In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Alice Dunbar-Nelson

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Primary Works
  • Archival Collections

American Literature Alice Dunbar-Nelson
by
Katherine Adams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0170

Introduction

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (b. 1875–d. 1935) was born in New Orleans and raised there by her mother, Patricia Moore, a freedwoman of African American and Native American descent. She attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, earned a teaching degree at Straight (now Dillard) University, and taught in New Orleans’s black schools from 1892 to 1896. During those same years Dunbar-Nelson (then Alice Ruth Moore) became active in the black women’s club movement, both locally and nationally, and began publishing in black periodicals. At twenty she published her first book, Violets and Other Tales (1895), a collection of stories, sketches, poems, and essays that brought her local celebrity. Leaving the city in 1896, Dunbar-Nelson continued to dedicate herself to teaching, activism, and writing—three areas of passionate commitment that shaped the rest of her life. She taught in Boston, then in Brooklyn where she also helped the writer and reformer Victoria Earle Matthews found the White Rose Mission, a settlement house for black women, while finishing her short story collection The Goodness of St. Rocque (1899). In 1898 she married the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, then at the height of his success. Their union advanced Alice’s literary career: she published Goodness with his press, Dodd, Mead and Company, and enjoyed positive reviews. But his fame also overshadowed her accomplishments; after her death she was remembered primarily as his wife until scholars R. Ora Williams and Akasha Hull recovered her from obscurity. Paul and Alice separated in 1902, partly because of his abuse. Nevertheless, she kept his name and, following his 1906 death, promoted his legacy with projects like her anthology, The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer (1920). For the next thirty years Dunbar-Nelson lived in Wilmington, Delaware, teaching for eighteen of them at Howard High School. During this period she was briefly married to another teacher, Arthur Callis, and romantically involved with Edwina Kruse, an educator about whom she wrote an unpublished novel titled The Lofty Oak. She worked as a paid and unpaid organizer, writer, and speaker for myriad causes, including suffrage, the war effort, the peace movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), anti-lynching legislation, education reform, and electoral politics. Although she never published another book of her own work, Dunbar-Nelson was a recognized Harlem Renaissance writer whose poems, stories, plays, essays, and reviews appeared in Crisis, Opportunity, The Messenger, and The Book of American Negro Poetry, and she wrote nationally syndicated newspaper columns. In 1932 Dunbar-Nelson moved with third husband Robert Nelson to Philadelphia, where she died of heart disease in 1935.

General Overviews

The political, professional, generic, and geographical diversity that characterizes Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s life and work can make it difficult to develop a comprehensive sense of her as a writer. Fortunately, several excellent scholarly overviews are available. The most important of these were written by Gloria (now Akasha) Hull (Hull 1987, Hull 1988), and her original archival research became the basis for most other general assessments of Dunbar-Nelson’s life, work, and significance. One exception is Williams 1979 by R. Ora Williams, whose work came first and highlights aspects of Dunbar-Nelson’s career—such as her literary scholarship—seldom addressed elsewhere. Later overviews offer added value by surveying the critical conversation (Lutes 1997).

  • Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

    The still authoritative account of Dunbar-Nelson’s relationships, activism, professional life, and writing. Grounded in exhaustive archival research. Discusses and contextualizes published and unpublished works. Hull’s critical, sometimes dismissive, tone has troubled many later critics.

  • Hull, Gloria T. “Introduction.” In The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. 3 vols. Edited by Gloria T. Hull, xxix–liv. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    Detailed survey of Dunbar-Nelson’s writing, organized by genre with some biographical framing. Consistently informed by Hull’s view of Dunbar-Nelson as a writer of limited ability whose work was marred by a desire to separate her political commitments from her literary ambitions.

  • Lutes, Jean Marie. “Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson, 1875–1935.” In Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Edited by Denise D. Knight and Emmanuel S. Nelson, 111–117. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

    Concise overview of Dunbar-Nelson’s life, writing, and critical reception. Useful introduction for teaching.

  • Williams, Ruby Ora. “Preface.” In An Alice Dunbar-Nelson Reader. Edited by R. Ora Williams, iii–xi. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1979.

    The first overview of Dunbar-Nelson’s oeuvre. Emphasizes the diversity and breadth of her output with particular attention to her poetry, journalism, and literary scholarship.

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