Over the past several years I’ve been writing a biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), the first professional African American writer born after slavery to become an international phenomenon. I’ve touched on his birth and rearing in Dayton, Ohio; his quest to be a strong reader and a skillful creative writer; his friendship with the famous Wright brothers; the women he loved in his early years of manhood; his difficulties in breaking into the heartless literary marketplace; his precarious physical and mental health; his premature death.
Equally fascinating is the life of his father, Joshua Dunbar.
If we cobble together the bits of information spread across the handful of biographies of Paul and his ex-wife, Alice Ruth Moore, we know this much: Joshua was a former chattel slave and Union army veteran who passed away in relative obscurity. Born in early 1820s Kentucky, he fled a slave plantation, traveled northward, and sojourned in Canada. By June 1863, he returned to America to enlist in the Fifty-fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Colored Infantry. After a disability discharge cut his service short, he proceeded to enlist a second time, in January 1864, in the Fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers. In October 1865, around the Civil War’s conclusion, Joshua was mustered out in Boston. He then moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he met a widow named Matilda Murphy (along with Robert and William, her two toddling sons from a previous marriage). Joshua and Matilda got married on Christmas Eve in 1871. After a few years of contending with Joshua’s domestic violence, alcoholism, recalcitrance, and decision to be a deadbeat father, Matilda filed for divorce in 1876, which a court granted a year later. In 1885, Joshua died at an Ohio Veterans Home. Joshua’s Civil War files held at the National Archives and Records Administration confirm the details of his military background and activities, and the Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers held at the Ohio Historical Society verify those regarding his personal life.
To fill in the blanks among these details of Joshua’s life, biographies tend to regurgitate information from one of Paul’s most famous short stories, The Ingrate. Published first in the August 1899 issue of the New England Magazine, the story reappeared the following year, in Paul’s second collection of stories, The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories. Set in antebellum Kentucky, the story recounts the life of Josh Leckler, a slave hired out as an underpaid plasterer. James Leckler, his master, teaches Josh how to read, write, and cipher so that he might learn how to discern whether his contractors are ripping him off. With this education, Josh repays his master not with grateful deference but with sly disobedience: he forges a traveling pass in James’s hand, flees Kentucky, finds his way through Ohio, reaches Canada as a freeman, and returns to America to enlist as a “colored soldier” in the Union army.
Did Joshua’s life as a plasterer mean that Paul was predestined to be a literary artist?
Taken together, this collage of documents—the Civil War files, the Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, and The Ingrate —allows us to make tenable assumptions about Joshua’s whereabouts as a slave, fugitive, and freeman. The reliance of Dunbar biographers on this mix of fact and fiction makes sense. Around four million African Americans were enslaved by the start of the Civil War, whereas only a mere fraction of them were literary enough to write their own narratives, or were fortunate enough to secure interviews with amanuenses, who could then write down the stories. Researchers tend to rely heavily on any such documentation they can find, since slavery by design and happenstance tended to mutilate the individual and family records of its victims. From this vantage point, the more evidence we can find about Joshua, the better.
Despite the biographical clues that historical fact and fiction may afford in excavating Joshua’s life, the investigation itself rests on a set of assumptions that implicate literary studies of slavery and, in particular, the social and intellectual historiography by which we delineate the agency of slaves themselves. The attractive notion that we can access the life of Joshua by way of the literature of Paul betrays the complexity of that actual investigation. Paul was not born a slave, after all. He was literary, extraordinary, and the liberal subject of intellectual history. How, within this matrix of experience, does one locate Joshua, who was quite the opposite—illiterate, more likely quite ordinary, and an enslaved object of social history? Characterized in this way, the genealogical or generational arc from Joshua Dunbar to Paul Laurence Dunbar defies simple illustration.
What I’ve found in writing the biography is that investigating the life of Joshua with his son Paul in mind has prompted me to think about the relationship between social history and intellectual history—the inherited fields that underwrite our recovery of Joshua and Paul, respectively. Scholars like Elizabeth McHenry and Christopher Hager have recently worked to intersect, in particular, literary studies and African American social history. Through this paradigm we are prompted not just to examine the texts of high literacy, or to approach textual artifacts only as empirical capsules of the past. Instead, we are encouraged to appreciate demonstrations of literacy in all their textual qualities.
Until this point I’ve suspended disclosing that Joshua was an artisan—a plasterer, in fact, during and after his enslavement. Artisanship was an alternative mode of literacy during slavery. It was one of many kinds of skilled labor that masters exploited among their slaves to operate their plantations or, in hiring out these slaves, to widen their investment and earning potential in neighboring regions of bondage. It arguably remains as one of the few viable concepts by which we could bridge the social and intellectual histories of slavery.
Did Joshua’s life as a plasterer mean that Paul was predestined to be a literary artist—to be the ‘Poet Laureate of the Negro Race’, as he was called during his time? Not necessarily. But Paul, in his short story The Ingrate was at the very least imagining the opportunities that being a plasterer could bring a slave. History indeed tells us that a slave’s condition as a skilled laborer or applied artist granted him a social empowerment that wasn’t always rooted in alphabetical literacy, an intellectual ability that has been a hallmark of the slave narratives we’ve canonized today and one that is being scrutinized anew by scholar John Ernest. Artisanship enabled both the fictional Josh Leckler of The Ingrate and the actual Joshua Dunbar to attain social privileges and political freedom despite their enslavement. Even if we can’t say that Joshua Dunbar’s creative skills were passed down to Paul in the same way that a father passes a gene down to his son, we can say that they inspired the son enough to write about someone like his father.
Featured image credit:Paul Laurence Dunbar 1903 by The Booklovers Magazine. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.