February 14 - Letter to the Dead

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On February 14, 1906, Alice Moore Dunbar in Wilmington, Delaware, wrote a bitter letter to William "Bud" Burns in Dayton.  Burns was a close friend and physician of Alice's husband, Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had died on February 9.  The Dunbars separated four years earlier and communication between them had broken down.  After hearing conflicting reports about Paul's health, Alice secretly asked Dr. Burns to let her know if Paul was near death.  She was shocked to learn from a newspaper that Paul had died, and she was angry that Burns hadn't warned her.

I have just been reading over an old letter of yours dated September 1904 wherein you promised me that whenever Paul's illness reached a stage that was truly serious you would let me know.  I read it over because I wondered if I had been mistaken or had forgotten what you said;  but I was not.  Knowing our home life as you did and realizing how I felt towards Paul you can imagine how I felt when I opened a paper on the car last Saturday morning.  Oh, I thought you might have spared me that shock.  Do you know that I would have come to Dayton by the first train had you or anyone telegraphed me to come before he passed away?  Do you know I would have liked to look on his face before he was laid away?  I may be cruel and heartless as you all doubtless think but there is one thing I shall go to my grave unforgetful of -- that at the last I was of so small account in Paul's life that not one of you remembered to say to me -- He is dead.  I am sorry that you, whom I had depended upon, failed me at the last.

Alice Moore Dunbar to Dr. William "Bud" Burns, February 14, 1906.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).

Alice's letter was answered by a relative who told her that Burns had died unexpectedly a few months earlier.  No one else knew about his secret agreement to notify Alice when Paul neared death.

Your letter to my dear nephew just received, and it caused me to weep that you had not learned of his untimely death and you, who had relied upon him, thinking he had failed you at the last.  Dr. Burns' death was quite a blow to me and also to Paul.  He was stricken down and succumbed to typhoid fever after an illness of two short weeks.  It seems so sad that one so good and true should be snatched away before he had reached his prime.  If the dear boy had not been silent in his last resting place he would not have failed you.  Paul never got over Dr. Burns' death.  He seemed to give up and become discouraged and on Tuesday night, before he died, he said that he would soon be with Bud.

John H. Finley to Alice Moore Dunbar, February 17, 1906.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

After the shock of Paul's death, Alice began keeping a diary in an address book.  The first page has just four sparse entries.  The first two give the dates of Paul's death and funeral.  The third indicates she learned about Dr. Burns' death on February 19, two days after his uncle's letter was written.

Feb 9  P.L.D. 1906. Dayton, Ohio

Feb 12               Buried. Dayton.

Feb 19 Heard of Burn's death.

May 4  Mama fell.

Diary No. 1, 1906 - 1907.  Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library (Newark, Delaware).  MSS 0113, Box 10, F215.

Months later, Alice described her experiences in a letter to Lida Keck Wiggins, a writer from Springfield, Ohio, who was conducting research for a biography about Paul.

I wrote Dr. Burns and rebuked him for failing to keep his word and received a reply from his uncle telling me that the doctor had been dead for four months, and had not left any instructions with his family about me.  It seems almost too strange to be true.

Alice Moore Dunbar to Lida Keck Wiggins, August 7, 1906.  Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library (Newark, Delaware).  MSS 0113, Box 5, F134.