- Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution, and: Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington
The past few years have seen the publication of essential biographies of two important late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century figures in African American life and letters. Lois Brown’s long-awaited Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution (2008) and Robert J. Norrell’s Up from History: The Life of [End Page 286] Booker T. Washington (2009) are both substantial contributions to our knowledge of these two outstanding Americans and add immeasurably to our appreciation of the lives of African Americans during a volatile and troublesome period. The fact that the subjects of these works found themselves in opposition to the other’s philosophy and posturing makes the nearly simultaneous arrival of their biographies all the more interesting.
Lois Brown’s monumental work on novelist, editor, and activist Pauline Hopkins seeks to bring a little-known and largely marginalized figure into her rightful place in the African American literary canon. In addition, Brown explores in minute detail many of the little-known facts of black life in New England, especially during the latter half of the 1800s and the first few years of the 1900s. Hopkins is situated in the milieu of the black New Englander and Brown’s careful research reveals many interesting details of a long-obscured history of African Americans in the far Northeast, from Massachusetts to Maine, dating from the time of the founding of the American colonies. Born in Portland, Maine, Pauline Hopkins was a fifth-generation member of a small but influential New England family on her mother’s side that counted among its members the famous Paul family, the poet James Whitfield, and the composer and opera singer Annie Pauline Pindell. Her father’s family was the Northrups, who according to Brown were “one of the most politically active and established African American families in Providence, Rhode Island” (34).
Pauline Hopkins’s early life included stints as a performer in musical concerts, singing in various productions in Boston and in various other venues, even being billed periodically as “Boston’s favorite colored soprano.” In addition, Hopkins early on became interested in oratory, and developed into a powerful and gifted speaker on matters of literature, uplift, lynching, and a variety of concerns during the latter part of the nineteenth century that we now recognize as having constituted the woman’s era. Hopkins also trained as a stenographer and held a number of clerical and civil service positions in Boston.
The larger portion of Brown’s work on Pauline Hopkins rightly concerns her literary endeavors, and offers particularly careful analyses of Hopkins’s novels Contending Forces, Hagar’s Daughter, Winona, and Of One Blood. Brown identifies Contending Forces as an “Ancestral Narrative,” and the most important work among those written by Hopkins. This novel is perhaps best described as a tour de force that explores the power of racism to undermine even the strongest personal and familial constitutions. The narrative follows a family from its beginnings in the West Indies, “moves to the slaveholding South, resumes in abolitionist New England, and finally concludes with two black migrations to New Orleans and London, respectively” (192). Contending Forces was published in 1900 and drew heavily on the challenging facts of the late-nineteenth-century “nadir” for African Americans. It included accurate historical and contemporary references that brought immediate attention to its author, then an officer in the New Era Club and a prominent Boston personality, although Hopkins was not a member of the social elite that included such people as Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Mary Church Terrell, perhaps the prime movers among those who advanced the colored women’s clubs of the day. Brown successfully argues, through careful literary analysis and astute historical revision, that Hopkins was a force to be reckoned with in the literary, social...