Michael Dirda reviews “Of One Blood,” by Pauline Hopkins


Pauline Hopkins’ “Of One Blood,” first published in 1903 as a serial in the Colored American Magazine, is now reissued as a paperback, with highly stylized cover art, in Joshua Glenn’s admirable “Radium Age” series devoted to early 20th century science fiction and fantasy. Previous “Radium Age” titles, all published by MIT Press, include JD Beresford’s “A World of Women” (1913), EV Odle’s “The Clockwork Man” (1923) and “Nordenholt’s Million” (1923) by JJ Connington. I have read all three and highly recommend them.

‘A World of Women’ imagines just that. First published in 1913, it is eerily relevant.

Hopkins was a pioneering black intellectual, playwright, and magazine editor who used his considerable literary talent to rally support for the cause of racial justice. In “Of One Blood,” the last of her four novels, she blends multiple subgenres into what is a uniquely entertaining work of popular fiction, albeit one with a serious subtext: race.

Set in Boston in what must be the 1880s, “Of One Blood” follows Reuel Briggs, a brilliant, penniless and moody young medical researcher who is deeply drawn to the secret knowledge found in alchemical texts. No one knows much about his background, but he is believed to be of Italian descent. His only close friend, Aubrey Livingston, has the “beautiful face of a Greek god” and is actually the diabolical scion of an old Virginia family.

One night, these two friends attend a choir concert hosted by students from Fisk University, the main protagonist of which is a stunning soprano named Dianthe Lusk. “She was by no means the preconceived idea of ​​a Negro.” Beautiful as the most beautiful woman in the hall, with waves of chestnut hair and large, melting eyes, brown, soft as the years of youth; a willowy figure of magnificent mold, wearing a dark black dress.” Reuel immediately recognizes her as the woman he has seen in a recent mysterious vision.

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A few weeks later, on Halloween, Aubrey’s fiancee, 18-year-old Molly Vance, reveals that a ghostly woman dressed in white can sometimes be seen wandering the grounds of the house next door. During the night, Reuel encounters this spectral vision, which he recognizes as Dianthe Lusk.

So far, “Of One Blood” could well be a gothic novel, overflowing with horror and mystery. Reuel could almost be a latter-day Victor Frankenstein as he uses his occult knowledge to bring back to life a cadaverous hospital patient given up for dead. There is also more to the young scientist than meets the eye. Only Aubrey knows that his friend will not cross the color line by falling in love with Dianthe Lusk. Unfortunately, Reuel is not the only one who has a crush on the beautiful singer.

The first part of the book is dominated by images of whiteness. In the middle chapters, the novel turns to the “afrotopic” aspect that the science fiction writer emphasizes. Minister Faust in his biographically informative – and infuriatingly passionate – prequel essay: At one point, Faust refers to “imperial scouts for the massacre of kleptocrats,” adding: “schoolbooks call them ‘explorers.'” (If you’re sensitive to spoilers. , Introduction (Faust reveals too much of Hopkins’ plot, as does the back of the paperback. Both should be read after you’ve enjoyed the novel.)

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Science fiction – please, let’s not call it “sci-fi” – is more than just a reaction to the present

Throughout his narrative, Hopkins regularly quotes Shakespeare, Longfellow, and other poets, but also seems to be well-read in the subgenre known as Lost World or Lost Civilization Romance. Established by H. Rider Haggard in “She” (1886) and “Allan Quatermain” (1887), the most famous modern example is James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon” (1933), which gave us Shangri-La. In these novels, a legend, a map, or the confession of a dying man reveals the existence of an unknown kingdom, somewhere largely inaccessible, where an ancient civilization lives, hidden from modernity. There its priests or sages have powers far beyond what we know. More often than not, people are also waiting or fearing the fulfillment of an age-old prophecy. For example, in Gilbert Collins’ The Valley of Eyes Unseen (1924), the hero turns out to be the long-promised reincarnation of Alexander the Great.

In Hopkins’ novel, Reuel, desperate for money, embarks on an expedition to Africa in search of a fabulous treasure. Along the way, he learns about the advanced technological and cultural achievements of the long-gone Ethiopian kingdom of Meroe. But is this Wakanda-like civilization really gone? As Reuel eventually discovers, “at the heart of Africa was a knowledge of science that all the wealth and learning of modern times could not imitate.

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In the first act of the book, Hopkins seems to be recreating a classic Gothic romance; in the second it offers a thrilling Lost World adventure; and in the third, she boldly updates a Greek tragedy, where Southern racism entangles its main characters. In the end, the white, or seemingly white, of Boston and the black of Africa merge, as she brings her color-themed plot to a thrilling melodramatic conclusion.

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At one point, the metaphysically minded Reuel confesses that he longs to solve the mystery of the “what and where” of our earthly existence. In contrast, Hopkins – who died in 1930 at the age of 71 – aspired to dismantle what we now call systemic racism, in part by emphasizing our shared humanity. As God firmly declares in His book of the New Testament: “Of one blood have I made all men.”

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and the author of the memoir “An Open Book” and four collections of essays.

by Paula Hopkins Introduction by Minister Faust

MIT Press/Radium Age. 222 pages Paperback, $19.95.

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