A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature

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University of Chicago Press, Aug 15, 2006 - History - 418 pages
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This incisive study takes on one of the grimmest secrets in America's national life—the history of lynching and, more generally, the public punishment of African Americans. Jacqueline Goldsby shows that lynching cannot be explained away as a phenomenon peculiar to the South or as the perverse culmination of racist politics. Rather, lynching—a highly visible form of social violence that has historically been shrouded in secrecy—was in fact a fundamental part of the national consciousness whose cultural logic played a pivotal role in the making of American modernity.

To pursue this argument, Goldsby traces lynching's history by taking up select mob murders and studying them together with key literary works. She focuses on three prominent authors—Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Stephen Crane, and James Weldon Johnson—and shows how their own encounters with lynching influenced their analyses of it. She also examines a recently assembled archive of evidence—lynching photographs—to show how photography structured the nation's perception of lynching violence before World War I. Finally, Goldsby considers the way lynching persisted into the twentieth century, discussing the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 and the ballad-elegies of Gwendolyn Brooks to which his murder gave rise.

An empathic and perceptive work, A Spectacular Secret will make an important contribution to the study of American history and literature.
 

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Contents

Lynching and Its Cultural Logic
12
Ida B Wells
43
Stephen Crane
105
James Weldon Johnson
164
Lynching Photography at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century
214
In the Minds Eye
282
Acknowledgments
309
Notes
315
Index
407
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Page 8 - To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it "the way it really was" (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.

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About the author (2006)

Jacqueline Goldsby is assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago.

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