Born in Dayton, Ohio to former slaves, Paul Laurence Dunbar perservered through difficult times to become an 'overnight' success. The only African American at Dayton Central High, he edited the school paper and graduated high in his class. Unable to find better employment, he worked as an elevator operator. To survive the monotony he composed poems, eventually compiling enough for Oak and Ivy, published in 1893 using his $4 a week salary as collateral. To recoup the $125 cost, Dunbar found an audience by (business executives take note) perfecting his "elevator speech" to sell copies to his passengers.
Dunbar's had two lucky breaks over the course of his career. One was meeting Dr. Henry Archibald Tobey from Toledo, who became a friend and benefactor. Tobey backed the publishing of Dunbar's second book of poems, Majors and Minors in 1895. The volume contains many of Dunbar's best works, along with a number of poems and lyrics written in dialect.
Dunbar's second break was when Majors and Minors was reviewed by in the popular column of William Dean Howels (also thanks to Dr. Tobey) in the same issue of Harper's Weekly that announced William McKinley's nomination for president. The combination of a glowing review and a wide circulation made Dunbar, just turned 24, into a household name overnight.
Dunbar went on over the next few years to publish several collections of verse, including Lyrics of Lowly Life , Lyrics of the Hearthside , Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow , and Lyrics of Love and Laughter . He married poet Alice Ruth Moore in 1898, separating in 1902. Dunbar died in 1906 from tuberculosis at age 33.
Poets' Corner Index Entry for Paul Laurence Dunbar.
More on Paul Laurence Dunbar at [Wikipedia]
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[Bigraphical Summary by Steve Spanoudis - sources: University of Dayton Library, Wright State University Library, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, The Evekyn Underhill Association]