Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), Oak and Ivy
Dayton, Ohio: United Brethren Press, 1893
A SON OF FORMERLY ENSLAVED PEOPLE, Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872. In his teens and early 20s, he emerged as an important voice in Black American literary culture. Before his early death due to tuberculosis in 1906, Dunbar published over a dozen volumes of poetry, as well as articles, short stories, novels, and lyrics to the music for the Broadway play In Dahomey.
Oak and Ivy, published in Ohio in 1893, was Dunbar’s first book. The volume features poetry reflective of Dunbar’s pride in his African American heritage, with verses such as “Ode to Ethiopia,” as well as his taste for romantic and sentimental themes, with poems like “The Old Apple Tree.” Dunbar was active in civil rights circles and wrote poetry in both Standard English and African American dialect. While his writing in dialect has garnered Dunbar criticism over the years, the decision reflects his era’s interest in folk culture and Dunbar’s effort to elevate the status of African American heritage in the public eye.
One of the front endpapers of this precious volume features an inscription in Dunbar’s own hand, penned in Dayton, Ohio, and signed February 22, 1893. The inscription features lines from one of Dunbar’s poems: “I think that though the clouds be dark, / That, though the waves dash oer the bark; / Yet after while the light will come / And in calm waters safe at home, / The bark will anchor.” The verse captures the warm and hopeful spirit of much of Dunbar’s verse, and the ill-fated young author’s role in helping to develop a vibrant Black American literary tradition during his short but productive life.
Though Dunbar committed intimate partner violence against his wife, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, the subject of the “I Am an American!” digital exhibition, she was an important advocate for Paul Laurence Dunbar’s literary reputation following his death. See the main exhibition narrative for a deeper discussion of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s relationship and the intimate partner violence Alice Dunbar-Nelson experienced.