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Reviewed by:
  • Selected Works of Edythe Mae Gordon
  • Martha L. Wharton (bio)
Selected Works of Edythe Mae Gordon, with Introduction by Lorraine Elena Roses. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996. xxx + 99 pp. ISBN 0-7838-1420-8 cloth.

The literary works of Edythe Mae Gordon (c. 1896-?), reproduced in Selected Works of Edythe Mae Gordon, consist of seventeen writings, including her short fiction, poetry, and master’s thesis from Boston University (1935). While her collected works are brief, they are just the sort of offerings eagerly sought by many scholars and students of early twentieth-century African American women’s literary and intellectual traditions. The value of this collection, and others like it, is that the volume raises to public attention the works of a woman whose writings were heretofore unknown. The republication of Gordon’s works provides contour and context to the intellectual and artistic terrain occupied by early twentieth-century African American women writers.

Lorraine Elena Roses, editor of the Gordon volume, spends considerable time detailing the writer’s biography. Despite the dearth of public records, she carefully and painstakingly reconstructs Gordon’s life as an artist, wife, student, and member of Boston’s black intellectual elite during the Harlem Renaissance. At points in the biographical sketch, however, Roses leaves the facts behind and speculates about Gordon’s artistic and intellectual influences. Noting that Gordon attended Washington, DC’s celebrated M Street School (later renamed Dunbar High School), the early professional home to political, cultural, and literary luminaries like Anna Julia Cooper, Carter G. Woodson, and Angelina Weld Grimké, Roses speculates that perhaps Gordon studied French under the tutelage of Jessie Fauset. These sorts of imaginings certainly work to place Edythe Mae Gordon among some of the greatest African American thinkers and artists of her day. [End Page 199]

This kind of “scene-setting” occurs again when Roses discusses the Saturday Evening Quill, a short-lived little magazine founded in 1928 and edited by Edythe Mae’s husband, Eugene Gordon. Eugene did not found the journal alone, but in the company of other members of the Saturday Evening Quill Club: Helene Johnson, Gertrude Parthenia McBrown, Dorothy West, and others noted for their literary and poetic contributions during the New Negro Renaissance. Gordon’s first short story, “Subversion,” appeared in the Quill’s debut issue, suggesting that leading women writers of the Renaissance movement read, approved of, and promoted Edythe’s literary efforts. It was no small honor that this same short story was listed among the best by the 1928 O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Committee. The company in which Edythe wrote and published her earliest works seemed to track her as a writer with great potential.

Although Edythe was marked early in her career as a writer with important talent, Roses leaves unanswered a question that lurks just beneath the carefully compiled biography: Why didn’t Edythe Mae Gordon’s writings survive the Renaissance? Clearly, as Roses offers, “writing by black authors was routinely ignored by the white publishing establishment of the time” (vxiii). This is true for so many black male and female writers. Will this fact fully explain Edythe Mae Gordon’s case? Roses suggests that an answer that seems settled in the soil of Gordon’s fiction. In the short fiction, like the acclaimed “Subversion,” Gordon delves into the betrayal and disappointment that her characters seem wholly unable to avoid. Perhaps it was a poor career choice, an unwise choice in marriage, or simply marital infidelity, but most of Gordon’s protagonists are unable to achieve even a modicum of happiness in their lives. If any contentment comes, it does so at a grave price, and is always dampened by personal loss.

The manner in which Roses has drawn Gordon’s life leads a reader to believe that perhaps Gordon returned to these issues in her fiction because they seemed an irrepressible pattern in her own life. Eugene Gordon seemed a perfect companion and husband—a “newspaper man,” college-educated, and politically active. Eugene wrote and edited for the Communist cause, and took a strong interest in the status of the black American woman. But the marriage, though lasting more than twenty-five...

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pp. 199-202
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