DUNBAR, PAUL LAURENCE Prior to the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920's, the most distinguished black American poet was Paul Laurence Dunbar. The son of former slaves, Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872. Encouraged by his mother and, later, his teachers, he began writing poetry at the age of six, giving a public recital of his verse at thirteen. Successful in high school but unsuccessful in securing meaningful employment following graduation, the aspiring poet took a job as an elevator operator at four dollars a week. In the meantime, he continued writing verse, both in standard English and in African American dialect.
With the aid of a patron, Dunbar's first book of poems, Oak and Ivy, was privately printed in 1893, followed by Majors and Minors in 1895. The latter book was favorably reviewed by the noted William Dean Howells in Harper's Weekly and, as a result, Dunbar was pushed into the literary limelight. From that point on he devoted his full energy toward the pursuit of a literary career. His best known work, Lyrics of a Lowly Life, appeared in 1896. Before his premature death in 1906, Dunbar published Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899), Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903), Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905), as well as four novels and four collections of short stories.