November 27 - My Chirping Friend

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On November 27, 1892, the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley in Denver wrote a letter of encouragement to Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dayton.  Paul was 20 years old and working as an elevator operator.  He idolized Riley and the letter became one of Paul's most prized possessions.

See how your name is traveling, my chirping friend!  And it's a good, sound name, too, that seems to imply the brave, fine spirit of a singer who should command wide and serious attention.  Already you have many friends, and can have thousands more, being simply honest, unaffected, and just to yourself and the high sense of your endowment.

James Whitcomb Riley to Paul Laurence Dunbar, November 27, 1892.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

Riley became aware of Paul because of a newspaper article written by James Newton Matthews, a country doctor and poet from Mason, Illinois.  Matthews met Paul about five months earlier during a visit to Dayton.

I remained over in Dayton the next day, and after repeated inquiries, I succeeded in locating the rising laureate of the colored race, and called upon him.  He was an elevator-boy in one of the downtown business blocks.  He is nineteen years of age.  In reply to a question, he stated that he had been writing poems since he was thirteen.  His favorite authors were Whittier and James Whitcomb Riley.

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

The day after Riley wrote to Paul, he sent another letter to Matthews.

Yesterday I picked up one of Paul Dunbar's poems 'way out here;  and have just wrote him about it, and to lend a hand, if possible, toward the initial boost you gave him.  Certainly he deserves applause, and if he can stand it, there's the making of a very novel type of poet in him -- a credit not only to his own race but Freedom's everywhere.

James Whitcomb Riley to James Newton Matthews, November 28, 1892.  Published in On Prairie Winds:  The Letters of James Newton Matthews & James Whitcomb Riley, by Timothy Taylor and JD Eident.  Published by JD Eident (2015).  Page 324.

One of Paul's literary goals was to have his poems appear in The Century Magazine.  Before Century would publish his work, an editor asked for references, so Paul sent him Riley's letter.

We are inclined to accept the contributions you are good enough to offer us for the "Lighter Vein" department.  May we therefore ask you to refer to us some person known to us, which reference shall be in the nature of a voucher for your good faith, as you are a stranger to us.  This is in accordance of the rule of this magazine.

Robert Underwood Johnson to Paul Laurence Dunbar, December 8, 1894.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

The letters you send us are wholly satisfactory, and I send you herewith for our publishers a check in payment for the three contributions.  I also return Mr. Riley's letter.

Robert Underwood Johnson to Paul Laurence Dunbar, December 17, 1894.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

Paul and his wife Alice separated permanently in January 1902.  Their breakup happened suddenly and Paul left home without his clothes or other possessions.  More than two years later, Alice still had a scrapbook that held Riley's letter.  Paul's secretary threatened legal action to get it back.

My Dear Madam: -- Mr. Dunbar begs to reiterate his demand for certain things sent for within the past week, and to add to it, his old portfolio and first scrap book containing Riley's letter.  These must be sent or his attorney will be authorized to take due action to bring them.

Marie E. Deemer to Alice Moore Dunbar, November 19, 1904.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

Years after Paul's death, James Whitcomb Riley participated in a memorial service at Dayton's Woodland Cemetery, where a new gravestone for Paul was dedicated.  On that occasion, Riley met Paul's mother Matilda, who said she still treasured his letter.

With her eyes dimmed by a mist of tears, but dignified, maternal, and with perfect bearing, Mrs. Matilda Dunbar was helped from her carriage at Woodland Cemetery Saturday afternoon by James Whitcomb Riley, and walked to the grave of her loved one.  To her it was the grave of a child, a tender loving lad who somehow had seemed to understand the depths of her feeling;  to Riley it was the grave of a slight, sensitive negro boy, gifted with the Divine fire.  Mrs. Dunbar, who met Riley for the first time when he helped her from the carriage, spoke of a letter which Riley had written.  "The letter has become worn, but I pasted it with strong stays and it is one of the most precious tributes of my son's work that I have," said Mrs. Dunbar, "because it came early, before the boy had become recognized so largely."

 "Simple Stone Unveiled and Willow Planted for Negro Poet-Idyllist, Bard of a Race."  The Dayton Journal (Dayton, Ohio).  June 27, 1909.  Page 4.