My Town Monday: Publishing Success Against the Odds

On Memorial Day weekend, my daughter wanted to do something “museum-ish,” so we went to one I hadn’t visited yet, but had been wanting to: the Paul Lawrence Dunbar House.

The Paul Laurence Dunbar House
Photo via nps.gov

I knew about this turn-of-the-20th-century author through my interest in local history, and also because he’s featured in the Aviation Heritage National Park, which I’ve visited a few times. It might seem odd that a writer would be featured as part of that site, until one learns who some of his first publishers were: Orville and Wilbur Wright, in their pre-flight days as printers of his newspaper, The Dayton Tattler.

The paper folded after just a few issues, but that didn’t deter Dunbar. The challenges he faced – and overcame – make him an inspiration for any writer.

  • Like many writers, he wasn’t exactly flush with cash.
  • He got paid for some of his early efforts, but not enough to live on, so he had to work a day job.
  • He self-published his first book, a collection of poetry titled Oak and Ivy.
  • Back then, there was no print-on-demand, and self-publishing was an expensive proposition, requiring a large print run with a comparable outlay of cash.

But the challenge that really set Dunbar apart was the fact that he was black. The son of former slaves, Dunbar had to contend with racial prejudice. Despite the fact that he had a high school diploma in an era where the majority of men did not, his color relegated him to menial jobs. His first job after graduating from high school was as an elevator operator.

English: Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 –...

Paul Laurence Dunbar, circa 1890. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But even then, Dunbar made the best of his situation. He hand-sold Oak and Ivyincluding many copies to his elevator passengers. The need for authors to self-promote is nothing new, and Dunbar was skilled in this area: he recouped his investment in two weeks. Part of his work’s popularity came from its two distinct styles: some of his poems were written in standard English, while others were written in colloquial black dialect.

Today, self-publishing success is one way to attract an agent or editor’s attention, and this too is nothing new. Fellow writers James Whitcomb Riley and William Dean Howells noticed Dunbar’s work and helped publicize it. As is common today, networking with other writers was a crucial part of Dunbar’s success. He also frequently gave public readings to garner interest in his work.

In 1897, Dunbar finally got a job befitting a man of his talents: librarian at the Library of Congress. He sold several works to publishers, and eventually made enough money from his writing to build a nice house in Dayton for his mother, who he’d always been close to. This is the home that later became the museum, not long after his mother’s death in the 1930s.

He continued to enjoy success in his writing, and soon left the LOC to focus on that. Eventually, he amassed a body of work consisting of a dozen poetry anthologies, five novels, four short story anthologies, a play, and dozens of song lyrics. His dialect works came under critical fire for perpetuating the comical, happy-go-lucky stereotype of black Americans, while others praised them as a celebration of his racial heritage.

Dunbar died at the age of 33 from tuberculosis, which he’d fought for over five years. This was exacerbated by alcoholism, ironically caused by doctors prescribing whiskey for his TB symptoms. In light of his short career, Dunbar’s accomplishments are even more inspiring.

Were you familiar with Paul Lawrence Dunbar before? Does your home town have a literary icon?

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21 Responses to \

  1. I was familiar with Dunbar, but then, I’m a librarian (read, collector of any and every fact about authors and books, lol). My hometown of Atlanta, Georgia has Margaret Mitchell (no relation that I’ve been able to discern), and Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote the Uncle Remus stories.

    I live now in Albany, NY, which has William Kennedy, who wrote Ironweed, among others. I’m sure there are more authors from Albany, but I’ve not ferreted them all out yet.

  2. Thanks for the education (as always!). I have to say I love the name of that paper though–The Dayton Tattler. 🙂 And here in my town we have the Edgar Allan Poe house. I still haven’t been, funny how I can go overseas and not see what’s in my own town, right?

  3. Because I write about late bloomers, it always makes me a little sad to read about people who’ve overcome the odds and died young. But the real measure, as you said, is a life well-lived, no matter how long! Thanks for a fascinating and inspiring story, Jennette!

  4. Thanks, Louise!

    Elizabeth, thanks for sharing! I know very little about Albany, other than it’s the state capital. 🙂

    Coleen, isn’t that the truth? We have the National Museum of the USAF here too, and I lived here for years before I visited.

    Debra, you’re right – I wonder what else he would have written, had he lived longer.

  5. Wow, what an inspiring story! I have never heard of this guy before so I learned something today.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  6. Wow!

    What an great story, Jennette, and it does make you wonder what he’d have written if he’d lived longer. But if there’s a lesson to be learned it’s not to waste a moment of the time we have allotted.

    Thank you!

  7. Truly inspiring, Jennette. I hadn’t heard of him before, but am totally in awe of his accomplishments when things were stacked against him. And actually, it’s kind of good to see that even though we’ve changed significantly in the areas of publishing, some things remain very basic.

  8. Jennette, what a fascinating post! I learned quite a lot about Paul Laurence Dunbar. I enjoyed all the facts you presentd and was surprised by several. I didn’t know he had published a paper printed by the Wright Bros., and I also didn’t realize he died so young.

    Very interesting insight on how Dunbar used the same things authors use today to get their works noticed–self publishing, networking, readings, etc.

  9. Oh, what a shame he died so early. Sounds like he had quite a battle those 5 years before his death, too. I hadn’t heard of him before. Yes, his story is very inspiring to me. He overcame great odds and persevered, took risks by self-pubbing. He sure was prolific. Thanks for this post, Jennette.

  10. Thanks, Julie!

    Rhonda, isn’t it something, in the midst of all the changes in publishing right now, how much hasn’t changed?

    Maria, I first learned about Dunbar through the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Park. Cool, huh? He went to high school with Orville Wright.

    Thanks, Reetta and Lynn!

  11. I didn’t see that ending coming, Jennette. Here I was, thinking Paul Dunbar had accomplished quite a bit in life, and then you hit me with the fact he died at 33. Think what he might have done if he’d lived to fifty.

    What a nice house he had built for his mother.

  12. I can honestly say that I don’t think I would have learn about this author if it hadn’t been for your story Jennette! It is so sad to know that Paul Dunbar might have lived longer if not for the care of his doctors. What do doctors know, eh? One can only imagine if he had lived longer what he would’ve accomplished. Thanks for sharing his story! 🙂

  13. Tom and I visited the museum last year and were surprised to learn about Dunbar. He is an inspiration. We can only imagine what he went through. Thanks Jennette for reminding me.