November 29 - Book Lovers Will Understand

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On November 29, 1892, Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dayton wrote to Dr. James Newton Matthews in Mason, Illinois, about some new books he had received.  Paul was 20 years old and working as an elevator operator for $4 a week.

As you requested, I write to let you know of the arrival of the books.  They have just come, and I am charmed with them and perfectly happy.  One only that you mentioned in your list failed to come, Quackenbos' Ancient Literature and that I suppose will come later.  I thank you for their selection -- Harper's Cyclopedia of Poetry is a grand thing and will be the source of benefit and instruction as well as pleasure to me, and of the rest I shall enjoy all equally well.  I am now going to write to Mr. Ross.  He has done a great thing for me and I want him to know that I feel grateful.  I can't gush, but I'll tell him in as straightforward a manner as possible.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to James Newton Matthews, November 29, 1892.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

Matthews, a country doctor and poet, had met Paul about five months earlier during a visit to Dayton.  He heard Paul read his poetry and was so impressed that he wrote an article about him.  A Mr. Ross in Canada read the article and sent $20 to Matthews as a gift for Paul.  Although Paul was deep in debt, and $20 was equal to five weeks' pay, he decided not to take the cash.  Instead, he asked Matthews to use it to buy some books for him.

About the twenty dollars, I am afraid that you will think that I am unwise;  but although I need the money very much, yet my great love for books will not let me lose this chance for securing some.  So if you think it will be advisable I should like to have the books.  While I am always compelled to regard my ordinary needs, it would be a long time before I could deem myself able to buy books and so I thought to avail myself of this kind offer.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to James Newton Matthews, November 16, 1892.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

Following Paul's instructions, Matthews chose a set of books that he thought would be beneficial to a rising young poet.  Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poetry was an anthology of verse nearly a thousand pages long.  John D. Quackenbos' Illustrated History of Ancient Literature, Oriental and Classical was a textbook about literature from the ancient world filled with colorful maps and translated verses.  George Crabb's English Synonymes Explained was a thesaurus of over a thousand pages. While waiting for the books to arrive, Paul read their titles with great excitement.

On the eve of this Thanksgiving, I have much to be thankful for.  For the books which you have ordered, I shall be so thankful, not only to my distant friend but to you for your excellent selection.  Crabb's book of synonyms has long been one of the desires of my heart.  I will write my Montreal friend just as soon as the books arrive and try to express the gratitude I really feel toward him.  So delighted am I with the gift that I read and reread the list to still the fever of anticipation.

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

A newspaper article described the Canadian's motive for donating money to Paul.

One gentleman from Montreal manifests his interest in a practical way by sending Dr. Matthews $20 to be used in buying books for young Dunbar.  This gentleman suggests that the case affords an opportunity for philanthropists and friends of the negro race to do an individual and his people a service by assisting this lad to a more congenial occupation in which he can better develop his literary and poetic abilities and that will allow him more time for study and self-improvement.  He says:  "I consider that a colored poet of sufficient ability to make a name for himself would do more to enlighten and encourage to ambition the multitude of the colored people in America than almost anything else that could be done for them.  They would have someone to look up to -- one whose pen would diffuse many wholesome truths to the people of his race, and would imbue others with the desire to emulate his success."

"For Practical Philanthropists."  The Indianapolis Journal (Indianapolis, Indiana).  November 13, 1892.  Page 12.