- Recovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the Twenty-First CenturyAn Introduction
Why must we recover Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the twenty-first century? Because she was a prolific, influential, and often brilliant writer whose output never ceased from her teens in late-nineteenth-century New Orleans until her death in Philadelphia in 1935. Because she worked in a dizzying array of forms—poetry, short fiction, novellas, essays, newspaper columns, editorials, literary and theater reviews, play and film scripts, diaries, literary analysis, and more—and published in the most influential black periodicals and anthologies of her era. Because she was a lifelong activist, organizer, teacher, and orator whose work for black racial advancement, gender equality, and social justice took her around the country, before diverse audiences, and into the White House. Because Dunbar-Nelson left an archive. Expertly preserved by her beloved niece, Pauline Alice Young, her papers may represent the most extensive and complete archive extant from an early US black woman writer. These materials, housed in the University of Delaware’s Special Collections Library, offer richly detailed insight into the worlds within which Dunbar-Nelson moved, revealing overlapping networks of friendship, intimacy, influence, [End Page 213] collaboration, and competition among black intellectuals, artists, and leaders during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They present a woman writer whose intellect, appetites, and creative energies reached out, constantly, in multiple, simultaneous directions, defying unifying characterization.
The first and most significant recovery of Dunbar-Nelson was conducted nearly four decades ago by R. Ora Williams and Akasha (Gloria) Hull. These scholars brought Dunbar-Nelson’s writing into print after decades of obscurity and developed provocative and densely researched critical frameworks for interpreting it. The significance of Hull’s monumental contribution—producing a biographical overview and comprehensive critical treatment of Dunbar-Nelson’s oeuvre, an edition of her diary, and three edited volumes of her writing for the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers series in the early 1980s—cannot be overstated: her work continues to shape every aspect of Dunbar-Nelson scholarship, including this special issue. And yet that scholarship remains limited in scope, and for most contemporary literary critics Dunbar-Nelson has returned to obscurity. When she is remembered, it is chiefly for a single volume of regional fiction, her 1899 collection The Goodness of St. Rocque, or as the widow of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Many of the explanations for Dunbar-Nelson’s neglect that Williams and Hull identified four decades ago still obtain. Both cite the sexism and racism that once designated any black woman writer as “minor” and that continue to limit the degree and quality of attention she receives, and both note the tendency of famous husbands to overshadow brilliant wives. In Color, Sex, and Poetry (1987), Hull argues that the temporal and geographical frames that organize our criticism and curricula also play a role, pointing out that the timing and geography of Dunbar-Nelson’s career placed it largely in advance to the Harlem Renaissance and away from the cultural epicenter of New York City—in Wilmington; Washington, dc; and Philadelphia.1 She also reminds us that male-centered networks of patronage and support made it difficult for women like Dunbar-Nelson to publish as widely as their male contemporaries, rendering them less visible to readers now. Williams observes, as well, that Dunbar-Nelson did not serve the agendas that motivated early African Americanist and feminist literary scholarship—a factor that is still worth considering, despite the massive expansion and diversification that have transformed both areas of criticism since the 1970s (R. Williams, “Alice” 10–11).
We began imagining this special issue of Legacy following a panel on Dunbar-Nelson that we organized for the 2012 meeting of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers in Denver, as we were bombarded with requests for more information. Many from our audience expressed shock that they had never heard of Dunbar-Nelson or knew only a few of the early stories [End Page 214] or her oft-anthologized poem “I Sit and Sew.” Now they wanted to read and teach more. Our response is this special...