Sitting in Darkness:  New South Fiction, Education,

And the Rise of Jim Crow Colonialism, 1865-1920

by Peter Schmidt

Complete Notes and Discussion for Chapter Ten

(Walter Hines Page)

Supplementing the print edition of this book


1.  For summaries of Page’s views of educational reform and the moral grounding of U.S. imperial responsibilities, see Burton Jesse Hendrick’s two volumes (especially Training of an American 266-72 and 389-420) and John Milton Cooper’s recent biography, which extensively quotes Page’s influential “Forgotten Man” speech on education, from which the illiteracy statistic is drawn (140-44).  For astute brief analysis of Page’s views on Southern literature and a reprinting of Page’s seminal 1887 essay, “Literature in the South,” see Simms; for Page’s relationship with Chesnutt, see McElrath; and for a history of Page’s work at the Atlantic Monthly (a topic also covered in the biographies mentioned above), see Sedgwick.  Principal commentators on The Southerner who treat the novel as basically a transcript of Page’s views include Hendrick, Life and Letters of Walter Hines Page (90-94); J. Cooper 198-205; and Fred Hobson, “Rise of the Critical Temper” 253-54.  My thoughts on Page are also indebted to the historian Natalie J. Ring, whose work on regionalism and national identity features acute commentary on Page’s life and his novel; Ring was kind enough to send me the draft of a chapter from her book manuscript while I was working on my own Page essay.

2.  It is also true that in the 1890s, after a return to the South, Walter Hines Page was sharply critical of Grady and other New South optimists; he felt that New South boosters tended to grossly overstate the degree of progress that had been made, particularly regarding economic and educational reforms.  On Page’s critique of Grady’s response to Page’s “pessimism,” see Gaston 60-63 and 198-99.  Of course, while they revised Jefferson’s social vision, New South reformers were ashamed that the North rather than the South most fully implemented Jefferson’s vision of the central role public schools should play in a democracy.

3.  J. Cooper (218) demonstrates how in public Page took positions regarding black disfranchisement that were similar to Booker T. Washington’s.  That is, Page did not object to literacy tests so long as they were applied to all, and he argued that removing black voters would lesson political corruption.  He also predicted in 1902 that black disfranchisement would “gradually [be] overcome by their education and their thrift.”  My point is, rather, that Page’s fictional hero is more radical on the matter of black civil and voting rights than his creator could afford to be.  Page also agreed with Washington and other reformers on the issue of women’s education.  He actively campaigned for a state-sponsored women’s college, but perhaps predictably emphasized domestic economy and the training of teachers as the proper curriculum for women.  On Page’s contacts with Booker T. Washington in the context of the 1890s after, see J. Cooper 145-49, 217-18.  Nicholas Worth’s firing from his professorship may be Page’s way of alluding to the controversy surrounding Professor John Spencer Bassett’s comparison of Booker T. Washington to Robert E. Lee, which eventually cost him his job at Trinity College in North Carolina, Page’s home state.  Page supported Bassett:  see J. Cooper 214-16. 

4.  The tone of the ending in the 1906 original emphasized the rueful pessimism in the Southern pastoral tradition more strongly:  “...we passed from the subject [of selling the “Old Place”] with a laugh, as we pass by many dark tragedies that lurk just behind the hedges of our Southern life.  But it may be that all gardens have sad, shadowy dwellers on the other side of their walls of roses” (Atlantic Monthly XCVIII, October 1906, p. 488).

5.  Early in Du Bois’ career, Page offered him encouragement in his capacity as editor for the New York Forum, a journal of thought and opinion:

You will find as you go further in your efforts at expression, that you will need to take as concrete forms of the great problem as you can find.  Has it occurred to you that at Hampton or at Tuskegee there may be concrete material which would give you the best opportunity to find an expression for the spiritual and intellectual aspects of the problem?  I do not mean to suggest an article or articles on the education of the race in any sense in which that threadbare subject has already been treated, but suppose you find at these places life stories and human experiences which illustrate in a striking way the lift from the old darkness of slavery into the ambitious life of American citizenship at the end of the 19th century....   (quoted in Hendrick, Training of an American, 211)

Decent advice it was, and it clearly influenced the author’s decision in Souls of Black Folk to make his arguments using vivid examples—many of them drawn, not surprisingly, from Du Bois’ own contacts with Negro schools such as Fisk University and small rural schoolhouses.  See in particular Du Bois’ fourth chapter in Souls of Black Folk, “Of the Meaning of Progress.”  Du Bois, however, did not take Page’s suggestion that Washington’s Tuskegee might provide him with an ideal model of soul-making.  A reader of Nicholas Worth must also be struck by how accurately the advice quoted above describes Page’s method in his own novel—particularly the episodes involving Worth’s visit to Hampton and Uncle Ephraim’s speech to the students in “With Ulysses by the Sea.”


6.  Nicholas Worth’s speech echoes many of the ideas in an actual speech Walter Hines Page gave, “The Forgotten Man.  For a paraphrase of the contents of the “Forgotten Man” speech, see J. Cooper 141-44.  Many of Nicholas' points will strike a contemporary reader as either non-controversial or paternalistic and condescending, hardly challenging New South orthodoxies.  Nicholas argues that Northern philanthropic efforts targeting Negro schools did more harm than good, since they retarded the development of public school systems for both races.  He also suggests that, whatever its evils, slavery at least civilized blacks, and it is the responsibility of New South elites to continue this process.

7.  For an excellent introduction to the contents of Grady’s speech and its role in defining the mainstream New South creed, see Gaston 23-42 and 87-90.

8.  There are some further nuances in Nicholas’ speech worthy of a footnote.  The title of the “My Journey to Boston” chapter in the 1906 edition is “We Who Are a Problem,” and Nicholas’ address to an all-white Northern audience clearly does not picture Negro citizens as being a part of the first-person plural that Nicholas so frequently invokes as he protests Northern views.  There is an unresolved tension between the “we” that signifies the collective dissatisfaction of white Southerners being discriminated against and Nicholas’ less frequent use of the phrase “my community” in his speech to refer to the imagined national community white Southerners so want to rejoin.  Note also how Nicholas’ speech suggests no moral connection between whites who benefit from the social hierarchies of the postwar period and their ancestors who profited from slavery (“we had nothing to do with its old misfortunes”)—this from a man who inherits his family’s “Old Place” that was once a slave plantation. 

9.  Compare MacKethan, “Plantation Fiction,” and Schmidt, “Command Performances”; the latter essay focuses directly on the paradoxical role played by black story-tellers in plantation fiction ideology.

10.  Near the beginning of the chapter Nicholas is in his study reading with irony and amusement an example of just the kind of Old South pastoralism that he has renounced:  “I had some time before found a copy of ‘Cotton is King and pro-Slavery Arguments,’ which I had brought to the house as I might bring back an old piece of furniture that belonged there; and, instead of writing [working on Nicholas’ own revisionary history of the State], I was sitting by the fire reading for my amusement the argument of a once-great bishop to show that slavery was divinely ordained” (420-21).  In Nicholas’ view, purging the remaining “shadows” (419) that slavery still casts on Southern culture in the twentieth century is the most important task awaiting the next generation.