Remembering the troubled marriage of Paul and Alice Dunbar

Editor’s note: As many of our readers know, Dayton-born Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was the first African-American poet to achieve national recognition, acceptance and fame for his literary work. Our guest columnist today, Adam Alonzo, has done years of historical research and has written a stageplay about Paul and his wife, Alice Dunbar. This essay on their relationship and Dunbar’s legacy is drawn from his research. Alonzo is a writer, photographer and public-radio host from Dayton. In honor of Dunbar’s work, we’ve also included a few of his many poems on today’s page.

One February morning in 1906, a woman named Alice rode a streetcar through a Delaware town. She opened a newspaper and learned that her husband, Paul Laurence Dunbar, had died the previous day. It was the pitiful end to what had once been a passionate romance with Dayton’s celebrated poet.

The anniversary of Dunbar’s death will be commemorated tomorrow, Feb. 9, at Woodland Cemetery in Dayton. The program will begin at the mausoleum at 10 a.m., followed by a procession to Dunbar’s grave for a brief service.

Paul was 22 and working as an elevator operator in downtown Dayton when he became aware of Alice Ruth Moore, a 19-year-old writer and schoolteacher from New Orleans. An African-American journal published one of her stories, with her picture alongside, and Paul was attracted by her literary ability and her beauty. In April 1895, he wrote to Alice, sending some poems and asking her to correspond with him. It took her weeks to reply, but she had a good excuse. “Your letter was handed to me at a singularly inopportune moment,” Alice wrote. “The house was on fire.”

As they continued to write, their formal letters became more personal, until Paul could no longer conceal his feelings. “I love you and have loved you since the first time that I saw your picture and read your story,” he admitted. “You were the sudden realization of an ideal!”

They corresponded nearly two years with little prospect of meeting due to the miles between them, until Alice’s family moved to Massachusetts. In February 1897, Paul was about to embark on a recital tour of England. Alice went to New York for his farewell party, where they met in person for the first time and promptly promised to marry. Aboard a ship in the Atlantic, Paul shared the news in a letter to his mother, Matilda. “Alice Ruth Moore ran off from Boston and came to New York to see me off,” he wrote. “Now don’t laugh, but Alice and I are engaged. You know this is what I have longed for.”

After returning from England, Paul began working as a clerk at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. His poetry appeared regularly in magazines, and publishers were eager to release his books. “I hardly think I shall ever live in Dayton again,” he wrote to his mother. “The money seems to be in the east.” He and Matilda shared a home in Washington and Alice took a job teaching school in Brooklyn.

Paul carried enormous debt and Alice had been sued for nonpayment of loans, so their marriage plans were hindered by financial insecurity. In addition, Alice’s mother discouraged the relationship. “You are a perfect stranger to us,” Patricia Moore wrote to Paul. “I think both should think over these things again and more seriously.”

Alice was troubled by nightmares in which Paul abandoned her for another woman. “A dark foreboding returns to hang over me like a cloud,” she wrote. “Paul, I wish I was really married to you, if only a civil ceremony.” In March 1898, Paul confessed to a flirtation with a seamstress named Maud and it was too much for Alice. She sent an urgent telegram: “Come at once. Make no delay. Matter of life and death.” Paul rushed to Brooklyn, unaware he was hurrying to his own wedding.

When Alice moved in with Paul and Matilda, there wasn’t enough room in the house for two Mrs. Dunbars. “There was also a miserable friction between his mother and myself,” Alice wrote years later to Lida Keck Wiggins, Paul’s first biographer. “She resented me generally, because he had always been hers solely.”

An innocuous item in a New York paper betrays the fact that the newlyweds had separated: “Mrs. Paul Laurence Dunbar was the guest of Mrs. Victoria Earle Matthews early in the week.”

“I have not told her there is any trouble between us,” Alice wrote to Paul from her friend’s home. “I have put on a brave front here, and I don’t think anything is suspected.” During their two-month separation, the Dunbars kept in frequent contact through letters. “I hope you and mother will have a taste of your old happy life while I am gone,” Alice wrote. “When you wish me back, dear, tell me, and I will come.” Paul promised to make changes, sent Matilda to visit Dayton, and Alice returned.

Then began a period of contentment during which the Dunbars were at the elite center of black society in Washington. They attended balls and parties, invited literary colleagues into their home, and were surrounded by a circle of admiring friends. It was the kind of lifestyle that Paul and Alice had hoped for — until they changed it.

Convinced he could earn more money by writing and reciting, Paul resigned from his position at the Library of Congress. His new lifestyle required much travel and long separations from Alice. His health was weakened by the routine of railroad cars and hotel rooms. In May 1899, Paul became critically ill with pneumonia after a reading in New York. When he developed tuberculosis, he was advised to move to Colorado for the sake of his lungs.

Ironically, Paul’s illness helped to restore his relationship with Alice. By serving as his nurse, she gained the personal contact that she had missed. “I loved the Rocky Mountains,” she wrote later in an autobiographical story. “At nights we read and talked together, and some of the camaraderie of which I had dreamed came to our lives.”

Paul’s health improved and he returned east to earn his living from publications and recitations. While he traveled to engagements, Alice was left behind at home. “Your jolly letter came while my beloved one was gone again,” she wrote to a friend in 1901. “He is in reality a bird of passage.”

In January 1902, Paul was in South Carolina for a reading while Alice’s family visited her in Washington. He sent letters home as usual but was frustrated when he got no response. “What is the matter that you do not write to me?” he demanded of Alice. “You must be having a very good time that you cannot drop me even a card.” Soon after Paul’s return, their marriage came to a sudden and violent end.

“He came home one night in a beastly condition,” Alice wrote to the biographer Wiggins. “He left that night, and I was ill for weeks with peritonitis brought on by his kicks.”

Paul drifted first to New York and then Chicago and ultimately back to Dayton, keeping close to his mother Matilda. He begged Alice for reconciliation, but she ignored his letters and telegrams. Paul was often in the news and conflicting stories were told about his health. In September 1904, papers around the country predicted he would die within a month, but Paul laughingly denied the reports. “I look upon the affair as a huge joke,” he told Wiggins. “I have never received so much attention before.”

Now a schoolteacher in Delaware, Alice read the newspapers and didn’t know what to believe. She quietly contacted Paul’s closest friend in Dayton, a physician named Bud Burns, and asked for his diagnosis. “The rumor of him being in a dying condition is false,” Burns assured Alice. Then he appealed to her for the remedy no medicine could provide: “I know that he would be overjoyed to see or hear from you.” Alice refused but arranged for Burns to notify her if Paul’s health failed.

After being shocked to read about Paul’s death that February morning on the streetcar, Alice bitterly reminded Burns of their agreement. “I would have come to Dayton by the first train had you or anyone telegraphed me to come before he passed away,” she wrote. “I am sorry that you, whom I had depended upon, failed me at the last.” Alice’s letter was answered by a relative who informed her that Burns himself had died unexpectedly months earlier.

The Dunbars had never divorced, and the local press speculated whether Alice would attend Paul’s funeral. The Dayton Daily News reported, “The family knew nothing of Mrs. Dunbar’s intentions. They had not communicated with her, and if she is in the city, she has not made herself known.” Alice remained in Delaware, angry at the in-laws who “had not communicated with her.”

Lines from the poem “A Death Song” were inscribed on Paul’s gravestone, though in life he preferred not to be identified with his dialect verse. Paul’s own wishes for his grave went unfulfilled. “I have letters of his, hundreds of them, little poems never published, and the epitaph he wrote for himself when he was first taken ill, which he asked me to have engraven on his tombstone,” Alice wrote to Wiggins. “It never will be, of course.”

Thanks to Woodland Cemetery, Ohio History Connection, Dayton Metro Library and the University of Delaware Library.

A few of Dunbar’s poems

“We Wear the Mask”

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!

“Morning”

The mist has left the greening plain,

The dew-drops shine like fairy rain,

The coquette rose awakes again

Her lovely self adorning.

The Wind is hiding in the trees,

A sighing, soothing, laughing tease,

Until the rose says “Kiss me, please,”

‘Tis morning, ‘tis morning.

With staff in hand and careless-free,

The wanderer fares right jauntily,

For towns and houses are, thinks he,

For scorning, for scorning.

My soul is swift upon the wing,

And in its deeps a song I bring;

Come, Love, and we together sing,

“‘Tis morning, ‘tis morning.”

“A Golden Day”

I found you and I lost you,

All on a gleaming day.

The day was filled with sunshine,

And the land was full of May.

A golden bird was singing

Its melody divine,

I found you and I loved you,

And all the world was mine.

I found you and I lost you,

All on a golden day,

But when I dream of you, dear,

It is always brimming May.

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