Alice Dunbar-Nelson and the Western Canon

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was both a talented educator and thought-provoking writer, but she was also an accomplished reader. The three reading journals she kept intermittently between the years of 1906 and 1932 document her accomplishments as a reader in extraordinarily granular terms. As a whole, just as Dunbar-Nelson’s diary offers us a comparatively unabashed and unadulterated look into the life of an early twentieth century woman of color, her reading journals perform a parallel function in providing evidence for what she would have been reading during the period. Nevertheless, since Dunbar-Nelson was, in many ways, a complicated figure—atypical perhaps and to some extent, an outlier for her times—questions remain with respect to how far we can extend her experience to her contemporaries among the Black intelligentsia. Most saliently, the journals allow us to ascertain Dunbar-Nelson’s literary taste as it had developed over different periods in her life. Provided with a considerable temporal scope for her journals and coupled with the vast amount of other primary source records available to modern day researchers, we can begin to pinpoint some of the personal as well as some of societal motivations that played a role in shaping her evolving ideas regarding literature.

In contemporary explorations of her first published book, Violets and Other Tales (1895), it is all too easy for us to gloss over her review for Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô (1862). The tendency to ignore this short yet erudite review is the result of efforts to focus all our attention on close readings of her short stories. However, if we pay closer attention to this review, we encounter a woman well versed in a conventionally Western literary education. The first journal in the series (Record Book No. 2), which was started in 1906, features the greatest amount of canonical texts among its listings. Three years prior to the start of this journal, Dunbar-Nelson had already expressed her fondness for canonical authorship in an essay she wrote for Prof. Felix Emmanuel Schelling at the University of Pennsylvania. A short essay titled “Why I like Jane Austen” offers one of the earliest examples of Dunbar-Nelson’s estimation of what factors substantiate timelessness in writing:

And so, to those who prefer caviar, let us of the plain dinner-table, where the family even perchance uses napkin rings, say humbly that because of Jane Austen’s simple style, quiet humor, keen irony, sprightly narrative, mischievous picking into our homely, everyday souls, and gentle ending of her stories, we like her and them, though they be the Apotheosis of the Commonplace. (5)

Here, in her reference to “everyday souls” and “the Commonplace,” we can begin to comprehend Dunbar-Nelson’s appreciation for the idea of narrative universality, or the ability for great works of literature to transcend time and its divisions of race and gender by penetrating the core of the human spirit. This closely held belief, we shall find, was one that she retained throughout the entirety of her adult life.

Dunbar-Nelson began teaching English at Wilmington’s Howard High School in 1902. Between 1906 and 1908, her reading encompassed the literature of the classical, medieval, early modern, Romantic, Victorian, and the modernist periods. Given her chosen vocation and the time in which she had been keeping this first journal, finding the works of Homer, Aristotle, Sidney, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ibsen, and London listed among its entries should not be seen as particularly extraordinary. Her racial background and socioeconomic status, however, render the artifact remarkable in a number of ways. Simply put, this aspect of Dunbar-Nelson’s life, this devotion to canonical reading, is not recognized as much as her relationship with poet Paul Laurence Dunbar at the close of the nineteenth century or even her organizing for women’s suffrage in the early years of the twentieth. A conspicuous gap considering that Dunbar-Nelson published two forward-thinking essays that bridged her research on Milton with Wordsworth studies in 1909, a little over a year after the end of her first reading journal. The two essays, “Wordsworth’s Use of Milton’s Description of Pandemonium” and “Wordsworth’s Use of the Miltonic Word”—two works of serious literary scholarship—prove that her dedication to the study of English literature far exceeded a casual flirtation. It is not that the existing Dunbar-Nelson scholarship has altogether omitted her sincere and very personal regard for canonical Western literature; rather, it seems more likely that in our attempts to draw greater attention to her race activism and lifelong work for social justice, we have unwittingly neglected this important stage in her life as a public intellectual. We have failed to grapple fully with what it means that a young woman of color from the Southern United States, literally one generation away from slavery, was so well versed in the classics of Western civilization. The failure resides not solely within the domain of the intellectual but also with the sociopolitical, as the question itself is a testament to the nation’s history of racial inequality. Even in her adolescence, however, Dunbar-Nelson was identified as a promising young student; and, likewise, she was urged by her teachers to pursue serious study in the subject of English literature (Ijeoma 28). Much like her reading journal, the noteworthiness of this relatively prosaic biographical detail is further validated by the fact scholastic encouragement of this nature was not at all common for Southern women of color at the close of the 1880s.

As an English teacher, and one that was still technically in the novice phase of her career development, Dunbar-Nelson had already started thinking about the underlying pedagogies that supported her chosen profession. Writing about the most desirable preparatory education for aspiring English teachers, she specified that by ten years of age, a “future teacher of English knows something of her Spenser, from Andrew Lang; something of Shakespeare from Lamb; she has laid the foundation for a knowledge of Milton; knows some of her Wordsworth, and something of the Greek classics” (3). Admittedly, this autodidactic curriculum was decidedly conventional for it times; then again, anticipating postmodern trends in literary theory such as New Historicism, she envisions that if, for example, “Tennyson were the author, the study could begin with his personal work, and spread outwards to an acquaintance with the great scientific movement which actuated the mid-nineteenth century, and colored all English literature, and then to a consideration of Germany and its influence upon England” (6). Dunbar-Nelson, it seems, was not one to let close reading and authorial intent preclude scholarly investigation into the social context of literary works. In understanding the importance of possessing some knowledge of the history and development of compositional form, she called for the reading of “pre-Chaucerian” texts, Arthurian legends, and great epics from the Dante’s Divine Comedy to the “Northern Sagas” (6). In this sense, her working life during this period was closely mirroring her reading life, for many of the authors and works that she explicitly singled out as worthy of study could also be found listed among the entries of her first reading journal.

Reading and Respectability

Fundamentally, we must consider the degree to which Dunbar-Nelson’s selections for these years either coincided with or ran against a tacit adherence to racial uplift and respectability politics. Respectability politics, defined in the broadest terms, represented a post-Reconstruction sociopolitical mission that urged African Americans to become established in mainstream American society through self-reliance, moral resilience, staunch Christian ethics, and, especially, quality education. It both emerged from and grew alongside those famed debates between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois that concerned the most profitable path that younger generations of freed Blacks could pursue in attaining political enfranchisement and gaining economic stability. On the margins, Dunbar-Nelson had personal ties to both Washington and Du Bois, and, thus, she could sympathize in certain respects with both of their missions. In either case, a championing of middle-class values persisted as a centerpiece to this deliberately optimistic vision of the collective future of the Black community.

It is difficult to construe an interpretation of Dunbar-Nelson’s reading list that does not involve an embrace of respectability politics on some level. Yet in Uplifting the Race (1996), Gaines argues that Dunbar-Nelson’s biography was a virtually a case study for the limitations of what he calls “uplift ideology”:

Dunbar-Nelson’s life, while unique in many respects, was nonetheless typical within a black middle-class milieu. Indeed her diary and writings record the limited satisfactions, material and otherwise, of racial uplift ideology, and the extent to which African Americans’ class aspirations routinely clashed with Jim Crow. Dunbar-Nelson’s struggles epitomize the very tenuous nature of bourgeois identity, particularly among blacks, and for whites as well. (214)

It is true that Dunbar-Nelson was never able to actualize the measure of financial stability revered by proponents of this way of thinking. Gaines’s portrayal of Dunbar-Nelson as the epitome of uplift ideology’s limitations, however, does not altogether contend with her tendency to defy dichotomous labels. As a historical figure, Dunbar-Nelson complicates any attempt to categorize her life and her views in accordance with structuralism’s singularities (e.g. underprivileged/prosperous, Black/White, Victorian/modern, low culture/high culture, etc.). In this sense, the intermixing of diverse literary traditions had always played some role in the cultivation of her personal identity, and perhaps foremost in informing her intellectualism. Consequently, what appears on the surface as incongruous ideas and practices in terms of what she read privately and what she advocated for publicly was actually held together by a complex web of philosophic coherence. A through line had connected her shrewd support for respectability politics to those areas where she believed the ideology ineffective. Among her most serious reservations with these politics involved its charge to inculcate a deference to patriarchal authority in Black women and using race as an artifice in literature to promote a political agenda.

This relatively recent, nuanced interpretation of Dunbar-Nelson’s biography has caused those responsible for her recovery work to reconsider past arguments that have characterized her corpus of short stories, poems, and novellas as largely apolitical; at least with regard to issues of race. Anna Storm (2016) encapsulates the conundrum succinctly by arguing that in her creative writing, “Dunbar-Nelson uses the genres of local-color fiction and the white-life novel to illuminate the limitations of progress narratives as well as traditional gender and sexual conventions” (364). She continues, moreover, in arguing that by engaging with the literature in this way, Dunbar-Nelson actually aligned herself more closely with her “Creole” Southern heritage while at the same time retaining her place in shaping the literary tradition of African American women (363-364). This particular quality of her creative expression, one could argue, placed her at odds with the respectability politics posthumously associated with her legacy.

Yet points of agreement also warrant closer inspection. Affording the issue greater scrutiny, we find that Dunbar-Nelson’s views on the productive efficacy of African American literature was not radically divergent from those first articulated by Victoria Earle Matthews in her 1895 address, “The Value of Race Literature.” In this address, which Elizabeth McHenry (2002) has identified as “the manifesto of the women’s club movement,” Matthews offers a road map for how African Americans could best utilize their literature as an instrument for enriching the collective knowledge of the Black experience, challenging widely held negative stereotypes and misrepresentations of the race, and improving the social status of the Black community in the eyes of the cultural mainstream (191-192). Additionally, Matthews sought to foster a greater awareness of the richness of Black authorship among her peers, helping them to understand that they, too, were part of a thriving and storied literary tradition (197). A similar sentiment was expressed by Dunbar-Nelson in her unpublished polemical story, “The Grievances of the Books.” In this story, Dunbar-Nelson narrates a dream sequence wherein a committee meeting of books and ephemera perform as the living metaphorical embodiment of their authors. Ironically, the convention space forms the backdrop for an ensuing debate wherein Dunbar-Nelson voices her views on the status of the African American literary tradition through these enchanted objects. The talking book representing Phillis Wheatley decries, “as we the poets of the Afro-American race are not read, appreciated, or in fact even known by others of said race save our authors, people won’t make us, we can’t exist, that’s all” (10).

Clearly, Dunbar-Nelson, like Matthews, sought a broader audience for writers of color. And like Matthews she maintained that highest measure of success for this tradition would be for African Americans to produce a literature that could reach into the hearts of all peoples and inspire them regardless of their racial background. This core belief is revealed in a number of book reviews, primarily disseminated through her column writing. Her review of Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bum (1929), for instance, which was printed in her “As In a Looking Glass” column, reads as follows:

Some may choose to think the charm of the story lies in the study of the near-white girl who wishes to pass for white and does so with some modicum of success. Critics of the other race naturally hail the book as a searching study of that phase of American life. But to me the charm of the book lies in its poignant analysis of the casualness of human relations. Only one who has lived in big cities; made friends and lost them; drifted into relations and out of them; suffered loneliness and heartache at the emptiness of life and the non-understanding of others could paint so clear and true a picture of a lonely girl. The tragedy in Angela’s life was not race, but her own ultimate shallowness which never let her get to realities. It just was not there; she was as incapable of real living as an undeveloped child. It is in this study of the shallow soul, and the effect of the life which brushed her by that the real artistry of Plum Bun lies. (260)

Here, the wider potential for African American literature to speak to the human condition is lauded over any specific message promoting the cause of Black social justice and civil rights. Again, Dunbar-Nelson found the politicization of race in literature most distasteful; so much that in her reading journal entries Clara Morris Diggs’s The Curse at the Door (1922) and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) were both branded as “propaganda” (Record Book No. 3 99, 187).

As previously indicated, her sometimes contrarian encounters with this form of weaponized (intra)textuality—a technique that proliferated during the Harlem Renaissance—did not necessarily negate her engagement with this body of work as a vehicle for racial uplift (Christian 268-9). On the issue of educating the youth, Dunbar-Nelson believed in the potential for universality in African American literature and, contrariwise, in its ability to speak to the specific experiences of readers of color by virtue of its demographic genesis. She made a compelling case for this imperative in her 1922 essay, “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils.” Teaching with African American literature or works by and/or about Black folks, she argued, could achieve more for the cause of racial uplift and with greater effect than those methods that relied exclusively upon pedagogical applications of the social sciences (62). Daniel Hack, in Reaping Something New (2017)—a book on African American engagement with Victorian literature—has gone as far to cite Dunbar-Nelson’s essay as evidence of her desire to position Tennyson as a signifier for the education system’s failure to speak to the Black experience (66-67). In essence, this interpretation of Dunbar-Nelson’s imperative is as insightful as it is apt. His in-depth treatment of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” using his close reading at a distance methodology, does well in situating the various rhetorical uses of this poem among Black intellectuals of the period. However, one can entertain an interpretation that differs from the notion that this poem was “one of the few works Alice Dunbar-Nelson targets by name for replacement in the curriculum” (67). Looking at it another way, Dunbar-Nelson may not have been calling for a replacement for Tennyson’s poem but for a supplement to it. She writes, “In company with ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is the “Second Louisiana” (Dunbar-Nelson, “Negro Literature” 63). There is not a direct call for educators to teach Boker’s poem in place of Tennyson; instead, employing a clever military pun (i.e. “in company with”), Dunbar-Nelson is making the case for educators to augment the conventional curriculum with assigned readings that are far more culturally diverse in makeup. Calling for an outright replacement would have run counter to her belief that all great works of literature be extolled on their merits as opposed to their source alone. The distinction is natural, if one considers her educational background and the formidable canonicity of her own reading history. And it speaks to a very real phenomenon that compels African American students to familiarize themselves with two educational paradigms: one that is mainstream and either largely incognizant of or openly hostile to Black culture and one that is socially marginalized but integrative and celebratory of African American achievement.

The Question of Taste

Dunbar-Nelson’s second and third reading journals (Record Book Nos. 3 & 4), which cover the years between 1916 and 1931, are reflective of these internal and external discussions on the value of reading diverse literature. Although the majority of the books she read were written by Caucasian men, painting a distinctly Eurocentric picture of her reading habits from a bird’s eye view, the journal entries that cover this period show that as she matured she increasingly read books that explicitly dealt with issues of race, gender, and sexuality. By the late 1920s in particular, Dunbar-Nelson’s pleasure reading had become a safe space for her to explore her rather enigmatic sexuality. Akasha Gloria Hull’s research has shown that Dunbar-Nelson had been involved in a handful of same sex relationships during her adult life, most notably with Howard High School principal Edwina B. Kruse and Los Angeles-based journalist and activist Fay Jackson Robinson (Color, Sex, and Poetry 62-63, 95). Eleanor Alexander, author of Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (2002) and an expert on Dunbar-Nelson’s first marriage, maintains that this view stems from a misconstruing of the evidence (“Award winning Author and Professor Eleanor Alexander is interviewed”). But there are hints in her reading journals that are more supportive of Hull’s analysis than Alexander’s defense. In one example, in a brief commentary on Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), we find Dunbar-Nelson referring to this book as “the strangest and most beautiful book ever written,” and describing it as the “tragic story of inverts. Horribly beautiful” (Record Book No. 3 205). The label of “inverts” used in her commentary obviously applies to lesbianism. This book was recorded in her journal less than a year before her trip to California when, as indicated by her diary entries and correspondence, she intimately bonded with Jackson. Still, sex and sexuality were subjects that would interest her for many years. A number of her readings in non-fiction, satire, and prose writing indulged this quiet exploration, which included titles like Sigmund Freud’s Three Contributions of the Theory of Sex (1905), Vance Thompson’s Woman (1917), James Thurber and E. B. White’s Is Sex Necessary? (1929), and Katherine B. Davis’s Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-Two Hundred Women (1929).

Looking at her reading journals, we can identify three principal incentives for her reading: foremost, she read for pleasure; second, she read to further her education; third, she read as a form of labor. The lines separating these motivating factors were quite blurry. She permitted herself to read copious amounts of genre fiction, with mystery novels being the clear favorite. However, the habit was something of a guilty pleasure for Dunbar-Nelson. Writing in her diary of a similar affection for the genre in film, she confesses, “My taste is very low. I love underworld movies and detective stories. Have gone S. S. Van Dine crazy now” (Give Us 327). Nevertheless, she found utility in this leisure activity by appropriating elements of these genres in her short story writing. In stories like “His Great Career” and “Summer Session,” she added crime fiction and detective components to the urban realism that she experimented with in her proposed series, The Annals of Steenth Street Stories (Hull, “Introduction,” Works xii). Although most of her Steenth Street and other genre-specific writings never saw publication during her lifetime, her experimentations in these genres largely coincided with her most prolific period in journalistic writing—falling squarely within the second half of the 1920s.


The reading she performed and practiced as a means for self-education also had clear benefits. Compulsory to her nature as an intellectually curious individual, this form of reading helped her to fashion solid arguments in public debates with deep knowledge on a range of topics as their epistemological scaffolding. And commentaries on art and literature in her column writing exhibited a level of erudition that often matched or surpassed that of her detractors. She wrote three major columns: “From a Woman’s Point of View” (retitled “Une Femme Dit”), which ran weekly in the Pittsburgh Courier from January to September in 1926, the nationally syndicated “As In a Looking Glass,” published in the Washington Eagle between September 1926 and 1930, and “So It Seems to Alice Dunbar-Nelson,” also printed in the Pittsburgh Courier from January to May 1930 (Adams, et al.). Her column writing was essentially the main product that resulted from her commodified reading activities. Specifically, this was the kind of work she was referring to whenever she found herself remarking on her obligation to “produce literature” (Emery 290).

Reading as work for Dunbar-Nelson mostly involved reinforcing her reputation as a Harlem Renaissance tastemaker and critic (292-293). It was an incentive that had important financial ramifications in terms of fortifying her demand in the lecture circuit and keeping her column writing relevant to discourses taking place in the public sphere. She took this review work very seriously. A lengthy review of Vera Caspary’s The White Girl, for example, was met with genuine appreciation from none other than the author herself. Caspary was grateful for the way that Dunbar-Nelson had been able to penetrate the deeper meanings in her novel, particular regarding race consciousness (“My Dear Mrs. Nelson”). The sheer volume of books listed in her journal that also show up in her column writing in one form or another is no less impressive.

Motivated both by personal enjoyment and professional necessity, the journals reveal that Dunbar-Nelson read at home, at work, at local libraries, during her commute, and while traveling either in the homes of friends or riding on the train (the form of transportation she seems to have utilized most frequently). The high amount of mobility in her reading is a testament to her fondness for the practice. One wonders how much the various spaces that she read in affected her reception of the text. Reading on a train, for instance, can range from harmless diversion to precarious absorption. In a diary account dated November 1, 1921, Dunbar-Nelson documents one of her train reading experiences, “The train was roasting hot,” she expresses, “My head swam, and I tried to sleep, after finishing Fitzgerald’s ‘This Side of Paradise.’ He’s as good as Barrie ever was in Sentimental Journey, and has Booth Tarkington’s Victorian middle-classness middle westernness skinned a mile…” (Give Us 102). Contrast this experience with a rather nonchalant description we find in Dunbar-Nelson’s diary of her reading at home, “I lie on the couch in the living room—for the usual thunder storm cools the evening—and read ‘The Well of Loneliness’ which Florence Baugh loaned me, until the folks come home at eleven o’clock” (322). Here we find Dunbar-Nelson peacefully reading a borrowed book in her living room. Yet we know both from her diary and from extant volumes from her personal collection that she also had a sizeable home library.

Reading as a Social Activity

The list of surviving books from the library of Alice Dunbar-Nelson tells a story that looks very much like the one told by the Carter G. Woodson library (Burkett, et al.). Both catalogs feature mostly African American subject-related materials. In the case of Dunbar-Nelson’s library, however, strangely absent are the many titles in English literature, the classics, and genre fiction that fill her journals. However, the collection of extant association copies from her library—now a part of the University of Delaware Library’s holdings—contains a wealth of important material traces of Dunbar-Nelson’s literary networks. At the closest in terms of proximity, one of the oldest books from her collection, a copy of Dunbar’s Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899), brings buried vestiges of her first husband’s love for her to light. In a warm inscription written directly below the printed dedication to her, Dunbar excerpts a tender passage from the book’s opening poem, “Love’s Apotheosis”:

Love me, and though the winter snow shall pile,

And leave me chill,

Thy passion’s warmth shall make for me, meanwhile,

A sun–kissed hill. (1)

What is known about the tumultuousness of their relationship—his alcoholism and abusive behavior running headlong into her independence, flirtatiousness, and discontent—adds a layer of depth to the inscription that operates reciprocally. A different instantiation of reciprocity—one that comes much later in her life—is supported by ownership signatures in her copies of Carter G. Woodson’s scholarly works. It tells a story, perhaps, of exchange as evinced in the presence of Dunbar-Nelson’s anthological work, The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer (1920), listed among his holdings (Burkett, et al.). The fact that two were intellectual collaborators late in Dunbar-Nelson’s life is emblematic of how reading, writing, collecting, and sharing can all work in concert to construct points of connectivity that make up those networks that ultimately become definitive of major social movements and historical periods.    

As shown throughout, just as her reading life mirrored her vocational activities, it is impossible for us to divorce Dunbar-Nelson’s social life from her reading habits. Even the most ephemeral encounters could significantly alter her selections. A June 17, 1929 diary entry, for instance, notes how she ran into someone on a Philadelphia street car that had an uncanny resemblance to Robert Russa Moton, former president of Tuskegee Institute, in his youth. Two months later, we find a record for Moton’s What the Negro Thinks (1929) listed in her reading journal (Record Book No. 3). She calls it the “best thing that ever came out of Tuskegee” (207). Beyond the casual passerby, Dunbar-Nelson’s autograph book (Record Book No. 1) records the names of Anna Broadnax, Robert J. Nelson, Annie Day Shepard, Pauline A. Young and many other close friends and family members. The fact that she chose The Charles Dickens Birthday Book (1897) to perform this function is worth mentioning. These signatures, however, are markers of her lifelong relationships; and they point to the fact that, far from a recluse, she was the type of person who valued social ties that were genuine, sincere, and ultimately enriching. Friendships with writers like Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, and Countee Cullen, helped to provide her with an insider’s perspective on many of the books that were either recorded in her reading journals, acquired for her personal library, or both. Dunbar-Nelson’s diary is peppered with contacts and exchanges from many of the period’s most prominent figures. She corresponds with Carl Van Vechten over her late husband’s legacy on one day and plays a game of bridge with Langston Hughes on another (Give Us 199, 386). Most well-known, perhaps, is a story of a day when she enjoyed a light lunch at the home of the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson. On this day, dated October 1, 1921, Dunbar-Nelson describes the experience of reading the manuscript for Johnson’s An Autumn Love Cycle (1928). She would subsequently review this book years later for her “As In a Looking Glass” column (88-89). The account, however, demonstrates the penetrating level of insight she was afforded in reading these works through her personal relationships with their authors and editors.

Lastly, the most influential book clubs of today like the Oprah’s Book Club or the Well-Read Black Girl (WRBG) book club, though familiar to the present day reader, are actually rooted in a long-established tradition of Black clubwomen readership. In the 1920s, Georgia Douglas Johnson used her living room to host literary salons in an effort to reboot Jean Toomer’s Washington, D.C.-based Saturday Nighters club (McHenry 274-283). According to McHenry, Alice Dunbar-Nelson was one of the “regulars” in a prestigious roster of Black litterateurs that frequented these salons (274). As a reader, however, Dunbar-Nelson never limited her social reading to one circle, no matter how prominent. A June 10, 1931 diary entry describes her reading “bits of pornography” from the notorious unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) with another group of friends. The group reading took place on a Wednesday in Washington, D.C. with Jennie Maguire, Narka Lee-Rayford, and six other women (Hull 434). On the following day, after finishing the book in private, she characterizes the book in a reading journal entry as “Filthy and beautiful. Yet not filthy, unless you have that kind of a mind” (Record Book No. 4). This one example exhibits the myriad of intersections between private and public, serious and pleasure, and marginalized and mainstream modes of reading that define Dunbar-Nelson’s reading life.

In introducing this project, the picture of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s reading history that I have tried to portray here is by no means comprehensive. Rather, I have attempted to illuminate certain aspects of this history as it pertains to the canonicity of her education, the nuances of her commitment to racial uplift, the gratifications of her literary taste, the implications of her environmental spatiality, and the impact of her social networks. It is only a small slice of what we can potentially learn from this powerful historical record.


“Award Winning Author and Professor Eleanor Alexander is Interviewed.” TodayinAmerica, from Blog Talk Radio, 29 Aug. 2009,

Adams, Katherine, et al. “Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Published Works: A Bibliography in Progress.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, vol. 33, no. 2, 2016, pp. 254-256.

Burkett, Randall K., et al. The Mind of Carter G. Woodson: As Reflected in the Books he Owned, Read, and Published: A Catalog of the Library of Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Emory University Press, 2006.

Caspary, Vera. “My Dear Mrs. Nelson.” Vera Caspary to Alice Dunbar-Nelson, 3 Feb. 1929, TS, ALS. MSS 113, Alice Dunbar Nelson Papers. Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark, DE.

Christian, Shawn Anthony. “‘Upon the Young People of Our Race, by Our Own Literature’: Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s ‘Negro Literature for Negro Pupils’.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, vol. 33, no. 2, 2016, pp. 267-285.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. Lyrics of the Hearthside. Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1899.

Dunbar-Nelson, Alice Moore. “As In a Looking Glass.” Washington Eagle, 19 April 1929. Works, vol. 2, pp. 259–261.

———. Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Ed. [Akasha] Gloria T. Hull. New York: Norton, 1984.

———. “Bound commercial datebook with the printed title The Charles Dickens Birthday Book.” Record Book No. 1, 1897. MSS 113, Alice Dunbar Nelson Papers. Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark, DE.

———. “Bound record book with the printed title Books I Have Read (NY: Dodd, Mead, 1905),” Record Book No. 2, June 1906, MSS 113, Alice Dunbar Nelson Papers. Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark, DE.

———. “Bound commercial blank-book containing Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s record of books she read.” Record Book No. 3, 29 July 1916. MSS 113, Alice Dunbar Nelson Papers. Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark, DE.

———. “Bound commercial blank-book containing Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s record of books she read.” Record Book No. 4, 12 Mar. 1932. MSS 113, Alice Dunbar Nelson Papers. Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark, DE.

———. Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Ed. [Akasha] Gloria T. Hull. New York: Norton, 1984.

———. “The Grievances of the Books.” Autograph manuscript, 7 Apr. 1897. MSS 113, Alice Dunbar Nelson Papers. Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark, DE.

———.  “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils.” Southern Workman, Feb. 1922, pp. 59-63.

———. “Why I Like Jane Austen.” Type script, 12 Dec. 1903. MSS 113, Alice Dunbar Nelson Papers. Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark, DE.

———. “The Training of a Teacher of English.” Type script, n.d. MSS 113, Alice Dunbar Nelson Papers. Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark, DE.

———.  The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Ed. [Akasha] Gloria T. Hull. 3 vols. Oxford University Press, 1988. The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers.

Emery, Jacqueline. “Writing to Belong: Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Newspaper Columns in the African American Press.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, vol. 33, no. 2, 2016, pp. 286-309.

Gaines, Kevin K. Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century. University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Hack, Daniel. Reaping Something New. African American Transformations of Victorian Literature. Princeton University Press, 2017.

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

———. “Introduction.” The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Ed. [Akasha] Gloria T. Hull, vol. 3, pp. i-xxix.

Ijeoma, Charmaine N. “Alice Dunbar-Nelson.” Collections, vol. 10, 2000, pp. 24-55.

McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Duke University Press, 2002.

Storm, Anna. “Quinine Pills and Race Progress: Alice Dunbar-Nelson and the Black Women’s Literary Tradition.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, vol. 33, no. 2, 2016, pp. 361-383.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email