Thursday, November 17, 2022

‘New Dunbar biography’


A biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar was published earlier this year, and its author will discuss his subject in a lecture next Tuesday at New York Society Library. Dunbar (click here) was a Mason and a highly regarded poet at the turn of the century. From the publicity:

Gene Andrew Jarrett
The Life and Times
of a Caged Bird
The New York Society Library
Tuesday, November 22
6 p.m.
Live and online.
Free and open
to the public.
Register here.

On the 150th anniversary of his birth, a definitive new biography of a pivotal figure in American literary history.

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 also was 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.

Gene Andrew Jarrett is the Dean of the Faculty and William S. Tod Professor of English at Princeton University. He is also the co-editor of The Collected Novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar and The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar.

I learned of this book and this event only a few hours ago, so I can’t say if this new biography reports Dunbar’s Masonic activities, but I asked the author about it via Twitter, and I’ll update this if I receive a reply. Dunbar was a great poet, so Masonic history or no, this speaking engagement will be worthwhile.

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