Poet, Author, Literary Genius
The legacy of any individual is always a difficult item to measure. It is calibrated against the tenor of the times and the underlying currents of society. These issues have always colored how literary historians and others have viewed the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Poet and author, writer and revolutionary, Dunbar shows aspects that fit into many niches and philosophies. Yet what is the essence of this African American writer from Dayton, Ohio?
Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote more than just poetry, he wrote literature in all of its venues. He wrote poems and novels, newspaper articles and lyrics for Broadway musicals. He wrote short stories and operettas, ballads and orations. He is credited as the first writer to put the African American experience in all its diverse forms before a broader audience. His work became the voice for the African American experience in America at that time.
Dunbar became known for his use of dialect to capture the African American experience. Yet his talent could not be confined to that form alone. Paul Laurence Dunbar was an experimenter, and innovator who tried to express his feelings and vision in the many forms that literature offers. He has been called the “poet laureate of his people,” yet he has become a voice for all people. Through all of his writing runs the desire to explain the ambitions, hopes, and dreams of African Americans. He strived to show to the world the reality of blacks as caring, thoughtful, creative individuals, as people, not stereotypes. He was an African American struggling with the racism and oppression of his time, and yet he is a spokesperson for all who have dreams unfulfilled.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African American to be widely accepted and acclaimed within literary fields in the United States. It began with a review of his work published by William Dean Howells in 1896 and continued into the 1920s and beyond. Dunbar's work laid the foundations of, and set the stage for the Harlem Renaissance of the 20's and 30's. This was an explosion of literary and cultural talent unlike anything this nation has seen since. Dunbar's work remained a model for writers during this period including James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes.
Today schools, banks, hospitals, and other institutions across the nation are named in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar. His work remains a legacy of the past and a beacon for the future. It encompasses all the expressions of human emotion and is just plain good literature.
His work can be summed up in two statements. The first was written by his wife Alice Ruth Moore in 1914.
“A poet is a poet because he understands, because he is born with a divine kinship
with all things, and he is a poet in direct ratio to his power of sympathy."
The second statement comes from a letter Dunbar wrote to Dr. Henry Tobey on July 13, 1895.
“I did once want to be a lawyer, 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 be able
to interpret my own people through song and story, and to prove to the many that
after all we are more human than African.”