Alice Dunbar Nelson’s MultiCultural New Orleans

Postcard from c. 1900. Charters Street, Lower French Quarter, New Orleans.

Alice Dunbar Nelson was a first-generation free Black person born in New Orleans, Louisianna in 1875. She studied at renowned institutions such as Cornell, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania. She worked as a public school teacher her entire adult life while also pursuing art, novel writing, poetry, journalism, and activism. Her work frequently explored notions of race and gender in America and includes titles such as Violets and Other Tales (1895) and The Goodness of St. Rocque, and Other Stories (1899).

A picture of Alice Dunbar Nelson, 1902.

In “Tony’s Wife” (1899) and “Edouard” (1900), Dunbar makes clear themes of ethnicity, adversity, and good/bad fortune (Dunbar Nelson). Upon first reading the stories, I found myself very confused—I knew neither that Dunbar-Nelson was black nor what her stance on immigrants and minorities was. Without biographical background the stories, the explicit inclusion of minorities was surprising, given that both stories were written at the turn of the 20th century.   For example, in “Tony’s Wife,” the abusive, brutish, Italian protagonist is compared to his brother—” John was Tony’s brother, huge and bluff too, but fair and blond, with the beauty of Northern Italy” while Tony is described as darker skinned with darker hair. In “Edouard,” the story’s namesake protagonist is a good-looking Creole teen who behaves piously and heroically in the face of adversity. Reading these stories, themes of morality and race emerged with a message relatively difficult to decipher. I set out to understand the role of race and ethnicities in these stories by researching Alice Dunbar Nelson’s stance on immigration and race relations.

In “Tony’s Wife,” Tony and his small, meek, and nameless German wife run a small convenience store in New Orleans. Tony regularly beats his wife for minor mistakes until he falls ill, becoming too weak to do so. He ultimately dies of his illness and deliberately withholds leaving her their convenience store or his money, opting instead to name his brother as the heir of his assets. Tony’s wife is therefore poor and destitute once Tony dies. A striking component of this story is that it is about poor, white immigrants. While Dunbar Nelson is most notably a Black female writer and activist, this story centers around a group of economically disadvantaged white immigrants dealing with issues such as poverty, violence, and alcoholism. In researching this thematic departure, I found that Dunbar Nelson’s activism included advocating for healthcare and educational reforms in the United States and that she frequently explored the difficulties of working-class families of many difference ethnic backgrounds (Adams). In addition, she urged men to refrain from beating their wives in her suffrage speeches, having secretly suffered serious abuse from her first husband until she divorced him (Garvey, 310-335). In light of this knowledge, “Tony’s Wife” made significantly more sense to me. It appeared that she used immigrants, a typically poor group, to explore the misery and prevalence of domestic violence—once Tony dies, his wife finds no relief, for she is poor and without property.

            “Edouard” approaches race and class slightly more optimistically. In this story, country boy Edouard leaves his small hometown of Covington City, Louisiana for New Orleans to learn a trade. There, his employer falsely accuses him of stealing his watch and fires him. Leaving his office ashamed and hurt, Edouard comes upon a tragedy waiting to happen and saves a boy from certain death from a nearby construction machine. Edouard’s jacket rips and upon handing it to a tailor for repair, he realizes that had mistakenly grabbed his coworker Emile’s jacket. He discovers in the jacket pocket a receipt for an expensive watch he dropped off at Lowenstein’s pawn shop. Later, Edouard’s boss comes to reemploy him, having discovered for himself that Emile had stolen the watch. Edouard accepts his job back but refuses to disclose that he knew of Emile’s guilt. One of the most intriguing aspects of this story is its representation of a multiethnic New Orleans. For example, Edouard is described as a “young Creole” (“Edouard,” 360) who was “tall and lean and brown with a strength of muscle and length of limb a little unusual in a boy still in his teens” (“Edouard,” 359). While this may seem usual, as Dunbar-Nelson was a Black female author from New Orleans, the multiculturalism of the story becomes apparent in the introduction of Lowenstein’s pawnshop. This is an reference to American Jews—for the majority of American history in fact, most pawn shops were owned by Jewish Americans. While the identity of the pawnshop may seem like a minor detail, it is nonetheless relevant that Dunbar Nelson makes a reference to Jewish people, of whom there were few in America and were a marginalized minority. Like “Tony’s Wife,” “Edouard” paints a picture of New Orleans as a multi-ethnic and -racial city, where people of various background continuously do business with each other. Edouard is a young, mixed race Creole teen from a small town; Emile is a “dapper” and “graceful” mixed-race young man from the city (“Edouard,” 360); and the critical component of the theft of the watch is Lowenstein’s pawn shop which is presumable owned by a Jewish person. In addition, Edouard’s saving the boy is mostly a matter of luck and serendipity—a large city is bound to have high-stakes incidents in any given place, after all. Thus, Alice Dunbar Nelson shows us a New Orleans not only full of people of different backgrounds, but rich lives, personal triumphs, and crushing disappointments—whose complicated lives are often linked to their identities and their place in New Orleans.

References

  1. “Alice Dunbar Nelson.” Rutgers University, Rutgers University, web.archive.org/web/20080516050650/http:/www.scils.rutgers.edu/~cybers/dunbar-nelson2.html.
  2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Alice Dunbar Nelson.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 Sept. 2019, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Alice-Dunbar-Nelson.
  3. Dunbar Nelson, Alice. “Tony’s Wife.” Short Stories and Classic Literature, americanliterature.com/author/alice-dunbar-nelson/short-story/tonys-wife
  4. The Southern Workman. Hampton Institute. Hathitrust, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.b2917671.
  5. Adams, Katherine, et al. “Recovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the Twenty-First Century: An Introduction.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, vol. 33 no. 2, 2016, p. 213-253. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/645631.
  6. Garvey, Ellen Gruber. “Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s Suffrage Work: The View from Her Scrapbook.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, vol. 33 no. 2, 2016, p. 310-335. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/645636
  7. “A Postcard from c. 1900. Charters Street, Lower French Quarter, New Orleans. View Is Looking up River towards the Intersection with Ursuline Street. Wall and Entrance of Old Ursuline Convent to Left. Beauregard House Seen at Right.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons Project, 7 Mar. 2007, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ChartersStreetNOLA1900.jpg.
  8. “Photographic Portrait of Alice Dunbar Nelson, 1902.” Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18772.

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