- Recovered from the ArchiveTwo Stories by Alice Dunbar-Nelson
We are pleased to publish two virtually unknown works of fiction by Alice Dunbar-Nelson that testify to her continuing artistic development beyond the charming “local color” stories for which she first became known and which have continued to attract the lion’s share of scholarly attention. Distinguished for both their literary quality and their subject matter, these two newly discovered tales demonstrate that more of Dunbar-Nelson’s fiction than is usually studied ought to command general and scholarly interest.
She composed “St. John’s Eve” on 26 February 1900 to enter the ghost story competition of The Black Cat: A Monthly Magazine of Original Short Stories, but the magazine returned the manuscript. The story offers readers a glimpse into black occult practices in turn-of-the-century New Orleans known as voudoo. In an essay dated 12 November 1896, in one of her notebooks, twenty-one-year old Dunbar-Nelson (then Alice Ruth Moore) insists that although voudoo priestess Marie Laveau has died, “black occultism . . . flourishes— in a less noble form, perhaps,— but still presided over by myriad priests and priestesses.” She goes on to explain, “On St[.] John’s Night the disciples of the black art are supposed to hold high carnival in the remotest wilds of the swamps near the old Spanish Fort.” The story may also refer to a scandalous affair, also discussed in [End Page 404] the notebook essay, when a midnight police raid at the house of an older black male “herb-doctor” uncovered practices of the “deepest mysteries of voudooism” involving a motley throng of devotees, “women and men of all colors, all degrees of society, and in all stage of deshabaille [sic].” Even more scandalous than the existence of voudoo, it seems, was the spectacle of black and white, men and women, aristocrat and plebian mingling “on a common footing,” and Dunbar-Nelson notes that “the newspapers made thousands of dollars out of it.” Four years later, voudoo would become the subject of her story “St. John’s Eve.” In a letter to her then husband, Paul Laurence Dunbar, she calls the tale “ very fine ,” even reporting that after writing it, “I got afraid of my own creation” (27 February 1900, qtd. in Metcalf 766), although as far as we know, it was never published.
Dunbar-Nelson’s “St. John’s Eve” leaves no doubt about the power of voudoo, or about the power of a versatile writer to transform traces of the occult and a scandal into a compelling narrative. It also complicates our understanding of how Dunbar-Nelson represented her native city, giving us a look at the less charming and more unsettling aspects of New Orleans culture. Through its skillfully controlled point of view, the story exposes the blinkered mind-set of an arrogant young Yankee who expresses contempt for time-honored New Orleans customs, especially the veneration of “old, black” praline women, whom he thinks should be replaced by “bright, fresh” boys in white jackets (409). In this way, as well as through the revelation of voudoo as genuinely terrifying, the story slyly comments on condescension toward and exoticization of the African/Creole culture of New Orleans by outsiders.
Another story composed about the same time, “His Heart’s Desire,” reveals Dunbar-Nelson’s tremendous range as a writer of fiction, showing her ability to transmute what could be sentimental subject matter into a masterful story without one false note. Her 1900 “itinerary”— a list of her compositions, where they were sent, and whether or not they were accepted— records that she sold the story for five dollars (“1900”).1 “His Heart’s Desire” has the simplicity of a children’s story but is undergirded by sharp psychological insights about small children. Its small masculine hero knows he should not long for a doll, but he does; his adventures reveal the intensity of children’s desires, to which adults are often entirely obtuse. They also reflect Dunbar-Nelson’s experience working with poor African American families at the White Rose Mission in New York in 1897–98, a settlement...