February 28 - Mister Dunbar, I Presume?

Story topics

On February 28, 1897, Paul Laurence Dunbar in London wrote an optimistic letter to his mother Matilda in Chicago, telling her how he was the center of attention in English society.  Paul was in England for a recital tour and to find an English publisher for his book Lyrics of Lowly Life.  He told Matilda how Londoners did not subject him to the same racial discrimination he experienced in the United States.

I am finally getting somewhat settled here.  The people are very nice to me.  It appears that I am the most interviewed man in London, the best papers having sent reporters to me.  Did I tell you that I was at tea with Henry Stanley?  I am entirely white!  My French waiter takes off his cap when I come up the steps, and my blooming rosy cheeked English maid kisses me as if I were the handsomest man on earth.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Matilda Dunbar, February 28, 1897.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

Henry Stanley is best remembered as an African explorer, but he was also a journalist.  Major James Pond, Paul's manager, had sent a copy of Lyrics of Lowly Life to Stanley, hoping he would review it in the English press.  Paul wrote about his encounter with Stanley in a letter to his fiancée Alice Ruth Moore in Brooklyn.

Think what a grace you would be at my side today when I dine with Mr. and Mrs. Stanley and, as Mrs. Stanley's note says, "a few London society leaders."  Ye Gods!  What am I going to do or say?  Now if you were with me, you might do the talking while I lounged around and looked wise.  I would give £50 down today for a mustache and an older look.  The literary men and newspapers know me here by name, but they invariably say, "Is this Mr. Dunbar?  Why, I thought you were a much older man."

I have been to Stanley's and made a decided social hit.  I recited and they seemed to be delighted.  They think our enterprise is going to be a success.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, February 20, 1897.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 5).

From a financial standpoint, Paul's enterprise was not a success, and he eventually grew cynical of the obsequious behavior of Londoners.

Paul Dunbar, the colored poet of the United States, is here, and some of his impressions are vastly interesting.  Says he:  "There is a class of them whose civility I despise.  It is those who are polite for revenue only.  Waiters, cabmen, porters and sweepers, who grin and nod and touch their caps in hope of winning from one's vanity a penny or two.  For one smile, 1 half-penny;  for smiling and touching hat, 1 penny;  for touching hat without smiling, half-penny;  for laying hands on a box and grunting while the porter carries it in, 1 penny;  for making a stroke with the street broom as one passes, half-penny;  if the stroke is made with one hand and cap is touched with the other it costs a half-penny extra in recognition of superior skill."

"London Notes."  Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, Massachusetts).  May 4, 1897.  Page 9.