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 Five
Supplementing the print edition
1. I say a “consciously” interracial romance because there are several in fiction, such as Pauline Hopkins’ Hagar’s Daughter, in which the “black” identity of one of the principals is unknown. Sterling Brown on Old Greenbottom Inn: “subtler propaganda. Most of the stories tell of the pathetic love affairs of beautiful Negro girls, but there is some rewarding local color of the Tennessee Valley and of the earliest Negro schools” (Negro in American Fiction 101-02). Dickson Bruce’s article on McClellan for the Dictionary of Literary Biography provides the best available biographical sketch of McClellan’s life as well as survey of his poetry and prose. Bruce’s later Black American Writing briefly summarizes one review Old Greenbottom Inn received in 1908, from Alexander’s Magazine (143-44). That Alexander’s published a notice of McClellan’s collection suggests that at least some of McClellan’s few readers were white.
All of the stories in Old Greenbottom Inn except “The Death of Hanover” were reprinted in McClellan’s final book, The Path of Dreams (1916), along with poems and a new story, “Gabe Yowl,” about a black man who eventually escapes being framed and lynched for the murder of a white man. The publisher of this 1916 volume was a small church-run press in Nashville. McClellan lived until 1934 and apparently made an unsuccessful attempt to publish a collection of old and new work in the late 1920s. “He also claimed to have done a new work, ‘The History of American Literature’ in which he would discuss the works of black and white American authors in an integrated fashion consistent with his own ideals; but none of it ever appeared” (Bruce, “McClellan” 210-11).
Old Greenbottom Inn was briefly back in print in the 1970s, as part of AMS Press’ republication series, but McClellan’s fiction is absent from central Southern fiction anthologies from the 1970s and 1980s, such as Louis D. Rubin’s The Literary South (1979), and only his verse is briefly mentioned in Rubin’s The History of Southern Literature (1985). McClellan’s short fiction was also not included in any of the recent anthologies of African American literature from Norton and Oxford, nor is it in the recent Literature of the American South from Oxford.
McClellan’s story describes a real black school near Huntsville, Alabama. See Richings 203-17, The full text is available online either via the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South site and Google online books (search for Richings and Greenbottom Inn). These online editions of Richings contain illustrations.
2. McClellan’s difference from Washington makes it a mistake for Robert Bone to class McClellan as one of the “Washington” school of black writers active before the Harlem Renaissance. Bone was no doubt considering both as writers whose main goal was didactic, yet, given the content as well as the style of McClellan’s prose, making him a disciple of Washington oversimplifies. The relevant passage from Bone’s Down Home: Old Greenbottom Inn and other such books represent “the last gasps of a dying Victorian tradition. These books, whose thrust is largely inspirational, embody the prewar consciousness of the black middle class. They belong to the Booker T. Washington era of American Negro cultural expression” (109).
3. For more on evolving literature curricula in U.S. universities at the beginning of the twentieth century, see the Introduction, particularly footnotes 8-9.
4. There are portraits of individual post Civil War black entertainers in Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s stories, particularly if we expand the term entertainer to include some of the new jobs in gambling and horse racing that became available to blacks after the war. Dunbar’s tales “Schwallinger’s Philanthropy,” “The Race Question,” “The Finish of Patsy Barnes” (all three about the horse racing world), and “The Boy and the Bayonet” [about drill performers enrolled in one of the new colored schools in Washington, D.C.], among others, all broach new ground in terms of subject matter for black writing and were published in the early 1900s, before Old Greenbottom Inn. The sketch of the father in “Race Question” achieves a far amount of complexity in just a half dozen pages of the old man’s monologue—but this effect is entirely undone by the racist illustration of the story by E. W. Kemble that provided the collection’s frontispiece. Dunbar’s most extensive portrait of Negro stage performers, of course, is in his novel Sport of the Gods (1902), but their world is portrayed as degenerate, seen through the eyes of a judgmental and condescending narrator. In contrast, McClellan’s stories are much more ambitious both in style and in thematic complexity, and his narrators, though highly “cultured,” are more ambivalent in their judgment than anything in Sport of the Gods. McClellan’s audience was also primarily black, whereas the subscribers to the magazines that Dunbar most frequently wrote for were overwhelmingly white. Aside from Dunbar, McClellan’s other predecessor for his portrait of “Essie Dortch” was possibly George Washington Cable’s Old Creole Days, particularly a story such as “‘Tite Poulette,” about a paid dancer, her daughter, and the antebellum New Orleans quadroon balls.
5. I am completing for publication a more detailed reading of McClellan’s “Essie Dortch” and its importance for black dance theater history.
6. Dvorak is spelled “Davarak” in McClellan’s 1906 text; I have adopted the more familiar spelling. I have also edited out a typographical error in my quotation above; in the original, a period is misplaced.
7. For Malone’s description of the evolution of “Buck and Wing” dancing moves, see 222n12; see also Emery 89-90. For discussions of black and white performers in blackface minstrel shows, plus the nature of the various skits, characters, and the overall plots conventionally used to tie the skits together, see especially Lott’s Love and Theft, and Lott and Winter’s essays in Bean et al, Inside the Minstrel Mask. These accounts also focus on the complex cultural politics of blackface, plantation nostalgia, and contemporary racism. Regarding black dance history, aside from the works already mentioned in the body of this essay see also Lynne Fauley Emery’s earlier study, Black Dance (1988), and Robert C. Toll’s On With the Show: The First Century of Show Business in America (1976).
8. For a discussion of the relevance of trains to twentieth-century blues music, see Houston Baker’s Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature, especially 1-14.
9. Before McClellan, arguably the signal anti-lynching fictional narratives in American literature are Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s two stories, “The Tragedy at Three Forks” (1899) and “The Lynching of Jube Benson” (1904) and Charles W. Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901), assessing the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina, race riot. Dunbar’s stories hardly compare in force and complexity to the title story of McClellan’s Old Greenbottom Inn. For one, they do not attempt to portray the lynching both from the victim’s point of view and to analyze its social function as ritualistic violence, as McClellan does.
It is also worth contrasting Dunbar’s and McClellan’s works to a story such as the opening one in Joel Chandler Harris’ Aunt Minervy Ann (1899), where lynching is basically treated as a joke and a threat easily contained by genteel whites; or to the lynching scenes in Thomas Nelson Page’s Red Rock and Thomas Dixon’s novels, which justify lynching as counter-terrorist self-defense.
Ida B. Wells’s non-fiction writings cannot be neglected as a possible influence on McClellan; she chronicled lynchings and, even more importantly, offered analyses of the culture of lynching, its roles as a terrorist act and an initiation into white manhood. Other relevant contemporary narratives with scenes of lynching include: George Washington Cable, The Grandissimes (1879); Walter H. Stowers and William Anderson’s novel TheAppointed: An American Novel (Detroit, 1894), in which a white man is converted from racism after he is educated about Negro accomplishments by a mulatto friend who is later lynched; Theodore Dreiser’s “Nigger Jeff” (1901); and Sutton Griggs’ novels Overshadowed (1901) and The Hindered Hand (1905). Most anti-lynching writers stressed the victim’s piety and stoicism, or abject terror, the better to stress the barbarism of the lynchers. But a few assayed narratives of revenge: “A. Gude Deekum” (a pseudonym) published “When the Worm Turned” in The Colored American Magazine in 1903, in which dynamite thwarts a mob; and Robert Lewis Waring’s As We See It (1910), another underappreciated book and writer. Griggs’ Overshadowed is the first significant fictional text to explore the issue of white guilt and lynching, perhaps inspired by Ida B. Wells’s analyses. For recent scholarly work on the cultural work of lynching as a scapegoat ritual and an initiation into “whiteness,” see especially work by Hazel Carby, Trudier Harris, Gail Bederman, Sandra Gunning, and James Allen, plus the discussion in Chapter Nine.
10. McClellan planned a full-length study of American literature but, as noted in note 1, apparently never wrote it. He did publish one essay surveying American writing at the turn of the century and giving a similarly sanguine forecast to this passage from “Old Greenbottom Inn.” “The Negro as a Writer” originally appeared in a 1902 anthology of essays on black literature published in Naperville, Illinois; it has been reprinted in Dictionary of Literary Biography (1986)—where, however, McClellan is identified only as a black poet and critic, not a fiction writer (308). Presciently, McClellan’s 1902 essay judges Charles W. Chesnutt to be the most important black fiction writer yet to publish in the U.S.