Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (b. 1859–d. 1930) was the most prolific African American woman writer during the “post-bellum/pre-Harlem” era as described by contemporary Charles W. Chesnutt. Her most anthologized novel, Contending Forces (1900), uses racial passing, black women’s sexual exploitation by white men under slavery, and racial uplift literary tropes to describe black life in the long nadir at the turn of the 20th century. Additionally, the serialized novels Hagar’s Daughter (1901), Winona (1902), and Of One Blood (1903) established Hopkins as the leading African American woman editor with their appearance in the Colored American Magazine. Since she was rediscovered by Fisk University librarian and scholar Ann Shockley in the early 1970s, Pauline Hopkins’s work as a playwright, editor, essayist, and cultural critic has influenced the field of Pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist, feminist, and African-American studies scholarship. Literary biographies by Ira Dworkin and Hanna Wallinger establish Hopkins as a significant contributor to African American literature and print culture, while Lois Brown’s biography situates Hopkins and her work within Boston’s antebellum abolitionism, post-bellum black theater, woman’s era Progressivism, and black nationalism during the era of World War I. Born in Maine and raised in Boston, where she spent all but a few years of her life, Hopkins’s Colored American Magazine (1900–1904) and New Era Magazine chronicle African American political, cultural, and literary discourse in a region of the country—New England—that is often overlooked for its impact on African American history at the turn of the 20th century. Hopkins maintained early intellectual connections with abolitionist writer William Wells Brown, from whom she won her first literary award, as well as with her uncle, famous African American antebellum poet Elijah W. Smith. Such relationships, as well as Hopkins’s play Peculiar Sam (1879) have led many scholars, including Brown and Wallinger, to analyze Hopkins’s work as an act of “racial catharsis”—a form of autobiographical romantic fiction that supports Gabrielle P. Forman’s notion of black women’s literature as inherently “histo-textual” during Hopkins’s time. The fact that Peculiar Sam was the first play written, produced, and performed by an African American woman has produced a field of Hopkins studies within African American theater, performance, and popular culture scholarship. The field of Hopkins studies has also extended to her writings on “Famous Men and Women” of the “Negro” race, biographical sketches of racial uplift that provide valuable information about lesser-known figures in 19th-century African American history. While feminist scholars have used Hopkins’s nonfiction to deconstruct black women’s contestation of Victorian “true womanhood,” and the “New Woman” of the Progressive Era, cultural historians have just begun to analyze Hopkins’s more blatantly political writings following her split from the Colored American Magazine in 1904. Her speech demanding black women’s recognition within the ongoing fight for racial equality at a William Lloyd Garrison Centennial celebration in Boston in 1905 anticipated her turn toward Pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist writings in the short-lived New Era Magazine.
Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins Biography
An examination of Pauline Hopkins’s life, family history, and public career provides the necessary historical and cultural context within which her literature was produced. Hopkins’s connection to antebellum black abolition, and the rich print, musical, and performance culture that it produced, is chronicled extensively in Brown 2008 (cited under Literary Biography), particularly Hopkins’s relationship to Boston’s black theater scene of the 1870s and 1880s. When Hopkins was rediscovered by Ann Shockley in 1973, few details of her personal life were known beyond her birth in 1859, her literary award from William Wells Brown, and her involvement with the Colored American Magazine. During the 1980s, scholars Claudia Tate and Dorothy Porter wrote brief biographical sketches for, respectively, one of the first studies of “reclaimed” African American woman writers, and Rayford W. Logan’s Dictionary of American Negro Biography. The Schomburg Library and Oxford University Press publication of Contending Forces (1900) as part of their 1988 series African American Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century, led to further biographical studies in the Forwards for future editions, including the 1992 collection of Hopkins’s magazine novels.
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