T he literary roots of the Harlem Renaissance can be traced to the 1890s and the work of two Ohio writers. These two men are generally acknowledged by both black and white critics as being the most successful black writers before the twentieth century. In addition to this distinction, the career and the work of Dunbar and Chesnutt shed interesting illumination on the Harlem Renaissance. Both writers developed themes that later emerged in the Renaissance; both faced problems similar to those faced by their counterparts in the twenties. While neither Dunbar nor Chesnutt produced work of the quality or experienced the success of later black writers, both exerted influence on black literature which transcended their artistic limitations.
Of the two men, Paul Laurence Dunbar is the best known and had the most controversial reputation in the eyes of later black writers. Dunbar was born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio. Early in life Dunbar hoped to be an attorney, but abandoned this dream, as he informed a friend in 1895, because he had found a higher calling -- to "interpret my own people through song and story, and to prove to the many that after all we are more human than African."1 He gained national recognition in 1896 when the foremost American literary critic, William Dean Howells, praised Dunbar's second book of poetry, Majors and Minors, in Harper's Weekly. In his review Howells described Dunbar as the first black writer "to study his race objectively, to analyze it to himself, and then to represent it in art as he felt it and found it to be; to represent it humorously, yet tenderly, and above all so faithfully that we know the portrayal to be undeniably true." Howells concluded these comments with extremely high praise for the young black poet, "I hope I have not praised too much, because he surprised me so very much, for his excellences were positive and not comparative."2 This review catapulted the previously unknown poet into national prominence and opened previously closed literary doors. Later