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Sheila Smith McKoy
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 19 July 1875, Alice
Ruth Moore was the daughter of Patricia Wright, a seamstress, and Joseph Moore, a merchant
marine, and, due to her middle-class social status and racially mixed appearance, she
enjoyed the diverse culture of the city. She graduated Straight University (now Dillard
University) in 1892 and began her career as a teacher in the public school system of New
Orleans. In 1895, Dunbar-Nelson published her first collection of short stories and poems,
Violets and Other Tales. Although many of the pieces were obviously marked by her
inexperience, "Titee," "A Carnival Jangle," and "Little Miss
Sophie" reveal her gift for capturing the language, setting, and pathos peculiar to
New Orleans life at the turn of the century. She married Paul Laurence Dunbar after a
courtship of letters that began when Dunbar saw her picture accompanying one of her poems
published in the Monthly Review in 1897. They married in 1898 in a secret ceremony
in New York, where she was teaching at the White Rose Mission (later, the White Rose Home
for Girls in Harlem), which she helped to found. After her marriage, Dunbar-Nelson moved
to Washington, D.C., with her husband.
Dunbar-Nelson continued to write and, in 1899, published The Goodness of St. Rocque
and Other Stories, which included a revision of "Titee" (one with a happier
ending), "Little Miss Sophie," and "A Carnival Jangle." Aside from the
ending of "Titee," the revisions of these stories heralded the problems that she
faced with later manuscripts. Publishers, eager for dialect stories such as those that
made Paul Laurence Dunbar famous, opted for versions of these stories in which the
characters spoke with pronounced creole dialects. Dunbar-Nelson’s published fiction dealt
exclusively with creole and anglicized characters; difference was characterized not in
terms of race, but ethnicity. Many of her manuscripts and typescripts, both short stories
and dramas, were rejected when Dunbar-Nelson explored the themes of racism, the color
line, and oppression. This, coupled with the fact that Violets and St. Rocque, published
so early in her career, were, until recently, the only published collections of her work,
have made it difficult for both readers and critics to access Dunbar-Nelson’s work.
When Dunbar-Nelson’s marriage ended in 1902, she moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where
she taught at Howard High School, and, during summer sessions, at the State College for
Colored Students (Delaware State College) and at Howard University. Although she never saw
Dunbar again after their volatile separation, Dunbar-Nelson continued to publish under the
name of Alice Dunbar even after Dunbar died in 1906. During the years that she taught high
school in Wilmington, Dunbar-Nelson chiefly published poetry, essays, and newspaper
articles. In 1909, Modern Language Notes carried "Wordsworth’s Use of Milton’s
Description of Pandemonium." Dunbar-Nelson entered into her second marriage, with
Arthur Callis, in 1910; the couple was subsequently divorced. She acted as coeditor and
writer for the A.M.E. Review, one of the most influential church
publications of the era, from 1913 to 1914. Dunbar-Nelson published Masterpieces of
Negro Eloquence (1914).
Dunbar-Nelson addressed the issues that confronted African-Americans and women of her
time. In 1915, she served as field organizer for the woman’s suffrage movement for the
Middle Atlantic states; she was later field representative for the Woman’s Committee of
the Council of Defense in 1918 and, in 1924, she campaigned for the passage of the Dyer
Anti-Lynching Bill. Following her third and final marriage to Robert J. Nelson in 1916,
Dunbar-Nelson published chiefly in the periodical press. "People of Color in
Louisiana" (Journal of Negro History) in 1917 was followed by her
poetry, which was published in the NAACP’s Crisis, Ebony and Topaz, and the Urban
League’s Opportunity. Countee Cullen also included three of her most popular poems,
"I Sit and I Sew," "Snow in October," and "Sonnet," in his
collection of African-American poets, Caroling Dusk (1927). In 1920, Dunbar-Nelson
edited and published The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, a literary and news
magazine directed toward a black audience, and, with Nelson, coedited the Wilmington Advocate.
Her press publications included "The Colored United States" (Messenger, 1924),
"From a Woman’s Point of View" (later, "Une Femme Dit," column for the
Pittsburgh Courier, 1926), "As in a Looking Glass" (column for the
Washington Eagle, 1926-1930), and "So It Seems to Alice Dunbar-Nelson"
(column for the Pittsburgh Courier, 1930). Economic conditions precluded
Dunbar-Nelson from concentrating solely on her writings; however, her corpus stands as a
major achievement. She died on 18 September 1935 in Philadelphia.
See also: Erlene Stetson, ed., Black Sister (1981). Gloria T. Hull, Color,
Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (1987). Ann Allen
Shockley, Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933 (1988; reprint, 1989). Gloria T.
Hull, ed., The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, 3 vols. (1988).
From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States.
Copyright ? 1995 by the Oxford University Press. Reprinted with the permission of O.U.P.
Gloria T. Hull
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
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 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.
[. . . .]
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.
from The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Vol. 2. Ed. Gloria T. Hull.
New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Copyright ? 1988 by Oxford UP.
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