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World’s greatest treasure in paper and ink

10:03 AM  Dec 30th, 2010
by Cameron Fullam

In the love of a friend, treasure greater than riches and pride appeared to poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

And so the writer put pen to paper — the flyleaf of an original edition of Oak and Ivy, his first book of poems — and said so.

And now we are richer for it.

In February, Cincinnati resident Patrick Orsary called Dunbar scholar and professor emeritus Herbert Woodward Martin to say he had an 1893 first edition of Oak and Ivy and would sell it for $50.

Martin could hardly believe his good fortune — he’d been searching for an original Oak and Ivy for decades. He also found inscribed on the inside cover of the book a personal Dunbar poem, written and signed by the poet himself. The unpublished poem was addressed “To My Friend, Joseph S. Cotter, December 18th, 1894.”

“To have a poem written by Dunbar, in his own hand, to another African-American poet who was his contemporary is truly exciting,” Martin said. “I’m touching something that Dunbar touched. I’m connecting with that history.”

Martin’s research on Cotter, a poet living in Kentucky, revealed that he was a friend of Dunbar. Cotter founded the Paul Laurence Dunbar School in Louisville, Ky., in 1893 and became the school’s first principal. Dunbar visited Cotter the next year and possibly gave him the book as a gift, Martin said.

How the book came into the possession of Orsary’s family three generations before him is unknown.

“I’m just real excited that it ended up in the right place,” said Orsary, who contacted Martin through the University’s Dunbar website, http://dunbarsite.org. “You never know what you’re going to find hiding on a bookshelf or in a basement.”

The African American Review, the Modern Language Association’s journal of black literature and culture, recently published the Cotter poem. The book and the poem remain with Martin.

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