Our column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
In April 1895, the up-and-coming poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, whom Frederick Douglass had dubbed “the most promising young colored man in America,” saw a poem by a young writer, Alice Ruth Moore, accompanied by a photograph in which she appeared stylish and beautiful. He wrote to her immediately at her home on Palmyra Street in New Orleans, expressing his admiration, and they began an intense epistolary courtship that lasted two years. Six months in, Paul was declaring. “I love you and have loved you since the first time I saw your picture.” He called Alice “the sudden realization of an ideal!” She combined beauty with literary talent and the feminine accomplishments appropriate to an upper-class young woman of the day: “Do you recite? Do you sing? Don’t you dance divinely?” They modeled themselves self-consciously after Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, another pair of lovers and writers whose romance began by letter. Paul referred to “This Mr. and Mrs. Browning affair of ours,” and Alice, after they’d married, reflected on her role as a wife who was at once muse, colleague, and practical support: “We worked together, read together, and I flattered myself that I helped him in his work. I was his amanuensis and secretary, and he was good enough to write poem after poem ‘for me,’ he said.” The Dunbars embodied the aspirational ideal of the educated, cultured African American, allowed access to the white halls of fame and power as long as they were willing to remain, flattened and fixed, in the roles of representatives of their race.
Such a role did not allow for physical passion and disorder. When the couple met in person, the refinements of their written courtship became scrawled over with violence. In November 1897, in what Paul described as “one damned night of folly,” he raped Alice, leaving her with internal injuries. Five months later, the couple eloped. The marriage lasted four years, and ended as violently as it had begun, with a drunken beating. Alice left, and never returned. Paul tried to woo her back with letters, but she answered only once, with a single word delivered by telegram: No. When he died of tuberculosis in February 1906, at the age of thirty-three, she found out by reading a notice in the newspaper. Yet despite their estrangement, Alice worked hard after Paul’s death to keep his reputation and his work alive, reading his poetry in public and, in 1920, editing The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, a hefty anthology of “the best prose and poetic selections by and about the Negro race,” including many selections by Paul, but also her own poetry and selections by writers from James Weldon Johnson to Abraham Lincoln, with the “Caucasian” writers denoted by an asterisk. (Alice’s portrait, rather than Paul’s, appears as a frontispiece.)
Brief though it was, Alice Moore’s marriage to Paul Dunbar has tended to overshadow her achievements as a writer, even though she outlived him by three decades and married twice more. For many years, according to Katherine Adams, Sandra A. Zagarell, and Caroline Gebhard, the editors of Recovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the Twenty-First Century, a 2016 special issue of the women’s literature journal Legacy, her marriage was “the only thing making her visible and the primary thing obscuring her from view.” That ironic combination, a spotlight partially covered, is a fate she shares with many talented wives of famous men. The variety of names she adopted—Alice Ruth Moore, Alice Dunbar, Alice Moore Dunbar, Mrs. Paul Dunbar, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Aliceruth Dunbar-Nelson, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson—reflects the basic tension between a woman’s marital identity and her declaration of herself as an author. Highly educated, with a strong belief in her own talent and determination to make her own living, Dunbar-Nelson was a New Woman, that protofeminist figure who dominated American culture at the turn of the twentieth century, yet she also recognized and embraced marriage as essential to a woman’s social standing. “It is not marriage I decry, for I don’t think any really sane person would do this,” she wrote in “The Woman,” a story in her first collection Violets and Other Tales, published in 1895. But despite this declaration, the same piece contains voluminous arguments in favor of the single life. Critics who have wanted to pin her down to one identity, one genre, or one set of beliefs about race or gender, have struggled to do so. Appreciating the variety of her work requires a nuanced attention to the many layers of her life.
Alice Dunbar-Nelson was born on July 19, 1875, in New Orleans. For a writer who otherwise documented her life meticulously, and whose diary, correspondence, and reams of unpublished writing exist in an extensive archive, she was mostly silent about her early life. In one letter to Paul, her distress is palpable when he presses on the sore point of her origins: “Dearest—dearest—I hate to write this—How often, oh how painfully often, when scarce meaning [to] you have thrust my parentage in my face.”
As a light-skinned Black woman operating within the blunt racial binary of post–Civil War America, that silence signifies both shame and strategy. In her hometown of New Orleans, Dunbar-Nelson had a third option for a racial identity. Before the Civil War, the city’s population was divided between whites, enslaved blacks, and free gens de couleur, light-skinned Creoles of French or Spanish descent, who were a powerful and elite social group. This was the identity Dunbar-Nelson claimed for herself, and the figure who dominates her early short stories. She likened the “true Creole” to “the famous gumbo of the state, a little of everything, making a whole dilightfullly [sic] flavored, quite distinctive, and wholly unique.” It was also a status that carried little weight outside New Orleans, in a world where the color line was brutally policed. In several stories, Dunbar-Nelson explored the anxiety of passing and the pain of colorist prejudice. Her short story “The Stones of the Village,” dramatizes the bullying and exclusion that her light-skinned hero endures from both the black and white boys of his village. But instead of trying to claim a place among his own people, the boy decides to pass as white. The story traces his Dickensian journey from his grandmother’s village to a job working for an elderly book dealer in New Orleans, and then via a legacy in the old man’s will to college, law school, and eventually marriage to a white woman and a position as a respected judge. Throughout his career his fear of being exposed drives him to overt and virulent racist treatment of “Negroes.” Eventually he learns that an up-and-coming African American lawyer knows his true identity but agrees to keep it quiet in exchange for fair treatment in court. Her unpublished story “Brass Ankles Speaks” hews closer to Dunbar-Nelson’s own experience, narrated by a speaker who describes herself as “white enough to pass for white, but with a darker family background, a real love for the mother race, and no desire to be numbered among the white race.” Her anger throughout the piece is directed at darker-skinned Black people who tease and ostracize her, resenting both her ability to pass and her decision not to.
Eleanor Alexander, the author of Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow, a biography of the Dunbar marriage, detects in Alice’s status anxiety and her flashes of contempt for her much darker husband an attitude of internalized racism, or at least classism and colorism, that caused her to distance herself from the designation “Negro.” But other critics make the point that she proudly declared herself a “race woman” and that her identity as African American was never “masked” or concealed from readers. “This is a writer who embraced and labored incessantly on behalf of black people, including herself, and understood that work to require an interrogation of belonging—a refusal to make a piety of it,” write Adams, Zagarell, and Gebhard. Dunbar-Nelson grew up in an era preoccupied with questions of racial belonging and definition, which included a campaign to capitalize the word “Negro” as a question of dignity. She seems, however, to have resisted the idea that race was reducible to labels or symbols, exploring it instead as a variable, and highly individual, lived experience.
According to Alexander, although Dunbar-Nelson saw the category “Negro” as denoting a formerly enslaved person and thus distanced herself from it, her own family history was more closely embedded with slavery than with free Creole society. On the scraps of evidence afforded by birth certificates, name changes, and city records, Alexander pieces together the origins of Alice Moore as the daughter and granddaughter of women who were formerly enslaved. Her father’s identity is uncertain, as is the question of whether he was married to her mother, or whether Alice and her older sister had the same father—either way, he was not part of her life. Alice’s mother, Patsy, and grandmother, Mary, worked as servants and washerwomen, as many Black women did: part of a huge labor force that helped clean and clothe the upper classes. Together they made sure that Alice and her sister, Leila, were shielded from this work and kept away from their employers’ homes—a common protective strategy by servants, who knew the sexual exploitation and violence that routinely went on in those homes. Instead, Patsy and Mary worked to consolidate a class status for Alice and Leila by giving them an education they themselves had not received. Alice was first sent away as a young teenager to Southern University in Baton Rouge, and graduated from the prestigious Straight (now Dillard) University in New Orleans in 1892 with a teaching qualification. Teaching offered a route into elite society for African American women, who dominated the profession (in Washington, D.C., a few years before Alice moved there with Paul, women made up more than 80 percent of the city’s Black schoolteachers).
Alice’s first book was published in 1895, when she was barely twenty years old. Violets and Other Tales was a multigenre collection of poetry, stories, sketches, and essays rooted in New Orleans Creole society—“pieces of exquisite art,” as Paul, who was courting Alice when the book was being published, described them. Its reception in the press is a reminder of how absolute the division was at this time between works by Black and white artists. In the African American press, the book and its author were effusively praised, as much for what they represented—the “best of the race”—as for the specifics of the work. The Daily Picayune, the city’s white-run paper, denounced it as “slop”—which Gebhard argues was punishment for “having crossed the color line by presuming to submit it for review at all.” Interestingly, Dunbar-Nelson used the same pejorative years later when reassessing her early collection, which is undeniably sentimental, as was the style of its era. But its themes would linger into her next, and today best-known, collection, The Goodness of St. Roque, and Other Stories (1897), even though she left New Orleans for good the following year at the age of twenty-one.
In 1897, Alice moved to New York City, where she worked with writer and activist Victoria Earle Matthews at the White Rose Mission, a settlement home for working-class Black girls on East Eighty-Sixth Street. She continued to write, working on an unpublished collection of stories about the new community in which she found herself. She was a clubwoman, the main arena for African American women’s activism at the time, and an active supporter of women’s suffrage. In 1902, when her marriage to Paul Dunbar ended, Alice moved to Wilmington, Delaware, and began to work as a teacher at Howard High School, where she had an intimate friendship with the (considerably older) school principal Edwina B. Kruse, one of several important relationships with women over the course of her life. She stayed at Howard until 1920, when she was fired for her political radicalism. For Dunbar-Nelson, teaching was both a creative outlet and a form of political engagement: she wrote plays for her students to perform, and shared with her friend W.E.B. Du Bois a belief in the transformative power of the classroom for African Americans, and the importance for Black children of stories that centered Black characters—lamenting in her essay “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils” that “for two generations we have given brown and black children a blonde ideal of beauty to worship, a milk-white literature to assimilate, and a pearly Paradise to anticipate, in which their dark faces would be hopelessly out of place.” In her diary, which she kept daily for most of her life, she also recorded less lofty reactions to the daily grind of the classroom, as in this outburst from 1897: “Exhausted? I feel like a dishrag. 62 untamed odoriferous kids all day… Fiends, just fiends pure and simple.”
Throughout her time in Delaware, Dunbar-Nelson’s activism continued. She wrote for Du Bois’s The Crisis on women’s suffrage and became a field organizer for the campaign in Pennsylvania. In 1916, she married Robert J. Nelson, a journalist and politician, and together with him edited and published a progressive newspaper, the Wilmington Advocate.
In her diary, she also detailed the romantic relationships she had with women, including the Los Angeles–based activist Fay Jackson Robinson and artist Helene Ricks London, in entries that are sometimes tortured, but often frank and celebratory. They reveal a woman who, in private, was not afraid to cast off the constraints of respectability. In 1928, she described an evening with a group of women who were, like herself, married clubwomen: “We want to make whoopee… Life is glorious. Good homemade white grape wine. We really make whoopee… Such a glorious moonlight night.” Selections from her diary were edited and published in 1984 by Dunbar-Nelson’s literary champion Akasha Gloria Hull as Give Us Each Day, a landmark in Black feminist literary history and a vibrant glimpse into the writer’s inner life, now unfortunately out of print.
In the twenties, the cultural and political explosion of the Harlem Renaissance swept Alice Dunbar-Nelson up in its trail, even though she had not lived in New York for many years and was still based in Delaware. Her poetry, much of it written earlier, was rediscovered through its appearance in journals and collections like The Crisis, Opportunity, and the 1927 collection Ebony and Topaz. She was friends with most of the leading lights of the era, especially Du Bois and the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, but she had her differences with them, too. She critiqued the novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset’s generally well-received novel Plum Bun, rejecting the “injudicious laudation” that she worried was coming to a Black writer purely on the basis of race. She wanted a bigger frame, and laid claim to a white literary canon that was as much her heritage as any other, writing a scholarly dissertation on Wordsworth, with whom she shared a love of nature. One of her best-known poems celebrates the natural beauty of a violet in nature by contrasting it with the artifice of its copy in an urban setting, where the idea of the flower calls to mind: “florists’ shops, / And bows and pins, and perfumed papers fine; / And garish lights, and mincing little fops / And cabarets and songs, and deadening wine.”
Despite her early reputation as a poet, during the twenties Alice Dunbar-Nelson found her voice more and more as a journalist. She wrote a syndicated column, Une Femme Dit, and contributed a wealth of reviews and essays to newspapers and magazines. She was an in-demand speaker and although she was rarely paid well for it, she recognized the importance of maintaining a public profile against the twin forces of gendered and racial erasure. In her diary she was open about her constant struggle for money, lamenting in 1931: “the depression hit my royalties!” But she also blamed herself for her inability to find a stable footing in a field dominated by white men. Her work was so often uncredited, unpaid, or both. “Damn bad luck I have with my pen,” she wrote in her diary. “Some fate has decreed I shall never make money by it.” Yet in her energy and appetite for life’s pleasures, from the literary to the human to the natural, Alice Dunbar-Nelson celebrated beauty and freedom to the end of her life. Thanks to the scholars who’ve fought to resurrect her legacy, she may finally have the broader recognition she deserves, as a prolific, politically engaged writer whose poetry is only the beginning.
Joanna Scutts is a cultural historian and critic, and the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It.