Today’s featured author is Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930): writer, journalist, editor, poet and playwright. From approximately 1902 to 1904, she was the editor of Colored American Magazine, one of the earliest literary and cultural journals aimed at an African-American readership (“a magazine Of the Race, By the Race, For the Race“). She was also the magazine’s most prolific contributor, serializing several novels within its pages, and often writing pieces for the magazine, both fiction and non-fiction, under various pen names.
I’m featuring her today for her gothic adventure-romance Of One Blood; or The Hidden Self, which was serialized over eleven issues of Colored American Magazine. However, she is also a germinal figure in one of my other favorite genres: detective fiction. Her short story “Talma Gordon,” published in the October 1900 issue of the magazine, is said to be the first published mystery by a black author [citation]. Her novel Hagar’s Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice is “the earliest-known African American novel to feature a black detective” (two of them, actually) [citation, but see note1 below]. I’ll talk about all three of these works (with links to read them!) in this post.
Hopkins is an important figure in Black American literature, but for a long time she was obscured by other black literary figures of her era. A 1972 Phylon article brought her back to public (or at least academic) notice. Since then, there’s been a fair bit of Hopkins scholarship. I’ll also point you to some interesting articles from that literature stream, as well.
But now, on to the stories!
Of One Blood; or The Hidden Self (1902-1903)
Of One Blood is a combination of supernatural, gothic-flavored melodrama and exotic treasure-hunting adventure tale. It’s a wild ride: mesmerism, mysticism, adventure, intrigue, even a little digression into winter tale telling. And more.
Reuel Briggs is a brilliant Harvard medical student of mixed-race heritage. He is light enough to pass as white, and does so. He miraculously restores a dead train accident victim to life: Dianthe Lusk, a biracial woman who also passes as white. This feat makes Reuel’s reputation, but he finds it unaccountably difficult to land a job after he graduates. Reuel and Dianthe have married, and Reuel accepts a position as medical doctor on a two-year research expedition to Africa, leaving his wife in the care of his best friend.
In Africa, Reuel stumbles onto the hidden city of Telassar, the great lost capital of ancient Ethopia, and the fount of all civilization and culture (ancient Ethiopia predates ancient Egypt). The last descendants of ancient Ethiopians still live in Telassar, and show Reuel a culture that is in many ways technologically superior to modern civilization. In Telassar, Reuel learns more about his history, both his personal history and the greater history of his African ancestors. Meanwhile, back in Boston….
Besides being great fun, Hopkins’ narrative is also commentary on the issues that African-Americans, especially African-American women, have to grapple with in a white-dominated society, and it engages with the often racist social theories going around at the time, in particular concerning the origins of humans and of civilization.
As is the case with many serialized narratives, the story can ramble a bit in places and suffers from some continuity discrepancies, but it’s also quite gripping. Definitely worth reading, especially if you like gothic romance.
- You can read Of One Blood at the Internet Archive, here. This version is a scan of all the various magazine installments “stapled” together, so you will see snippets of surrounding articles from the magazine throughout, as well.
Talma Gordon (1900)
Lovely golden-haired Talma Gordon is accused of the grisly murder of her wealthy father Jonathan Gordon, her stepmother, and her infant half-brother. During the investigation it comes out that Talma did not get along with her stepmother, that her father had forbidden Talma’s marriage to struggling artist Edward Turner — and that Gordon had been planning to leave the bulk of his wealth to his son, with only a small annuity to each of the two daughters of his first wife. Talma is acquitted legally, but not necessarily in the court of public opinion. What really happened?
This is a solid crime story, crisply told. and likely inspired by the infamous Lizzie Borden case of 1892. It would have fit well in an issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It’s my favorite of the three pieces that I discuss here, but that might just be because I prefer short fiction to novels.
One especially interesting aspect of it, for me, comes from the framing story: a group of gentlemen in a private club, discussing America’s recent expansionist activities. It’s not said, but the context for this conversation is likely the US occupation of the Philippines, which began in 1898. The narrator of Talma Gordon’s story (who is the host of this gathering) throws an interesting challenge to the group:
But if we are not ready to receive and assimilate the new material which will be brought to mingle with our pure Anglo-Saxon stream, we should call a halt to our expansion policy.
The statement refers specifically to miscegenation (or “amalgamation,” as it was called then: mixed-race relationships). But it also could apply to the eventual overall American attitude towards Filipinx: good enough to subjugate and Americanize, not good enough to let into the country or grant citizenship to. Similarities to the position of black Americans come to mind, and black Americans had their own perspective on US expansionism, which is touched upon in other articles of this same issue of the magazine.
- You can read “Talma Gordon” in the October 1900 issue of Colored American Magazine, at coloredamerican.org, here. The entire issue is worth flipping through, and I hope to talk about the other Philippines-related articles in a future blog post.
Hagar’s Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice (1901-1902)
Hagar’s Daughter was also serialized in Colored American Magazine, under the pen name Sarah A. Allen. The opening of the novel reminds me a bit of Juana Manuela Gorriti‘s gothic novella La novia del muerto, which opens with a romanticized version of a key event in Argentine independence. Hagar’s Daughter opens with a dramatic reconstruction of the events leading to the secession of the southern states, to set the context for the tale. I’ll confess: having read the two previous Hopkins pieces, I could guess where the beginning half of the narrative was going, and I only skimmed until about halfway through, looking for the black detective.
St. Clair Enson, the disgraced and dissolute second son of a Southern family, tries to disrupt the family of his older brother Ellis (who inherited the family estate) by bringing forth evidence that Ellis’s wife Hagar is biracial, something neither Ellis nor Hagar knew. Ellis decides not to abandon his wife, but instead go with Hagar and their daughter to Europe. St. Clair beats Ellis apparently to death, takes over the estate, and sells his erstwhile sister-in-law and niece to the slave market. In despair, Hagar takes her infant daughter in her arms and jumps into the Potomac. Fast forward twenty years later, to a man on trial for murder….
So yeah, I skimmed ahead for the black detective. There are two. One is a black Federal agent named Smith, a Civil War veteran. He’s only a very minor character, not in the story for long. The other is Venus, a plucky and observant maidservant. She has a more significant and pivotal role in the narrative, and even a romantic interest and story arc of her own. So one could consider her the heroine (or a heroine) of the story.
I wouldn’t call this a detective novel in the sense we think of them today; it’s more a potboiler gothic romance. If you go into the novel with that expectation, it’s fairly fun, but probably best not read back-to-back with Hopkins’ other novels (I’m thinking of Of One Blood and Winona), as the themes and plot twists are similar.
As a modern reader of these stories, at first I found myself troubled by the prevalence of light-skinned protagonists, and by Hopkins’ use of whit(ish) signifiers of feminine beauty: chestnut or even blond hair; blue eyes, creamy complexions. Miscegenation/amalgamation is a theme that Hopkins returns to again and again, and while part of her point is certainly how stupid and hypocritical it is to completely change your mind about someone whom you’ve known, respected, and even loved, just because they have a black ancestor, I couldn’t help feeling that Hopkins was arguing for a right (to “pass” and function in white-dominated society) that was not available to darker-skinned African-Americans.
…My stories are definitely planned to show the obstacles persistently placed in our paths by a dominant race to subjugate us spiritually. Marriage is made illegal between the races and the mulatttoes increase. Thus the shadow of corruption falls on the blacks and on the whites, without whose aid the mulattoes would not exist. And then the hue and cry goes abroad of the immorality of the Negro and the disgrace that the mulattoes are to this nation.
(Emphasis mine.) The above was Hopkins’ answer to a white reader of the magazine, Cornelia A Condict, who wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the prevalence of mixed-race relationships in the magazine’s fiction (“The stories… will not commend themselves to your white readers and will not elevate the colored readers.”). The exchange appeared in the March 1903 issue, starting on page 398; I recommend you read the whole thing.
Hopkins’ reply suggests that she used miscegenation as one specific example of the greater problem: blacks being stigmatized for issues or “faults” that whites are complicit in or responsible for. The overall reply also suggests that she genuinely believed miscegenation would be a benefit to humanity.
In addition, the mixing of the races often had its origin in the rape of enslaved black women by their white masters, a point that Hopkins also raised in her stories.
…in it was the accumulation of years of foulest wrongs heaped upon the innocent and defenceless women of a race…
No one would write “tragic mulatto” stories today, and you may still disagree with her approach, but reading that exchange helped me understand Hopkins’ motives for choosing the themes that she did.
Hopkins left Colored American Magazine in 1904, apparently driven out by the magazine’s new management. The commonly held scholarly account is that Hopkins’ “non-accommodating” insistence on publishing articles about racial issues was alienating the magazine’s financially necessary white readership. Another theory posits that it was Hopkins’ insistence on publishing articles about women’s issues that antagonized the magazine’s male management (both black and white). Jill Bergman points out that during Hopkins’ editorship, Colored American Magazine published a mixture of fiction, cultural and social commentary, as well as political and business news, and articles of interest to women. After she left, the magazine became more business-oriented, and male-oriented as well.
After leaving the magazine, Hopkins published sporadically, even attempting another journal years later with the Colored Magazine’s original founder. Its failure marked the conclusion of her literary career. She became a stenographer at MIT, and died in 1930 from burns sustained in a house fire.
Bergman, Jill. “‘Everything We Hoped She’d Be’: Contending Forces in Hopkins Scholarship”, African American Review, Vol. 38, No. 2, Summer 2004 [JSTOR link]. — Introduces the theory the it was Hopkins’ gender politics, rather than racial politics, that got her driven from the magazine. Also a pretty good history of the magazine and its historical context.
Cordell, Sigrid Anderson. “‘The Case Was Very Black Against Her: Pauline Hopkins and the Politics of Racial Ambiguity at the Colored American Magazine.” American Periodicals, Vol 16, No 1, 2006. [JSTOR link]. — Discussion in the context of “Talma Gordon”
Gillman, Susan. “Pauline Hopkins and the Occult: African-American Revisions of Nineteenth-Century Sciences”, American Literary History, Vol. 8, No 1, 1996. [JSTOR link] — Discussion in the context of Of One Blood
Shockley, Ann Allen. “Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: A Biographical Excursion into Obscurity,” Phylon, Vol 33, No. 1 (1972) [JSTOR link]. — I believe this is the first scholarly paper on Pauline Hopkins.
Smith-Spears, RaShell R. “Uplift Ideology and the Fluidity of Racial Categoris in Pauline Hopkin’s ‘Hagar’s Daughter’,” South Atlantic Review, Vol 75, No 4, 2010. [JSTOR link].
(note1): The actual source of my quote is the Foreword of a 2002 edition of John Edward Bruce’s serialized novel The Black Sleuth, also a germinal work of black detective fiction. But Google Books won’t give me a reliable link.
Featured image from the cover of the October 1900 issue of Colored American Magazine. Source: coloredamerican.org