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books The Legacy of a Caged Bird

During his lifetime, Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African American, was among the most famous poets in the United States. It is one of the great paradoxes of the early Jim Crow era. This biography sheds new light on the writer's life and work.

Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Life and Times of a Caged Bird    
Gene Andrew Jarrett
Princeton University Press
ISBN: 9780691150529

The man who is strong to fight his fight,
     And whose will no front can daunt,
If the truth be truth and the right be right,
     Is the man that the ages want.
Tho’ he fail and die in grim defeat,
     Yet he has not fled the strife,
And the house of Earth will seem more sweet
     For the perfume of his life.
— Paul Laurence Dunbar, “For the Man Who Fails”

THE DUNBAR Hotel is a cultural landmark of Black heritage in Los Angeles, though it didn’t always bear the name of writer Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Originally the Hotel Somerville, opened in 1928 by John and Vada Somerville, it made a mark by hosting Black luminaries, including Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Langston Hughes, and W. E. B. Du Bois, even as tough economic times made its survival precarious.

Like the hotel named for him, Dunbar experienced his highs and lows — having tasted success, ruin was always nipping at his heels. Gene Andrew Jarrett’s Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Life and Times of a Caged Bird offers a raw, unadulterated portrait of the writer’s short yet full life. In his time, Dunbar published 12 collections of poetry, four novels, four short story collections, and various libretti and essays. More than Dunbar’s sheer volume of work, his unique ability to reach across racial lines garnered him attention and continues to make him relevant today.

Dunbar’s mother, Matilda, was an escaped enslaved woman from Kentucky, with “no education except what she picked up herself,” as he recounted. Matilda would regale Dunbar with stories in his youth: he “attributed the tenor, the music, the ethos of his poetry about the lives of his parents, about their circle of friends, to his memory of these voices.”

The book presents more than Dunbar’s legacy. Jarrett emphasizes the timelessness of Dunbar’s work as a reflection of the human condition but also hones in on the challenges that Black people experienced specifically during Reconstruction. As Dunbar wrote in his essay “Of Negro Journals,” “[T]he head of Slavery was cut off,” and the “‘monster’ became a ‘Hydra.’”

Early in his career, Dunbar struggled to gain widespread recognition. But then, famed critic William Dean Howells received a copy of Dunbar’s second poetry collection, Majors and Minors. Jarrett notes that, according to historian Van Wyck Brooks, Howells was the only critic in “the history of American literature who has been able to create reputations by a single review.” While Howells praised Majors and Minors, he could not do so without turning to “the mythical caricatures of minstrelsy to describe Paul’s phenotype and physiognomy, the language of which seeped into his assessment of the poetry.” Howells wrote:

He calls his little book Majors and Minors; the majors being in our American English, and the Minors being in dialect, the dialect the middle-south negroes and the middle-south whites; for the poet’s ear has been quick for the accent of his neighbors as well as for that of his kindred.

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Howells cites the Majors as when “Paul was ‘least himself,’ or when he was least the ‘pure African type.’” Though Dunbar’s dialect poetry was lauded, he struggled to receive equal praise for his non-dialect work. Indeed, some “reviewers contended that readers likely would favor the dialect of the slave or the regional bumpkin over the high, though unfortunately ‘imitative,’ language of the Romantics” from the “Negro poet.” Dunbar later said Howells’s praise “cost and catapulted his career in equal measure.”

While The Life and Times of a Caged Bird isn’t the first biography on Paul Laurence Dunbar, it offers immense detail and newly discovered information. Jarrett complements the narrative with excerpts from Dunbar’s collected works and also draws upon letters, journal entries, and other biographical sources. He cites a biography of musician Will Marion Cook (Dunbar’s friend and collaborator), noting Cook’s first impression of the man:

[I]n his rusty black suit (in which you could see your face and figure) was a sight to behold. Of less than medium height — perfectly formed, and smooth black skin he inherited from his mother (also a beautiful black) — a brow noble in proportions — and eyes that were soft, glowing, [and] eloquent […] He was a mess — I mean a mess of good looking [fellow] except the mouth … the mouth which was ugly — uglier than mine — and that’s a record.

With his nuanced portrait of the writer, Jarrett endeavors to tackle Dunbar’s complicated legacy, never shying away from or attempting to sugarcoat problematic aspects of his character. Amidst the social turmoil in and outside of Dunbar’s life, a love story spreads across the pages, balancing the book’s melancholic overtones: “In April 1895 Paul came across the photograph of a woman in the Monthly Review.” He had been so taken with the light-skinned Black woman that he wrote her a rather bold letter. But while her beauty appealed to him, they formed a kinship over writing. “I was anxious to know more of you and your work,” he wrote Alice Ruth Moore.

Like Dunbar, Moore was brilliant, well educated, and ambitious. After two years, they finally met in person. After three, they were married.

Moore represented something Dunbar could never achieve: lightness of skin. “Not coincidentally, within many African American communities, social stature rose in proportion to the lightness of skin color,” says Jarrett. “His insecurity over his own looks and finances meant he believed he remained at a disadvantage.” Dunbar’s insecurity was a third wheel in their relationship, causing rifts in otherwise peaceful moments and irreparable fractures that would bring ultimate separation. Jarrett writes:

In print and in person, turbulence described the six years and nine months of their relationship: infatuation and love, admiration and encouragement, but also suspicion and frustration, exasperation and fury, as well as intimidation and violence.

There’s a filmic quality to Jarrett’s descriptions, and it carries through as he details a pivotal moment from the dawn of Dunbar’s renown,

an invitation to recite poems at Toledo’s West End Club, an exclusive society of white men that met regularly and welcomed edifying lectures and entertaining recitals. Paul was probably the first African American to speak before the members of this newly formed club, a fact not lost on him when he agreed to come the evening of Wednesday, April 19, 1893.

Prior to the recital, W. C. Chapman “was slated to deliver a talk on the Negro in the South.” Chapman attended under the impression “that he had been spreading his advocacy of white supremacy only to a roomful of fellow Anglo-Saxon men” and had been utterly ignorant of Dunbar’s presence. Chapman’s thesis was that Black people “could not achieve the heights of dignity and intellection so prized by the wider world.”

After Chapman’s speech, Dunbar made his way to the front of the room. “I shall give you one poem which I had not intended reciting when I first came here,” he declared before uttering the opening line of “Ode to Ethiopia”: “O Mother Race!” He continued through the closing stanza:

Go on and up! Our souls and eyes
Shall follow thy continuous rise;
Our ears shall list thy story
From bards which from thy root shall spring,
And proudly tune their lyres to sing
Of Ethiopia’s glory.

Jarrett writes: “A roar of applause trailed Paul as he departed the room.”

Dunbar struggled to find comfort in his celebrity. Early on, “the publicity perturbed him; it made him both upset and nervous. ‘I feel like a man walking a slack rope above thousands of spectators, who knows himself an amateur and is every moment expecting to fall.’” The tragedy of Dunbar was that he was chasing something his ill mental health would never allow him to achieve.

Signs of Dunbar’s mental health first manifested as early as high school. His poem “Melancholia” opens:

Silently without my window,
     Tapping gently at the pane,
     Falls the rain.
Through the trees sighs the breeze
     Like a soul in pain.
Here alone I sit and weep;
Thought hath banished sleep.

The “melancholic strain” of his writings made itself known to his readers, generating concern for Dunbar.

Jarrett writes that “[t]he alcoholic came to be diagnosed as diseased” — and this disease plagued Dunbar just as it did his father. He “would come to ensure that liquor was always on hand to help him cope with his struggles, physical and mental.” It was a secret disease that only Dunbar’s most intimate relations would come to know and that Moore would be victim of.

As Dunbar’s life progressed, his rise in celebrity was matched by an increase in inner turmoil. His drinking would only worsen, vices would multiply, and overall health would plummet. Dunbar’s insecurity, paired with his alcoholism, challenged the stability of his relationship with Moore. He was aware of his disease — he admitted to her — though confession did nothing to curb it. His alcoholism forced its way into the most intimate parts of their lives. “‘My feelings […] have been a strange admixture of remorse & exultation,’ he confessed [to her in a letter.] ‘I know that I done wrong, very wrong. My course has been weak and brutal. I have dishonored you and I cannot forgive myself for it.’”

Following his assault on Moore,

[g]uilt, depression, and thoughts of suicide gripped Paul. Images of Alice “lying there bandaged and bruised and sore” haunted him. His remorse reached a turning point. The gravity of her condition was now crushing him. “I have been criminally careless and a brute besides,” he wrote. He wavered between his own commitments to life and death. “If I were brave enough or coward enough I would do the only honorable thing a man can do in such a case, but while I am not afraid to die, I am afraid to take my own life.”

Dunbar is neither a hero nor a villain in this story — such binary terms cannot render his character justice. He was a man with an illness in a time that lacked the capabilities to heal him. Moreover, Jarrett illuminates how racist attitudes permeated the Black population during Reconstruction. Dunbar’s elevated status made him an Olympian among Black people, and his marriage to Moore brought him as close as he could be to the elite class. On this subject, Moore wrote an essay, with a note of self-consciousness: “[T]he ‘Negro’ meant ‘those whose complexions were noticeably dark,’ whereas the ‘mulatto’ were ‘always a class apart, separated from and superior to the Negroes, ennobled were it only by one drop of white blood in their veins.’”

Dunbar, at times, belittled members of the lower class in his letters, calling them “n***ers” and bemoaning having to perform for them. Dunbar knew what it was to be both disenfranchised and privileged: he was a man of two worlds, not quite fitting into one or the other entirely. He did not live as a white man did but experienced advantages most Black people weren’t afforded — particularly in adolescence. Of this, Jarrett writes:

In 1890 less than 1 percent of the country’s entire population — around 203,000 students — attended high school, and only 11 percent of this group finished coursework or graduated in the 1889–1890 academic year. Only the most privileged, the most ambitious, the luckiest, or all of the above made it to and through the American high school. Just two decades removed from slavery, most African American families […] did not expect their children to attend high school.

Despite his prejudiced attitudes, Dunbar found ways to lift up the Black community throughout his career. He wrote the libretto for Clorindy, a musical with a full Black cast that appeared on Broadway. His 1902 book The Sport of the Gods was praised for taking “the Negro where Harriet Beecher Stowe left him in slavery.” Black leaders heralded him “to be among ‘the few bright particular stars which may be held up as beacons for the whole race.’” Unfortunately, Dunbar’s contributions would be limited by the time allotted to him. “In the nineteenth century, more people died from tuberculosis in the United States than from any other illness”— the illness that would claim Dunbar’s life. On February 9, 1906, he died at the age of 33.

“So we have really only been married three years to-day,” Moore wrote, “and what years they have been, too. Years of sorrow and years of joy and pain and gladness all intertwined like a many hued garland. I am glad that I am yours.” Even when she remarried, she retained the name Dunbar. Though they had a tumultuous relationship that led to an acrimonious separation, they never divorced. She lamented not being invited to be with Dunbar in his final days — in fact, she wouldn’t learn of his death until five days after. Despite all he put her through, she still loved him and bore no ill will.

Jarrett recounts the eulogy of Brand Whitlock, a close acquaintance of Dunbar and mayor of Toledo:

There was nothing foreign in Paul’s poetry, nothing imported, nothing imitated; it was all original, native and indigenous. Thus he becomes the poet, not of his own race alone — I wish I could make people see this — but the poet of you and me and of all the men everywhere.

Nine years after Dunbar’s death, Moore, now remarried, published the essay “The Poet and His Song.” In it, she wrote that one “must delve beneath the mere sordid facts of life and its happenings” to “get a correct idea” of the “poet laureate of his race.” Jarrett does not ask that we overlook or forget but rather that we consider the whole of a person. Moore knew what it was to admire and admonish Dunbar. She knew him — she wanted the world to know him. Jarrett knows him, and anyone who reads Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Life and Times of a Caged Bird will know him, too, and be better for it.

¤

Vesper North is a writer, artist, professor, and assistant editor at TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics. Their work has been featured in Ouroboros Magazine and will appear in the fall issue of Meditating Cat Zine.