Literary Recovery, #ReclaimHerName, Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Sandra Zagarell, Oberlin College

Consider some of the propositions that inform the Reclaim Her Name project. One: “the author” is a singular, unified person with a “true” name. Two: that true name is a woman’s name, which she had to conceal with a male pseudonym, but must now be affixed to her writing. Three: a single book is synechdochal of her career. Four: thanks to Reclaim Her Name, previously obscure books and obscured women have now been permanently rescued. Five: the names of scholars whose work was apparently consulted for Reclaim Her Name project need not be acknowledged, though the project promotes with considerable fanfare the name of the liquor company that sponsors it.

Scholarly literary recovery follows radically different principles. We take seriously the names under which authors publish and give rigorous consideration to the circumstances of their choices. We seek to retrieve oeuvres, not just single books. Moreover, recovery is collaborative. Scholars rely on and generally acknowledge each other’s work; we team up, we offer mentorship, we productively challenge one another. Time-consuming, demanding, often frustrating, recovery is frequently undertaken with limited resources and often brings scholars neither acclaim nor reward. Recovered writing may not be recovered for good: funding may be limited at university presses, traditional scholars and institutions may prove resistant: patience and persistence will be required. And the objectives of recovery scholars far exceed those evinced by the Reclaim Her Name project. We want to make marginalized and under-read writing known and accessible to many readers, including writing by queer, trans, Black, Brown, Asian, and multiply-identified authors. But we also aim to change the lenses through which this literature is generally viewed and, in the process, to transform still-dominant concepts of culture, identity, and history.

While scholarly recovery seeks to make unrecognized writing visible, the Reclaim Her Name project is fraught with erasures.

While scholarly recovery seeks to make unrecognized writing visible; the Reclaim Her Name project is fraught with erasures. Its inclusion of Alice Dunbar-Nelson is a prime example. The project’s seeming restoration of her name and writing is full of errors. Falsely asserting that “Alice Dunbar Nelson” (hyphen omitted) was forced to resort to a male pseudonym, Monroe Wright, to appeal to publishers, the project’s directors  proclaim that “now” her real name is finally attached to a book of her “earlier stories,”  the  book it  sponsors. Titled Ye Game and Playe of Chesse, this “book” comprises three battle-of-the-(hetero)sexes romance tales that were probably never published and do not reflect the author’s  concern with race.. Archival research suggests Dunbar-Nelson wrote them in the early 1900s for placement in magazines like The Smart Set, using “Monroe Wright” so editors would not notice how much material she was submitting, most of it as Alice Dunbar. The invention of this “book” and the name that Reclaim Her Name project assigns its author are not merely sloppy: they amount to erasures of the multiplicity of Alice Ruth Moore/Alice Dunbar/Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s public self-presentations and of her generically and stylistically diverse work. By her late teens, Alice Ruth Moore (her birth name) was publishing stories and poems. Her first book, Violets and other Tales (1895), appeared under that name. Although its contents can seem unraced, its publication by The Monthly Review, an African American press, established her as a talented Black woman author. Once she married Paul Laurence Dunbar, she became Alice Dunbar, known as an author in her own right and as the wife, and later widow, of the famous poet (they separated but never divorced). As Alice Dunbar, she published The Goodness of St. Roque and Other Stories (1899) as well as essays, short fiction, journalistic columns, poetry, and a play, and edited an anthology, Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence.  Directly or indirectly, most of this work engages with race and racism, complexities of racial identity and forms of white racial violence; often it challenges normative practices of racial ascription.

Marrying Robert Nelson in 1916, she became the author, activist, and cultural-political commentator Alice Dunbar-Nelson, the name by which she is now known. This name was unusual. In the U.S. in the early twentieth century hyphenated surnames were not standard. It has a commanding ring; the trochees of each word and their matched number of syllables endow its three components with equal stress. The name Dunbar-Nelson affirms the author’s history and status, preserving Paul’s last name and honoring Robert, but Alice—the author’s first name, a woman’s name—enjoys pride of place. Moreover, though one would never know it from the Reclaim Her Name project, Alice embraced the gender of all her names and for her, and not for her alone, gender did not decree sexuality. She was a lover of both women and men, as her published diaries show. Her names may not have conveyed that publicly, but they did to her, to her family, to her friends, and to some of her associates.

Reclaim Her Name’s erasures include privileging the book over the many forms of periodical publication in which Alice Dunbar-Nelson and other women flourished. It also collapses the extraordinary length and breadth of Dunbar-Nelson’s creative life by labeling her “A Queen of the Harlem Renaissance”—oddly upstaging Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and other women more closely associated with that movement, in the process. Writing as she did for over forty years, Dunbar-Nelsonshould not be defined by her involvement in the Harlem Renaissance – which, when made a signifier for all early African American writing of note, erases the century and a half of vital Black cultural output that preceded.

For reasons as yet unexplained, Reclaim Her Name has now ceased publicizing “Ye Game of Chesse” and removed it from the online site. In fact, all twenty-five of its books have been removed. That is no loss for Dunbar-Nelson or for her writing, much of which scholars have made available in print or online, with more in the pipeline. Still, we might thank the Reclaim Her Name project for the attention their efforts have drawn to the real work of recovery. We will keep the momentum going.

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