- Lynching Coverage and the American Reporter-Novelist
Paul Laurence Dunbar's 1904 story "The Lynching of Jube Benson" opens with three men conversing in a smoke-filled library. They drift from one topic to the next until one of them, "an ambitious young reporter," mentions a lynching story from a recent magazine and declares that he personally would like to see "a real lynching" (91). This announcement inspires one of the other men, a prematurely gray-haired doctor, to recount the lynching of an innocent man in which he had taken part seven years earlier. As the remorseful doctor begins to talk, the reporter surreptitiously readies his pencil and notebook. We never learn what he writes down or whether he uses the material, however, since the doctor's tale takes over the narrative and the journalist disappears. Because stories like the doctor's rarely appeared in print, we can read Dunbar's incomplete framing device as a pointed reflection of the broader history of lynching reportage in the US, a reminder of the untold stories circulated only as puffs of smoke among men in closed rooms.
However, the disappearing journalist resonates in American literary culture in other ways as well. In most discussions of lynching, the figure of the mainstream journalist fades into anonymity, a backdrop to highly visible anti-lynching crusaders like Ida B. Wells, whose indictments of white hypocrisy and calls to end mob violence against African Americans inspired the New York Times to call her "a slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress" in 1894.1 This essay pursues those vanishing reporters in search of a better understanding of how turn-of-the-century lynching reportage figured into the storied tradition of the reporter-novelist, a distinguished line of fiction writers, extending from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway, that comprises almost exclusively white men. [End Page 456]
Following the imaginative interplay between newspaper lynching coverage and realist fiction trains our attention on a neglected coincidence of American cultural history, one that throws the whiteness of the reporter-novelist into sharp relief: This influential model of authorship emerged at the same time that mob violence against black men accused of raping white women hit its highest point. A rich body of scholarship has demonstrated that journalism shaped literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in multiple and sometimes surprising ways. Critics have read newspapers as a source of raw material for novelists, as a means of professionalizing literary work, as a democratizing force in American letters, as a venue that required writers to re-imagine subjectivity in an increasingly fragmented urban landscape, and even as a way to assert the manly nature of an occupation that, some worried, had been overtaken by women in the nineteenth century.2 "In the confident years of the Progressive era," writes Christopher P. Wilson in his important study of literary authorship, "much of American writing would aspire to the ideal of reportage" (17). However, in the proliferation of theories about the effects of newspapers on American fiction, few scholars have gone out of their way to take reports of racial violence into account.3
In a classic study of the writers of the 1890s, Larzer Ziff suggests that working for the city desk gave aspiring writers enviable life experience but, if they stayed too long, destroyed their literary potential by imposing too many restrictions on what they could write. Reporters were trained, Ziff contends, to construct half-truths and to suppress whole truths, a practice that inevitably warped the sensibilities of future novelists (152–53). Ziff may not have had lynching coverage specifically in mind (he never mentions it), but his theory absorbs it easily; if lynching was one of those experiences reporters were not allowed to represent fully, naturally it fell to writers of fiction, not journalists, to do it justice,4 and it is certainly true that most daily newspapers and prominent magazines failed to give lynchings sustained coverage, particularly during the years of the worst violence, such as 1892, when there were twice as many lynchings of African Americans in the US as there were legal executions.5 In this sense, lynching can be understood...