Paul Lawrence Dunbar
, was an American poet, but what's even more remarkable is that he was the son of freed slaves in Dayton, Ohio. His best know work was published in a single volume, Lyrics of a Lowly Life
(1896). William Dean Howells
wrote the introduction and notes that Dunbar was the first black poet to express the lyrical qualities of black life and black dialect.
Although not all were written in dialect
he still was very distinguished, publishing four novels and several short stories.
Dunbar supported himself as an elevator operator at the beginning of his career and in what was very exceptional for the times managed to eventually support himself and his family from the earnings of his writings. James Whitcomb Riley a popular contempory was well known for nostalgic dialect verse and often referred to as “the poet of the common people.” Some of his influences can be found in The Old Apple Tree yet Dunbar adds some specific nuances that make the voice his own.
The dialect, though characteristically midwestern, is melodious to American ears (though probably not to English ones); the lines "I whispered sugared nonsense/Into her little willin' ear" ring true; the comment about "unadorn'd by memory's glow" may be a poke at the Riley school of sugarcoated sentimentality. No doubt this helped Dunbar's Lyrics of Lowly Life become his best selling work and the volume also contained poems of much higher quality such as We Wear the Mask.
He was also a classmate of two other Dayton men who gained national prominence Orville and Wilbur Wright. Although he lived to be only 33, not only was he a success with the standard English of the classical poet he was very gifted in the stirring dialect of the turn-of-the-century black community in America in the way that Mark Twain was in using prose to convey character.
Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Dunbar,Paul Lawrence", Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.