January 8 - Working Keeps Him from Working

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On January 8, 1898, Paul Laurence Dunbar in Washington, D. C., wrote a depressed letter to his fiancée Alice Ruth Moore in Brooklyn.  Though he had a steady salary from the Library of Congress, Paul believed his job was holding him back.  He could potentially earn more money from poetry recitations, but often had to turn down speaking opportunities because of his commitment to the library.  When Paul mentioned his "fractured condition," he meant he was broke.

It is the end of the week at last and I am blessed glad of it, for I am just dog tired and sick.  Had another offer for a reading in Boston today and one in Providence and had to refuse both.  Lord, I wish I could get out for just two weeks.  "I'd git back home lousy wid de coin."  The continuity of my fractured condition is something awful.  If something doesn't happen soon, I shall be on the poor committee.  I am worried, overworked and not well.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, January 8, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

Later that year, Paul was still fractured and he complained that his library job prevented him from finishing a new book.  He was especially worried that another African American writer, Charles Chesnutt, would surpass him.

Have just been down to the bank this morning to take an inventory of stock.  I just wanted to know what I had, for Baker came to me last night to borrow a hundred dollars for 30 days at 8%.  I jollied him along, but I wouldn't have let him have it for a farm.

Didn't I tell you there was something behind those paragraphs in Chesnutt?  Houghton, Mifflin & Co. are to bring out a collection of "Conjure stories" of his and he is at work upon a novel.  Now here am I, tied down so that I can't hasten and get mine out first.  As long as the Negro literary field held me above I could afford to take it pretty easily, but now that another Richmond has come on -- a Richmond so worthy of my mettle, too -- "a horse, a horse!"

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Moore Dunbar, September 13, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

Paul's letter quotes from William Shakespeare's play Richard III, and he refers to Richmond, a rival who ultimately overcomes Richard.  Charles Chesnutt's book of short stories, The Conjure Woman, was published in the spring of 1899.  Chesnutt was often mentioned alongside Paul in articles about Black writers.

I am afraid we shall have to change our opinion of the negro:  he has learned to write.  Two young negros, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Charles W. Chesnutt, have arisen to break down the white man's trusted theories.  Mr. Dunbar's poems have that genuine ring which makes us forgive and forget crudities of form and expression and triteness of subject.  The man is a born singer who has lived close to nature and caught her freshness.  And, after all, that is the important thing in poetry.  Mr. Chesnutt's negro tales are delightful.  They show humor, understanding of the subject, and literary taste.  To be sure, they are of slight construction, but there is no reason why the man who wrote them should not do more ambitious work.  These two young authors have done more to justify the education of the negro than all the preaching and exhorting since the civil war.

"The Week in Art."  The New York Times (New York, New York).  July 22, 1899.  Page 27.

Among the gratifying developments of the past few years has been the prominence attained by a few of our men and women in the literature of the country.  In light literature and poetry, Mr. Paul Laurence Dunbar, Mrs. Alice Dunbar, Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt and Rev. J. D. Corothers have made reputations which have given the race a splendid position.

"Our Authors."  The Colored American (Washington, D. C.).  March 24, 1900.  Page 8.

For almost fifty years the negro has been free.  During this period he has made remarkable progress.  He has succeeded in the arts and sciences, in the trades and professions.  He has acquired considerable renown in literature.  Paul Laurence Dunbar occupies first place among the Afro-American writers of fiction.  Yet he has not the literary finish of Charles W. Chesnutt or the intense race feeling of Sutton E. Greggs.

"Negro Contributors to American Literature," by T. Thomas Fortune.  The Daily Republican (Belvidere, Illinois).  October 11, 1902.  Page 5.

T. Thomas Fortune was a journalist and poet, as well as the founder and editor of an influential African American newspaper.  In a letter to Booker T. Washington, Fortune praised Chesnutt while criticizing Paul's story "Silas Jackson," which is about a young Black man from Virginia who leaves home and becomes a singer in New York.  He grows vain and worldly, spending all his money, until he becomes ill, loses his position and must return home with nothing.

I enclose a Dunbar story which appeared in the Evening Post today.  The story has thoroughly exasperated me.  If noble effort in our men is to be habitually derided in fiction and all aspiration is to be jeered at as Dunbar invariably does then it would be better for the race if it had no shining light in literature.  Fortunately, we are able to turn from Dunbar to Chesnutt, a literary artist who has full sympathy with the low tendencies and the high aspirations of the race.

T. Thomas Fortune to Booker T. Washington, February 10, 1900.  The Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume 5.  Edited by Louis R. Harlan and Raymond Smock.  University of Illinois Press (Champaign, Illinois).  1976.  Page 439.