The Toledo "Discovery"
Dunbar spent a good deal of time in Toledo in the spring of 1896. Things were not looking very cheery, however - he hated having to hawk his own books. He wrote to his future wife, Alice Ruth Moore, from the city:
"This rainy Sunday finds me still lingering in Toledo - idly busy, lazily industrious. On the last few days, the sun has kissed the face of April into smiles and blushes, - but today she is back at her old tricks of weeping and sulking, like a petulant maiden. And I am like the day, full of moods and changing feelings, now sad, now pensive, now gay. Just at present there is not much gayety in me. The clouds and the wind and the rain depress me."
But while Dunbar lingered, Henry Tobey's enthusiasm for Dunbar's verse proved infectious. The day Tobey received his first finished copy of Majors and Minors, he happened to be staying overnight in a downtown hotel after being called into the city on business, where he met a friend interested in poetry. Together, they sat up reading the poems until almost midnight. Stopping at the desk for their room keys later, they bumped into James O'Neal and his wife and a Mr. Nixon who were acting in "Monte Christo," then appearing on the stage at Toledo's newly opened Valentine Theater. O'Neal went to his room, but Nixon stayed, and Tobey urged him to read some of the poems. At first, Nixon read quietly over the hotel desk, then read "When Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eyes" aloud and gave a dramatic recitation in the hotel lobby! The two pored over the poems together until the early hours of the morning, and Nixon pronounced that no one had written such verses since Poe.
This lobby literary spectacle led to a copy of Majors and Minors falling into the hands of the playwright James Herne, who happened to be in town to oversee production of his play “Shore Acres.” It was the Boody Hotel's desk clerk who made sure Herne was given a copy. Herne wrote Dunbar immediately from his next theatrical stop in Detroit:
MY DEAR MR. DUNBAR:
While at Toledo, a copy of your poems was left at my hotel by a Mr. Childs. I tried very hard to find Mr. Childs to learn more of you. Your poems are wonderful. I shall acquaint William Dean Howells and other literary people with them. They are new to me and they may be to them. I send you by this mail some things done by my daughter, Julia A. Herne. She is at school in Boston. Her scribblings may interest you. I would like your opinion….
I am an actor and dramatist. My latest work - "Shore Acres" you may have heard of. If it your way, I want you to see it, whether I am with it or not. How I wish I knew you personally! I wish you all the good fortune that you can wish for yourself.
Yours very truly,
James A. Herne.
Herne did indeed send a copy of Majors and Minors to William Dean Howells, the former editor of the influential Atlantic Monthly, famed literary critic, and acclaimed "modern" novelist. This was Dunbar's big break. Few literary figures had the contacts or the influence that Howells commanded in the 1890s. Howells assessment of Dunbar's work was that it was sublime, and Howells eventually let everyone know of "his" discovery.
In the meantime, Dr. Tobey, who traveled widely for professional conferences, energetically introduced reporters and critics to Dunbar’s' works. He introduced the editor and author Robert G. Ingersoll to Dunbar's works:
"I know you are too busy a man to read all the poems in this book, so I take the liberty of marking a number which I consider the stronger ones. I do not profess to be literary, but think I probably have ordinary human feeling and common sense, and I would like you to read over the poems I have marked, and which I think unusual. If after reading them you feel the same way, it would be great consolation to Mr. Dunbar in his poverty and obscurity if you would write a letter of commendation."
To which Ingersoll replied:
No. 220 Madison Ave.
April, 1896, New York City
MY DEAR DR. TOBEY:
At last I got the time to read the poems of Dunbar. Some of them are really wonderful - full of poetry and philosophy. I am astonished at their depth and subtlety. Dunbar is a thinker. "The Mystery" is a poem worthy of the greatest. It is absolutely true, and proves that its author is a profound and thoughtful man. So the "Dirge" is very tender, dainty, intense and beautiful. "Ere Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eyes" is a wonderful poem: the fifth verse is perfect. So "He Had His Dream" is very fine and many others.
I have only time to say that Dunbar is a genius. Now, I ask what can be done for him? I would like to help.
Thanking you for the book, I remain.
Howell’s review of Majors and Minors appeared in Harper's Weekly, one of the largest circulating magazines in the nation. It coincidentally came out in the same issue that featured a report on the nomination of William McKinley and therefore boasted a larger than normal circulation. The issue was dated June 27, 1896 – Dunbar's 24th birthday. Dunbar bought a copy from a Dayton newsstand and as he stood there in the street he was overcome with emotion. Around this time his mother was away from the house for a time and when she returned found a pile of some two hundred letters for her son.
From this point on, Dunbar's fame was never in doubt. He was soon overwhelmed with invitations to write for leading papers and journals and make personal appearances. By 1898, it was reported that he was earning over $3,000 a year with his pen.