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 Nine

(Wister and Dixon)

Supplementing the print edition of this book


1.  The Roosevelt quotation in this section’s epigraph was part of a statement deploring lynching written in a 1903 letter praising the governor of Indiana, Winfield T. Durbin, for sending state militia to break up a lynching.  Roosevelt’s comments were provoked by a lynching in Wilmington, Delaware, in which a black man accused of rape and murder was taken from prison and burned alive, but Roosevelt had been disturbed by lynching for quite a while.  Roosevelt criticized lynchings publicly in other settings as well, at some risk to his political capital:  see his sixth annual State of the Union address (1906), for instance.  For details on the Durbin letter and its publication, see Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex 261-62 and 661n.

2.  How to interpret the Southerner’s “Jim Crow” song is a puzzle.  Singing in “black” dialect familiar from minstrel shows, the character mocks his own ignorance as well as celebrates his physical ability to “maul” his rival, “Jim Crow,” and impress the “white folks” who watch.  John Seelye’s suggestion certainly makes some sense:  “the Virginian’s minstrel song is a gesture of defiance to his rival” Trampas (361n46).  This is not the only time in the novel when the villain Trampas is associated with being a racial other.  But what’s especially intriguing here is the Virginian representing his most violent inner self as non-white too.

3.  In 1726, Bishop George Berkeley, in his poem “On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America,” translated the medieval notion of translatio studii as “westward the course of empire takes its way.”  Not surprisingly, his phrase found a receptive audience first in Britain’s North American colonies and then in the U.S.  Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s 1861 mural on the west wall of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., celebrated westward expansion and took Bishop Berkeley’s famous phrase for its title.  For a rich discussion of the meanings of translatio studii in the context of U.S. Studies, see Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self

4.  For two good examples of the varieties of the Scottian heroine, see Rowena’s and Rebecca’s different roles in Ivanhoe; to some degree, Wister’s heroine Molly Wood embodies the qualities and actions of both.  For a fuller discussion of these and related topics concerning New South authors, see my “Walter Scott, Postcolonial Theory, and New South Literature.”  For excellent examples of how Molly synthesizes Eastern and Western U.S. styles and values, see the description of her room on p. 226 and her actions in the final chapter; plus Seelye, “Introduction” xxii-xxvii.  For a fine critique of Molly’s role in this male-centered narrative, see Tompkins, West of Everything 130-55.  Tompkins reads the Western in general as a genre in reaction against female-dominated popular culture.  Regarding Molly, she says that The Virginian’s sweetheart “is just like him but in reverse.  All sprightly wit on the outside, and inside vulnerability itself.   …Though the novel seems infatuated with her for about two thirds of its length, it turns on her without warning near the end” (139, 141).  I should also note Amy Kaplan’s astute analyses of the various reasons why male-dominated colonialist narratives often featured somewhat independent-minded white heroines.  Colonialist discourse asserted that a universal way to judge the level of a culture’s “civilization” was the status it gave to women. “New Woman” heroines “proved their own modernity by at once freeing themselves from traditional hierarchies and voluntarily subduing themselves to some ‘real live man,’ just as imperial subjects … prove their capacity for liberation through their alliance with American power” (108).  This pattern certainly fits Wister’s Virginian.  See Kaplan, “Manifest Domesticity,” in Anarchy of Empire 23-50; see also Tompkins 145-48 on Wister’s racial theories.

5.  For more on the concept of imperial melancholia, see Chapter Eight, especially note 13.

6.  Herbert Spencer, interview with E. L. Youmans, The New York Times (Friday, October 20, 1882), p. 5.  I thank my colleague Kendall Johnson for this reference, to appear in Chapter Three of his forthcoming book Henry James and the Visual (Cambridge, 2007).

7.  Scholarship on the genealogy of whiteness can hardly be summarized here, but interested readers are referred to invaluable books by Thomas Gossett and Stephen Jay Gould, as well as Nell Irvin Painter’s lucid recent essay, “Why Are White People Called ‘Caucasian’?”  Dixon uses Caucasian as a synonym for white in The Leopard’s Spots, 63.

8.  For fine recent readings of Dixon’s Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman that interpret his texts and films as revealing the crises in white supremacism, see Boeckmann, Slide, Romine, and Gunning.  Gunning is especially helpful on the tie between Page and Dixon regarding Jim Crow and colonialism: “the imagined assault on white women [at Red Rock in Page] expands to become a figuration of the struggles of white nation-building in the face of an uncivilized Other’s racial threat; as a result, violent white male retaliation can be writ manageably as the protective concern for domestic spaces.  This theme of white communal/white domestic recovery through violence is replayed throughout the novel” (23-24). See also Jacobson’s eloquent arguments and exempla against treating whiteness as monolithic in this period.

9.  Scholarship on the social functions and contradictions of lynching and other acts of violence in maintaining racial dictatorship is now immense.   Authors and texts helpful to me include Ida B. Wells-Barnett; Friedman, White Savage; Harris’s Exorcising Blackness; Carby’s “‘On the Threshold of the Woman’s Era” and Reconstructing Womanhood; Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States; Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization, Chapter Two; Clinton, “Bloody Terrain”; Wiegman, American Anatomies, especially 21-42 and 81-113; Hale’s chapter on lynching spectacles, “Deadly Amusements,” in Making Whiteness (199-239); and Gunning’s Race, Rape, and Lynching.  I especially recommend the books by Harris, Hale, and Gunning for their survey and synthesis of the work of the last three decades or so on the topic of lynching.  Hortense Spillers (“Mama’s baby”) and, more recently, Waligora-Davis see rituals of dismemberment as reenacting the trauma of the Middle Passage.  For more on actual and symbolic forms of dismemberment that extend beyond lynching, see Yaeger, Dirt and Desire.  Sandy Alexandre, in important work that should soon be published, has explored the ways in which lynching may be interpreted as the violent symbolic dispossession of property, including land ownership, and must be understood in the context of riots that destroyed black property as well as lives.  Also relevant are the sources regarding “colonial melancholy” cited in my Chapter Six.

10.  Of the non-blacks who were lynched in 1892, Wells-Barnett’s records show many Italian or Chinese; in addition, she notes that by 1892 nearly one-half million dollars had been paid to Italy, China, and other countries by the United States government after it was sued for the lynching deaths of those countries’ citizens on U.S. soil. 

11. James Allen’s Without Sanctuary gruesomely demonstrates how lynchings were spectacles defining what a white community thought to be its modernity, not just its righteousness.  Town centers are featured, not just nameless wilderness, and in many of the postcards spectators stare proudly toward the camera while standing near the corpse.  Conversely, the black bodies often had any markers of individuality and modernity (including fashionable clothes) destroyed. Victims were sometimes also decorated, to become in death a safe embodiment of the stereotype of the complacent darky whites so needed.  See especially the postcard image on the half-title page, where the corpse is painted with minstrel-like makeup.

12.  Regarding Du Bois’ encounter with body-parts in Atlanta, see Lewis’ biography of Du Bois, Volume One, 226.  Lewis notes that this event occurred when Du Bois was on his way to the Atlanta Constitution editorial offices to persuade Joel Chandler Harris, one of the paper’s editors, to publish Du Bois’ editorial condemning lynching. 

In support of my assertion that lynching involves symbolic cannibalism and therefore, for such a Christ-haunted region such as the U.S. South, is also a demonic reenactment of Christian communion, I must cite James Baldwin’s brilliant short story “Going to Meet the Man,” about a boy’s initiation into white manhood via a lynching, told from his point of view:  “’Well, I told you,’ said his father, ‘you wasn’t never going to forget this picnic’” (217).  Allen’s Without Sanctuary documents the festivities of consumption and display central to lynching rites.

13.  For Dixon’s interest in cinema, especially in having his novels filmed, see Cook, Thomas Dixon 109-22; Dixon also later unsuccessfully tried his own hand at film-making.   Dixon was involved in the production of Birth of a Nation, and some historians claim he gave Griffith his film’s revised title, which of course ideologically equates the Klan’s post-Reconstruction rebirth with that of the United States itself (cf. Blight 395).  Cook dates Dixon’s interest in movies to 1911, not before, and does not discuss cinematic tropes in The Clansman

For readings of Dixon’s The Clansman and D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), see Cook’s two books; Merritt; Franklin, “’Birth of a Nation’”; Rogin; Fossett; Gunning 19-43; and Joel Williamson (Crucible 140-76). Anthony Slide’s new book on Dixon’s life and films is also highly recommended.  These authors discuss the many protests organized by blacks and others against both Dixon’s novels and Griffith’s film.  Gunning is particularly astute on demonstrating how Dixon’s narratives of violence and white reunion at the same time reinscribed class boundaries.  Regarding cinematic tropes and mass-culture references within the texts of Dixon’s novels and other productions, more research is still needed.

Dixon’s cinematic propaganda should also be interpreted as a revision of a climactic scene in Tourgée’s novel A Fool’s Errand that also featured a black man who, narrating in a trance, “painted by magic the scene of the murder” to reveal the guilty (Fool’s 226-27).  In Tourgée’s novel, however, the crime was a lynching based on the KKK’s murder of the Reconstruction Senator John W. Stephen in 1870; the witness, the black leader Jerry Hunt, recounts what he saw and prophesies divine retribution.  Hunt is later lynched.  The power of this scene was such that Dixon felt the need to undo it twenty-five years later. 

On Dixon’s influence on Margaret Mitchell, see Freer.

14.  Kalokagathy is a Greek term naming the belief that external appearances accurately signify hidden character traits.  See Boeckmann 54; her entire anatomization of nineteenth-century “scientific” racism is relevant, including her fine analysis of Dixon (11-97).  Regarding visual markers for racial identity, George Handley lucidly analyzes Frances Harper’s critique in Iola Leroy of such markers.  Harper links their internalization both to colonial master narratives and to self-image problems that beset the black community.  For these reasons, Harper’s novel subtly resists visual descriptions of its heroine, in favor of defining her selfhood via voice and community action (104-06).  Handley’s approach also allows us to understand Dixon’s obsession with ever more precise visual markers of racial identity as a hysterical white supremacist response to the contemporary crisis of racial signification.  For two astute historical overviews of the growing distrust in nineteenth-century racial discourse of visual “proofs” of race, Boeckmann and Wiegman are especially recommended; Wiegman defines the topic as the “economies of visibility” in modernity.

15.  The rape scene itself is not represented in The Clansman, only its prelude and its aftermath, until Gus’ reenactment.  D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation of course purports to render the rape scene directly, not through re-enactment: this was indeed its most hysteria-inducing moment.  It is worth asking why Griffith made such a key change.  Perhaps Griffith cut out all references to hypnotism, retinal images, and reenactment because they too dangerously would have called attention to the illusionistic mechanisms of film itself.   (Remember also that in the film the villain Gus is played by a white actor in blackface, though historians suggest he was perceived by the viewing audiences as actually black, not in blackface.)  But perhaps Griffith realized that the most effective way to re-create the cave scene was to film what Dr. Cameron’s white audience thinks it sees—thus giving his film the same explosive impact on a nation-wide audience in darkened cinema-houses that Dr. Cameron’s staged event has on the much smaller assembly in the cave.  Such a hypothesis certainly seems supported by how Griffith’s film was received by the majority of whites.  More detailed analysis remains to be done on the complexities of the representation of violence in both Dixon’s novels and Griffith’s film, especially the semiotics of jump-cuts and other techniques, though Rogin’s essay makes a strong start.

16.  Poe, “The Literati of New York City – No. IV,” 72.