Lynching in Nineteenth-Century Literature
Lynching in Nineteenth-Century Literature
The following entry provides critical commentary on the treatment of the practice of lynching in American literature during the late nineteenth century.
The subject of lynching occurs more frequently in the literature of the late nineteenth century in direct response to its increasing prevalence in the American South, where the practice was directed primarily at African Americans. Many critics have attributed the rise of this gruesome vigilante ritual to the demise of slavery. Lynching was an especially visible and violent way to send a message to recently freed African-American Southerners to refrain from stepping outside their prescribed roles, as deemed by more economically, socially, and politically powerful whites. Many writers and political reformers actively condoned and contested the widespread occurrence and acceptance of lynching.
In the racially divided South, several ballads and popular novels offered support for lynching. In his examination of popular North Carolina lynching ballads, Bruce Baker argues that attention to the songs is crucial to understanding the popular support for lynching. “To study cultural productions directly shaped by lynching, we need to concentrate on those which, although created by an individual, have been widely accepted in and have become part of the folklore of the community in which the lynching occurred,” Baker asserts.
In Hallie Erminie Rives's novel Smoking Flax (1897) a liberal young lynching opponent from New England changes his views after his bride-to-be is raped and murdered by an “educated Negro.” The rape of a white woman by a black man was often used as a pretense for lynching, although the instance was seldom proven. Price McMurray argues that Stephen Crane's novella The Monster (1899) was influenced by a lynching in the author's hometown. While the story may provide a relevant allegory for the racial climate of the late nineteenth century, McMurray also contends that Crane engaged in racial stereotyping in his characterization of the African-American protagonist.
Many African-American authors were more forthright in their views, depicting lynching as vicious and immoral. In such works as William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853), Charles W. Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and Sutton Elbert Griggs's The Hindered Hand, or The Reign of the Repressionist (1905), lynchings are depicted in graphic detail and the charges behind them are often revealed as false. Trudier Harris observes that, by focusing on lynching, these authors were able to encapsulate the general treatment of African Americans in white society: “The ritual becomes an ‘expected’ way in which the black writer can show white attitudes towards Blacks from historical and cultural points of view and one of the easiest ways in which readers, particularly black readers, can be urged to identify with what those attitudes have meant in terms of destruction for blacks.”
African-American journalists, too, spoke out directly about the horrors of lynching. Foremost among these writers was Ida B. Wells (later Wells-Barnett) who, as editor of the Memphis Free Speech was run out of town after publishing an editorial opposing the practice. Central to the outcry against Wells-Barnett was her contention that white women often entered into consensual sexual relationships with black men, who were later accused of rape. Wells-Barnett went on to write three influential pamphlets outlining her views: Southern Horrors. Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), A Red Record. Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894 (1895), and Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900). Wells-Barnett remained an anti-lynching activist throughout her career.
The white press, on the other hand, did not express nearly the same level of outrage. “The Black press uniformly opposed lynching, while the white press usually ignored it, excused it, or sometimes encouraged it,” Donald L. Grant notes. Due to the crusades of Wells-Barnett and others, the practice of lynching had been severely curtailed by 1940 and, accordingly, its treatment in literature waned.
William Wells Brown
Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (novel) 1853; revised as Clotelle: A Tale of Southern States, 1864, and as Clotelle: or, The Colored Heroine: A Tale of the Southern States, 1867
Charles W. Chesnutt
The Marrow of Tradition (novel) 1901
The Monster, and Other Stories (novella and short stories) 1899
Sutton Elbert Griggs
The Hindered Hand, or The Reign of the Repressionist (novel) 1905
Hallie Erminie Rives
Smoking Flax (A Story) (novel) 1897
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Southern Horrors. Lynch Law in All Its Phases (pamphlet) 1892
A Red Record. Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894 (pamphlet) 1895
Mob Rule in New Orleans (pamphlet) 1900
(The entire section is 108 words.)
Criticism: Lynching In Literature And Music
SOURCE: Harris, Trudier. “Literary Lynchings and Burnings.” In Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals, pp. 69-94. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
[In the following excerpt, Harris provides an overview of works addressing the theme of lynching and argues that raising the topic was, for many writers, a consciously political act.]
William Wells Brown depicts a scene in Clotel in which a group of slavers pursues, captures, and later burns a slave to death for being “impudent” to his master. Four thousand slaves are brought in from neighboring plantations to witness the spectacle and to assimilate thoroughly what the consequences would be if they should dare to be similarly impudent. Brown's novel is the first in a long line of works in which black American writers show black people being summarily executed for some “offense” against whites. In particular, Brown's novel illustrates how politically powerless Blacks were in slavery. They could be lynched for any reason; however, accusations of rape would very shortly thereafter become the excuse to cover lynchings of Blacks who were progressing too fast economically or who were otherwise rising above the status the white community believed they should hold. Other writers joined Brown in depicting the unnamed excuses for lynching as well as the named ones. Such depictions came to show how...
(The entire section is 4793 words.)
SOURCE: Baker, Bruce E. “North Carolina Lynching Ballads.” In Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South, edited by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, pp. 219-45. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Baker examines ballads associated with three lynchings in North Carolina and contends that, more than novels and poetry, folk music offers insight into attitudes toward lynching in the communities where they occurred.]
If, as if often claimed, lynchings have had profound effects on the communities in which they happened, those effects should be evident in the cultural productions of those communities. Although scholarship has begun to look at cultural productions concerning lynching, this attention to date has focused on “high culture” such as novels and poetry. These productions are rich, but they typically reflect sensibilities that may be distinct from those of communities in which lynchings occurred. To study cultural productions directly shaped by lynching, we need to concentrate on those which, although created by an individual, have been widely accepted in and have become part of the folklore of the community in which the lynching occurred. With this aim in mind, this essay focuses on ballads associated with three lynchings that occurred in the lower Piedmont of North Carolina just north and east of Charlotte between 1892 and 1906. These ballads were a vital...
(The entire section is 11570 words.)
SOURCE: McMurray, Price. “Disabling Fictions: Race, History, and Ideology in Crane's ‘The Monster.’” Studies in American Fiction 26, no. 1 (spring 1998): 51-72.
[In the following essay, McMurray argues that Stephen Crane's novella The Monster recalls the 1892 lynching of Robert Lewis in Crane's hometown.]
The critical history of Stephen Crane's story of a black man who becomes a social outcast after his face is destroyed in a laboratory fire is divided unevenly between moralists, theorists, and historians.1 Irony and textual unity are no longer fashionable, but common sense and the bulk of informed opinion continue to find Henry Johnson less of a “monster” than the community that ostracizes him. If one scholar's recent defense of the citizens of Whilomville is meant as pragmatic historicism, this argument nonetheless reverses the traditional moral and might be grouped with the more theoretical accounts of scholars like [Michael] Fried and [Lee Clark] Mitchell, who describe a writerly and less realistic Crane.2 Without joining a rich debate about Crane's understanding of ethics or the categorical problem of his relationship to realism, we can classify most treatments of the novella as either moral and implicitly humanistic or hermeneutic and post-structuralist. That both these strands of reading have tended to bypass the problem of history is not surprising, for...
(The entire section is 9402 words.)
Criticism: Ida B. Wells-Barnett And The Anti-Lynching Movement
SOURCE: Davis, Simone W. “The ‘Weak Race’ and the Winchester: Political Voices in the Pamphlets of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 12, no. 2 (1995): 77-97.
[In the following essay, Davis examines the anti-lynching activities of Ida B. Wells-Barnett through the texts of Wells-Barnett's anti-lynching pamphlets, Southern Horrors and A Red Record.]
In her powerful anti-lynching pamphlets of the 1890s, Black activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) taught her contemporaries how to read politically. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894 each present a savvy, ultimately challenging manipulation and exposé of the dominant ideologies enmeshing then-contemporary race, class, and gender issues. Throughout, Wells-Barnett instructs her readers about the shaping power of printed words, both her own and those of her opponents in the Southern press. Collaging a great patchwork of quotations from both the white and the African-American press, she allows the dialogic dynamics of the resulting text to teach the reader how context can modify meaning. Typically, she follows these quoted passages with sophisticated analyses of their rhetorical devices.
Not only in her rhetorical analysis, but also in her own prose, Wells-Barnett...
(The entire section is 10108 words.)
SOURCE: McMurry, Linda O. “Indictment of Lynching: ‘The cold-blooded savagery of white devils.’” In To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells, pp. 150-68. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, McMurry delineates Ida B. Wells-Barnett's anti-lynching activism and career after the journalist's controversial departure from the Memphis Free Speech.]
“We cannot see what the ‘good’ citizens of Memphis gained by suppressing the Free Speech,” the St. Paul Appeal declared in August 1892. “They stopped the papers of a few hundreds subscribers and drove Miss Ida B. Wells to New York, and now she is telling the story to hundreds of thousands of readers.” Another black newspaper noted, “If those sneaking cowardly Negro hating Memphis copper-heads think they have gained anything by this arrangement they are welcome to it.”1 Memphis whites probably had no idea that driving the Free Speech from their city would be so harmful to them. They did not quiet Wells or J. L. Fleming but instead gave them the moral authority of martyrdom. Wells was even honored by the school she had left in disgrace: Rust College awarded her an honorary Master of Arts degree soon after her exile.2
African American editors across the nation expressed outrage at the ousting of the Free Speech. The sentiments were well...
(The entire section is 7994 words.)
SOURCE: Collins, Patricia Hill. Introduction to On Lynchings, by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, pp. 9-24. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2002.
[In the following essay, an introduction to three of Ida B. Wells-Barnett's writings on lynching, Collins provides an overview of Wells-Barnett's activism and career and situates Wells-Barnett inside a feminist tradition.]
The resurgence of scholarly interest in the long and productive career of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) is long overdue. This reprint of Southern Horrors, A Red Record, and Mob Rule in New Orleans, three of Wells-Barnett's important works on lynching, makes important contributions to our understanding of Wells-Barnett's place within African American social and political thought. Within African American historiography, Wells-Barnett has long been remembered primarily as an activist, an irritant to W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary Church Terrell, and similar African American intellectuals. Wells-Barnett was an activist, and an extremely effective one for her time. She participated in an impressive constellation of antiracist and women's rights initiatives. Yet Wells-Barnett also used her journalistic career, her speeches, her leadership in political organizations, and her position papers and pamphlets to advance innovative analyses concerning the connections between African American disempowerment and the need for social justice. Unlike contemporary...
(The entire section is 5738 words.)
Criticism: Resistance To Lynching In Society And The Press
SOURCE: Grant, Donald L. “The Role of the Press, Education, and the Church in the Anti-lynching Reform.” In The Anti-lynching Movement: 1883-1932, pp. 76-103. San Francisco, Calif.: R and E Research Associates, 1975.
[In the following excerpt, Grant examines the treatment of lynching in both the white and black press.]
In the 1880s the press was divided on the question of lynching along the same lines that the country was divided. The Black press uniformly opposed lynching, while the white press usually ignored it, excused it, or sometimes encouraged it. The Black press was weak, its readership small, and its editors and printing plants were subject to violence if the protest was too vehement. By the 1890s the larger metropolitan white newspapers started to become more factual in their coverage then developing that lynching was a form of anarchy which could spread to threaten white society if not checked. This idea grew slowly because of the wide circulation of basically false stories of Black crime which presented the mob victim as one who received his deserved punishment. Although opposition in the white press to lynching increased, much of its credibility and effectiveness was lost because it did not challenge the underlying racist assumptions that made lynching possible. In contrast to the general tendency of the white press to support lynching, or at least not to oppose it effectively, was the...
(The entire section is 4336 words.)
SOURCE: Brundage, W. Fitzhugh. “‘We Live in an Age of Lawlessness’: The Response to Lynching in Virginia.” In Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930, pp. 161-90. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Brundage details responses to lynching by politicans and the press in Virginia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.]
Opposition to lynching in Virginia mounted slowly. Even at its strongest, it faced daunting obstacles. Opposition to mob violence was controversial everywhere in the South because virtually any discussion of the legitimacy of lynching touched upon white attitudes about race, crime, sexuality, and the very foundations of ordered society. Southern critics of lynching were always vulnerable to the charge that they were guilty of sectional treason, of pandering to the North, and of advocating “negrophilism.” Meanwhile, the crippling dogma of white supremacy, the autonomy of county governments, and the weakness of state institutions all worked to frustrate opponents of mob violence.
The federal government, constrained by the prevailing constitutional doctrines and the absence of explicit antilynching statutes, was reluctant to play any role in suppressing lynching. Thus, any action had to be taken by state and local authorities. But both tradition and the intransigence of state legislators,...
(The entire section is 16500 words.)
Brown, Mary Jane. Eradicating This Evil: Women in the American Anti-Lynching Movement 1892-1940. 357 p. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.
Discusses female anti-lynching activists from 1892 to 1940, when the anti-lynching crusade was at its height.
Carby, Hazel V. “‘On the Threshold of Woman's Era’: Lynching, Empire, and Sexuality in Black Feminist Theory.” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (autumn 1985): 262-77.
Evaluates the anti-lynching writings of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Pauline Hopkins in the context of black feminist theory.
Esteve, Mary. “Vicious Gregariousness: White City, the Nation Form, and the Souls of Lynched Folk.” In The Aesthetics and Politics of the Crowd in American Literature, pp. 118-51. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Analyzes the literary and psychological underpinnings of the United States' popular imagination of itself as urban, white and nation-affirming.
Logan, Shirley W. “Rhetorical Strategies in Ida B. Wells's ‘Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.’” Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women 8, no. 1 (summer 1991): 3-9.
Evaluates rhetorical devices employed in an 1892 anti-lynching speech by Ida B. Wells.
Marshall, Elaine. “Crane's ‘The Monster’ Seen in...
(The entire section is 509 words.)