Realism and Regionalism 1865–1914 - Gary Scharnhorst and Thomas Quirk 2010
Alice Dunbar-Nelson, The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories
Study Guides on Works and Writers
(New York: Dodd, Mead, 1899)
Alice Moore (1875-1935), later known as Alice Dunbar and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, was the younger of two daughters born in a Creole household with a mixed African American, European American, and Native American heritage. She spent the first twenty years of her life in New Orleans, where she received a comprehensive education with courses in the classics department, the law school, and the printing department of Straight University (now Dillard University). She also received academic training at Cornell University, the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art, and the University of Pennsylvania. A student with many talents, she became a teacher in 1892, an occupation she practiced with only a few interruptions for almost forty years at schools in different cities of the United States. She was married three times, including a short-lived (1898-1902) marriage to poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, which acquainted her with the world of professional authorship, and in 1916 to Robert J. Nelson, a journalist, politician, and civil-rights activist, with whom she coedited and published the Wilmington Advocate, a progressive black newspaper.
Dunbar-Nelson led an active life that, in addition to her teaching, was filled with activities ranging from literary and journalistic work to social and political activism. She wrote poems and fiction, contributed literary, art, and film criticism to various newspapers, and reviewed some of the most prominent writers of the early 1920s. With her energy and skills as a writer, public speaker, and organizer, she became involved in feminist and racial politics. She was active in the women’s club movement, helped found the Industrial School for Colored Girls in Delaware, and was a prominent voice in the fight for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which passed in the House of Representatives but failed to become law owing to a Senate filibuster in 1922. The wide range of her activities in the decade between 1921 and 1931 is documented in her diary, the surviving portions of which were published in 1984.
Throughout her life, Dunbar-Nelson’s poems, nonfiction, and fiction appeared in a variety of newspapers and periodicals. Violets and Other Tales (as Alice Moore, 1895) and The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories (as Alice Dunbar) collected her literary work in book form. She also edited two volumes of African American speeches (Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence: The Best Speeches Delivered by the Negro from the Days of Slavery to the Present Time  and The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer ). She died in Philadelphia in 1935.
The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories is regarded as Dunbar-Nelson’s finest literary work. Whereas her first book contained poems, reviews, essays, and short fiction, this collection is devoted to short stories. Since most of them are set in New Orleans and focus on Creole culture, scholars have pointed out stylistic and thematic resemblances with the work of her contemporaries George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin and tend to categorize her as a Southern local Regionalist writing in the local-color tradition. By identifying street names, local buildings, and institutions Dunbar makes explicit references to specific locations in the city of New Orleans and its surroundings and frequently draws on the region’s local practices, customs, and events. She also inserts instances of linguistic code-mixing and code-switching into the speech of her characters, thus drawing particular attention to the multilingual and multicultural atmosphere of the region. Her repertoire of mimetic techniques lends an air of authenticity to the stories and anchors them solidly in the culture from which they emerged. Despite the manifold references to the cultural specifics of the region, it would be reductive to consider the stories only in their regional dimension. The social, political, psychological, and moral issues addressed in her fiction clearly transcend the regional limits of Creole culture in Louisiana.
Taking their cue from its deceptively simple diction, scholars have traditionally described her writing style as aesthetically pleasing but conventional. More-recent readers, however, have drawn attention to the complexity that lies beneath the surface of her muted narratives. To experience the full effect of her writing, readers need to pay attention to the subtleties in her descriptions of scenes and characters. A single reference to a specific detail, and sometimes individual words, may turn out to provide the only clue necessary for an adequate understanding of a given story. This is particularly important in a narrative style in which individual scenes often follow upon each other in straight cuts with no transition. Frequently, her stories fail to provide key pieces of information or introduce peculiar perspectives and evasions, leaving the reader wondering what to make of the text. Although most stories are told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, the narrative voice rarely if ever helps to clarify the situation. More often than not, it complicates the matter by undermining seemingly obvious conclusions by introducing unexpected perspectives or a finely tuned irony. One critic described the effect of these strategies as “an increasing skepticism about our ability to settle on a perspective that will manage the multiple perspectives these stories generate” (Strychacz).
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. All fourteen stories assembled in Dunbar’s second anthology exhibit more or less similar features. The title story presents the rivalry between two women for the affection of a man. The contest is resolved when Manuela, dark-eyed, graceful, and beautiful, emerges as Theophile’s bride at the end of the story, but the reason she prevailed over “blonde and petite” Claralie remains unclear as the narrative voice offers five different explanations of the final outcome. Students might identify these perspectives and judge the reliability of each of them. As in this story, several others in the collection are constructed around male-female relationships motivated by a love interest expressed by young women hoping to realize their romantic notions. None of these relationships is problem-free, however. How does Dunbar complicate them? In “The Fisherman of Pass Christian,” why does Annette, an aspiring singer, abandon her plans to pursue an education in Paris when she learns that the man she loves has married someone else? Is her decision reasonable? Why does Odalie, the young and innocent protagonist in a story with the same title, choose confinement in a convent as a way to escape from disappointment in love? Is her decision more reasonable than Annette’s? In a rare exception to this generally sad and depressing pattern in Dunbar’s depiction of mostly one-sided love relationships, the young couple in “La Juanita” manages to overcome the opposition of a strict and stern Creole grandfather, the patriarch of a family “that had held itself proudly aloof from ‘dose Americain’ from time immemorial.” How is the American suitor in this story able to win the respect and admiration of the Juanita’s family? How explain this happy ending in contrast to the conclusions of the other stories? Does Nelson indulge in sentimentality here, or is “La Juanita” in the same realistic vein as the other stories in the collection? In a fictional world elsewhere dominated by a sense of loss and futility, what circumstances permit Juanita, “the pride of Mandeville, the adored, the admired of all,” and her suitor to escape the disappointment, entrapment, or death suffered by the characters in the other tales? Is the success of this mixed marriage merely a chance event, or is Dunbar’s depiction of it ironic?
- 2. In several of the stories, the protagonists become victims of circumstances over which they have no control. In an intellectual atmosphere that resembles Stephen Crane’s view of an indifferent universe in “The Open Boat,” Dunbar’s characters suffer and die for reasons that are incomprehensible to them and to the readers. Moreover, her detached narration offers neither consolation nor rationalizations regarding the fatal consequences of her stories. Despite the ubiquity of allusions to faith and religion, the stories refuse to provide an explicitly moral perspective, a sense of fairness and justice, or a reason for hope. Do their fates seem fated? Put another way, are these tales fairly described as “Naturalistic”? Waiting for their son and prospective husband to return from a prolonged work stay in Chicago, for example, a mother and a prospective fiancee are shocked to learn that the young man died from consumption three hours before the train arrived at its destination (“When the Bayou Overflows”). Is he portrayed as a victim of blind chance, or does Dunbar hint at another explanation? Another story dramatizes the death of a poor old man who is caught in a violent labor struggle pitting striking Irish laborers and African American strike breakers against each other (“Mr. Baptiste”). Again, is he a victim of circumstances beyond his control, or does he simply make bad decisions and so is responsible for his predicament? The same questions may be asked about “A Carnival Jangle,” in which a young girl is a victim of mistaken identity. Dunbar actually heightens the effect when she allows Sylves (“When the Bayou Overflows”) and Sophie (“Little Miss Sophie”) to come very close to their goals only to deny them their realization. “Tony’s Wife” ends on a similarly depressing note when the reader learns that a dying man refuses to acknowledge as his legitimate wife the woman with whom he has lived. Why does he refuse to deny her legitimacy? Does Dunbar’s emotionless narration provide a clue? The student may also wish to consider whether his cold and harsh decision to leave her destitute is the unavoidable result of an abusive relationship. What about the ethnic differences between the two? Is it relevant to a reading of the text that the man is Italian and his consort is German?
- 3. The impact of a dramatic turning point in a person’s life also lies at the heart of “M’sieu Fortier’s Violin,” in which an elderly musician loses his job at the French Opera in New Orleans partly because he has gradually lost the dexterity needed to handle a violin and partly because the new management of the opera house hires younger talent from France. Is this drama of an aging artist also set in a Naturalistic world, his fate determined by uncontrollable circumstances? Or does Dunbar criticize the greed of the opera house managers? The old musician is forced by poverty to sell his violin to a young man who wants it as a souvenir. Though he manages to recover the instrument, is this ending a happy or triumphant one? Or will this sentimental moment will have any effect on his personal fate?
- 4. The problem of identity is posed in other stories in the collection. In “A Carnival Jangle” and “Odalie,” Dunbar chooses a carnival setting with its attending masquerade to demonstrate how disguising one’s face and body may lead to painful or fatal results. Perhaps the most intense deliberation on personal identity occurs in “Sister Josepha,” where the young and beautiful title character struggles with fundamental questions about her life. Raised in a convent since the age of three, she has been sheltered from all conflict. Is this the reason she has become “a child without an identity”? How critical is Dunbar of the “miniature world” of the convent? Does she suggest that conflict or struggle is crucial to the development of personality? How does such a message square with the Naturalistic themes in some of the other stories in the collection? In the end Sister Josepha resigns herself to a life within the convent walls. Is her decision commendable or expedient?
- 5. A pair of stories illustrate Dunbar’s refusal to oversimplify her plots and her tendency to show both the virtues and the flaws of her characters as in “Titee,” a story about a problem child, who sacrifices himself in order to feed a poor old man. These techniques are also apparent in “The Praline Woman,” technically the most unconventional story in the collection, mostly narrated in monologue and in the native idiom of a female street vendor. How effective is this narrative device? What do her comments reveal about her life?
- 6. Perhaps surprisingly, among the many engaging themes and topics addressed in Dunbar’s work, the problem of race does not figure prominently. Does the apparent lack of racial consciousness mar her fiction? Certainly a lively debate over the issue has erupted among critics. While some of them have criticized her
for apparently ignoring racial themes (Hull), others have praised her complex representations of race (Strychacz) and the subtleties involved in the depiction of her Creole characters (Brooks). Students may wish to weigh these arguments for themselves. Does Dunbar really ignore race, or is her treatment of racial themes ambiguous and provocative? Do her tales transcend their regional setting?
Lori Leathers Single, “Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935),” in African American Authors, 1745—1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000), pp. 139-146.
A comprehensive list of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s publications.
Eleanor Alexander, Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
Draws on the almost five hundred letters she and her husband exchanged during their short marriage; the book comments broadly on their relationship.
Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, edited by Gloria T. Hull (New York: Norton, 1984).
Covers only the years 1921 and 1926-1931; accompanied by Hull’s concise and well-documented introduction, notes, and chronology.
Ora Williams, “Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 50: Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis (Detroit: Bruccoli Clark Layman/ Gale, 1986), pp. 225-233.
Provides condensed information in a widely available reference work.
Kristina Brooks, “Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Local Colors of Ethnicity, Class, and Place,” MELUS, 23 (Summer 1998): 3-26.
A perceptive reading of many of the stories in the collection, with many enlightening insights into the cultural contexts and the literary techniques applied by Dunbar.
Robert C. Clark, “At the Corner of Bourbon and Toulouse Street: The Historical Context of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s ‘M’sieu Fortier’s Violin,’” American Literary Realism, 41 (Winter 2009): 163-179.
A perceptive study of the historical sources of Dunbar-Nelson’s tale.
Gloria T. Hull, “Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935),” in her Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 33-106.
One of the earliest extensive studies of Dunbar-Nelson’s short fiction by the scholar who recovered the author’s work, edited her diary, and wrote an introduction to a modern reprinting of her writings in the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women.
Thomas Strychacz, “‘You . . . Could Never Be Mistaken’: Reading Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Rhetorical Diversions in The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories,” Studies in American Fiction, 36 (Spring 2008): 77—94.
Argues that Dunbar’s strategy of “rhetorical diversion” has led some readers to believe that her stories are conventional and romantic whereas an awareness of her technique reveals the full range of her literary achievement; contains several insightful readings of the stories collected in the anthology.