Pauline E. HopkinsSep 11th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Journalism & Law
1859-1930 Pauline E. Hopkins was a talented and politically motivated writer of fiction, essays, and biographies. Her early publishing efforts, and her direct approach to race and black empowerment, were seminal elements in African American literature.
An Expressive Family
Hopkins was born on August 13, 1859, in Portland, Maine. Her parents, Northrup Hopkins and Sarah Allen, were both artistic people with a passion for music and theater. Hopkins was born into the frantic, creative, and intellectual chaos that accompanied the Hopkins Colored Troubadours, a cadre of touring performers made up of her extended family. Attracted to plays, verse, and the written word, she proved her own mettle with a pen when at age 15, she won a prestigious essay contest sponsored by famed abolitionist writer and novelist William Wells Brown. Hopkins’ topic, considered ambitious for a teenaged writer, was The Evils of Intemperance and Their Remedy.
By age 20, Hopkins was performing alongside her family, and the entire troupe was touting material she had written. Her first significant play, Peculiar Sam; or, The Underground Railroad, was taken through towns and communities throughout the northeastern United States. Hopkins earned good reviews as an actress and playwright, and for her lilting soprano voice during musical performances. Through her 20s and early 30s, she continued to perform and work on skits. She wrote another full-length play based on a Bible story entitled One Scene from the Drama of Early Days.
Despite the prolific nature of her life as a performer, the impoverished reality of such a career became increasingly difficult for Hopkins, especially as the needs of her aging mother increased. She learned the stenographer’s trade, and took up regular work and residence in Boston, Massachusetts. With her mind ever active, Hopkins continued to cast a critical eye on society—in particular on black and white relations—and to draft essays that delineated her ideas and observations. She also began to work on a novel that delved into personal and political tensions between the northern and southern United States. In 1900, she came into contact with the Colored Cooperative Publishing Company, a black-owned business that had created a journal for writing and discussing topics of interest to African Americans. Colored American Magazine eagerly accepted her nonfiction essays, and the Cooperative agreed to publish her novel as well.
Released in 1900, Hopkins’ novel Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South gained instant acclaim, as well as a certain amount of notoriety for her straightforward take on miscegenation and post-Civil War race relations. The novel was sent out as a gift to new subscribers of the magazine, and both the book and the periodical were rewarded with swelling popularity. Hopkins became a regular contributor to Colored American, and by 1901, she had taken a job with the publication as editor of its women’s department.
Triumph and Tribulation
Hopkins became an increasingly active member of the magazine’s staff over the next two years. Her contributions, which included a comprehensive series of biographies dubbed Famous Women of the Negro Race, followed the male counterpart to the series, and were so prolific that she sometimes was forced to omit her byline or use a pseudonym in order to avoid the appearance of having provided nearly all the content. Hopkins was named literary editor of Colored American in 1903. She took the charge seriously and solicited works by vibrant contemporary poets such as Benjamin Brawley, William Stanley Braithwaite, James Corrothers, and Angelina Weld Grimké.
In her own work, Hopkins was often compared to black novelist Charles Chestnutt, who tackled the politicized and tension-charged issue of interracial coupling and the resultant complexities with equal fervor. They both were part of an aggressive new vanguard of writers pushing material that did not become acceptable literary fashion for another 20 years. As Colored American skewed further toward her own literary sensibilities, Hopkins formed the Colored American League, a nationwide support group to bulwark the journal’s production and future goals. She toured the country in 1904, delivering speeches about the importance of a literary platform through which Blacks could understand their common experience.
But with the increasing popularity of more moderate views, such as those espoused by Tuskegee University founder Booker T. Washington, some Blacks felt that Hopkins was too political. Washington advocated a sense of shared community and mutual cooperation with Whites and with the U.S. government, whereas Hopkins and her peers were of the mind that fighting for their rights—whether in words or in deed—was the only way to secure them. When an associate of Washington’s purchased Colored American and brought in white investors, she resigned her post with the magazine.
For the next two years, Hopkins published frequently in another periodical, The Voice of the Negro. She started her own publishing company in 1905, but was unable to secure financial backing to print the kind of works she felt were important. For a time, Hopkins slipped into obscurity before suddenly initiating a magazine called New Era in 1916. Along with Walter Wallace, who also had worked for Colored American, she put out two ambitious issues before that effort also failed due to lack of funds. Hopkins returned to stenography in order to support herself, and took a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She never again appeared on the literary scene, and on August 13, 1930, she died in Cambridge.
Hopkins was a trail-blazing author and editor whose work, although popular, was never fully appreciated in its time. The authors and poets of the Harlem Renaissance who prospered in the 1920s, such as Langston Hughes and Nella Larsen, benefited from the stylistic doors she opened and the subjects her writings explored. In the 1980s, a number of her works was popularized by literary scholars, and her historical value was solidified. In 1988, the Schomberg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers included Hopkins’ novels and short stories in its anthology in acknowledgement of their importance.