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 Two


Supplementing the print edition of this book



1.  For overviews of Tourgée’s life and work, see Edmund Wilson (529-48), Olsen, Gross, and Blight 216-21.  Gross’ comments on Fool’s Errand and Bricks Without Straw remain benchmark readings: 58-102.  For Charles Chesnutt’s comments in his journal in response to A Fool’s Errand, see Journals 124-26, which mix both praise and criticism of the novel and ask where is the “colored man” who could write an even more incisive book about the South.  But Chesnutt, like Tourgée, struggled over what role “fiction” should play in an arena where “hard facts” and truths, not lies, about the New South were paramount (126).  For analyses of Tourgée and Chesnutt, see Caccavari and Hardwig.

Fine other readings of A Fool’s Errand are buried in unpublished dissertations by Michael Phillip Nolan (211-45) and Clayton Allen Cerny (24-73).  Nolan is particular good analyzing the function of the novel’s oft-maligned romance plots (225-26) and the way in which Tourgée draws upon reformist uses of sentimental conventions but presents a far more pessimistic and secularist vision than Harriet Beecher Stowe regarding how much the public sphere may be transformed.  For Nolan, the “novel’s final vision is ameliorist: forthright and earnest moral behavior will have an effect, though at best it will work slowly, changing a few minds and hearts” (238).  Cerny places Tourgée in the context of both more radical “racial liberals” and more conservative New South reformers, depicting the contradictions his fiction and non-fiction shares with both groups.  For Tourgée’s composition of Fool’s Errand, see his “Preface” to A Royal Gentleman, vi.  For sales figures for Fool’s Errand and Invisible Empire, see Nolan 211, Gross 84, and Olsen 224; Nolan also succinctly summarizes reviewers’ favorable opinions, 213ff.  I would also like to mention here that a former Swarthmore College professor, George Becker, stated in 1947 that, considering the large scale of Tourgée’s ambition, he was the most unjustly  neglected figure in American literature.  Becker’s call was unfortunately made just when the doctrines of New Criticism were ascending in U.S. literary history.  Yet along with the Civil Rights movement, Becker’s comments were a spur to Gross’ book and perhaps also to Edmund Wilson’s—both of which came out in 1962.

Any study of Tourgée should consult Brook Thomas’ “Tragedies of Race, Training, Birth, and Communities of Competent Pudd’nheads,” which focuses on Tourgée’s later novel Pactolus Prime (1890), the logic of his arguments in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894).  In general, Thomas contrasts Tourgée’s faith that “right reason” will eventually prevail even against race prejudice with Twain’s darker ironies.  Other important recent studies of Tourgée in the context of Plessy are Charles Lofgren’s The “Plessy” Case: A Legal-Historical Interpretation, especially 148-51; and Eric Sundquist, To Wake the Nations 225-51. 


2.  Northern teachers who headed South during Reconstruction had difficult lives, often having to board with families of the children they taught.  White women teaching a black schools were anathema to many white Southerners; many of these women had to board with black families, causing further consternation among whites.  Student presence in the new schools was enthusiastic but also subject to rural labor needs; classes often had to be suspended for weeks at a time so the children could assist their families.  The average tenure of Northern white teachers in Southern schools was just two years (Foner 145).  White women made up one quarter of the teachers in the antebellum South up through the 1870s, but the number of black women teachers “doubled in the 1880s while the number of white men declined” (Ayers 211-12); by 1869, among the approximately 3,000 freedmen’s teachers in the South, blacks for the first time outnumbered whites” (Foner 145; cf. Morris 58, and Rabinowitz, “Half a Loaf”). 

Histories of the role of women teachers in the postwar South began early:  Amory Dwight Mayo’s Southern Women in the Recent Education Movement was published in 1892; see also Henry Lee Swint, The Northern Teacher in the South (1941).  For a study of the shift from white to black teachers, see Rabinowitz; for recent general studies of the roles played during Reconstruction by white and black schoolteachers, see in particular works by William Vaughn and Jacqueline Jones, plus Sandra Small on “Yankee schoolmarms.”  Two early exhortations meant to inspire Northerners to teach in the South but also warn of the continuing problems of white racism, even among Reconstruction Radicals, were Lewis Tappan’s Caste: A Letter to A Teacher Among the Freedmen (1867) and Lydia Maria Child’s The Freedmen’s Book (1865).  Despite such efforts, white teachers often exhibited marked prejudice towards black teachers, who, due to circumstances beyond their control, tended to be more poorly prepared (cf. Foner 99, 145).  For a survey of reformist Northern views and white Southern responses, see John Higham (19-23) and Silber.

3.  Tourgée’s character Eliab Hill was based in part on an actual person, a Negro Baptish minister and preacher named Elias Hill in the South Carolina settlement of Clay Hill; his testimony is found in the Report of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Ku-Klux Conspiracy, Volume 5, pp. 1406-15 (Tourgée, Invisible Empire 62).  Edward Magdol’s research has shown that Tourgée’s first chapter in Bricks (which focuses on the issue of ex-slaves’ names) and his portrait of Nimbus Ware were in part inspired by Jourdan Ware, a renter-farmer near Rome, Georgia, who demanded that he be called by his new chosen name when he gave testimony and when he registered to vote in 1867, in contrast to local whites who showed a “contemptuous carelessness” about his name.  Major events in Tourgée’s novels as well as his characters were inspired by Congressional testimony, newspapers, and other sources, along with Tourgée’s own experiences:  see, for example, the chapter in InvisibleEmpire entitled “Hostility to Schools and Teachers” (57-69).  Tourgée’s use of footnotes and other strategies to validate his fiction may be interpreted as an updated, extended version of the prefaces, footnotes, and postscripts that supplemented ex-slave narratives and vouched for their authenticity.  That said, however, it is important also to foreground Tourgée’s unabashed use of novelistic techniques:  his novels are not merely narratives “passing” as testimony, but represent characters’s thoughts and speech and actions in ways that go far beyond what was present in the many sources Tourgée used.

4. For cultural histories of the captivity narrative focusing on Indian/white encounters, see Annette Kolodny, “Turning the Lens on ‘The Panther Captivity’” and The Land Before Her; Kathryn Derounian-Stobala; and William Scheick.  As Tourgée emphasizes, black churches and schoolhouses were targeted by the KKK, as were teachers both white and black who instructed black children; white families who boarded teachers working in black schools were also harassed.  See Allen Trelease, White Terror:  the Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction; and Sandra Gunning.

5.  Joel Williamson, in After Slavery, describes such a parade of blacks in Charleston, South Carolina, celebrating freedom and independence.  Led by two marshals on horseback, over 4,000 participated, including a marching band, tradesmen such as butchers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and barbers proudly brandishing the tools by which they would earn a postwar livelihood, and representatives from several clubs and organizations carrying banners.  The parade also featured over 1800 school children and their new teachers, plus a mock slave auction block carried by in a cart.  The results of the parade, however, markedly contrasted with that depicted in Bricks Without Straw:  Williamson says that “The Negroes, both participants and spectators, were ‘wild with enthusiasm,’ reported one observer.  ‘Good order and appreciation of freedom were evident.’”  See Stampp and Litwack 211 and Williamson’s chapter “The Meaning of Freedom” in After Slavery

6.  For instance, consider this key exchange between Nimbus, one of the black leaders, and Molly:  “’Nimbus, I appoint you to keep order in this crowd until my return.  …Do you understand?’ ‘Yes, ma’am, I hears; but whar you gwine, Miss Mollie?’  ‘Into the town.’  ‘No yer don’t, Miss Mollie,’ said he, stepping before her.  ‘Dey’ll kill you, shore.’  ‘No matter.  I am going.  You provoked this affray by your foolish love of display, and it must be settled….’  ‘But, Miss Mollie—‘ ‘Not a word.  You have been a soldier and should obey orders…’” (157).  See also Edmund Wilson’s caustic comments on Mollie Ainsley’s role in this scene (545).  Wilson reads Bricks Without Straw as “largely a repetition of its predecessor” (546), but he does develop a basic analysis of Tourgée’s project for full public education.