- American Literature, Lynching, and the Spectator in the Crowd: Spectacular Violence by Debbie Lelekis
In an era that has witnessed increased public attention to mass incarceration, police brutality, and state-sanctioned violence through such movements as Black Lives Matter, it is no wonder that American literature scholars have taken a renewed interest in investigating the nation’s history of racial violence and justice. In American Literature, Lynching, and the Spectator in the Crowd: Spectacular Violence, Debbie Lelekis explores how the spectator figure functions to “expose the central tension of American democracy,” the delicate balance between individual and collective rights (3). In doing so, she engages the rise of professional journalism, focusing on the reporter character as spectator and the role of the reporter-novelist. Through analyses of realist texts, including canonical and lesser-known short stories and poetry published in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Lelekis demonstrates how American literature commented on the power struggles that modernity generated—amplified by increased urbanization, diversity, and political representation—by depicting spectators witnessing lynching scenes.
In employing spectatorship as a lens, Lelekis draws together critical work on the history of American vigilantism, the crowd in American literature, and journalism’s influence on American letters. Relying on the work of such scholars as Amy Louise Wood, Mary Ryan, and Jean Marie Lutes, she contends that her blended approach allows us to understand how the spectator became a “key figure for communicating and challenging” the American struggle to weigh the claims of the individual against those of the community (20). Highlighting the spectator’s position both within and apart from the crowd, Lelekis employs two definitions of the term spectatorship throughout the study: one from Dennis Kennedy, which emphasizes active participation, and one from Wood, which centers on one’s ability to bestow significance on an event by witnessing it. Spectators of lynch mobs, Lelekis importantly notes, differ from those composing other [End Page 102] types of crowds, such as strikes or rallies, because they reveal how collective action can pervert rather than strengthen democratic systems.
American Literature, Lynching, and the Spectator in the Crowd examines the short stories of former journalists Theodore Dreiser, Miriam Michelson, Irvin S. Cobb, and Paul Laurence Dunbar in two thematic parts that focus on the journalist as spectator (Chapters 2 and 3) and the impact of authors’ reporting careers on their fiction about spectators (Chapters 4 and 5). Following the critical introduction provided in Chapter 1, the second chapter reads Dreiser’s “Nigger Jeff” (1901), arguing that the story critiques lynching by transforming the reporter protagonist from “simple observer to active spectator,” inspiring readers within and outside of the story to actively question and confer meaning onto such events (40). But it is in Chapter 3 that Lelekis makes her most compelling contribution, building on the work of Lori Harrison-Kahan and Karen E. H. Skinazi in interpreting Michelson’s “Honors Are Easy” (1905). Suggesting that the story condemns the public consumption of lynching and implicates the crowd in the act itself, she also investigates its complex and conflicting gender implications, identifying the female reporter protagonist as both spectator and spectacle due to the tradition of immersion journalism historically popular with newspaperwomen.
The following two chapters diverge from the previous two, focusing on other types of white professionals (a judge and a doctor) as spectators and examining the impact of authors’ journalism on their fiction’s content and style. The fourth chapter analyzes the realism of Cobb’s “The Mob from Massac” (1912) in light of a news story he published on an 1896 lynching in Kentucky. Here, Lelekis teases out the dynamics of southern borderlands, bourgeoning middle-class consciousness, and white supremacy, arguing that the story rejects lynching and inspires a call to action through its realist attributes, such as “rationalism and attention to detail” (86). Concluding her study with a chapter on Dunbar’s story “The Lynching of Jube Benson” (1904) and his poem “The Haunted Oak” (1903), she argues that the...