Olivia at Mills CollegeThe Psychological Ghost Stories of Olivia Howard Dunbar

by Jessica Amanda Salmonson


In the June 1, 1905 issue of The Dial, Olivia Howard Dunbar lamented "the decay of the ghost in fiction," which she perceived as having become rare in periodicals and, when it was published, too esoteric after the manner of Henry James. She advocated a new type of ghost story that was at once literal and psychological, ending her criticism on the positive note, "There is hope for a renaissance of the literary ghost [and] there may indeed develop a regenerated ghost-literature well worth acquaintance."

This hope was fulfilled by the best ghost fiction of the following two decades, such as composed for leading magazines by Ellen Glasgow, Georgia Wood Pangborn, Mary Heaton Vorse, & in England by May Sinclair & Oliver Onions. Olivia was herself to become part of that renaissance. Her contributions to the genre, though few in number, hold some significance. In my anthology What Did Miss Darrington See? for the Feminist Press (1989), I gave Olivia's "The Long Chamber" its first revival. I made it the opening tale, as I regarded it that highly. Her Dial article shows that she gave considerable thought to the theory and manner of the supernatural short story, while in "The Present Status of the Ghost Story" published in Harper's Weekly for February 24, 1912, she revealed a personal conviction that ghosts are more than storytellers' meat.

Illustration by Wendy Wees for =The Shell of Sense=That the authors from the psychological ghost story's renaissance were to a high percentage women stands opposite the male-dominated M. R. James school of ghost stories in the antiquarian manner. Unless the James imitators' recurring portraits of churchmen and scholars seated in their dimly lit dens or private libraries strikes the reader as complexly drawn, it is more to the women's line of ghost stories where the focus is on naturalism & psychological meaning, with the tales set in a world where women & children, & not just scholarly men, really do exist & experience the unknown.

Olivia was born in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in 1873, the daughter of Nathaniel William Dunbar & Olive Howard Dunbar. She grew up in Canton. She graduated with a Bachelors from Smith College in 1894. Two years later, she came to the city to work for The New York World. She quit her newspaper career in 1902 in order to focus on feature articles & short fiction for leading magazines such as Lippincott's, New England Magazine, Century, The Critic, Outlook, Putnam's, McBride's, Scribner's, The Forum, Good Housekeeping, the Harpers periodical cluster, & others. She spent the rest of her life in New York as a noted short story writer and biographer.

She married poet & playwright Ridgeley Torrence in 1914, after having established her independent career. She continued to use her own name. She & Ridgeley were friends of Robert & Elinor Frost, Padraic & Molly Colum, & their home was frequently a stopover for authors & poets visiting New York, including the great Hindi poet & playwright Rabindranath Tagore. Ridgeley, though never quite breaking out from the common horde of minor poets, was influential as poetry editor for The New Republic, & was credited with discovering & nurturing transcendentalist Edwin Arlington Robinson & hobo poet Vachel Lindsay, who were to forever remain family friends. Ridgeley is remembered today not for his own poetry, but for having edited E. A. Robinson's letters.

Ridgeley & Olivia were supporters of black rights. In 1917 Ridgeley published a collection of "negro plays" which were the first ever to be written specifically for black actors. He later wrote the biography of black educator John Hope, president of Morehouse College of Atlanta University. Ridgeley's "The Bird & the Tree" became the poetic anthem of liberal activists, & was purported to have reduced the frequency of lynchings in the South.

Among her liberal causes Olivia counted women's suffrage. She wrote, in the March 1917 Everybody's Magazine, of "the great matter of woman's freedom," & of women as "half-citizens to the world." When "The Long Chamber" was published in the September 1914 Harper's Monthly, Dunbar was deeply involved with the suffrage movement & at the same time pleasantly involved with a New York writers' group — as well as with Ridgeley. Understandably, the theme of romantic love runs through the story, though in a pensive & unconventional manner. The tale is first & foremost an entertainment, as any good ghost story must be. It is also decidedly feminist in its psychological investigation of a woman who has subjugated her own genius to the furtherance of her husband's career. The fact that the husband remains off-stage renders the story more than an indictment of overbearing masculinity; it is, rather, about the struggle within a reticent woman whose destiny is in her own control.

An earlier story, less overtly feminist but certainly marked by liberal sentiment, is "The Dream-Baby." This story offers a portrait of what was in that era called a "Boston marriage," which politely acknowledged lesbian couples. Olivia's first social circle was the feminist literati, & she was inevitably friends with lesbian writers, artists, and activists. Her story is uncritical of the two women's shared life, though a hypercritical feminist might wonder at their obsession with children. The "tragedy" of a barren relationship is resolved by supernatural agency, by which the true happiness of motherhood becomes achievable. If there is a message in that, it is both cloying & obnoxious.

Although "The Dream-Baby" could be read in that way, Olivia did not intend it so. The magazine it appeared in (the August 1904 Harper's Bazar) was for most of its existence edited by Mary Booth, a confirmed spinster whose only children were her cats, whose sole companion was an adoptive sister. Then the magazine was taken over in 1900 by Elizabeth Garver Jordan, a feminist who together with her lesbian lover adopted from France an infant to raise together! It would seem, then, that Olivia wrote her story in support of Elizabeth's advocacy of lesbian motherhood.

A subtler domestic weird tale is "The Sycamore" from the July 1910 issue of Harper's Monthly. Cynthia, the wife & mother of the tale, akin to the young woman in "The Long Chamber," lives primarily to support the artistic career of a husband. The husband Ansel is an ineffectual figure who unknowingly could not hope to survive without the bulwarks constructed by a wisewoman who was more his mother than his wife or partner. This was Olivia's most recurring character scheme. Strong women protecting comparatively weak men can be found in several of her stories for Harper's Monthly, including "Hostage to Virtue" (May 1914), "Phoenix" (January 1915), "Whose is This Image?" (November 1915), & the Scribner's story "Home of Her Own" (January 1922). These tales undoubtedly revealed her personal ideal, for she was writing about the ineffectual artist protected by a superior wife before she found Ridgeley, whose good heart & middling talent could not be mistaken for genius, unless in Olivia's eyes.

Hence Cynthia of "The Sycamore" has qualities of a fairy wife who dwells by choice with a mortal. She possesses no scruples when it comes to protecting her aesthete mate. She is described in terms of a Goddess, and her daughters are her attendant nymphs grouped beneath the eerie Sycamore. This is an evocation of virginal Artemis, who had no husband at all, & only underscores Ansel's endearing inferiority; hence it is no coincidence that the name Cynthia was one of the ancient names of Artemis. At no time is there the least intimation that Ansel has the capacity of becoming a great artist, & the thing that his wife seems most to spare him is knowledge of his mediocrity. It would seem Cynthia's, & by association Olivia's philosophy was that the second-rate were as deserving as anyone, if not more deserving of first-rate happiness. For this purpose Cynthia creates for Ansel an illusion of contented excellence & will not permit him cause for disillusionment.

The tale is woven with a psychological complexity that marked the best ghost stories in this era of magazine fiction. Though on the surface, family-life in a rustic valley seems an extended idyll, even so its symbol is the lightning-scored tree, that artist's subject which we are repeatedly given to understand is overused & miserable. This dark presence, the Sycamore, is inexplicably loved by Cynthia & Ansel, so that it (the tree) ultimately joins Cynthia's conspiracy in defense of Ansel. There is an element to this story which reminds me of some of Algernon Blackwood's studies of nature's threatening vitality, though Olivia's intention is not to terrorize the reader, but to reveal a weirdly fortunate symbiosis. Thus when the story tells us we must spell "Nature" with a capital capital N if we are to have any hope of understanding this impoverished but oddly lucky family, what we have are intimations of a brighter side to what Blackwood feared about the natural world.

Predating the pensive, emotionally harrowing "The Long Chamber" by four years, "The Sycamore" seems uncritical of the idea of a superior woman subjugating herself to the needs of a helpless man. Unlike other of Olivia's tales, we are given no indication that her heroine might have been something else, something finer, had she taken another path. Rather, Cynthia is utterly, gladly Ansel's guardian spirit, having never imagined for herself any other function. As with the later tale, there is no evidence of subjection to a husband's will, for Ansel practically has none; & it is possible by comparing the two tales to detect a developing evolution of Olivia's feminist thinking.

"The Shell of Sense," from the December 1908 Harper's Monthly, is narrated by the ghost of another of Olivia's protective mother-hen wives. Even in death she clings to some awful desire to coordinate the life of the weak male. Although knowing she must let go, she lingers until she can overcome an insupportable jealousy, so that she may afterward be certain of a suitable replacement for herself, someone who can heal her widower husband's grief.

Ridgeley died in 1950, the day after Christmas, after a three-month illness. Olivia followed three years later, at age seventy-nine, on January 6, 1953, passing quietly in her New York home. Neither she nor her husband has been much remembered since, for it is the fate of the majority of writers to be utterly forgotten, usually while still living; & the puniness of Olivia's few obituary notices suggests, alas, obscurity did precede the grave. I cannot make highfalutin claims that either she or Ridgeley merited greater notice, but Olivia, with these few tales of the supernatural, at least deserves a little space upon a serious collector's bookshelf.

The above essay is an abridged version of the introduction to The Shell of Sense, the collected ghost stories of Olivia Howard Dunbar, edited & with an introduction by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, & illustrated by Wendy Wees (the illustration heading this article is Wendy's). The Shell of Sense was issued in a fine edition artfully designed by Rhonda Boothe, limited to 400 copies. A few copies have been squirrelled away here at Violet Books, if you would care to enquire (check the catalog link in the navigation bar below). The anthology What Did Miss Darrington See?, mentioned in the essay above, is also available autographed from Violet Books.

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