Gene Andrew Jarrett’s new biography of the African American poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar seeks to put aside the myths that have undermined previous accounts and to focus instead on the remarkable life itself. The author laments that this more objective approach has forced him ‘to downplay or diverge from the more compelling or sensational hearsay in Dunbar lore’.[i] As Jarrett shows us, however, Dunbar’s is a story that requires no embellishment to be extraordinary.
The biography opens with a long chapter on the lives of Dunbar’s parents, Joshua and Matilda, both of whom were born enslaved in Kentucky. Some time in the 1840s, around the age of thirty, Joshua fled captivity. Traveling north via the Ohio stations of the Underground Railroad, he eventually crossed the international border and settled down to work as a plasterer in Ontario. But Joshua was one of many free Black men in Canada who felt the pull to return south and serve in the Union Army after the outbreak of the Civil War. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, he did so. Joshua’s experience of the War was similar to that of many Black soldiers. Not trusted with combat duty by commanders, he and his comrades got down to work with shovel and spade. All the same, the war was won. Joshua returned to Ohio, site of his first free steps, bearing a legacy of the fighting common among those soldiers who survived: violent thoughts born of bitterness and intensified by alcohol.
Matilda may have been young, only twenty, when freedom came, but already she had suffered the indignity and pain of forced labour, been married, borne children and been abandoned. She and her mother moved north to Ohio in 1866, settling in Dayton. There, Matilda met Joshua Dunbar, thirty years her senior. From the beginning, their marriage was unsettled. While they loved one another, Joshua was not a stable partner, and as Jarrett puts it, ‘their bond evolved misshapen, unmoored from the affection that first brought them together’.[ii] Their son Paul was born in 1872. Shortly afterward, Joshua abandoned the family. He would return eventually, but never for good. Matilda, by contrast, was ever present.
The years of Paul’s schooling coincided with the desegregation of public education in Ohio. Benefiting from the kinds of resources only previously available to white students in the state, and building as well upon the broad range of reading his mother encouraged at home, Dunbar flourished at Dayton’s Central High School. By the time of his graduation in 1890, he was both a classical scholar of some renown and an accomplished writer of light verse.
Right from the start of his life, the catalogue of Dunbar’s acquaintances, friends, partners and boosters reads as a parade of American society in the late nineteenth century. The teenage Dunbar met brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright (who would go on to invent and fly the first motor-powered aeroplane) and worked with them to publish a short-lived weekly newspaper, the Dayton Tattler. The Tattler, with Dunbar as editor, featured local and national news of interest to the growing Black readership in the town as well as some of Dunbar’s first published poems. Dunbar’s editorial mission was telling: ‘to encourage and assist the enterprises of the city, to give our young people a field in which to exercise their literary talents, to champion the cause of right, and to espouse the principles of honest republicanism’.[iii] It is noticeable how much more pace and life the biography gains in Chapter 4, when Dunbar begins to speak for himself. This biography’s greatest strength is the judicious inclusion of its subject’s own eloquent voice.
Jarrett’s book is useful in reminding a modern audience that Dunbar’s work was not limited to poetry. He was also a novelist and short story writer, as well as a keen self-publisher and promoter. He worked very hard to make his money. Around the turn of the century, with popular novels, short story collections and volumes of poetry already published and regular circulation in newspapers across the country, Dunbar was widely known and lauded before he had even turned thirty. He knew many of the most influential men in the country—Booker T. Washington, William Dean Howells, even Theodore Roosevelt! And while the fundamental conservatism of the many lyrics Dunbar wrote in an imagined Southern dialect might suggest the company of such establishment figures, other acquaintances were more radical. Dunbar was at different times close with Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. DuBois. Dunbar was among the elite, and he believed in his own exceptionalism. Quoting the poet himself, Jarrett shows that while Dunbar was prepared to make money by aping the idiosyncrasies of their speech, he in fact held those below him in appalling contempt:
‘In a story he then told [in 1902] about why certain white boys were willing to play with a certain black boy, [Dunbar] pointed out that the latter was “colored”, not “a nigger”. Paul left unchecked the way this logic denigrated other, less acceptable black boys while sanctioning the language of white supremacy. Most important was how exceptional character and accomplishment could distinguish the individual among the masses and dignify a person as a synecdoche of racial progress. Paul was disclosing a truth he applied to himself and other African American leaders in society like him: to be among “the few bright particular stars which may be held up as beacons for the whole race”’.[iv]
Reviews in popular venues like Los Angeles Review of Books and Kirkus, as well as on numerous blogs, suggest that this is a compelling biography. Previous reviewers have been right to commend the deep research and occasionally incisive commentary of the author. And certainly the central subject and character of the book, Dunbar himself, is a worthy one—his ambitions, talents and personal contradictions are continually fascinating. All the same, I do not recommend this book to readers.
In places, the biography reads as a draft, not the final product. Forced metaphors are left in (‘Paul could not help but grow increasingly cynical about his loss of literary innocence as he continued to bite the apple of commercial knowledge’).[v] Repetitions are left in (‘snow, sleet, and snow continued to fall’).[vi] Factual inaccuracies are left in (Howells’ novel A Hazard of New Fortunes is referred to as A Hazard of Good Fortunes; Dunbar receives a letter from a friend in the English county of ‘Somersetshire’ in 1899, though the ‘shire’ was dropped from the name in 1795).[vii] Curiously specific appositives are left in (‘Victoria, as queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, technically became…’).[viii] Individually, any one copy-editing issue is rare and minor. Altogether, such faults are common and distracting.
Perhaps the most striking problem with the book is its want of momentum in the final chapter. Just as the narrative seems to cry for pace, with Dunbar drinking himself to an early death, we instead get perhaps six hundred words describing his last Dayton home in close detail.[ix] This exhaustive catalogue of previous owners, precise acreage, floor plan and room decoration is stilted and unsatisfying. There is no pathos to it. A scene of tears and deathbed oaths would not be fitting either, but surely, after spending 420 pages with a man of such stature and consequence, we need to measure the meaning of his coming end in some unit more affecting than square footage. And again, the issue seems to stem from a failure of effective editing.
A comprehensive biography of Dunbar was long overdue. His brief life was influenced by most of the major forces affecting Black life after emancipation: the legacy of slavery, Reconstruction, civil rights, migration from South to North, city life and the limited integration it brought. His remarkable and swift ascent to fame showed the possibilities and the limitations of Black art for a population that sorely needed public voices. I understand Dunbar’s central place in the story of the late nineteenth-century better now than I did, and for that reason I am glad I read Jarrett’s biography. Still, I hope that those who seek this story in the future will have the opportunity to read a revised edition.
[i] Jarrett, Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Life and Times of a Caged Bird (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022), 453.
[ii] Ibid., 50.
[iii] Ibid., 100.
[iv] Ibid., 414.
[v] Ibid., 267.
[vi] Ibid., 244.
[vii] Ibid., 223, 353.
[viii] Ibid., 247.
[ix] Ibid., 426-428.