Pauline Hopkins’ proto-science-fiction took off from familiar settings: The streets of Cambridge
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.
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Lucy Caplan is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.