- Undaunted Radical: The Selected Writings and Speeches of Albion W. Tourgée
In 1905, W. E. B. DuBois’s Niagara Movement sponsored national memorial services for William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Albion W. Tourgée. Undaunted Radical: The Selected Writings and Speeches of Albion W. Tourgée shows why the remarkable novelist, lawyer, and reformer was placed in the company of two of the most celebrated advocates of African American rights.
Born in the Western Reserve of Ohio of Huguenot ancestry, Tourgée fought with distinction for the victorious Union army and then, for the rest of his life, embraced noble lost causes. His praise of black soldiers caused a southern paper to claim that, according to him, “the nigger alone ‘crushed the rebellion’” (6). Peace declared, Tourgée immigrated to North Carolina and faced the more difficult battle of helping freedpeople achieve economic self-sufficiency and equal citizenship. Salvaging a degree of personal success out of the failure of Reconstruction, he dramatized the complexity of that era in a series of best-selling novels. As the Republican Party moved from a commitment to rights to the pursuit of dimes and dollars, Tourgée never wavered in his commitment to African Americans, a commitment [End Page 463] that led to a diminishment of his literary reputation and more failures. He tirelessly lobbied for federal aid to wipe out illiteracy, black and white, but never saw his proposals enacted. In a moment of success, he framed a model antilynching law for the state of Ohio, only to fail to bring about a comprehensive national counterpart. Spearheading a journalistic campaign to combat the rising tide of legalized segregation, he developed the legal strategy and served as lead counsel for Homer Plessy’s challenge to a Louisiana Jim Crow law, which was thwarted by the Supreme Court. The year he died, Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, a self-conscious refutation of Tourgée’s account of Reconstruction, became a national best seller.
Neglected for decades, Tourgée received renewed attention in the 1960s with an appreciative, if at times misinformed, chapter in Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore and an excellent biography by Otto Olsen. More recently, literary critics, legal scholars, and chroniclers of the Social Gospel movement have contributed to what can almost be called a Tourgée revival. Nonetheless, even though his career cries out for interdisciplinary analysis, the range of his writings, interests, and activities has made it difficult for scholars from particular fields to grasp the totality of his vision. Now, thanks to the superb editorial work of Mark Elliott and John David Smith, that vision, in all of its complexity, is available in one volume. As a result, we have access to a unique perspective on the post–Civil War era that should cause even revisionist historians to revise their accounts.
The editors divide Undaunted Radical into five sections. “The Ordeal of Reconstruction” details Tourgée’s views generated by his day-to-day struggles as a carpetbagger, views that not even Eric Foner in his often-praised Reconstruction fully comprehends and that inform Tourgée’s brilliant novels A Fool’s Errand and Bricks without Straw. “Remedies for Racism” focuses on Tourgée’s campaign against illiteracy. It also includes an editorial opposing the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and an excerpt from Tourgée’s fictional intervention into the labor question, Murvale Eastman, Christian Socialist. “History and Public Memory” provides two examples of Tourgée’s literary criticism, “The South as a Field for Fiction” and an even-handed assessment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as well as a memorial address on Frederick Douglass and revealing passages on the Civil War from two neglected works of fiction. “Race and Citizenship in the 1890s” builds up to Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) by noting Tourgée’s creation of the biracial National Citizens’ Rights Association, a precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and by including his brief...