Paul Laurence Dunbar

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Paul Laurence Dunbar is primarily known as a poet; however, his body of writing is extremely diverse. For instance, over his lifetime Dunbar wrote a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, and a play. Two of his novels, The Fanatics (1901) and The Sport of the Gods (1902) are included in the “100 Novels Collection.”
Dunbar is remembered most for his use of Negro Dialect or African American Vernacular English in his writing.  Geneva Smitherman defines AAVE or Black Dialect as “an Africanized form of English reflecting Black America’s linguistic-cultural African heritage and the conditions of servitude, oppression, and life in America. Black Language is Euro-American speech with Afro-American meaning, nuance, tone, and gestures…It has allowed blacks to create a culture of survival in an alien land, and as a by-product has served to enrich the language of all Americans.”

Dunbar’s use of dialect helped him to become a top selling writer during the 1890s and early 1900s. Dunbar was able to capitalize off of the sometimes troubling “plantation tradition” made popular my Joel Chandler Harris. In short, his works in dialect were well-received by the market who had an interest in black life.
Dunbar, though, wrote in more than just dialect. He has written pieces that reflect more European standards of writing. Even still, his legacy as a writer is complicated. Some of his contemporaries, such as James Weldon Johnson for instance, have criticized Dunbar for relying on dialect and seemingly promoting stereotypes of black rural culture and plantation life. On the other hand, poet Maya Angelou has pointed to Dunbar as an inspiration for her own writing career.
Below, I have complied a list of Dunbar’s works:
Collections of Poetry
Oak and Ivy (1893)
Majors and Minors (1895)
Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896)
Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899)
Poems of Cabin and Field (1899)
Candle-Lightin’ Time (1901)
Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903)
When Malindy Sings (1903)
Li’l Gal (1904)
Howdy, Honey, Howdy (1905)
Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905)
The Uncalled (1898)
Folks from Dixie (1898)
The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900)
The Fanatics (1901)