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Discovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson

A photograph of Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Last month, Anne Boyd Rioux wrote a post about a forgotten writer. Alice Dunbar-Nelson is also known as Alice Moore and sometimes in a fashion that covers all bases, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson. As you know, I’m not one to pass up a literary learning opportunity, so I read the post and went straight to Project Gutenberg to download the cited text. I read it that evening.

Dunbar-Nelson was an African American writer. Like her peer, Kate Chopin, she wrote books on subjects that people found difficult to deal with. Her colour and background made her even more controversial. (Need I say that if you’ve ever wished Chopin wrote more, let me introduce you to Dunbar-Nelson.)

The author favoured female agency, independence, and the right to work, the right to remain childfree. She spoke out about racial problems. Out of her work, the pieces published were those which submitted more to the views of the day – but they succeeded in progressing nonetheless. She wrote articles for papers and helped organise suffrage events. She campaigned against lynching and was a successful speaker. Her diary is available as well as a few novels.

An interesting fact, or not interesting if you consider the time, is that she married. Three times. She was first courted by a fellow writer, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. He died of Tuberculosis, but Dunbar-Nelson had separated from him four years previously; he’d abused her. She went on to marry twice more, first a physician and then poet and civil rights activist, Robert J Nelson. Some sources say she took female lovers, too.

As I said, I read the work cited by Rioux. It wasn’t the best choice (at least I believe that will prove to be the case) – there’s a vagueness to Violets And Other Tales that I suspect is down to a dampening down of subjects but also due to the writer’s age at the time. There’s a certain pretentiousness to the non-fictional pieces that speaks of immaturity.

The work sports both an introduction by Dunbar-Nelson, in which she intimates a fair lack of ability – likely to appease society? – and a preface by a Sylvanie F Williams who Laurie helped me discover was a fellow member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, a group of women, most, if not all, coloured. A list here infers various interests such as medicine, literature, and philanthropy. (The linked piece also states that the group included three men – “it is redeemed from the flatness and general unprofitableness of a gathering in petticoats by three real, live, flesh and blood, healthy men…”) Back on topic, Williams’ preface is rather ingratiating which is both understandable (young, new, writer, forgive her!) and sadly a product of the time, having to conform (a woman has written, forgive her!)

Violets And Other Tales is a collection of short fiction, poetry, and review-esque non-fiction. It’s very short and as I said, a bit vague and lacklustre, but you can see the potential in it, enough that it makes you wonder about Dunbar-Nelson’s later work and also what might have been had she been born later in time. Given that I came to the work with expectations, it may come as no surprise that I favoured pieces in which the author’s themes were more obvious.

There are a few pages titled ‘Why Should Well-Salaried Women Marry?’ Dunbar-Nelson states that a woman who works and is not married is able to spend her free time as she wants – she has neither husband nor children to look after. The author makes the case, through what she says as narrative, that a woman is quite capable of doing things by herself, that a woman knows about money:

Her mind is constantly being broadened by contact with the world in its working clothes; in her leisure moments by the better thoughts of dead and living men which she meets in her applications, by her studies of nature, or it may be other communities than her own.

To paraphrase, why should a woman give up her liberty in exchange for serfdom, all too often galling and unendurable?

It’s interesting to think of Dunbar-Nelson marrying when she had these thoughts but aside from it being the usual thing in those days, to marry, and aside from the fact books and real life are often two different things, we do have this:

The attraction of mind to mind, the ability of one to compliment the lights and shadows in the other, the capacity of either to fulfil the duties of wife or husband – these do not enter into contract. This is why we have divorce courts.

Another piece I liked was The Beeman, a short story about a beekeeper who is approached by a fairy, offering to transform him into his true self. Having discovered he was once a baby – I love that! – the fairy keeps her end of the bargain. Some years later she comes across a man who is a beekeeper and it’s that same man she turned into a baby, all grown up. It’s a nice message – whilst something may not be high status, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. We can force change but if our heart is not in it, it won’t work for long.

It’s a good work, but her others are likely better – my guess is that her diaries would be most compelling. And I’ll be continuing my foray; I’m glad to have found someone to staunch my sadness over our relative lack of Chopin.

Had you heard of Dunbar-Nelson?



June 29, 2016, 3:05 pm

Not an author I had heard of but one I’ll definitely seek out.

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