Lynching in Nineteenth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Representative Works

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

Stephen Crane
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

Criticism: Lynching In Literature And Music

Trudier Harris (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 4793 words.)

Bruce E. Baker (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 11570 words.)

Price McMurray (essay date spring 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 9402 words.)