Pauline Hopkins Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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Over any black family in the mid-nineteenth century loomed an array of social, economic, and psychological ills: financial catastrophe, legal disfranchisement, social exclusion, scapegoating, gatekeeping, stereotyping, self-pity, and self-hatred. Nonetheless, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins’s family insisted that she have the same educational opportunities as whites and follow the standards of decorum attendant upon them. In the late 1870’s, Hopkins performed with family members in her own plays. Then she juggled theatrical runs in the Northeast and West and assumed featured billing as a soprano soloist. Being an unmarried black woman in the 1890’s, however, she turned to the more stable income and lifestyle of a stenographer.{$S[A]Allen, Sarah A.;Hopkins, Pauline}

In 1900, Hopkins published her first novel, Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South. The romance of a spirited, near-white orphan named Sappho Clark, Contending Forces describes the heroine’s degradations and travails, her woebegone separations and teary reunions, and her vindication as a morally upright community member by marrying a principled, properly biracial man. After Contending Forces came a succession of three serialized novels, published under Hopkins’s mother’s maiden name, Sarah A. Allen.

The historian and philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois, in a sequence of emotional addresses and empirical studies culminating in his The Souls of Black Folk (1903), had proposed a tripartite agenda for African Americans at the turn of the century. His proposal included considerable access for African Americans to all vocations and professions and to higher education; acknowledgment of the contributions of African American genius to American music, literature, labor, and ethics; and immediate enfranchisement of African Americans through legislatively secured voting rights and other civil privileges. Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, advanced a different model for approaching what was known as “the Negro problem” among whites and “race uplift” to blacks. In the Atlanta Compromise address (1895) and his Up from Slavery (1900), Washington outlined a conciliatory approach. He stressed industrial education, economic self-sufficiency, measured and gradual enfranchisement, and social division of the races.

Boston’s Colored Co-operative Publishing Company, which adhered to the Du Bois position, financed Hopkins’s Contending Forces (which included characters modeled on Du Bois and Washington) and serialized her three other novels in its Colored American Magazine. Washington’s Tuskegee Machine took over the magazine in 1904 and dismissed Hopkins, who had by then served in various editorial capacities and published in it dozens of pieces, including short fiction, biographies, editorials, and essays.

Hopkins’s novels broached to an African American audience issues of black nationalism, self-determinism, self-definition, indigenous Eastern and African spirituality, social collectivism, and feminist consciousness. The novels represent the apogee of her intent to combine Du Bois’s politics and African-centered aesthetics in popular fiction.

Hopkins wrote to her mixed-gender, multipartisan readership via techniques more fanciful and velvet-throated than dogmatic and ham-fisted. Indicting the popular hegemonic travel accounts of African explorers Henry Stanley and David Livingstone, her Of One Blood concludes with an archaeological expedition to a mystical, subterranean Ethiopian kingdom. The journey validates the so-called Dark Continent as the cradle of all the world’s races.

In Hagar’s Daughter, Hopkins trots out the most degraded type in America’s best-selling plantation fiction—the superstitious, buxom, turbaned, ungrammatical, log-footed, coal-black mammy. She intends not to ridicule but to insist that black women form the moral backbone of American society. Male characters are redeemed in direct reciprocation to the women’s feminine principles of maternity, cooperation, spirituality, compassion, and humility.

Communicating to readers of varying literacies, tastes, intellects, and classes required sophisticated aesthetic references. Elements of every nineteenth century literary production surface in Hopkins’s serials: romances, sentimental fiction, historical fiction, domestic novels, the gothic, the tale of the tragic mulatto, the detective story, plantation novels, fugitive slaves’ autobiographies, and melodrama. She spices these with scenarios from journalistic accounts of phrenology, spirit-rapping, mesmerism, reincarnation, telepathy, and clairvoyance.

Hopkins applied these forms in a variety of ways. She was not averse to taking material from other sources—for example, directly lifting elements of the plot of Hagar’s Daughter from William Wells Brown’s Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter (1853). On the other hand, she introduces a rare extended depiction of a male mulatto with her hero Reuel Briggs in Of One Blood. With her contemporaries Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Victoria Earle Matthews, and Emma Dunham Kelley, Pauline Hopkins allied popular fiction and social action. She is remembered as a major innovator of early African American fiction.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Allen, Carol. Black Women Intellectuals: Strategies of Nation, Family, and Neighborhood in the Works of Pauline Hopkins, Jessie Fauset, and Marita Bonner. New York: Garland, 1998. From the series Studies in African American History and Culture. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Discusses all three of Hopkins’s serialized novels.

Baker, Houston A. Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Discusses Contending Forces.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Afterword to Contending Forces, by Pauline Hopkins. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978. An essay by a major African American writer.

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Provides detailed analyses of the pedagogic, cultural, and political functions of Hopkins’s novels.

DuCille, Ann. The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women’s Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Discusses marriage and sexuality in the novels of Hopkins and Frances E. W. Harper.

Gabler-Hover, Janet. Dreaming Black/Writing White: The Hagar Myth in American Cultural History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Examines Hagar’s Daughter.

Gruesser, John Cullen, ed. The Unruly Voice: Rediscovering Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996. With an introduction by Nellie Y. McKay and an afterword by Elizabeth Ammons.

Shockley, Ann. “Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: A Biographical Excursion into Obscurity.” Phylon 33 (Spring, 1972). A biographical sketch.

Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Woman’s Text at the Turn of the Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Tate sees Hopkins and other post-Reconstruction black women novelists as using domestic plots of marriage, love, and family to address themes of racial, sexual, political, and personal desire.

Wallinger, Hanna. Pauline E. Hopkins: A Literary Biography. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005. An in-depth study of Hopkins’ life and career, as well as her concepts of race, gender and class, and her relationships with fellow writers.