Emma Dunham Kelley was born in Dennis, Massachusetts and raised by her widowed mother in Rhode Island. Kelley married Benjamin Hawkins, an inventor, in 1893. The couple had two children, Gala and Megda. Royalties from Emma's two novels, Megda (1891) and Four Girls at Cottage City (1895), helped support the family. Kelley used the pseudonym “Forget-Me-Not” for her first novel, publishing the second under the name Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins. Emma Dunham Kelley lived in Providence, Rhode Island, with her adult daughters and died on 22 October 1938.
Both of Kelley's novels were published and set in New England. The preface to Four Girls acknowledges that much of the text is based on actual people, places, and events. The dedications to Kelley's novels express a sense of debt to a widowed mother who struggled to provide for her daughter and to an aunt whom she calls a “second mother.”
Despite the fact that Kelley has been included in the ranks of African American authors for at least half a century, recent scholarship has raised serious questions as to whether Kelley was African American. According to the research of Holly Jackson, which is far more detailed than any biographical work thus far done on Kelley, Kelley and every member of her family were listed as “white” in numerous official state and federal government records.
Both of Kelley's texts are didactic novels in the tradition of the female Christian bildungsroman, a genre that was sufficiently popular in the 1890s for Megda to warrant a second printing. If one reads these novels as the product of an African American woman, their rejection of social protest and their avoidance of the subject of race make them exceptional among the work of African American women publishing in the 1890s. Rather, they are typical of writing by white women in the “girl's fiction” subgenre of the sentimental novel, a category notable for its emphasis on socializing young women into the dominant social order. Yet while Kelley's texts urge acceptance of the status quo and earthly suffering as God's will, their emphasis on personal salvation may have been based in the widespread view that moral reformation of individuals was the necessary precondition for progressive social change.
Each of Kelley's novels features a group of girls whom readers follow from a carefree late adolescence through a process of Christian conversion and concomitant acceptance of the responsibilities of adult womanhood, as defined by late-nineteenth-century evangelical Protestantism. Each text features a particularly spirited, ambitious, and talented heroine who initially resists the Christian path but who in the end claims Jesus as her savior and finds her reward in a traditional marriage and the inner peace that immediately follows upon her conversion.
The racial identification of Kelley's characters has been a matter of disagreement among Kelley's readers who assumed the author was African American. The confusion was compounded by the iconography of Megda, in which fair skin is almost invariably correlated with virtue, the exception being one very poor, devout young woman described as having skin significantly darker than that of her wealthier peers. Such coloration, if Kelley was not African American, may be an indicator of class status rather than racial difference. The uncertainty regarding the race of Kelley's characters is indicative of subtle tensions in her novels on matters of race, color, and gender. Though the best evidence indicates that Kelley was not and never considered herself colored, her writing, particularly Four Girls at Cottage City, examines variations among the visual signifiers of whiteness marking Kelley's female characters, perhaps to explore how whiteness itself was at the turn of the century being consolidating into a racial identity.