February 17 - My Life So Far

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On February 17, 1898, Paul Laurence Dunbar in Washington, D. C., wrote an autobiographical sketch for Mrs. A. S. Lanahan.  Paul was 25 years old at the time, and on the verge of publishing his first novel.

I must say that my life has been so uneventful that there is little in it to interest anyone.  I was born at Dayton, Ohio, twenty-five years ago.  Attended the common school there and was graduated from the high school.  This constituted my "education."  My parents and grandparents had been slaves in Kentucky.

I began writing early, when about 12, but published nothing until I was fourteen.  Then the fever took me, and I wrote ream upon ream of positive trash when I should have been studying Euclid.  Plays, verses, stories, everything I could think or dream were turned out.  Fortunately, I seldom tried to publish.  I laugh at these things now, but as I look back upon them, I have a fancy that they must have been very serious to me then and done much to mold my life.

I brought out my first book, "Oak and Ivy," which was privately printed and sold well in a circumscribed plane.  Then people began to think I read well and I took engagements for recitals from my own work.  While engaged thus, a copy of my second book fell into the hands of James A. Herne who sent it to Mr. Howells.

I continued reading, publishing "Lyrics of Lowly Life," went to England where I had a most enjoyable time.  There in the heart of a typical English home among the hills of Somerset, I finished my novel "The Uncalled" which is to appear in the May Lippincott's.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to A. S. Lanahan, February 17, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).

Later in the same year, Paul wrote a similar letter to Reverend D. J. Meese in Mansfield, Ohio.  Now 26 and married, Paul wrote from Albany, New York, where he was on a recital tour.

I am pleased to be of assistance to your son in his work, but I can hardly see how he can fill the time with the facts of my life.  They are rather meager.  I was born in Dayton, O., June 27, 1872.  Attended the public and High Schools there and graduated from the latter in 1891.  Went to work in one of the office buildings there as an elevator boy, and while doing this published the first volume of poems, "Oak and Ivy," in 1892.  Later, gave readings throughout the northwest from the poems.  During the World's Fair, was employed in the Haitian Building.  Published the next volume of poems "Majors and Minors" in 1894.  Continued to give readings from the poems.  Was employed on some of the Chicago newspapers for a while, and had for a brief time editorial charge of the Indianapolis World.  It was the volume of "Majors and Minors" that attracted Mr. Howells' attention and called forth that much talked of criticism of his.  "Lyrics of Lowly Life" was published in New York in 1897, and later in the same year, in England.  In Feb. 1897, I went to England to read, remained for six months, and returned to take a place in the Congressional Library in this city.  In April 1898 "Folks from Dixie" was published, and "The Uncalled."  A new book of poems will be out in a few months.  Now if this will be of any assistance to your son, I shall be pleased to have helped him a bit.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to D. J. Meese, December 6, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

The following year, Paul sent another autobiographical letter to William Kenneth Boyd of Durham, North Carolina.  Boyd was an educator and historian, and later became the director of Duke University library.

Enclosed you will find a sketch of my life which will, I hope, be of service to you in the paper you wish to write.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, June 27, 1872.  His father, who had been a slave, fled from Kentucky to Canada and remained there for some time.  After the war, he came to Dayton, where he met the widow, who afterwards became his wife, and the mother of Mr. Dunbar.

He was educated in the public and High Schools of Dayton.  Where he showed an especial fondness and aptitude for literary studies.  He graduated from the High school in 1891, and went to work in one of the local office buildings.  He began writing for the local press, and made some reputation in the West.  Some commendable work was done for some of the Eastern magazines who did not know that he was a Negro.

During this time, his first work, "Oak and Ivy" appeared in 1893, and Mr. Dunbar began reading from his own work in the middle western states.  About this time, also, he turned his attention to journalism, working on the Chicago RECORD, several Ohio papers, and assuming editorial charge of the Indianapolis WORLD.

The second book of poems, "Majors and Minors" was published in 1895.  The edition was nearly exhausted when a kindly review by William Dean Howells in Harper's Weekly, helped the young man to a larger audience, and led to the republication of the first two books in one, as "Lyrics of Lowly Life."

In 1897, Mr. Dunbar went to England and remained six months reading his own verses, and evoking most favorable and generous comments from the British press.  He returned to take a position in the Library of Congress in Washington, where his home now is.

The list of published books, include, besides those mentioned, "Folks from Dixie", short stories, "The Uncalled" a novel, and "Lyrics of the Hearthside" poems.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to William Kenneth Boyd, April 18, 1899.  William Kenneth Boyd Papers, Duke University Library.  Folder 33.

In response to another request from a Boston literary columnist, Paul gave an extremely brief account of his life.

Lying before the writer is a short letter from the negro novelist, the brevity of which reveals more of the real man than any detailed story of his life could have done.  The note has a touch of reserve in it which suggests both modesty and dignity.  "I think," he remarks, as if in apology for not giving more of biographical detail, "there is too much exploiting of the inner life of those who come before the public," and then follow the bare statements:  "I was born in Dayton, Ohio, 1872, went to school there, graduated from its high school in 1891, worked there, and there published my first two books of poetry.  My early life was like any other boy's who was not in affluent circumstances.  Further than this I think there is little.  Thanking you very much for your interest, I am truly yours, Paul Laurence Dunbar."  These few lines were almost an entire letter, but in their brevity and simplicity they told a great deal.

"The Negro Novelist," by Pauline Carrington Bouvé.  Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts).  No date [c. 1899].

Paul wrote a similar autobiographical sketch for the Black author and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, and included a witty closing line above his signature.

Born Dayton, O, June 27th 1872.  Attended the common schools there and was graduated from the high school in 1891.  Began writing first when about 12 published in local papers at 14.  Was editor-in-chief of school paper and President of school society, being only colored member of my class and in the body.  Began work at 20 for newspapers and syndicates.  A clerk under Mr. Douglass at the World's Fair in '93.  Began magazine work and have written at times for most of them, have published 11 books excluding the first two which were personally printed. 

I am not yet dead.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to W. E. B. Du Bois, May 28, 1903.  W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries (Amherst, Massachusetts).  Special Collections and University Archives.  MS 312.

Paul's signature in letter to Du Bois

Paul's signature in a letter to Du Bois.  Courtesy of W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, UMass Amherst Libraries.