Ohio History Journal

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The OHIO      HISTORICAL            Quarterly

VOLUME 67 * NUMBER 2 ~                                   A P R I L 1958





Paul Laurence Dunbar and

William Dean Howells






IN THE SUMMER OF 1896 William Dean Howells, then the most

influential author and critic in the United States, favorably reviewed

a book of poems by a young Dayton Negro, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

The review, in the Harper's Weekly of June 27, 1896--by a happy

coincidence it was Dunbar's birthday--instantly and dramatically

created a national reputation for the struggling four-dollars-a-week

elevator boy. The relationship of the two Ohioans--Howells,

America's chief man of letters, and Dunbar, the son of former

slaves--is so full of interest, both human and literary, that it

deserves to be reconstructed here, making use of some hitherto un-

published letters between the two.

Himself a young Ohio poet and newspaperman in the 1850's,

Howells by 1871 had become the chief editor of the mighty Atlantic

Monthly in Boston, where his reviews were to constitute what Mark

Twain called "the recognized critical Court of Last Resort" in this

country. Long before he first heard of Dunbar, Howells had become

our most prominent novelist and critic.

Out in Dayton in 1896, Paul Dunbar, five years after graduation

from Steele High School, had been able because of his black skin

to do no better than win the job of piloting the elevator up and

down the Callahan Building (now the Gem City Savings Building)


* James B. Stronks is assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois

in Chicago.