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.
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
"A book that pulls you along like an open bag of potato chips; for the first 100 or so pages, I could barely put it down."—John McWhorter, New York Times
"Drawing on Dunbar’s sizable correspondence with friends, family, and benefactors, Jarrett illustrates his struggle to reconcile his professional success with a sense of himself as a failure—an errant husband, an alcoholic, and, above all, a Black artist who couldn’t liberate his community from racial stereotypes."—The New Yorker
"A raw, unadulterated portrait of the writer’s short yet full life. . . . It offers immense detail and newly discovered information."—Vesper North, Los Angeles Review of Books
"A meticulously crafted biography. . . . [A] thorough and eminently readable account of Black genius."—Omari Weekes, Vulture
"Fascinating and beautifully written. . . . It’s an intimate portrait of a complex and complicated literary figure who deserves more recognition."—Keisha N. Blain, Politico
"A pioneering Black poet battles racism and his inner demons in this incisive biography. . . . Jarrett situates his analysis of Dunbar’s ambitious, sometimes prickly intellect innan insightful, vividly written portrait of Black political and literary culture at the turn of the 20th century, and probes his subject’s alcoholism, gambling, and violent tendencies. The result is a fascinating exploration of Black creativity wrestling with social constraints and personal failings."—Publishers Weekly
"A detailed, empathetic biography. . . . Jarrett offers astute readings of all of Dunbar’s works. . . . Impressive research."—Kirkus Reviews starred review
"This is one of those classic biographies that I think readers will just love diving into. Rich in detail and nuance, it drops readers into Dunbar’s life and times, offering a fascinating look at both the literary and personal life of this great American poet."—Book Riot
"This new biography does a thorough and compelling job in telling the story of a remarkable and partially tragic life."—David Mehegan, Arts Fuse
"We are indebted to Jarrett for elevating Dunbar’s voice back to the place of prominence it should hold in literary history."—The American
"[A] definitive biography. . . .Indispensable and judicious."—Douglas A. Jones Jr, Times Literary Supplement
“In this impressive biography, Gene Jarrett gives us the fullest portrait yet of one of the true originals of modern African American letters. Paul Laurence Dunbar, the son of formerly enslaved parents, achieved phenomenal success in his tragically short life with literary works that ranged from masterfully crafted poems written in both African American vernacular and standard English poetic dictions, and from fiction to Broadway lyrics. Dunbar’s poetry was required reading in segregated Black schools, and my parents’ generation regaled us with verbatim recitations of ‘When Malindy Sings’ and ‘When de Co’n Pone’s Hot.’ Yet, until now, the complexity of the mind and movements of ‘the first poet laureate of the race,’ within an America turning its back on the promise of Reconstruction and eagerly embracing the poisonous anti-Black discourse of Jim Crow, has eluded the scholar’s grasp. Jarrett has done far more than write a fascinating book for our times. By providing the definitive rendering of Dunbar’s flight, Jarrett has set free the artist who first heard the caged bird sing!”—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University
“Paul Laurence Dunbar is a magisterial, meticulously researched, and elegantly written biography of the first modern African American writer to attain commercial success and international prominence on the basis of his literary achievements alone. In this brilliant book, Gene Andrew Jarrett captures the tensions and contradictions of Dunbar’s life and situates him within the complexities of the period in which he lived.”—Valerie Smith, president of Swarthmore College
“Addictively readable and intellectually sophisticated, Jarrett’s masterpiece is the definitive biography of Dunbar, his era, and the literary marketplace that nearly destroyed him. This searing history of the Black artist-celebrity will resonate with readers for what it says about Gilded Age American literature, race, and the traumas of Black genius, and for what it reveals about the liabilities of an American literary scene that devours its most gifted voices.”—Kerri K. Greenidge, author of Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter