- Forgotten Manuscripts:"To My Friend—Joseph S. Cotter," by Paul Laurence Dunbar
In December 1894, a year to the date of the publication of his first volume of poetry, Oak and Ivy (1893), Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) traveled to Kentucky to meet Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr. (1861-1949). Both men were writers of fiction, plays, and poetry. They would go on to distinguish themselves in each of these genres. Dunbar, after a stint as an elevator operator, began to earn his literary reputation through the publication of poems, short stories, plays, essays, and musicals. In much the same way, Cotter concentrated on poems, plays, and short stories. He also became a prominent teacher, community organizer, and administrator.
After having deferred his education because of his family's financial problems, Cotter returned to school at the encouragement of William T. Payton and within two five-month semesters of intense study, he earned his diploma and immediately began his teaching career at the Western Colored School in Louisville, Kentucky, beginning in 1889. In 1891 he helped to organize a black community outside of Louisville that was officially named the Parkland African American Community, but was also nicknamed "Little Africa." In 1893, his last year at the Western Colored School, he founded a school that he named after the Dayton poet, and it was perhaps one of the first to be so named. They met the following December in Kentucky, when Dunbar had written a previously unpublished poem, dated December 18, 1894, inscribed to Cotter. It is about the search and longing for the treasure of friendship.
As fortune would have it, I was queried by a Cincinnati resident, Patrick Orsary, about whether the poem in his book was one, unpublished, and two, if it was a genuine part of the Dunbar canon. I looked through all the published volumes and could find no record of the poem. When I finally had the poem in my hands I could see that it had been written by Dunbar himself and dated as well. It had not been published, it did belong to the Dunbar canon, and it was signed by Dunbar himself. It was, I believe, a unique find. How the poem came into the possession of Mr. Orsary's family remains somewhat of a mystery, despite the history he furnished. Mr. Orsary's great-great uncle, Dr. James Averdick, somehow acquired the book. Dr. Averdick passed the book along to this nephew, Dr. Robert Ertel, who subsequently passed it along to his daughter, who was later to be the future Mrs. Orsary, who then passed the volume along to her son Patrick Orsary, who was the most recent owner and the man from whom I purchased the volume.
Dunbar was clearly writing in the style that the period demanded. The couplets and the varying rhythms of each line support this claim. Fifty-six of the poems in Oak and Ivy are written in standard English while only four are written in dialect, the style upon which his reputation would rest. [End Page 357]
To My Friend—Joseph S. Cotter
December 18th 1894.
I had searched thro' the world for the world's greatest treasure—In the temple of Art, in the palace of Pleasure;In the marts of the cities where riches and pride,Sprang up from the compost and bloomed side by side.And still did I search but the prize still eluded,Till weary of wandering, sad and deludedI would fain have abandoned the quest in the end—But the treasure appeared in the love of a friend.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Ohio. [End Page 358]
Herbert Woodward Martin is poet-in-residence at the University of Dayton and Laureate Poet for Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of six books of poetry, two opera libretti, and the text for a new Magnificat. He has given readings of Dunbar's poetry around the world for the past twenty years.