Paul Laurence Dunbar
by English 102
August 4, 1995
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
I know what the caged bird feels,
When the sun is bright on the
When the wind stirs soft through
the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream
When the first bird sings and
the first bud opens
And the faint perfume from its
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch
When he fain would be on the
And a pain still throbs in the
old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener
I know why he beats his wings!
I know why the caged bird sings
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
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 wing till its
blood is red on the cruel bars” expresses rage the caged bird feels and the
physical abuse the caged bird endures trying to escape. During this period in
Dunbar’s life, he met George Washington Carver in Dayton, James Whitcomb Riley
in Indianapolis, and he became lifelong friends with Dr. H.A. Tobey, a Toledo
The major accomplishments of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s life during 1872 to
1906 also labeled him as being a short story writer. Although Dunbar
experienced much criticism in his early career, he also enjoyed a good deal of
success. These successes, unfortunately, did not come without some personal
sacrifices and tribulations. He encountered rifts with his closest friends and
associates, often the result of his business and artistic decisions. One such
confrontation occurred when Dunbar decided to sell certain works to George
Horace Lorimer of the Saturday Evening Post and Harrison Smith Morris of
Lippincott’s, two longtime friends of Dunbar, to the dissatisfaction of his
agent. Dunbar responded by explaining:
Both are my personal friends and I should feel myself rather niggardly
if I should withhold from them first sight of the things that are in their line
merely because now that my things are selling I could get better prices
elsewhere… I feel a sense of honor and obligation towards these men which is a
little beyond price. (Revell 108) This determination of Dunbar to have his
works printed in major literary publications showed his sincere desire to have
his more serious, non-dialect short stories to be exposed to the public.
Dunbar’s short stories include the works “Folks from Dixie”, “The Strength of
Gideon and Other Short Stories”, “The Heart of Happy Hollow” and others.
The last artistic accomplishment of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s life was
labeled as a serious novelist. Dunbar wrote four novels between 1897 and 1901.
The first two of these works, The Uncalled (1898) and The Love of Landry (1900)
are “white” novels in which all the characters are white and no reference is
made to the presence of Black people. The other two novels, The Fanatics (1901)
and The Sport of the Gods (1902) are considered to be “black” novels. Dunbar’s
first novel, The Uncalled, was written in England in 1897, and was published to
little commercial success. Critic Benjamin Brawley considers the work “only
partly a success” and remarks quite unjustly upon “the lack of local color and
the mediocre quality of the English” (qtd. in Revel p. 65). Robert Bone opines
that it is Dunbar’s most successful novel and remarks misleadingly that it is
“widely regarded as his spiritual autobiography” (Bone, pg. 39). The Uncalled
is the story of the childhood and young manhood of Frederick Brent. The story
opens with the death of his mother in circumstances of poverty. She has been
abandoned by her drunken husband and sells her soul to the devil. The plot
thickens when the question arises as to who will take care of young Frederick.
The Love of Landry, Dunbar’s second novel, was a major commercial
disappointment. The writing in this book is fairly relevant to the
circumstances that brought Dunbar to Colorado and his experiences there. In The
Fanatics Dunbar tries to bring out the essential human values of brotherly love,
love between man and woman, family loyalty, tolerance, and forgiveness that
underlie and finally resolve the conflicts of fanatical devotion to a cause.
The Sport of the Gods is an attempt by Dunbar to depict Black Americans living
in social currents of his time.
Dunbar proved to be very disheartened by the fact that his audiences and
publishers relished so heavily on his works of dialect poetry. He felt that
acceptance of his serious work- primarily his standard English poetry- faltered
because of the demand for his dialect pieces. It is commonly felt that Dunbar’s
perception of the severity of plantation life for slaves was diffused and
diluted by the stories he heard from his mother as a youngster. His mother,
like his father, was a former slave, and her stories often failed to express the
more brutal aspects of plantation life. Dunbar’s works have often been widely
criticized because of this “watering down” of the atrocities of slavery (Revell).
Dunbar’s poems in literary English, his short stories and novels all rely more
or less on traditional forms and conventional characterization.
Baker, Houston A. Jr. “Paul Laurence Dunbar: An Evaluation.” Black
World. 21 Nov. 1971: 30-37.
Brawley, Benjamin. Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet of his People. Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1936.
Cunningham, Virginia. Paul Laurence Dunbar and his Song. New York:
Dodd, Mead, 1947.
Metcalfe, E.W.,Jr. Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Bibliography. Metachen, N.J.:
Scarecrow Press, 1975.
Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Twayne Publishers: 1979.
Revell. Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston, Twayne Publishers: 1979. Pg. 84.
Ibid, pg. 37.
Ibid, pg. 73.