorous quality which Dunbar added to our literature that most distinguished him.
      In the Voice of the Negro, Mary Church Terrell said of him, “A man of charming personality with a bold, warm, buoyant humor of character which manifested itself delightfully to his friends.  Mingled with this affability of manner were a dignity and poise of bearing which prevented the overbold from coming too near…  The maturity of intellectual power was manifested in his conversation as well as in his writing and his fund of information was remarkable, considering his youth and his meager opportunities for culture.”