July 26 - Hello, Doctor

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On July 26, 1892, Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dayton wrote for the first time to James Newton Matthews, a country doctor and poet from Mason, Illinois.  They had met a month earlier when the Western Association of Writers held its annual conference in Dayton.  Matthews was a cofounder and vice president of the WAW.  At the time, Paul was 20 years old and working as an elevator operator.

Nearly a month is a long time to take in fulfilling my promises, but through your knowledge of the difficulties under which I labor, you can easily forgive my negligence.  My hopes are no brighter than when you saw me here, I am getting on no better, and, what would be impossible, no worse.  I am nearer discouraged than I have ever yet been.  Can you blame me for doubting my ability when I have never been able to sell a single poem to any paper?  I want to write more, but my bell keeps ringing so I must close.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to James Newton Matthews, July 26, 1892.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

Matthews was an important advocate early in Paul's literary career.  In the fall of 1892, he wrote an article about Paul and quoted his poem "A Drowsy Day."  The story appeared in newspapers around the country, bringing wider recognition to Paul and his work.

Poor Dunbar!  He deserves a better fate.  Dayton should be proud of him, and yet, with all his natural brilliancy and capacity for better things, he is chained like a galley-slave to the ropes of a dingy elevator at starvation wages.  Show me a white boy of nineteen who can excel, or even equal, lines like these:

The air is dark, the sky is gray,
The misty shadows come and go,
And here within my dusky room
Each chair looks ghostly in the gloom.
Outside the rain falls cold and slow --
Half-stinging drops, half-blinding spray.

I look far out across the lawn,
Where huddled stand the silly sheep;
My work lies idle at my hands,
My thoughts fly out like scattered strands
Of thread, and on the verge of sleep --
Still half awake -- I dream and yawn.

Half seen, the bare, gaunt-fingered boughs
Before my window sweep and sway,
And chafe in tortures of unrest.
My chin sinks down upon my breast;
I cannot work on such a day,
But only sit and dream and drowse.

"A New Negro Poet," by James Newton Matthews.  Dayton Daily Journal (Dayton, Ohio).  October 24, 1892.  Page 3.