Recovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the Twenty-First Century (special issue of Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers)


This essay introduces the special issue, “Recovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the Twenty-First Century,” by exploring a question: What happens when we place Dunbar-Nelson’s life and writing at the center of analysis, using these to investigate the critical paradigms that once marginalized and distorted her legacy? We argue that Dunbar-Nelson’s work offers fertile ground for scholarly meta-reflection of the sort currently animating our discipline, inviting us rethink approaches to authorship, biography, period, genre, and cultural identity as frames for recovery and interpretation. Dunbar-Nelson wrote in a dizzying array of genres, from short fiction, novels, and poetry, to plays and film scripts, essays, reviews, and nationally-syndicated columns. She worked throughout her life to promote the civil, political, economic, and educational rights of all African Americans and all women. She was a cultural critic and political commentator of razor-sharp intelligence, skeptical of pieties and party lines. She celebrated myriad pleasures – erotic, sensual, and aesthetic – through her writing and relationships. Our essay emphasizes the complexity and vibrancy of Dunbar-Nelson’s life and work, surveying the rich variety of her output as a writer (some of it still awaiting publication) and her professional and activist pursuits (including her little-known collaborations with W.E.B. Du Bois). In the process, we confront the critical assumptions and habits that have too often pigeonholed her as a quaint local colorist, a minor Harlem Renaissance poet, or the sometime wife of Paul Laurence Dunbar. We propose that rediscovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson will also reveal much about our own practices as scholars of US literature and culture.


University of Nebraska Press


Adams, Katherine, Gebhard, Caroline, Zagarell, Sandra A.

Publication Date


Publication Title

Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers



Document Type



Editors authored introduction to issue.