OAK AND IVY: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar by

OAK AND IVY: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar

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Paul Dunbar's adult years were marked by hardship and despair. Black and poor, he had to publish his first volume of poetry himself (1892) although magazines had already accepted his work. His reputation grew quickly, boosted by recognition from William Dean Howells, but along with the notoriety came insults and social rejection because of his color. Rarely more than a paycheck from poverty, he wrote and gave readings at a remarkable pace (20 books, including novels, in fourteen years) but had to supplement his income with unpoetic jobs and occasional help from friends. His poetry -- some in Negro dialect, some in a pretentious 19th century diction, some in wonderfully lyric and catchy idioms -- reflects the inner confusion that threatened him: the dialect poems, most often requested at his readings, received greater recognition but he struggled for equal time for the others. He married Alice Moore, a poet, for a short storybook idyll, but gradually both marriage and career were wrecked by disease (TB) and a despondency that leaned on sarcasm and alcohol. Addison Gayle's biography deals with Dunbar's predicament honestly, placing the poet in a historical context and commenting on individual poems as well. Drawing heavily on previous biographies and reminiscences (Arnold, Brawley, Wiggins), he has included revealing anecdotes and a supportive sampling of the poems. Some of the harshest details have been omitted: his fair-skinned in-laws' disdain for his dark color; the mutual resentments of his wife and mother; the fierce rages at his wife that finally drove her from their home. Furthermore, there are times when secondary information, wordy and inessential, intrudes into the text and disrupts the flow of the narrative. Nevertheless this is a well-researched book, far more useful than That Dunbar Boy, Jean Gould's fictionalized account that dwells on his boyhood.

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1971
Publisher: Doubleday