- Lynching the Black Male Body in Theodore Dreiser’s “Nigger Jeff”: Did He “Get it all in”?
One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved.—W. E. B. Du Bois1
A race without a country, a people without a national ideal. We laugh at their humor. We build up fiction out of their quaint wisdom. We hang and burn them when they interfere with our women.—Theodore Dreiser2
In January 1894, as a journalist for the St. Louis Republic, Theodore Dreiser witnessed and reported the lynching of John Buckner in Valley Park, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. A year or two later, he wrote a fictional narrative based on the Buckner case. This story titled “A Victim of Justice” may have been the author’s earliest attempt at fiction, but it was never published.3 In 1899, encouraged by his friend Arthur Henry, Dreiser wrote four short stories that were published, and one of these was another retelling of the Buckner lynching titled “Nigger Jeff.” The story first appeared in Ainslee’s magazine (1901).4 Then in 1918 Dreiser significantly revised “Nigger Jeff” for publication in his collection Free and Other Stories.5 In other words, including two 1894 articles for the St. Louis Republic, Dreiser over a twenty-four-year period when lynching was a national epidemic wrote five accounts based on the Buckner case, yet these narratives, their similarities and differences, have never been fully analyzed. Many factors have contributed to this neglect. First, the 1918 short story “Nigger Jeff” is the only version readily available to scholars, and it is seldom republished because the title has proven an embarrassment, preventing editors from anthologizing the work. Second, until recently critics have mistakenly assumed that the narratives were based on an unknown lynching or on the Red Hill, Missouri, lynching of William Jackson, a case that differed so drastically from Dreiser’s short [End Page 229] stories that a comparison was meaningless.6 Without knowing the lynching on which the stories were based and without examining the various versions, both non-fiction and fiction over a twenty-four year period, a full analysis of the narrative’s cultural significance is impossible. Further, without knowing what Dreiser decided to leave in or leave out of each version, we have no way of evaluating whether or not Dreiser lived up to his incipient artist’s maxim in the 1918 version: “I’ll get it all in!” (111).
Existing scholarship has thoughtfully explored the ethical and artistic transformation of Elmer Davies, the reporter in the 1918 version, but has avoided or tended to oversimplify Dreiser’s stance towards lynching and his growing awareness of racial issues.7 During the period when lynching was most prevalent, 1882–1930, Dreiser’s accounts stand as unique cultural markers that employ multiple perspectives on a polarizing issue. Like his narrators, Dreiser’s point of view on race was also shifting. As a reporter in Missouri for sixteen months, Dreiser for the first time in his life was exposed to the overt racism that fueled Jim Crow “justice.” He observed systematic vigilantism and wrote sensational news articles, which gained readership and which did not drastically counter journalistic or ethical conventions. But less than three months after witnessing the Buckner lynching, Dreiser moved north, eventually landing in New York where his writings in Ev’ry Month (1895–97), The Delineator (1907–10), and The Bohemian (1909) reflect an editorial policy that aligned him with the Progressive movement, and these publications evidence a growing awareness of race issues.8 During this period, as Dreiser wrote and revised the fictional narratives based on the Buckner case, his content, style, and ethical stance shifted dramatically, concealing and exposing what Jacqueline Goldsby has called lynching’s “cultural logic.”9
Similarities and Differences over Time
Whether non-fiction or fiction, all five lynching narratives share a basic plot found in his 1894 Republic articles. A young white man, a reporter, is sent to investigate a possible lynching. He discovers that a black man has been accused of assaulting a white farmer’s daughter. The black...