Book Cover of Paul Laurence Dunbar


Lifetime: 1872 - 1906 Passed: ≈ 118 years ago


Poet, Novelist, Writer


United States

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Dayton, Ohio, to parents who had been enslaved in Kentucky before the American Civil War, Dunbar began writing stories and verse when he was a child. He published his first poems at the age of 16 in a Dayton newspaper, and served as president of his high school's literary society.

Dunbar's popularity increased rapidly after his work was praised by William Dean Howells, a leading editor associated with Harper's Weekly. Dunbar became one of the first African-American writers to establish an international reputation. In addition to his poems, short stories, and novels, he also wrote the lyrics for the musical comedy In Dahomey (1903), the first all-African-American musical produced on Broadway in New York. The musical later toured in the United States and the United Kingdom. Suffering from tuberculosis, which then had no cure, Dunbar died in Dayton, Ohio, at the age of 33.

Much of Dunbar's more popular work in his lifetime was written in the "Negro dialect" associated with the antebellum South, though he also used the Midwestern regional dialect of James Whitcomb Riley. Dunbar also wrote in conventional English in other poetry and novels. Since the late 20th century, scholars have become more interested in these other works.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born at 311 Howard Street in Dayton, Ohio, on June 27, 1872, to parents who were enslaved in Kentucky before the American Civil War. After being emancipated, his mother Matilda moved to Dayton with other family members, including her two sons Robert and William from her first marriage. Dunbar's father Joshua escaped from slavery in Kentucky before the war ended. He traveled to Massachusetts and volunteered for the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first two black units to serve in the war. The senior Dunbar also served in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment. Paul Dunbar was born six months after Joshua and Matilda's wedding on Christmas Eve, 1871.

The marriage of Dunbar's parents was troubled, and Dunbar's mother left Joshua soon after having their second child, a daughter. Joshua died on August 16, 1885, when Paul was 13 years old.

Dunbar wrote his first poem at the age of six and gave his first public recital at the age of nine. His mother assisted him in his schooling, having learned to read expressly for that purpose. She often read the Bible with him, and thought he might become a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was the first independent black denomination in America, founded in Philadelphia in the early 19th century.

Dunbar was the only African-American student during his years at Central High School in Dayton. Orville Wright was a classmate and friend. Well-accepted, he was elected as president of the school's literary society, and became the editor of the school newspaper and a debate club member.

Books by Paul Laurence Dunbar

The Sport of the Gods Cover image

The Sport of the Gods

Fiction Novel
Marriage Murder Innocence Court Culture Heritage Life America Alcoholism United States General Fiction

The Sport of the Gods is a novel by Paul Laurence Dunbar centered on American urban black life. Forced to leave the South, a family falls apart amid the harsh realities of Northern inner city life in this 1902 examination of the forces that extinguis...

The Uncalled Cover image

The Uncalled

Family Young Struggle Society America Experiences Communism United States

It tells the story of a young African-American man named John who is searching for his place in the world. Set in the late 19th century, "The Uncalled" explores themes of racial identity, social inequality, and the struggle for individual freedom. D...

James Whitcomb Riley Cover image

James Whitcomb Riley

Love Tribute Imagery Nature Poems Emotion Verses

The poem is a heartfelt homage to Riley's life and work, capturing the essence of his poetry and his love for nature and simple pleasures. Dunbar's vivid imagery and musical language paint a beautiful picture of Riley's world, evoking the sights, sou...

Vagrants Cover image


Imagery Poverty Education Poems Home Struggle Economic Suffering Responsibility

The poem tells the story of homeless people, referred to as "vagrants," who wander the streets in search of food and shelter. Dunbar, who was the son of former slaves, was known for using his writing to shed light on the struggles faced by African Am...

The Love of Landry Cover image

The Love of Landry

Family Love Romance Blossom Happiness Journey Relationships Secret

This takes readers on a poignant journey through the complexities of love, race, and societal barriers. Set in the backdrop of post-Civil War America, this captivating novel explores the forbidden relationship between Landry Walden, a young African-A...

The Poet and The Baby Cover image

The Poet and The Baby

Dream Poems Society America Hope Emotion Verses United States

What if a baby could inspire a poet to write the most beautiful poems of his life? The Poet and the Baby is a collection of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the most celebrated African American poets of all time. The poems in this collection ar...

The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories Cover image

The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories

Fiction Novel
Power Prejudice Challenges Struggle Life America Triumphs United States Depths

In the vibrant tapestry of African American literature, Paul Laurence Dunbar's "The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories" stands as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, the enduring power of love, and the captivating richness of African...