Copyright Amy Wolf, 1999

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Virtue, Housekeeping, and Domestic Space in Pauline Hopkins' Contending Forces

There has been a revival of taste in common things, and we care much more than our grandparents did about surrounding ourselves with beauty. The struggle of life was harder for them, and they had not time, as we have, for adorning tables and chairs, arranging corners so that they are artistic and not hideous, and making windows and walls rich with color and fair with softly falling drapery.

 

HENRY DAVENPORT NORTHROP, The College of Life or Practical Self-Educator: A Manual of Self-Improvement for the ColoredRace (1895) 

     Northrop's The College of Life emerged in 1895 as one representative of the many conduct books published around the turn of the century. In the midst of ideals of racial uplift, conduct books found a vast market among a class of black Americans hoping to effect the advancement of the race by adopting white middle class values and virtues. In the book's preface, "To the Reader," the author admitted that "some subjects concerning the race, but not concerning Afro-American Progress, have been purposely omitted, as it is believed these subjects are not in accord with the purpose of the book" (iv). Instead, the book was intended as a "Self-Educator," a complete guide "to advise, encourage and educate the thousands of young people of the race and to inspire them with a desire to better their condition in life by Self-Improvement" (iv). Those "purposely omitted" subjects--the lynchings and Jim Crow laws of the American South, continuing racism of whites, both Northern and Southern, discrimination in the workplace and lack of jobs, and attacks against the virtue of black women--were better left unsaid in a guide book concerned with "Afro-American Progress." Likewise, the recent and still looming specter of slavery is carefully euphemized in the epigraph that begins this paper: for "our grandparents," the "struggle of life was harder" (195). But the concern with beauty in the home that the quote celebrates is much more than "a revival of taste in common things." The home decoration and claiming of domestic space that is so important for the middle-class Victorian white woman, attains a far more crucial significance for the middle-class black woman. Decorating tables and hanging drapery becomes an expression of freedom. Only a generation or two removed from slavery, with its shadow still a powerful collective memory, the black woman's control over the domestic sphere represents a power previously only granted to white women or freed blacks. Marilyn R. Chandler in Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction argues that

just as the history of the United States is a story of settling, building homes, domesticating land, and defining space, our fiction is, among other things, a history of the project of American self-definition wherein house-building, and for women, housekeeping, have been recognized as a kind of autobiographical enterprise--a visible and concrete means of defining and articulating the self. (3)

Further, Lois Lamphere Brown writes of the sentimental novel that it "espouses an empowered domestic and matrifocal arena that results in movement toward interiority for the heroine" (56). Thus, although housekeeping could be confining as well as liberating, in marked contrast to the position of African American women during slavery, housekeeping allowed black women increased opportunities for self-definition, for claiming not only space but self-hood. Black women authors especially could use domestic setting as a vehicle for addressing issues of self-articulation, claiming a distinctly female space, and emphasizing the power for political change that they saw inherent in that space. By tracing discourses of domestic space, female virtue, and housekeeping through several turn-of-the-century texts and connecting those threads to those woven into Pauline Hopkins' Contending Forces, there emerges a multi-layered tapestry centering around tropes of domestic space and housekeeping as seats of distinctly female power and influence, tropes used in interesting and sometimes subversive ways by Hopkins.

     Claudia Tate argues convincingly that "the contrived setting and plot lines of the sentimental courtship story in black women's post-Reconstruction domestic novels encode allegorical political desire in the form of fulfilled (rather than frustrated) liberational aspiration in the tropology of domesticity" (Domestic Allegories 68). Thus, while the sentimental plot ending in the marriage of the heroine and her subversion to her husband may seem conservative, that same plot can simultaneously occur with a plot in which political desire is expressed and the heroine manifests subversive and supposedly masculine qualities like independence, intelligence, analytical thinking, or political awareness. In fact, these moments of subversion in literature can be especially potent within the traditional frame that they are subverting because their proximity creates an powerful tension. Tate argues that one traditional discourse that black women novelists of the turn-of-the-century challenge is the prevalent belief that black women are lacking virtue, are somehow controlled solely by their passions. Thus, by presenting "a heroine who is an exemplar of feminine purity, piety, and the work ethic" as well as outlining "a plot that confirms bourgeois, social objectives of domesticity and respectability," black women writers of domestic novels challenge negative images of black women's virtue and posit an alternative that espouses the virtue and purity previously associated only with white women (8). For turn-of-the-century blacks set on racial uplift, female purity becomes a significant trope for discussing racial equality.

     The abundance of conduct books connecting virtue and purity to racial uplift are manifestations of this discourse. The College of Life is divided into two sections; the first half celebrates the achievements of colored men and women, and the second offers advice on "the Proper Conduct of Life." Hopkins herself, in an article about women's clubs for The Colored American Magazine, stresses that the object of one of the colored women's clubs is "the furtherance of the interests of the race generally and of our women particularly," through "the collecting of facts which shall show our true position to the world" (273). Proving black women's virtue to the white world, a world seemingly obsessed with their own cult of true womanhood, is a necessary precondition for racial uplift. In 1905, Edna Wheeler Wilcox writes of a "very beautiful octoroon" with "higher ideals of womanhood, wifehood, and motherhood than many fashionable white women" (388). Armed with this example, she concludes that it is "little less than an evidence of senility, or of idiocy, for any white person to declare the education and elevation of the race to be a failure" (388). The domestic novels of the time presented the same argument; as Tate writes, "the story of ideal family formulation was especially well suited to this first [black] audience because its formulaic plot line encoded bourgeois constructions of the successful individual, community, and society to which that audience subscribed" (7). All of these texts have, as one of their purposes, the revelation to whites of black progress.

     This discourses on female virtue are interdependent with turn-of-the-century discourses on housekeeping and domestic space. Marilyn Ferris Motz writes that "the atmosphere of the home was seen as having an almost mystical effect on its inhabitants, determining their moral standards, happiness, and success in the outside world" (1). Victorian women, both black and white, were designated guardians of a specifically domestic sphere in an era when the worlds of men and women were increasingly differentiated along the lines of gender. Despite the confining aspects of this intimate connection, I agree with those who argue that a certain power resided in the role; in some ways, the increasing differentiation allowed for less emphasis on "superior" and "inferior" roles. Instead, woman's sphere possessed its own importance and inherent power and offered women a crack in a once tightly sealed door, a way to effect change: "to keep house . . . was also to keep bodies, spirits, souls. To keep house was not only to cook, clean, and nurse, but also to regulate and police . . . Housekeeping meant not only keeping but also being kept, trapped, confined, sweated. Yet housekeeping could also mean empowerment and freedom" (Dickerson xxi). Thad Logan writes that "the middle-class woman was taught to consider the tasteful decoration of her home as an important part of her duty, a duty whose broader outlines included both the physical and spiritual well-being of her family. Decoration, in this context, became linked to morality" (209). Turn-of-the-century blacks also emphasized this connection; at a woman's club convention that Pauline Hopkins reports on in The Colored American Magazine, the women begin their meeting with a prayer:

Lord, from the four corners of the world we have come to this convention, as representing the homes of the world. It is to these homes the effects of this meeting, for good or for evil, will go. May many homes be made stronger and sweeter, may many crooked ways be made straight by what we shall do and say here. (274)

These women believe in their power to play out the world's battle between good and evil with the home as a base for change. Woman's sphere was an extension of the world as a whole; whether actual or not, the ideal conception of this sphere placed the power to shape morality, and from there to shape the outside world, in women's hands.

     Yet, most of the sources I have used about the connections between housekeeping and morality concern white middle class women. Next to nothing has been written about the relationship between black women, housekeeping, and domestic space. However, as I have already posited, black women possessed an especially powerful respect for the implications of even having one's own house to "keep." Discourse analysis of the writing of some of Hopkins' contemporaries reveals a deep connection between virtue and home, progress and housekeeping, racial "advancement" and domestic space, a connection especially relevant to black women. Booker T. Washington, in 1902 in a magazine article entitled "Negro Homes," writes as his very first sentence: "I do not believe it is possible for any one to judge very thoroughly of the life of any individual or race unless he gets into the homes" (378). He specifically praises one house because he "saw little about the house except the color of the occupants to remind me that I was in the house of a Negro" (378-379). While he posits that by emulating the homes of whites, Negroes will be able to present their true, virtuous colors, Washington also implies that the conduct represented by white homes should be imitated as well. In other words, it is not merely qualities such as cleanliness and neatness that should be emulated, but the implications of those qualities: morality, virtue, cleanliness of "soul." Another article in The Colored American Magazine, a few years later in 1905, seconds Washington's opinion; Edna Wheeler Wilcox writes in "On the Making of Homes" that "at the present era I would say that a higher ideal of the home, and of what was demanded of those who have received a certain amount of education in their attitude toward that home, was the important one for the colored race to attain" (387). In the pursuit of racial uplift, Wilcox places a "higher ideal of the home" as the most important concern for the colored race because "the home, not the adornment of the person, marks the progress of any race from the crude to the civilized state" (387). Once again, morality and civilization (read "white civilization") are linked to the appearance of the home.

     Home and virtue are also connected to women's education and authority by several other turn-of-the-century black writers, including Hopkins herself. In her "Famous Women of the Negro Race" series, Hopkins writes of educated black women that "education has not caused these women to shirk the cares and responsibilities of private life; rather, we believe, each feels the blessing which her example must be to the entire race. Education, with us, does not encourage celibacy but is developing pleasant homes and beautiful families" (450). Further, Hopkins asserts that "no true man can object to thus developing the higher nature of women [through education]," because such development helps "make home most like heaven in its serenity" (450). Hopkins inextricably links the education and advancement of women to a better home life, which, as we have already seen, is itself closely connected in contemporary discourses to the advancement of the moral quality of the entire race, both men, women, and children. Margaret Murray Washington further makes this link in 1905 in an article entitled "The Advancement of Colored Women." For her, this advancement centers around two things: education and "purified homes" (186). Like Hopkins, she feels the necessity of defending against those who attack women's education as damaging to domestic life; of educated women she writes, "If one should take the time to go into the homes of these women, whether single or married, he would find a broadening of the family circle, tasty furnishings, order, cleanliness, softer and nicer manners of the younger children, a more tender regard for parents, a stricter idea of social duties and obligations in the home" (185). Echoing Booker T. Washington, she contends that the best way to judge a race is through their behavior at home (185). Further, she also connects virtue to the home. A missionary who changes the lives of plantation blacks begins by cleaning and decorating a cabin, later giving the black women "the gospel of cleanliness, of true motherhood, of purified homes" (186). These phrases, a discourse of domestic space, are used by Washington, Wilcox, and Hopkins as well, further strengthening the link between the ordering and use of domestic space, virtue, and racial advancement. But the education of women is added to the equation. Increasing the knowledge of women and widening their sphere becomes a possibility within the traditional system, whereas they were once seen as detrimental to that system.

     Claudia Tate writes that in Hopkins' work, "we find that she habitually insisted that black men and women be responsible for the course of their own advancement and that duty, virtue, carefully controlled emotions, and the institution of marriage are the key components for directing social progress" ("Pauline Hopkins" 65). I would add that images of home and housekeeping are one of the codes for this direction of social progress. Thus, while Tate, Hazel Carby, and others have pointed out the ways in which Hopkins revises racialized conceptions of virtue, she also complicates the notion of home, creating the domestic sphere as a site of tension where conceptions of virtue, female authority, and power coincide. Literature was seen as having a special power to do this; Victoria Earle Matthews in her address "The Value of Race Literature" writes that race literature's role is to counter negative portrayals of blacks in white literature; women's role is especially vital: "woman's part in Race Literature, as in Race building, is the most important part and has been so in all ages. It is for her to receive impressions and transmit them" (184). From the very beginning of Contending Forces, Hopkins assumes this role, creating in the novel a matrix of the forces of home space, virtue, and the power of race literature.

     In the story of the white ancestors of Hopkins' hero Will and one of her heroines, Dora, domestic space immediately assumes a vital presence. Having left the Edenic paradise of Bermuda, Charles and Grace Montfort attempt to establish their own Eden on their plantation in America. In a passage reminiscent of the description of domestic space in the conduct book The College of Life, Hopkins describes how "within the house Mr. Montfort had gathered all the treasures which could possibly add to the comfort and pleasure of his lively wife. Beautiful rugs covered the floors, fine paintings adorned the walls, gleaming statuary flashed upon one from odd nooks and corners" (43). A bit later we learn that when she sees guests approaching, Grace Montfort, "with usual Southern hospitality, looked over her well-appointed board to make sure that all was in order for dispensing those creature comforts so dear to the entertainer and entertained" (66). Grace Montfort's beautifully appointed home and her hostess skills are codes for her virtue. Even more beautiful than her beautiful home, the implication is that Grace's home is a manifestation of her virtue and purity. Her virtuous body is further connected to her "virtuous" home when the approaching guests turn out to be attackers who will kill her husband, take her children as slaves, and violate Grace. One of the attackers (whom her husband has whipped for "insolence") vows that Grace's "lily-like limbs, the tender flesh that had never known aught but the touch of love, should feel the lash as he had" (68). A few pages later, the attackers turn their anger to the house; they "took possession of the mansion. Soon the crowd had stripped it of its furniture and all the articles of value. The house itself was fired, and Grace Montfort again became conscious of her misery in time to see the dead body of her husband flung amid the burning rafters of his dwelling" (70). Grace is "driven away from her outraged home" (70). Words like "possession," "stripped," and "outraged" applied to the house mimic the language used during Grace's symbolic rape at the whipping post. The violation of the house mirrors the violation of the female body. The burning is merely a symbolic gesture of completion for the house is already "stripped" of its "value," just as Grace's suicide offers "sweet oblivion" (71) because she has lost her "value" by contemporary standards of female purity.

     Later in the novel, our separate introductions to the two heroines, Dora and Sappho, take place within domestic space, a domestic space that signifies purity in ways that evoke both Grace's connection to her house and accounts contemporary to Hopkins. Dora Smith helps take charge of her mother's boarding house after the death of her father, "proving herself to be a woman of ability and the best of managers" (85). Her domestic skills reveal her virtue and good character. In fact, later in the novel, the family's long-lost white relative Montfort-Withington "never once thought of the possible ridicule that might come to him through his new [black] kinspeople" (377). Part of this "nobility" is related to the fact that he admires the Smith's well-decorated home, its parlor with its "general good taste, even elegance" (371). In fact, the decor of the Smith home causes him to wonder about Ma Smith, "by what art of necromancy had such a distinguished woman been evolved from among the brutalized aftermath of slavery?" (371). His thoughts evoke the previously quoted article by Booker T. Washington in which Washington admires a Negro home because he sees little to remind him that he "was in the house of a Negro" (379). Hopkins, through Dora and the Smiths, challenges Washington's assumptions and creates black domestic space with as much elegance as a white home.

     As for Sappho, we hear from Dora of her beauty and how she fills "a long-felt want" in Dora's life (98), but her first actual appearance takes place in her room. Dora is "struck" by the changes Sappho has made to her room and with the "very inviting interior" she has created (98). In fact, although Dora has been affected by Sappho from the first moment she met her, it is only after Dora compliments the room that Sappho becomes equally affected: "'How pretty you have made it,' observed Dora, looking curiously around the room. Sappho came and stood beside her, and the two girls smiled at each other in a glow of mutual interest, and became fast friends at once" (98). Their shared pleasure in the domestic implies a shared virtue. However, "virtue" in the case of Sappho is complicated by Hopkins. We later learn that Sappho has been raped and has a child. Yet, unlike Grace Montfort, Sappho's story does not end with death. Claudia Tate writes, "the antebellum discourse binds Grace to the conventional fate of the sexually violated heroine--death. By contrast, the postbellum discourse . . . presents a heroine whose virtue is not simply the product of sexual innocence; she qualifies herself as a virtuous person through the strength of her character" (161). In fact, I would argue that Hopkins' detailed attention to Sappho's decorating skills operates as one code for her still intact virtue, despite her rape. With these details, Hopkins challenges contemporary discourses which posit home as a concept completely opposed to virtue. For example, Victoria Earle Matthew says in an 1897 speech that

from such small beginnings [i.e. slavery], [the Afro- American woman] was compelled to construct a home. She who had been an outcast, the caprice of brutal power and passion, who had been educated to believe that morality was an echo, and womanly modesty a name; she who had seen father and brother and child torn from her and hurried away into everlasting separation---this creature was born to life in an hour and expected to create a home. (151)

Matthews' rhetorical strategy repeatedly places "home" in opposition to such qualities as passion and lack of morality and womanly modesty. Her speech evokes the scene in Contending Forces where Montfort-Withington, the Smiths' white relative (whom Hopkins treats with some irony), wonders how Ma Smith could create such an elegant home having "been evolved from among the brutalized aftermath of slavery" (371). Hopkins challenges both Matthews' and the character Montfort-Withington's assumptions by not only allowing Sappho to be a survivor of rape but also allowing her to feel passion for Will, further problematizing the white conception of virtue. Hopkins "expands the notion of true womanhood to include both the 'fallen woman' (the true woman's polar opposite in terms of class and sexual purity) and the African American woman (the model's opposite in racial terms)" (McCullough 42). The shadow of slavery that hovered over turn-of-the-century black women, in the hands of Hopkins, becomes no longer incompatible with virtue, domestic beauty, and concepts of home.

     Domestic space, in both the physical and metaphorical sense of "home," continues to play a key role in the development of Sappho and Dora's relationship. Carla Peterson calls Sappho's room an "exclusive and inviolate female space" (188). In the chapter titled "Friendship," we are told that "by eleven o'clock [the two women] had locked the door of Sappho's room to keep out all intruders, had mended the fire until the little stove gave out a delicious warmth, and had drawn the window curtains close to keep out stray currents of air" (117). This passage evokes contemporary descriptions of ideal domestic space. The difference lies in the fact that two women occupy the space; there is no "master" of this cozy home. The room even becomes the site of homoerotic tension between the two women. After a "scramble" for pie, "mingled with peals of merry laughter," Sappho emerges "from the fray," "all rosy and sparkling" (120). Dora , discussing her lack of love and passion for her current suitor, tells Sappho, "'I do despair of ever being like other girls . . . That's just what makes me feel so unsexed, so to speak'" (122). Their relationship is a powerful one; even when Dora later marries, she names her daughter Sappho. Laura Doyle writes that Sappho the younger "serves as a continuing sign of the homoeroticism between Dora and the elder Sappho. Although the girl is the bodily offspring of Arthur and Dora, she is the symbolic offspring of the relation between Sappho and Dora, as her name indicates" (180).

     Sappho's room is such an "exclusive and inviolate female space" that when Will later intrudes upon the space he is feminized by being portrayed as wearing one of his mother's aprons and as tending Sappho's fire for her. John Langley's invasion of this space without knocking is a violation of all rules. When John reproaches Sappho for her supposed rudeness to him (even though he is the one who has entered without knocking), Sappho replies, "'This is hardly the time or place for parlor civilities'" (317). Sappho then tells him that his "intrusion into [her] private apartment is unpardonable" (318). By entering female space (without being at least symbolically feminized or de-gendered like Will), John commits an act that moves beyond "civilities" into the realm of the unpardonable. His proposal that she become his mistress completes the profanation. Only when it remains a female domain is Sappho's room entirely safe. The implication is that, with the door locked behind them, the two women are allowed to use this distinctly feminine space as a center for expression of their true feelings and impulses. They can discuss men and love and marriage. But the space is also one in which they are free to express more intellectual ideas. They go on to discuss the "evils under which the colored man labors" (125), and Sappho feels free to call Arthur Lewis an "insufferable prig" because of his sexist attitude toward women (126). Further, by the portrayal of this domestic space, site of virtue, Hopkins expands the conception of "true womanhood" to include homoerotic feelings, political beliefs, and forthright opinion sharing. It is "safe" for her to portray these traditionally non-feminine expressions because she has created a framework of virtue (as associated with the domestic) in which to present them.

     The chapter entitled "The Sewing-Circle" also centers around the expression of political desires and opinions within a domestic setting. In a chapter called "Home Occupations for Leisure Hours" in Northrop's The College of Life, we read that "the delight of knitting is its sociability . . . the lady who knits may talk at the same time and be witty or wise as she pleases" (197). But the conversation in Hopkins sewing-circle scene moves far beyond sociability and casual chatting as a manner in which to occupy leisure hours. Carla Peterson writes of the sewing-circle that it is "positioned midway between domestic and public spheres" (187). I think Hopkins is using "The Sewing-Circle" in ways similar to how Hopkins' and Margaret Murray Washington's magazine articles advocate education for women, promoting it as a tool for a better, purer, happier domestic realm. Several scholars, including Claudia Tate, point out that Sappho's political expression remains confined to the domestic sphere and no women speak out in the "American Colored League" sections of the book where several men speak eloquently. However, in some ways Hopkins is still being subversive rather than traditional. By allowing Mrs. Willis to speak of "the place which the virtuous woman occupies in upbuilding a race" within a typical domestic setting--a group of women sewing--Hopkins points to the power inherent in women's sphere, in the domestic, and challenges magazine and conduct book notions of the proper "occupations" of women's "leisure hours." Hopkins further supports this idea with the following paragraph in the midst of her description of Mrs. Willis:

Trivialities are not to be despised. Inborn love implanted in a woman's heart for a luxurious, esthetic home life, running on well-oiled wheels amid flowers, sunshine, books and priceless pamphlets, easy chairs and French gowns, may be the means of developing a Paderewski or freeing a race from servitude. (147)

This passage, reminiscent of contemporary descriptions of ideal domestic space, is immediately connected to the Mrs. Willis' political skills, the "way she governed societies and held her position," her power on committees and votes (147). A "well-oiled" home life can be the means of political change, even of "freeing a race from servitude." Hopkins takes assertions like Victoria Earle Matthew's, that "home is the noblest, the most sacred spot in a Christian nation" (151), one step farther; home also becomes an appropriate center for political change.

     Sappho, despite her divergence from standard notions of purity, is the character most capable of creating this well-oiled, noble home. Initially, when John Langley first reveals her secret, Sappho flees from Will Smith, afraid that he will not accept her now that he knows her virtue is "false." The first step in the couple's mutual suffering, the suffering that will eventually make their marriage more meaningful, is this separation. After assuming the duties of motherhood, Sappho ends up as a governess in the home of Monsieur Louis. Once again, descriptions of a beautiful home are keys to the domestic security and purity of the described abode; Monsieur Louis' home is "well furnished, comfortable, and every want abundantly supplied" (353). Sappho soon becomes "the moving spirit of the home," reinforcing the domestic's connection to true virtue, and Sappho's connection to that virtue despite her sexual history. But Monsieur Louis' marriage proposal is not enough for Sappho, or for Hopkins. Instead, she is passionately reunited with Will, a man who shares her political ideals and concern with the advancement of the race. Hopkins seems to posit that the ideal home is one which possesses all the physical beauties, but that also can encompass passion and an educated woman with political desires and opinions, while remaining "virtuous." In her world, these qualities are no longer incompatible. As Hopkins writes in a magazine article:

The highest degree of moral culture is necessary between a wedded pair for the care of those Christian virtues which make home most like heaven in its serenity, unselfishness and attractiveness. No true man can object to thus developing the higher nature of women; we all have the happiness of knowing a far greater number of examples of women, intelligent and cultivated, active in good work, interested in all that is worthy of interest, who by the development of their faculties have added grace and luster to their natural attractions. (450)

Will Smith comes from that species of "true man," one who desires an "intelligent and cultivated" woman. In sharp contrast to John Langley's violation of female space, Will, to a certain extent, is willing to play with gender roles, wearing the apron, so to speak. Thus, in the last pages of the book, Hopkins adds the final, necessary ingredient to the mixture of the domestic ideal: a love between partners. Throughout Contending Forces, Hopkins uses domestic space as a code for virtue, creating in Sappho Clark a heroine whose virtue challenges traditional notions of female purity. Domestic space opens out upon the world; as Nina Baym writes, "the domestic ideal meant not that woman was to be sequestered from the world in her place at home but that everybody was to be placed in the home, and hence home and the world would become one" (27). Domestic space becomes the seat of female power and influence, and the connection between domesticity and virtue is expanded to encompass a broadening sphere for women, one which includes passion and sexuality, education and intelligence, political and analytical thinking, and the hope of effecting change.


Works Cited

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