Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Life and Times of a Caged Bird

The definitive biography of a pivotal figure in American literary history


Published (US):
Jun 7, 2022
Published (UK):
Aug 2, 2022
6.12 x 9.25 in.
44 b/w illus.
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A major poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) was one of the first African American writers to garner international recognition in the wake of emancipation. In this definitive biography, the first full-scale life of Dunbar in half a century, Gene Andrew Jarrett offers a revelatory account of a writer whose Gilded Age celebrity as the “poet laureate of his race” hid the private struggles of a man who, in the words of his famous poem, felt like a “caged bird” that sings.

Jarrett tells the fascinating story of how Dunbar, born during Reconstruction to formerly enslaved parents, excelled against all odds to become an accomplished and versatile artist. A prolific and successful poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, and Broadway librettist, he was also a friend of such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and Orville and Wilbur Wright. But while audiences across the United States and Europe flocked to enjoy his literary readings, Dunbar privately bemoaned shouldering the burden of race and catering to minstrel stereotypes to earn fame and money. Inspired by his parents’ survival of slavery, but also agitated by a turbulent public marriage, beholden to influential benefactors, and helpless against his widely reported bouts of tuberculosis and alcoholism, he came to regard his racial notoriety as a curse as well as a blessing before dying at the age of only thirty-three.

Beautifully written, meticulously researched, and generously illustrated, this biography presents the richest, most detailed, and most nuanced portrait yet of Dunbar and his work, transforming how we understand the astonishing life and times of a central figure in American literary history.

Ideas Podcast: Paul Laurence Dunbar

Awards and Recognition

  • One of ESSENCE'S 55 New Books We Can't Wait to Read
  • A New Yorker Best Book of the Year
  • A Book Riot Best Biography of the Year
  • Finalist for the Ohioana Book Award, Ohioana Library