The Caged Bird Sings: Paul Laurence Dunbar at the Library of Congress

Paul Lawrence [sic] Dunbar, bust portrait, facing right, head resting on left hand

Paul Laurence Dunbar
Prints and Photographs Division

Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first African-Americans to develop a national reputation for his poetry,  was born this day in 1872. To celebrate his life and work,  the Library held a literary birthday reading earlier today featuring noted poets Holly Bass and Al Young, who read selections from Dunbar’s poetry and discussed his influence on their own work.

It’s only fitting that the Library should celebrate Dunbar’s life and work given its intimate, but not widely known, connection to the poet: from September 30, 1897, to December 31, 1898, Dunbar was a Library of Congress employee. His experiences in the Congressional Library, as the Thomas Jefferson Building was then called, helped inspire one of his best-known poems, “Sympathy.” Less than two months into his job he further established an indelible literary tie to his place of employment by becoming the first poet to give a poetry reading at the Library.

Dunbar’s employment at the Library was facilitated by lawyer, orator, and Library patron Robert G. Ingersoll. On July 5, 1897, Ingersoll wrote a letter, the original of which is held in the Library’s Manuscript Division, to Librarian of Congress John Russell Young asking if the Library had a position for Dunbar:

Paul Laurence Dunbar, Library of Congress Service Record (Page 1), Library of Congress Archives, Central File, Manuscript Division

Paul Laurence Dunbar, Library of Congress Service Record (first page), Manuscript Division

Yesterday I read a letter from Paul Lawrence [sic] Dunbar, a young colored fellow in whom I take a great interest. Let me tell you about him. His parents were both slaves – freed by the war. This boy, born I think in Ohio, was educated just a little, in the common school. When he was under twenty he published a little volumes of verses, under the title of “Majors and Minors” – Some of these poems are wonderful. They show great thought on great subjects. They are intense, subtle, passionate and poetic. He has written verse worthy of the greatest American poet. Some of his songs, or lyrics, are filled with touches of pathos–of joy–or real humor. Dunbar is now in England. He is coming home. He, of course is poor. He is crazy to read – to be in the company of books. Could you give this young fellow a place in the Library? He is about twenty four or five years old – writes a good hand and is a natural gentleman. Can you do this?

Young was able secure Dunbar a position as an attendant in the Library, where Dunbar was tasked with retrieving and reshelving scientific and medical materials from the Library’s closed stacks. In describing his position, which received notice in newspapers such Washington, D.C.’s  Evening Star (view clipping) and Sacramento’s The Record-Union (view clipping),  Eleanor Alexander writes that he worked “six days a week on an alternate schedule of 9 A.M. to 4 P.M., and 3:30 P.M. to 10 P.M.”1 As noted in his service record, a page of which is reproduced above, he earned $720 dollars a year for his work. This was a good income, $130 more than the average salary for grammar and primary school teachers in Washington, D.C., in the 1890s,2 and when supplemented with the income from his literary activities Dunbar made a comfortable living during this period.3

Dealing with the dust and must of books in a hot, closed space was unpleasant work for the tubercular Dunbar and strained his health. This may be reflected in an October 26, 1898, letter to Young, in which he notes an ongoing illness that kept him from the Library for two weeks and requests a leave of absence.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to John Russell Young, October 26, 1898

Paul Laurence Dunbar to John Russell Young, October 26, 1898

Adversity frequently inspires great art, and Dunbar’s experiences working in a difficult Library environment in which he felt like he was trapped in a cage are a basis for one of best-known poems, “Sympathy,” published in his collection Lyrics of the Hearthside in 1899:

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals –
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting –
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, –
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings!

In an October 1914 article on “The Poet and His Song” published in The A.M.E. Review,4 Alice M. Dunbar, the poet’s wife, makes the connection between the poem and Dunbar’s Library work explicit:

The iron grating of the book stacks in the Library of Congress suggested to him the bars of the bird’s cage. June and July days are hot. All out of doors called and the trees of the shaded streets of Washington were tantalizingly suggestive of his beloved streams and fields. The torrid sun poured its rays down into the courtyard of the library and heated the iron grilling of the book stacks until they were like prison bars in more senses than one. The dry dust of the dry books (ironic incongruity!–a poet shut up with medical works), rasped sharply in his hot throat, and he understood how the bird felt when it beats its wings against its cage.

“Sympathy,” although a poem worthy of literary study in its own right, may be most familiar to readers today through Maya Angelou’s borrowing of its final line for the title for her bestselling autobiography.

Dunbar, according to research done in 1951 by David C. Mearns, Chief of the Library’s Manuscript Division, and communicated by Mearns in personal correspondence along with information about Dunbar items in the Library’s collections, “was given indefinite leave without pay November 1, 1898, and resigned January 1, 1899” (His entry on page two of his official service record, however, gives December 31, 1898, as his final day.) Dunbar’s primary reason for leaving the Library was not health concerns, but as the service record indicates, to free up more time for him to focus on his “literary work.”

Reading Room for the Blind, Library of Congress

Reading Room for the Blind, Library of Congress
Prints and Photographs Division

Dunbar’s most notable accomplishment during his time working in the Library’s stacks had nothing to do with his actual job duties–he was the first poet to give a poetry reading at the Library of Congress.4 The reading took place shortly after the opening of the Library’s reading room for the blind (sometimes known as the “Pavilion for the Blind”) in 1897 in the Northwest Pavilion on the ground floor of the Jefferson Building, in what is now the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment. The reading was among the first in a regular series of Library readings for the blind initiated on November 8, 1897, highlighted in the December 23, 1897 issue of The Evening Star. Dunbar would gives reading in the reading room for the blind on a number of occasions both during and after his tenure at the Library. The readings were often publicized in local papers, such as the October 10, 1898, issue of The Evening Times, which mentions an upcoming appearance by Dunbar, and Dunbar’s readings were the subject of a major article (“Poetry of the Negro: Mr. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Reading for the Blind”) in the June 16, 1901, issue of The Washington Post, which noted that “so popular have his afternoon recitals become that the blind are outnumbered by others who come to hear” (p. 17).

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s contributions to the Library, both as an employee and as a pioneer in its literary activities, are often overlooked, and From the Catbird Seat feels honored to be able to share with its readers Dunbar’s small, but important, role in the Library’s institutional history on his birthday.


1. Eleanor Alexander, Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore, p. 126.

2. Ibid.

3. Additional information about Dunbar’s time at the Library, including discussion of his literary output during his time there, can be read in Chapter VIII (“The Congressional Library”) of Lida Keck Wiggins’s The Life and works of Paul Laurence Dunbar…, available online through the HathiTrust Digital Library.

4. Reprinted in Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer; The Poet and His Song, pp. 323-338.

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