November 23 - What are You Thankful For?

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On November 23, 1892, the day before Thanksgiving, Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dayton sent a letter of gratitude to Dr. James Newton Matthews in Mason, Illinois.  The second page included a handwritten poem that was published soon afterward in Paul's first book, Oak and Ivy.

It is needless to say to you, who cannot but know so well, that on the eve of this Thanksgiving, I have much to be thankful for.  You seem to have been the instrument of a special providence in my case, and from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for what you have done, even as I thank Him that sent you.  When I think of what I owe to you, it embarrasses me;  for I do not know how to show my gratitude to you.  I hope my conduct and life and achievements shall always be such that you will never regret the part you have acted toward me and that I shall be able to repay in a measure the good you accomplished for me.  Hoping that you will spend as joyous a Thanksgiving as you have made for me.

All round about, the clouds encompassed me;
On every side I looked, my weary sight
Was met by terrors of Plutonian night;
And chilling surges of a cruel sea
That beat against my stronghold ceaselessly,
Roared rude derision at my hapless plight;
And hope, which I had thought to hold so tight,
Slipped from my weak'ning grasp and floated free.

But when I thought to flee the unequal strife,
As wearied out I could not bear it more,
Fate gave the choicest gem of all her store, --
And noble Matthews came into my life.
He warmed my being like a virile flame,
And with his coming, light and courage came!

Paul Laurence Dunbar to James Newton Matthews, November 23, 1892.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

Matthews was a country doctor and poet, and one of the cofounders of the Western Association of Writers.  Paul and Matthews met five months earlier when the WAW held its annual conference in Dayton.  Paul read his poetry at the event and Matthews was so impressed that he wrote an article about him.  The story was widely republished, bringing greater attention to Paul and his work.

Indianapolis Journal:  The poetic taste and ability of a young colored man of Dayton, O., attracted the attention of members of the Western Association of Writers at its last meeting there, and Dr. James Newton Matthews, of Mason, Ill., writes to the Journal concerning him in the following appreciative vein:

A month or two ago, while in Dayton, O., I attended a meeting of the Western authors.  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 Cheop'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.

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