Alisha R. Knight. Pauline Hopkins and the American Dream: An African American Writer’s (Re)Visionary Gospel of Success. Knoxville: U of Tennessee Press, 2012. 125pp.
In her recent Pauline Hopkins and the American Dream: An African American Writer’s (Re)Visionary Gospel of Success, Alisha Knight sets out to prove that African American novelist, essayist, journalist, and editor Pauline Hopkins (1859-1930) revised and even debunked the idea of the “American Dream” (see xi). Knight convincingly situates Hopkins as a writer who consistently criticizes the US policy toward blacks and promotes agitation rather than integration. In doing so, Knight says, Hopkins “offers African Americans an alternative model for success that embraces African American culture” (xii). Drawing on discussions of the success myth or formula by such critics as Paulette D. Kilmer, Richard Huber, Richard Weiss, Rex Burns, and John G. Cawelti, as well as on H. L. Gates’s Signifying paradigm, Knight argues that Hopkins used and revised the traditional concept of the gospel of success by “expanding the meaning of social respectability to include freedom from racial discrimination” (xiii). Knight’s aim in this well-researched and insightful study is to examine how Hopkins “used the theme of racial uplift, the pursuit of social progress, and the figure of the self-made man to propound her theories and to demonstrate the limitations of the traditional success model” (xvii).
In her first chapter, entitled “’To Aid in Everyway Possible in Uplifting the Colored People of America’: Hopkins’s Revisionary Definition of African American Success,” Knight provides an overview of the gospel of success and the idea of the American Dream as deeply rooted in the American culture before turning her attention to Hopkins’s era. She argues that black working- and middle-class communities were just as hungry for success literature as whites and that they had a history of “producing and reading success literature, either in the form of autobiographical narratives or biographical dictionaries and collected sketches of prominent individuals” (6). Hopkins contributed to this genre in her “Famous Men of the Negro Race” series, published in the Colored American Magazine between February and October 1901. Knight argues that the self-made men Hopkins profiled possessed natural intelligence, high ethical and moral standards, honor, determination, and self-reliance but, unlike their successful white counterparts, they also had a strong commitment to racial uplift and were more politicized (23 and 28).
In her second chapter, “Furnace Blasts for the Tuskegee Wizard the Talented Tenth: Hopkins and Her Contemporary Self-Made Men,” Knight concentrates on Hopkins’s defiant attitude and subversive ideology in her editorial work for the Colored American Magazine. Advocating a distinctive success formula for African Americans, Hopkins protested against Booker T. Washington’s brand of racial uplift and his uncritical adoption of the white gospel of success. Hopkins, Knight argues, eventually emerged as the winner in this contest and and became a force that Washington had to reckon with. In her reading of Hopkins’s novel Contending Forces, Knight points out striking similarities between Washington and the fictional John Langley, asserting that Langley Washington’s darker side (see 33). In her discussion of the connections between Will Smith and W.E.B. Du Bois in the same novel, Knight sees Hopkins foretelling the later antagonism between the two leaders. Knight also echoes other Hopkins scholars who contend that several unsigned articles were in fact written by Hopkins, citing “The Negro: An Experiment” in the Sept. 1900 issue of the Colored American Magazine as a key example. Knight then gives a fascinating and thought-provoking account of Washington’s role in the purchase of the Colored American Magazine and the subsequent removal of Hopkins from her editorial position, drawing on the John C. Freund – William Monroe Trotter evidence, and Hopkins’s own version of the events and noting Du Bois’s keen interest in this maneuver.
The third chapter, “’Mammon Leads Them On’: Hopkins’s Visionary Critique of the Gospel of Success,” focuses on Hopkins fictional treatments of the success archetype and how they differ from her portrayals of real-life self-made men. In her short stories “General Washington, a Christmas Story” and “The Test of Manhood, A Christmas Story” Hopkins portrays young characters who fail to acquire or maintain social acceptance, wealth, and respectability. Meanwhile her heroes in her play Peculiar Sam, or The Underground Railroad, and in her novels Contending Forces and Of One Blood do prosper but do not experience their success fully in the United States. These texts prove to Knight that Hopkins “reveals the racism inherent in the American Dream and the negative impact racism has on the quality of life within the African American community” (53). In her readings of the texts Knight applies and then points out the subtly Signifying aspects of the ingredients of the success formula, as defined by Cawelti. Elements of setting, clothing, coincidence and luck, fatherlessness, hard-won respect, and the hero’s involvement in race uplift and community self-help all lead Knight to see Hopkins’s subtle but pronounced revision of the success myth. In her discussion of Of One Blood, for example, Knight rightly points out that the setting in Africa can be read as a “Signification on the use of space, location, and environment in the tradition success narrative” (70).
In the fourth chapter, “’In the Lives of These Women Are Seen Signs of Progress’: Hopkins’s Race Woman and the Gospel of Success,” Knight first analyses Hopkins’s interactions with the black women’s club movements, and in particular with Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, before discussing success stories that concern politically active women like Hopkins herself or the fictional Mrs. Willis–who is based on Ruffin–in her novel Contending Forces. In her “Famous Women of the Negro Race” series in the Colored American Magazine, published between November 1901 and October 1902; Hopkins defined the successful black woman as someone who cultivates her character and womanhood, as a woman who uses her talents to uplift the black community and one who challenges the central role of marriage in the female success paradigm (79). In this strong and focused chapter, Knight offers a re-reading of Hopkins that goes beyond the tradition of domestic and sentimental fiction (75) and re-evaluates her successful women characters. Knight sees Mrs. Willis, Sappho Clark, Dora Smith, and Grace Montfort in Contending Forces as challenging and redefining the archetypal successful female figure. The women in her second novel, Hagar’s Daughter, also measure success against various models of marriage. Knight focuses on Aurelia Madison, one of the more ambiguous female characters in her fiction, to highlight Hopkins’s revision of the female success figure. Knight then discusses Winona in the context of the bildungsroman tradition and arrives at the conclusion that “racism prevents black women from experiencing success” (95) because all black women are “victims of slavery and its residual racism” (95). If there is one lamentable fact about this study, it is that it include more of this type of intense analysis.
In her conclusion, Knight describes Hopkins as a “renaissance woman whose stage and lecturing experience taught her how to draw in an audience, and whose periodical editorial experience taught her to give readers what they wanted to read without compromising her own principle” (100). Pauline Hopkins and the American Dream convincingly portrays Hopkins as a versatile, intellectually astute, challenging, and innovative writer. Knight’s revision of the African American success formula that Knight promises at the beginning of her book will definitely change our view of Hopkins and challenge accepted notions about African American female writers of the period.
Hanna Wallinger, Univ. Salzburg, Austria. 16 May 2013.