Early African-American Poets

Who was the first black poet to gain national fame?

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) was the first black poet to gain national fame, in 1893. Born in Dayton, Ohio, Dunbar was accepted wholeheartedly as a writer and widely recognized in the late nineteenth century. His literary promise was recognized first when he graduated from high school in 1891. At that time he delivered the class poem that he had written. Financially unable to support himself while he studied law, Dunbar developed his literary talent and became a man of letters. He first worked as an elevator operator while he read widely and honed his writing skills, which led him to become founder and editor of the Dayton Tattler (1889–1890). After that he worked briefly as a clerk at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition (1893), as court messenger (1896), and assistant clerk at the Library of Congress (1897–1898). His writings began to appear in print and reflected his use of dialect and standard English in his work. Dunbar’s poems were published in the Dayton Herald as early as 1888. His first book, Oak and Ivy, appeared in 1893, and two years later his second book, Majors and Minors, attracted the attention of the celebrated critic William Dean Howells. His third book, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), gained him his national reputation. He published a number of other works, including collections of short stories, collections of poems, and works of fiction.

Best known as a poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar was a writer who gained national renown with collections published in the late-nineteenth century.


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