June 30 - Paul Leaves the WAW in Awe

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On June 30, 1892, a group of authors called the Western Association of Writers was visiting Dayton for their annual conference.  Paul Laurence Dunbar was 20 years old and not a member of the WAW, but he participated in the gathering.  At one session, he recited "The Ol' Tunes," a poem in Midwestern dialect.

At the morning meeting the officers were elected and the following program was given:

Music - The De Pauw Quartette
"The Poems of Home" - James Whitcomb Riley read by W. W. Pfrimmer
"The Old Tunes" - Paul Dunbar

Minutes of the Western Association of Writers 1892 conference, Dayton, Ohio.  Manuscripts and Rare Books Division, Indiana State Library.

Paul's literary talent and speaking ability made a favorable impression on the authors in attendance, and some of them eagerly helped him during his early career.  After the conference, Paul was praised by WAW members James Newton Matthews of Mason, Illinois, and Ben Parker of New Castle, Indiana.

About half way down the informal program the presiding officer announced the reading of a poem by Paul Dunbar.  Just the name for a poet, thought I.  Great was the surprise of the audience to see stepping lightly down the aisle, between the rows of fluttering fans and the assembled beauty and wit of Dayton, a slender negro lad, as black as the core of Cheops's pyramids.  He ascended the rostrum with the coolness and dignity of a cultured entertainer, and delivered a poem in a tone "as musical as is Apollo's lute."  He was applauded to the echo between the stanzas, and heartily encored at the conclusion.  He then disappeared from the hall as suddenly as he had entered it, and many were the whispered conjectures as to the personality of the man, and the originality of his verses, none believing it possible that one of his age and color could produce a thing of such evident merit.

"A Negro Poet," by James Newton Matthews.  The Indianapolis Journal (Indianapolis, Indiana).  October 2, 1892.  Page 16.

There were some very bright spots in that week that will never be forgotten, and one was the introduction of Paul Laurence Dunbar at one of the sessions, and his two or three recitations that followed.  He came to the meeting and was given a hearing.  Of course, but little was expected from an unheard-of colored boy just emerging into manhood.  But the smoothness and accuracy of his verses, through which they saw flashes of wholesome wit and tender pathos, delivered in a full, well-rounded voice, well controlled and modulated, won the audience for him before he had finished his third stanza.  At the conclusion, he was recalled, recalled twice, and would have been many more times, but that the employment by which he earned his livelihood would not permit him to be longer absent from it.  That afternoon and evening there was much talk among the members of the association about the young colored poet.  The musical quality of his verse, the singular correctness and raciness of his dialect and the evidences of careful thought and study which his readings gave were promises of future attainment, or, at the least, indexes of genius and capability that warranted a belief in him as a poet, independent of the question of race.

"Paul Laurence Dunbar," by Ben S. Parker.  The Indianapolis Journal (Indianapolis, Indiana).  August 6, 1898.  Page 9.

Several years later, Paul told a newspaper interviewer that his encounter with the WAW was a turning point in his career.

Mr. Dunbar was asked which one of his poems first brought him fame.  He said:  "The Ol' Tunes," published in 1893.

"Won't you recite the first verse?"

"Certainly," and then with a richness of voice and feeling rarely equaled he repeated:

"You kin talk about yer anthems
An' yer arias an' sich,
An' yer modern choir-singin'
That you think so awful rich;
But you orter heerd us youngsters
In the times now far away,
A-singin' o' the ol' tunes
In the ol'-fashioned way."

This poem was first published in the Indianapolis Journal and was read before the Western Association of Writers and Paul Laurence Dunbar was famous.

"Paul Laurence Dunbar."  The Daily Leader (Lexington, Kentucky).  April 18, 1899.