In almost all literature dealing with the Reconstruction period in the South following the end of the American Civil War, the carpetbagger is depicted as a villain motivated by greed, vengeance, and opportunism. Albion Tourgee’s novel A FOOL’S ERRAND is the exception; its plot revolves around the career of an idealistic humanitarian Northerner, Comfort Servosse, a retired Union soldier who buys land in the South after the war for the sole purpose of devoting himself to helping the blacks build their future. In its general outline, the plot is modeled on the postwar career of Tourgee himself, whose experiences closely paralleled those of his protagonist.
Ironically, both the strengths and the weaknesses of A FOOL’S ERRAND arise, in large part, from the fiery zeal and desire to impart the message that inspired it. Tourgee is at his best when he is simply narrating a gripping tale of terror and suspense. Yet the truly powerful narrative is constantly interrupted by the author, who uses the old device of letters to insert discussions of history, eulogies in praise of black people, or diatribes against the South. Likewise, the earnestness of Tourgee’s message inspires him to write some of the most realistic and horrifying scenes of mob violence in Southern fiction and to depict with great effectiveness scenes of rabble-rousing and lynching, of conspiracy, secret meetings, and the inner workings of the Ku Klux Klan. At the same time,...
(The entire section is 451 words.)