Thursday, April 18, 2024

Pauline Hopkins, author of the novel “Of One Blood,” spent much of her adult life in North Cambridge and Cambridgeport. A historical marker at 53 Clifton St., North Cambridge, celebrates her life.

After years of relative obscurity, Pauline Hopkins is hailed today as one of the most influential African-American writers of the early 20th century, a pioneer in her literary work and social thought. Born into an artistic family in Portland, Maine, in 1859, Hopkins grew up in Boston, relocated to Cambridge in the 1890s and lived there until her death in 1930. She began her career as a musician, performing throughout New England as a soprano and composing musical plays (most of which, unfortunately, have been lost). Hopkins later became editor-in-chief of Colored American Magazine, a prominent periodical in which she once published an admiring biographical profile of Phillis Wheatley. Upon turning her attention to literature, she published several short stories and three major novels.

Hopkins spent much of her adult life in Cambridge, living in North Cambridge and Cambridgeport, and featured the city prominently in her literary works. Her proto-science-fiction novel “Of One Blood,” published in 1903, has deep connections to a variety of locations around the city. Reuel Briggs is the protagonist of the novel, a destitute but brilliant medical student who hides his mixed-race origins and lives in a “third-rate lodging house near Harvard Square.” His close friend, Charlie Vance, resides luxuriously on Mount Auburn Street.

While Hopkins does not give a precise address for the Vance estate on Mount Auburn Street, the location was chosen to evoke the leafy, luxurious ambience Hopkins describes.

“The Vance estate was a spacious house with rambling ells, tortuous chimney-stacks and corners, eaves and ledges; the grounds were extensive and well-kept, telling silently of the opulence of its owner. Its windows sent forth a cheering light …

“[The house next door] has been known for years as a haunted house, and avoided as such by the superstitious. It is low-roofed, rambling and almost entirely concealed by hemlocks, having an air of desolation and decay in keeping with its ill-repute.”

It is at the haunted house next door to the Vance estate that the spectacular plot begins to unfold: Reuel Briggs, the medical student, falls in love with Dianthe Lusk, a beautiful Fisk Jubilee Singer, after he revives her from a “dual mesmeric trance.” But Reuel’s friend Aubrey, secretly in love with Dianthe, convinces Reuel to travel to Ethiopia with an archaeological expedition, during which Reuel discovers a hidden ancient African society, Telassar. Meanwhile, Aubrey persuades Dianthe to abandon Reuel and marry him instead. A telepathic connection with Dianthe enables Reuel to discover what Aubrey has done, but when Reuel returns to Cambridge, it is revealed that these three characters – unbeknownst to any of them – are actually siblings, “of one blood.” Traumatized, Aubrey poisons Dianthe and commits suicide. Only Reuel, who is crowned king of Telassar, finds happiness.

To take the complete self-guided tour, “Cambridge Through the Pages,” visit the Cambridge Historical Society website.

About the Cambridge Historical Society 

We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We strive to be the most relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge. We do that by recognizing that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.

Our theme for 2021 is “How Does Cambridge Mend?” Make history with us at

Lucy Caplan is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.