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Paul Lawrence Dunbar Essay, Research Paper

Paul Lawrence Dunbar, was the first important African American Poet in American Literature and the first poet to write of both a black and white audience in a time when efforts were being made to re-establish slavery. He was also ?the first African-American poet to garner national critical acclaim?(43). During his short lifetime Dunbar became known as the ?poet laureate of African Americans? (Columbus 45).

Paul Lawrence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872, to two freed slaves. Both of Dunbar’s parents, who had been born slaves, had a love for literature. His father Joshua, had escaped slavery, moved to Canada, and returned to fight in the Civil War. It was after the war that he met and married Dunbar?s mother, Matilda. Matilda and Joshua had two children before he passed away in 1874, (some sources say they may have been divorced). Dunbar had written his first poem when he was seven years old. It was through his mother Matilda, that Dunbar earned a love for literature, for she would teach her children the art of songs and storytelling (Draper 622).

He was an excellent, well-behaved and diligent student, and graduated from high school with honors in 1891. Even though he was the only African American in the school, he was elected class president and delivered the class’s graduation poem (Harris 107).

Dunbar?s initial open reading was on his birthday in 1892. A past teacher of his had given him the opportunity to give the convivial address to the Western Association of Writers when they gathered in Dayton, Ohio. It was then that Dunbar met and became friends with James Newton Matthews who wrote to a paper in Illinois admiring Dunbar?s work. The letter was later reprinted in several papers across the country giving Dunbar local attention (Columbus 32).

Since the death of his father seven years before, he had to work to support himself and his mother. After his graduation he could only find employment as an elevator operator. In between calls he would write poems and articles for various Midwestern newspapers while studying some of his favorite poets, including Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, Poe, and Longfellow (Harris 107, 108).

Dunbar?s style of writing was like that of none other during his time period, as thought by other poets. ?Dunbar had developed a style that was double-voiced about race; seemingly carefree in Black dialect but more serious and brooding when in standard English. The perhaps best and most famous of his dialect poems was When Malindy Sings, featured on the front page of The Observer, published as a tribute after his death? (Young 125).

In 1893 he took out a loan to publish his first book titled Oak and Ivy after some important literary figures began to take notice to his work. Through his writing Dunbar described his observations of society and the experience of his parents giving voice to the social problem of people in his day and became known for his proclaimed sense of black dignity (Draper 622, 623).

Also in 1893, he was invited to recite at the World’s Fair, where he came to know Frederick Douglas, the famous abolitionist who emerged from slavery to political and legendary fame in America. Douglas called Dunbar “the most promising young colored man in America” (324). As the demand for his poetry grew, Dunbar began to cultivate literary friendships that helped him publish more of his works (Columbus 32, 35).

In 1895, Dunbar moved to Toledo, Ohio where with the help of Charles A. Thatcher and Henry A. Tobey, he began to recite his poems at nearby libraries and literary assemblies. They also funded his second book of poetry titled Majors and Minors. It was Dunbar?s second book that bestowed him into national fame. William Dean Howells, a well-known literary critic and Editor of Harper?s Weekly honored Dunbar?s work in one of his weekly columns, thus making his name highly respected across the country (Rizvi 123). Although Dunbar wrote poetry in standard English the public preferred his poetry in dialects and that is what he mainly sold (Marshall 309).

It was then that he married the African American poet Alice Ruth Moore in March of 1898 after returning from England. During his prime, generosity was showered on him and he readily partook of it, and began drinking heartily after he and his wife Alice separated. Dunbar was ill for most of his life and eventually died of tuberculosis February 9, 1906. Before his death he produced twelve books of poetry, four books of short stories, a play and five novels. His work appeared in various newspapers around the United States including the Denver Post (Columbus 29).

The era was a crucial period for African Americans. Dunbar was born shortly after the all too brief Modernization period had ended. Combined efforts were attempting to re-establish slavery in whatever form they could. Even the northern whites that were against slavery seemed to abandon this idea of equality. Dunbar poetry addressed these times with all of the craftiness of a master. By learning the folkways of rural Blacks from stories told by his parents, Dunbar was provided with a plentiful source of material. He would perform these poems in character during readings. ?Dunbar often received criticisms for depicting Blacks as being too easy going and for having too many uncritical portrayals of them. His writing however, reveals Dunbar’s awareness of the rebellious and social insight often hidden under the guise of simple Black dialect?(Young 123).

The huge literary wave of Modernism, which gradually emerged in the United States in the early twentieth century, articulated a sense of modern life through talent as a quick split from the past, and Western civilization’s old traditions. Modern life was radically different from traditional life because it was more ?scientific, faster, more technological, and more mechanized. Modernism embraced these changes? (Columbus 37).

The idea?s in this era pertaining to literature was that the visualization was just as important as the content. Scientific improvement in the industrial world inspired devotion to new artistry techniques. Imagination and perspective became a fundamental aspect of the modernist technique as well. It was no longer adequate to write a basic third-person narrative or use an interfering narrator. How the poem was told became as significant as the poetry itself. To analyze such modernist novels and poetry, a school of “new criticism” arose in the United States, with a new critical vocabulary. New critics hunted the “epiphany” (moment in which a character suddenly sees the transcendent truth of a situation, a term derived from a holy saint’s appearance to mortals); they “examined” and “clarified” a work, hoping to “shed light” upon it through their “insights” (Columbus 25).

?A Poet and His Song?

A song is but a little thing,

And yet what joy it is to sing!

In hours of toil it gives me zest,

And when at eve I long for rest;

When cows come home along the bars,5

And in the fold I hear the bell,

As Night, the shepherd, herds his stars,

I sing my song, and all is well.

There are no ears to hear my lays,

No lips to lift a word of praise;10

But still, with faith unfaltering,

I live and laugh and love and sing.

What matters yon unheeding throng?

They cannot feel my spirit’s spell,

Since life is sweet and love is long,15

I sing my song, and all is well.

My days are never days of ease;

I till my ground and prune my trees.

When ripened gold is all the plain,

I put my sickle to the grain.20

I labor hard, and toil and sweat,

While others dream within the dell;

But even while my brow is wet,

I sing my song, and all is well.

Sometimes the sun, unkindly hot25

My garden makes a desert spot;

Sometimes a blight upon the tree

Takes my fruit away from me;

And then with throes of bitter pain

Rebellious passions rise and swell;30

But ?? life is more than fruit or grain,

And so I sing, and all is well.

In ?A Poet and His Song? written my Paul Lawrence Dunbar, we are presented with Dunbar?s own trial and tribulations as a writer and the goals that he set for himself. Dunbar skillfully goes back and forth from various dialects, the standard English of a classical poet and the dialect of the turn-of-the century black community in America. Creating a tone of soulful determination. Dunbar?s attitude in the poem is that all accomplishments in life are done so through patience and hard work.

In lines one through five, Dunbar is relating music to the to the way the rhythm of the poem flows. When he read his poetry he would do so in the form of a song feeling ?what a joy it is to sing?. Writing had a way of relaxing Dunbar ?In hours of toil it gives me jest?, he wrote. Universally the song represents each individuals love for something, whether it be freedom or gardening, everyone has something that they enjoy doing and for Dunbar it’s writing.Herbert Martin, known as the ?English professor by day and Paul Lawrence Dunbar by night? began studying Dunbar?s work as a child after being told that he bore a resemblance to Dunbar. Martin believed that ?Dunbar heard music in poetry? because ?it echoed in his work?(Rizvi 121).

The second part of the poem containing lines six through ten, people are compared to the cows coming home at the end of a long workday. The ?shepherd? herding his stars is really literary legends or people of importance sending their writer?s home, their ?stars?. In Dunbar?s life writing makes everything ?well? even when there is no one there to praise him for his work. When a person truly enjoys something, they do it for themselves and not for others approval.

Lines ten through fifteen Dunbar discusses that although there wasn?t always someone there to commend him for his hard work he continued to write with even more determination. Believing that it doesn?t matter if you have an audience if they can?t relate to his writing. There are times when we as readers have done something that we have been proud of but had no who understood where it was all coming from.

The section lines sixteen through twenty-four Dunbar talks about how writing has improved his life. Dunbar has worked hard to accomplish the goals he?s set for himself while others lay around and watch life pass them by. Anything valuable in life one must work towards to gain.

The final section, lines twenty-five through thirty-two, explains the hardships and set backs he has encountered along the way and even when reaching his goals had seemed impossible, Dunbar still had the passion to strive for his dreams and in the long run it only made him stronger. ?Dunbar?s writings are ways in which Dunbar could appeal to his larger white audiences while simultaneously offering more accurate portrayals of African American life than white writers who wrote poetry using dialect verse?(Marshall 309).

Although the words that Dunbar has become so well known for were written, had this poem been read aloud, the elevation of his voice would have a larger impact on the audience. However there is an apparent change in lines ten through fourteen when he begins to get angry and moves slightly out of dialect. Even though it is not as apparent in this poem ?Dunbar steps in and out of dialect for effect, never losing his distinctly black voice. He plays both sides of the fence it seems to me. He involves the reader in such a way that you cannot miss the point?. Dunbar came under criticism for achieving stereotypes among his white readers, however a careful study of his work will show that he was not the ?sell out? he was often accused of being (Rizvi 123).

Dunbar’s work represents a legacy not only to black Americans but to all people who have loved his poetry. Many have been inspired by his work, which represents a triumph of the human spirit over racism, poverty and adversity.

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