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Paul Laurence Dunbar Essay, Research Paper

Paul Laurence Dunbar

by English 102

August 4, 1995

Outline

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

1895:

I know what the caged bird feels,

alas!

When the sun is bright on the

upland slopes;

When the wind stirs soft through

the springing grass,

And the river flows like a stream

of glass;

When the first bird sings and

the first bud opens

And the faint perfume from its

chalice steals-

I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats

his wing

Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;

For he must fly back to his perch

and cling

When he fain would be on the

bough a-swing;

And a pain still throbs in the

old, old scars

And they pulse again with a keener

sting-

I know why he beats his wings!

I know why the caged bird sings

at me,

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

he flings-

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

psychiatrist.

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.

Works Cited

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.


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