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  • A Response to Jean Lutes
  • Peter Mortensen (bio)

Jean Lutes argues that there is more than "imaginative interplay" between journalistic and literary accounts of lynching around the turn of the twentieth century. What links news and novels on the subject is a drive toward professional objectivity, best achieved in the disappearance of authors from the grisly events they narrated. Lutes rightly observes that not every author could perform this disappearing act. White male writers effectively reserved disembodied authorship to themselves; it was a condition unavailable to African-American writers such as Charles Chesnutt and W.E.B. Du Bois. Complicating matters, white male writers could not afford to acknowledge the market forces that pressed their purportedly objective prose into a sensational mold. Again and again, this mold turned out stories that rationalized lynching as rough justice achieved on behalf of whites who alleged victimization by blacks. In this way, untold and often unnamed white journalists, as well as the novelists they aspired to be, conditioned other white Americans to accept the spectacle of lynching as an unpleasant necessity. Lutes's aim, then, is to uncover these writers' complicity in the lynching terror that beset African Americans in the 1890s and for decades thereafter. In making this case, she draws on the work of African-American writers who disputed white writers' repeated assertions that lynching was most often provoked by black criminality. Lutes concludes that, if challenging these assertions amounted to a rejection of objectivity, and if faith in objectivity was prerequisite to professional standing, then we have evidence that points unambiguously toward the racialized origins of American professionalism.

Given this conclusion, does Lutes "get it all in?" In a way, she preempts an answer by suggesting that if completeness is a [End Page 482] correlate of objectivity, then getting it all in, like striking an objective stance, is impossible—and pretensions to the contrary are troubling. However, if the question is understood to ask after the complexity and not the completeness of her analysis, it may be answerable after all. So let me hazard a response that contemplates what more we might learn if we were to add academic discourse—specifically, sociological writing—to the other discourses, journalistic and literary, that Lutes scrutinizes.

Sociologist Helen MacGill Hughes's News and the Human Interest Story (1940), with its reading of Dreiser's "Nigger Jeff," is one of the earlier scholarly treatments of lynching that Lutes cites. (The earliest is Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk [1903].) Hughes embeds this reading in a chapter on "The Reporter and the News," in which journalists' literary aspirations and productions are her object of study. By subordinating Dreiser's story to her own argument, Hughes makes it plain that it is the sociologist, not the reporter-novelist, who contributes to a "[m]odern science [that] has measurably succeeded in bringing within the limits of rational explanation and rational control more and more of those imponderable forces, personal and political, of which we have always been aware but had not previously been able to weigh" (xi). Yet what of this rationality, and the objectivity undergirding it? If taken as core values of Hughes's discipline, might we ask whether professionalism in sociology is built, like the journalistic and literary professionalism Lutes examines, on a foundation of racial privilege, secured in part by racist violence against African Americans? The answer I will propose emerges from consideration of early twentieth-century sociological writing that is as much about the tragedy of lynching as it is about defining the boundaries of a new academic discipline and the relationship of its scholarship to magazine journalism—and, by extension, to a desire to shape popular opinion and public policy.

In the late nineteenth century, sociology began to coalesce into a distinct domain of inquiry within US research universities.1 By 1905, sociologists had established the American Sociological Society, a professional association devoted to the "scientific study of society" ("Constitution" 735). If consensus on the need for such an organization was easily reached, establishing agreement on its commitment to research was not. Researchers fought for several decades to steer the organization toward scientific inquiry and away from its seeming preoccupation...


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pp. 482-489
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