Summary and Keywords
Paul Laurence Dunbar, born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872, became the first African American to make his living solely as a writer. When he died of tuberculosis in 1906, he was perhaps the most famous and best-loved black man in America. During a short but prolific career, Dunbar composed about five hundred poems, one hundred short stories, four novels, many essays, and song lyrics. His public performances of his own works were wildly popular, and generations of African Americans were raised knowing, often by heart, his best-loved poems.
In 1896, William Dean Howells, dean of American literary critics, hailed Dunbar’s work, but singled out the dialect poems for special praise. The public preferred them, too. For the decade that remained to him, Dunbar continued to write dialect poems, some of which seem to reinforce negative stereotypes of African Americans, and others that appear to romanticize the “good old days” of the antebellum South. On the other hand, Dunbar produced essays and poetry critical of America and the severe limits and indignities imposed on African Americans. Why would such a writer produce works so contradictory? This has been the crux of Dunbar studies almost from the time of his death. His critical reception reveals much about the taste and political views of subsequent generations of his readers and critics, who would do well to remember the enormous challenges facing Dunbar and all African American artists who strove to find their voices and make a living during those post-Reconstruction years, the “nadir” of the black experience in America.
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