restricted access Violent Fraternities and White Reform: The Complementary Fictions of Albion Tourgée and Thomas Dixon
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Violent Fraternities and White Reform:
The Complementary Fictions of Albion Tourgée and Thomas Dixon

The First Sixty Years or so of the Fledgling nation’s political order resulted in Civil War, and those cultural critics and civic leaders who came to political maturity during the war and rose to prominence in its aftermath inherited a national obsession with an idealized and elusive notion of American democracy and its attendant tradition of violence. In the postwar years, Radical Republicans and conservative southerners alike deployed appeals to democracy and the nation’s foundational ideals to support their contentious political positions, but they were operating with decidedly different working definitions of what “democracy” actually looked like, both theoretically and in practice. As George C. Rable has observed of the Reconstruction era generally, the doctrines of classical liberalism “were distorted for conservative purposes by businessmen and Republican politicians as well as by white southerners attempting to preserve their most sacred values” (1). These clashing ideological pursuits often led to violence enacted in the name of one or another conflicting definition of democracy asserted on behalf of the American people. Questions of citizenship and national belonging were central to these debates, as the political and literary works of civil rights activist Albion W. Tourgée and, a generation later, white supremacist demagogue Thomas Dixon, Jr., attest. The Reconstruction novels of Tourgée and Dixon exemplify postwar cultural negotiations concerning the place of violence in political [End Page 73] participation, or the complicated relationships between mob action, democratic practice, national citizenship, and race.

In their respective efforts to differentiate the legitimate responsibilities of democratic national citizenship from the illegitimate exercise of terrorism, Tourgée and Dixon advance narrative appeals to the social possibilities inherent in various postbellum models of US democracy and collective action in a democratic society. As Christopher Castiglia has so aptly noted, “imaginative fiction is not a mere reflection of social values and mores, handy documents of more immediate historical and cultural forces. Rather, imaginative fiction is the archive of the socially possible, an archive of alternatives to the historically or sociologically ‘real’” (12–13). In Tourgée’s A Fool’s Errand: By One of the Fools (1879), the socially possible includes a color-blind American justice system and a world in which white Americans and Americans of color peacefully coexist, gradually working toward the incorporation of ex-slaves into an educated and responsible multiracial polity. In this future, mob action is rendered obsolete, replaced by a properly functioning legal system that recognizes judicial (if not social) equality across racial lines. The realm of social possibility in Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden, 1865–1900 (1902), however, involves complete control over non-whites, by violence if necessary. In short, both novels vie for the cultural authority to name the new national citizenship and therefore to define democratic participation in terms of who and what constitutes legitimate collective action. Moreover, this cultural work of archiving the social possibilities inherent in collective action was vitally important to the authors’ political agendas at a time when law and legitimacy were determined as much by the immediate force of majority will as by the courts.

The correspondence between a white masculine understanding of democracy as collective action, which Tourgée accepted, and a more troublesome mob mentality, which he resisted, is exactly the problem with which Tourgée struggles in his postwar fiction. A Union veteran and a carpetbagger in North Carolina during Reconstruction who steadfastly refused to ignore structural reconstitutions of the principles of slavery like lynching and disfranchisement, Tourgée also served as a lawyer and as a judge and was highly respected, if disliked, for his notorious impartiality on the bench. He would later found the National Citizen’s Rights Association (NCRA) in 1891, draft anti-lynching legislation [End Page 74] for the state of Ohio, and challenge segregation at the Supreme Court level as lead attorney in the landmark 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. His portrayal of the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan in A Fool’s Errand is a critical one in which he decries the Klan’s...