Alice Dunbar-Nelson: On Producing Literature
Despite a lifetime of "producing literature" -- her wry term for writing poems and stories late at night, after long work days -- what Alice Dunbar-Nelson is remembered for most are her diaries, which languished on her niece's bookshelf for more than forty years after Dunbar-Nelson's death. Give Us Each Day, the edited volume scholar Gloria T. Hull produced from Dunbar-Nelson's ten years worth of observations on an extraordinary life (everything from giving political lectures to clandestine affairs with women to cooking breakfast with W.E.B. DuBois), joins the diaries of her contemporaries Virginia Woolf and Ana´s Nin as precious narratives of a pivotal moment for literary women. Unbeknownst to each other, they all set aside precious time to write about themselves, for themselves -- a bold declaration of self-value in an era when society's value of women was effectively nil. In Dunbar-Nelson, a woman of color whose mom was born into slavery, this self-value is even more remarkable. She was forty-five by the time women had the right to vote in the U.S., but she would die before seeing the Voting Rights Act signed into law, removing barriers for minority voters. Her diaries add a vital depth and perspective to the newly autobiographical writing of women in the first half of the twentieth century -- but also, perhaps more importantly, they're a hugely addictive read: witty, essayistic prose that feels startlingly current.
Dunbar-Nelson was an interesting mix of the poetic and practical, dreamy and hard working. She was born in 1875 in New Orleans, the daughter of a seamstress and a merchant marine. As a girl she was known for her sensitivity and stubbornness, regarded as the "temperamental family genius." By twenty she had graduated from college and published her first book: a collection of stories and poems called Violets and Other Tales. By twenty-three she'd co-founded a school for girls in Brooklyn and married Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was already a celebrated poet at twenty-six. They wrote books together and were invited to the inauguration of President McKinley. He thought of her as "the sweetest, smartest little girl I ever saw." Alice Dunbar-Nelson, daughter of a seamstress and merchant marine, was well on her way to a life of poetry and public works, fame and fortune.
"So do our dreams come true," she wrote in her diary two decades later, "and are as naught." Two temperamental geniuses made for a difficult household, and after four years of marriage -- rife with accusations of jealousy and abuse -- she separated from Dunbar in 1902. In 1906 he died of tuberculosis, leaving behind a tremendously large body of work for a thirty-three-year-old, as well as a wife who, despite four years of separation, had never divorced him. She would keep his name through two more marriages, a gesture as practical as it was romantic: the widow of the famous Paul Laurence Dunbar commanded more respect than Alice alone would, and as a woman and a minority trying to make her way, every little bit helped. But it didn't always work to her advantage. In some circles she would annoyingly always be better known for her first husband than for her writing; in the headline for her obituary, nearly thirty years after Paul Dunbar's death, she was referred to not as a writer, poet, journalist or speaker, but simply as "wife of poet."
In 1921, at the age of forty-five, Alice Dunbar-Nelson began keeping a diary. Like many private diaries and journals, it includes a fair amount of lively complaint from the start; unlike many private diaries, Dunbar-Nelson's complaints are well-written and often funny: "a lot of hot air and tobacco juice and noise," "he is of the camel type, first nose in out of the cold, then head, then whole body," "Bum car, bad driver, stupid all around."
She had plenty of reasons for vexation. At forty-six, she shared a home with her husband, sister, two nieces, and ailing mother in Wilmington, Delaware, a town she describes as having "devastating effects." Her husband -- Robert Nelson, who she called Bobbo -- had put all his efforts and capital into founding a newspaper that seemed destined to fail (and did). Money was tight, and she taught, wrote articles and went on lecture tours to help ease the financial burden. On occasion, this became a source of contention. "Bobbo and I had a fearsome quarrel yesterday morning, about the car, of course" she wrote, somewhat sheepishly, in the fall of 1921, "and I burst out that I am tired of being the man."
Their arguments help give a rounded picture of a singularly equal partnership. By her account, Bobbo both encouraged and distracted her from her writing; he gave her comfort and drove her crazy. He was "irritable and impatient," she "wild and raucous." When he expected her to perform too many traditionally female tasks in the home, on top of the work she did in the world, she was not afraid to give him what for. Upon coming home from the 1929 National Negro Music Festival, which she organized and thus was "here, there and everywhere" all day, Dunbar-Nelson "nearly cracked" when Bobbo asked her what there was to eat. He seems to have gotten the message, for she concludes with: "But when I got off my shoes, into nightie and bathrobe, and went down into the kitchen to eat the sandwiches he had cooked (fried egg) and a high ball, did not feel so near to tears." On Thanksgiving in 1930 -- a fairly shit year not just for Dunbar-Nelson but also for the U.S. -- she gives thanks especially for "Bobbo, first, last and always, the best of all."
Not minor, this last clause, for "all" included not just Bobbo and Paul Laurence Dunbar, but also Arthur Callis, a physician twelve years her junior, whom she was secretly married to for a brief period in between, and several less serious romances with both men and women. A regular dose of romance seemed not only to give her emotional satisfaction as recorded in her diary, but also inspiration for her poetry. Just a few days after running into her old flame Arthur, and musing that "love and beautiful love has been mine from many men," a poem came to her after a long dry spell: "I was inert until about three when words leapt at me from somewhere and I began and finished 'Harlem John Henry Views the Airmada,' a poem in blank verse, with spirituals running through. A weird thing, five pages long, which left me in two hours' time as limp as a rag."
A woman allowing herself the freedom to flirt and love widely as a man might was a radical behavior for the times. As her posthumous editor Alice T. Hull puts it, Dunbar-Nelson and her contemporaries were "always mindful of their need to be living refutations of the sexual slurs to which black women were subjected and, at the same time, as much as white women, were also tyrannized by the still-prevalent Victorian cult of true womanhood." Dunbar-Nelson's response to the rigid standards and stereotypes was to go about her business as she pleased, but in a manner a society magazine once referred to as "distinctively aristocratic." In her words, when she was dolled up to speak at an emancipation celebration, she looked like "a certified check." She was elegant and beautiful, liked luxurious fabrics, and in her diary frequently castigates herself for spending hard-earned money on clothes. And yet... "I love to buy hats!"
A diary is a record of a life, from the mundane to the transcendent and everything in between, and Dunbar-Nelson's is remarkably honest and complete: it's not just the diary of a woman or a poet or a political activist -- it's all of these things. To borrow a phrase Dunbar-Nelson herself coined to describe a conversation with a friend, Give Us Each Day is "a stream of poetic talk mixed with hats," all the better for the mixing. This is what real life is like.
Her diary also benefits from a lack of self-consciousness that sometimes showed in her published prose. Though it's not clear whether she ever intended for her diary to be viewed by anyone else (she doesn't seem to have pursued it), her prose is more varied and illuminative than one imagines a private diary would be. One can only marvel at the mind that casually tosses out descriptions like: "the elevator man, an Ancient Mariner person," "Mac, who looks like Belasco sobering up from a two week jag," and "the aged Sicilian on the top of the truck, with the shepherd's pipes, blowing his weird tune, straight from Theocritus into the midst of the wild jazz and fierce blares of the twentieth century American noise."
It's the quality of the sentences, the vitality of the narrative, and the process of actively thinking on the page that make this diary essayistic and so thoroughly readable. It's addictive, in fact, as one pages through the days to find here a well-crafted description of a house in turmoil, there the poetic evidence of a brief love affair; a disheartening visit to a pawn shop on the same day as a glamorous dinner; and thoughts on her contemporaries, men and women of the Harlem Renaissance, of whom Langston Hughes is a clear house favorite: "I've never seen Bobbo as genial with a litterateur as he is with Langston."
To call Give Us Each Day both a diary and a book-length essay may seem a stretch, but here's the justification: the quality of prose and movement of thought mentioned above, as well as the diary being about something -- not just the self. This is what separates the personal essay of any length from the memoir, the former of which was introduced by Montaigne in the sixteenth century with a series of essays titled by topic: "Of Books," "Of Friendship," "Of the Resemblance of Children to Their Fathers," et cetera. They were all also "of Montaigne," but his persona mostly served as an engaging vehicle for his chosen subject. The self is present, but not the focus. Essayists have been following his lead ever since, from Hazlitt's "On Going a Journey" to Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others. Nelson-Dunbar's diary, perhaps unknowingly, does too. We might call it On Producing Literature.
It's her phrase, used often throughout the diaries in such prosaic contexts as "Go home, finish dinner, wash dishes, 'produce literature' and go to bed." The nature of the phrase -- literature as production, something that had to and would be done, even if nobody else appreciated it -- is reinforced by the context, writing poems lumped in with washing dishes, everything necessary and routine. She wrote late at night, or during brief breaks in her day, and was more often than not interrupted by someone -- a family member, an employer -- who needed something "immediately." Her stories and poems were frequently published but more frequently rejected. In 1931, she brutally classified herself as "unestablished middle-aged."
Still, she kept producing.
Many, if not most, of her diary entries are thoughts on being broke and, while she doesn't tend to self-victimize, reveal the incredible difficulty of making a living as a woman of color in the 1920s: she is offered jobs that pay little or nothing, criticized by male superiors for such trivial things as her choice of lipstick, and is once denied a job because of traces of albumin in her urine. At much higher amounts, this can signal kidney disease, but the "decimal fraction" in Dunbar-Nelson's urine was a wildly unfair and disheartening cause for dismissal that prompted a wry: "Never had my paddy-widdy so discussed before in my life, and by all kinds of gentlemen, from Senators and school superintendents down." She made a living for her large household piecemeal from articles and lectures, while Bobbo's business efforts failed for a good decade. She lived in fear of bankruptcy, "it haunts me, pursues me, dries my mouth, parches my lips and shakes my knees, nauseates me. Fear! And no money -- yet..."
Still, she kept producing.
Success and failure seem to haunt writers and artists more than the process itself, sometimes to such a degree that success, or lack of it, changes their work (in Dunbar-Nelson's case, her diary may be her most enduring work because it's so honest, not shaped to fit what she thought people might want to buy). In a way, success myopia makes sense: one writes to be read, after all, and a successful writer is widely read. But Dunbar-Nelson's situation was more complicated than that of any self-conscious Joe Schmo writer: she was living in a world where her particular voice was everyday urged to be silent due to factors out of her control, namely being a woman and being black.
Still, she kept producing.
"I lay in bed this morning thinking, 'forty-six years old and nowhere yet," Dunbar-Nelson wrote on her birthday in 1921. "It is a pretty sure guess if you haven't gotten anywhere by the time you're forty-six you're not going to get very far."
Still, she kept producing.
In an interview about her own writing process, Canadian author Sheila Heti said: "The world doesn't need your books... You do it because you want to, not because the world is begging you." Dunbar-Nelson produced literature because she wanted to, even when the world was not only not begging but also often saying no. On days when she didn't want to, she seems to have produced literature because she needed to. In the case of Dunbar-Nelson's diary, writing about herself was a daily exercise in self-value, building up inner reserves in the face of the devaluing which pressed in on her from outside. When everything else was a mess, and it seemed nobody wanted her to succeed, and she was worn-out and fed-up and still wearing last year's hat, she still made time to "sit up until two o'clock writing up this damn diary -- when I've got so much else to do."