Lynching in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.