One senses in practically everything that Alice Dunbar-Nelson wrote a driving desire to pull together the multiple strands of her complex personality and poetics. Yet this desire seems to be undercut or subverted by an opposing—and perhaps ultimately more powerful—ambivalence (I want to say schizophrenia) that makes W. E. B. Du Bois's racially "warring bloods" and Virginia Woolf's female "contrary instincts" look simple. Dunbar-Nelson spent her life assiduously writing herself both into and out of her literary "fictions," using conventional concepts of form, genre, and propriety that (given her lack of creative genius) bound her to divisiveness and inarticulation. This scenario becomes all the more complicated when one remembers that it was played in a late-nineteenth-, early-twentieth-century world where social conditions and the literary establishment made authentic self-definition (as persons and artists) extremely difficult for black women writers.
Dunbar-Nelson began her life as Alice Ruth Moore on July 19, 1875, in New Orleans, Louisiana—marked from the beginning by the mixed white, black, and Indian of her Creole ancestral strains. This mixture endowed her with reddish-blonde baby curls and a fair enough complexion to pass occasionally for white when she was an adult intent on imbibing the high culture (operas, bathing spas, art museums) of the Jim Crow United States society, which was just as committed to her exclusion. Evidence suggests that—a feeling of shame about some circumstance(s) of her birth notwithstanding—she preferred her mixed racial appearance and sometimes looked down on darker skinned blacks, especially if they were also less educated and refined. (Skin color and status were often connected in those early postbellum times. Many progressive colored people believed that the best way to prove their worth was to be as little black as possible, black being equated with narrowness and limitation.) Nevertheless, Dunbar-Nelson fought for the rights of black people in a variety of individual and organizational ways ranging from the women's club movement, to the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, to financially aiding, from her own shallow pocket, young charges at the Industrial School for Colored Girls, which she helped to found. She was generally active on behalf of women, motivated by genuine feminist instincts and the available avenues for sociopolitical work. Making a living also occupied and preoccupied her. She was a teacher, stenographer, executive secretary, editor, newspaper columnist, platform speaker, and campaign manager.
All of this reminds us that Dunbar-Nelson perforce wrote in the interstices of a busy existence unsupported (except for one brief period) by any of the money or leisure traditionally associated with people of letters. Doggedly determined to be an author, she plied her trade, often too facilely, hastily, opportunistically, and without revision—carried forward on the flow of words that came quite easily for her. Interestingly enough, she called all of her writing "producing literature," in a humorously ironic leveling of forms and types. But just as ironically, her status is lowered since the more belletristic genres of poetry and fiction are more valued than the noncanonical forms—notably the diary and journalistic essay—that claimed so much of her attention.
Dunbar-Nelson began her career early. As a daring young author "just on the threshold of life," she published Violets and Other Tales in 1895 when she was barely twenty years old. A potpourri of short stories, sketches, essays, reviews, and poetry, this volume is interesting and promising juvenilia wherein the budding writer tries out many voices. Even this early, some of her lifelong characteristics are evident: wide reading and love of books ("Salammbo"); catholicity of intellect ("Unknown Life of Jesus Christ," "Anarchy Alley," "Ten Minutes' Musing"); alienation from her own autobiography and mundane experience; Creole materials and themes ("Titee," "A Carnival Jangle," "Little Miss Sophie"); competence in many genres; use of standard lyric themes; a leaning toward the romantic; ambivalence about woman's concept of self and proper role in the emerging modern world ("Violets," "The Woman," "At Eventide," etc.); a felicitous prose style; and a tendency to pay obeisance to literary and social proprieties. Summarizing the work in this way suggests that it is most profitably read as a precursor of later work, or consulted in retrospect for its revelations of Dunbar-Nelson's roots.
Dunbar-Nelson's second book, The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories (Vol. I, WADN), appeared four years later. Thus, the only two volumes of her own work published during her lifetime (which have kept her writings marginally accessible to later generations of scholars and readers) were printed at the very beginning of her career—before the turn of the century and before books by black writers ceased to be novelties during the "New Negro" era. Therefore, Dunbar-Nelson, in her way, helped to create a black short-story tradition for a reading public conditioned to expect only plantation and minstrel stereotypes. Her strategy for escaping these odious expectations was to eschew black characters and culture and to write, instead, charming, aracial, Creole sketches that solidified her in the then-popular, "female-suitable" local color mode.
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What she was able to achieve in prose outweighs her poetic accomplishments although, ironically, being taken as a poet has helped immensely to keep her reputation alive. Dunbar-Nelson was not driven to write poems and did not focus on the genre. When asked by an editor for a poem in 1900, she confessed to being short on poetic inspiration and added, "Mr. Dunbar tells me that I average one poem in six months, and that there will be none due for several weeks to come." If anything, Paul's estimate is a bit high when spread over her lifetime of writing.
By and large, Dunbar-Nelson's poetry (included in Vol. 2, WADN) is what it appears to be—competent treatments of conventional lyric themes in traditional forms and styles. Her signature poem, "Violets," is the apogee of this type. A few others stand out for various reasons. "I Sit and Sew," wherein a woman chafes at her domestic role during wartime, seems feminist in spirit. "You! Inez!" appears to be a rare eruption in verse of Dunbar-Nelson's lesbian feelings. "Communion" and "Music" were probably (like "Violets") selections in a no longer extant Dream Book commemorating her illicit affair with Emmett J. Scott, Jr. "To Madame Curie" and "Cano—I Sing" are strikingly well executed. "April Is On the Way" is a confusingly complicated work about a rape (or attempted rape) and lynching. "Forest Fire" shows Dunbar-Nelson trying to modernize her technique during the Harlem Renaissance years of experimentation. "The Proletariat Speaks" reminds one .of her consciousness about difference and class contrasts. "Little Roads" contains a pun on "Fay," the name of the woman with whom she was romantically involved when she wrote it in 1930-1931. "Harlem John Henry Views the Airmada" is an "epic of Negro Peace" complete with a black protagonist and slave spirituals.