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Much of his more popular work in his lifetime was written in the Negro ...
Much of his more popular work in his lifetime was written in the Negro dialect associated with the antebellum South. His work was praised by William Dean Howells, a leading critic associated with the Harper's Weekly, and Dunbar was one of the first African-American writers to establish a national reputation. He wrote the lyrics for the musical comedy, In Dahomey (1903), the first all-African-American musical produced on Broadway; the musical also toured in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Dunbar also wrote in conventional English in other poetry and novels; since the late 20th century, scholars have become more interested in these other works. Suffering from tuberculosis, Dunbar died at the age of 33.
Dunbar's work is known for its colorful language and a conversational tone, with a brilliant rhetorical structure. These traits were well matched to the tune-writing ability of Carrie Jacobs-Bond (1862-1946), with whom he collaborated.
Dunbar became the first African-American poet to earn national distinction and acceptance. The New York Times called him "a true singer of the people - white or black." Frederick Douglass once referred to Dunbar as, "one of the sweetest songsters his race has produced and a man of whom [he hoped] great things."
His friend and writer James Weldon Johnson highly praised Dunbar, writing in The Book of American Negro Poetry:
"Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the United States to show a combined mastery over poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal innate literary distinction in what he wrote, and to maintain a high level of performance. He was the first to rise to a height from which he could take a perspective view of his own race. He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, its short-comings; the first to feel sympathetically its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and to voice them all in a purely literary form."