Fading into the indistinct memory of collective American consciousness the tragedy of American lynching is brought once again into a stark and repulsive focus with W. Fitzhugh Brundage's Lynching the in the New South. As Brundage quickly points out in his introduction, for better than a quarter of the history of the United States our great national crime was lynching. This was not the vaguely socially approved antiseptic lynching of Hollywood western films, where criminals met their just fate at the hands of an outraged public without recourse to sparse legal instruments, but the mob violence of the American South directed against African Americans in the post- reconstruction era. In this book Brundage rips the blinders off and exposes before the reader the stomach turning savagery of American racism.
While this is not a new topic in academia, within the comfortable discipline of history it has been largely overlooked. Because of this Brundage is plowing new fields previously only tilled by social scientists attempting to explain "why." Brundage takes their works and using historical methods adds significant depth to the older analysis. One statistic will suffice to illustrate why his study is critical to an American historian. Our "popular" image of lynching is skewed. Between 1880 and 1930 there were 447 whites and 38 blacks lynched in the American West. This is the basis upon which the movie makers have built their image. In the same timeframe , largely ignored, 732 whites and 3,220 blacks were lynched in the American South.
In turning to this dark topic Brundage attempts to answer three basic questions. First, how can the variations in mob violence over time and space be explained? Second, to what extent was lynching a social ritual that affirmed traditional values? And finally, what were the causes of the decline of lynching? (pgs. 15-16) in my opinion Brundage answered the mail on all three of the these questions.
Brundage was, at the time of publication, an assistant professor of history at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. His undergraduate degree is from the University of Chicago while his doctorate is from Harvard.
Brundage has organized the book topically rather than chronologically. This suits his intended goals well by allowing him to proceed in a logical manner from catagorization of the phenomena through application of his catagories to the regional examples and finally to explanation of his various conclusions. In his opening chapters he does a marvelous job explaining the social and cultural factors that applied in the American south, and how they contributed to the tragedy. Brundage demonstrates how a "culture of violence" existed in the post-reconstruction South which itself derived from the slavery that preceeded. He goes on to explain how various factors such as the southern "sense of honor" and to a lesser degree economic issues contributed to the severity of the problem.
One of the great strengths of this book is the strong analytic content of the initial chapters. Brundage gives names to phenomena which allows for a better understanding as the text moves through time and space. In one interesting section he identifies the various types of mobs that conduct violence, there are "mass mobs," "terrorist mobs," "private mobs" and "posses." Yet he accomplishes this without losing touch with the fact that this was at all times a very human event. Something which many social scientists seem sometimes to overlook. Brundage never lets you escape the stare of the victim, as he liberally salts the text with vignette after vignette.
In his later analysis of the regional differences in lynching, using his case study states of Virgina and Georgia, Brundage comes full circle. What originates as almost social science analysis returns to firm ground in solid historical analysis. This book is scrupulously researched and amply footnoted. In his use of sources Brudage was cautious, as well he should be since the majority of the sources (primarily newspapers) were either racially condescending or virulent in their opposition. Neither outlook is prone to creating a reliable and unadulterated recitation of the facts of any given event. For all that, Brundage manages to walk the fine line very well, neither appearing overtly partisan nor hiding behind the biases of the sources. What emerges is a balanced account of an American holocaust.
If there are any weaknesses in this work it might be in the almost oppressive use of vignettes. It is almost as though he is pandering to the base instinct of voyerism of violence that makes some other fields of history so popular with the masses even as it is rejected by the profession. (Think "Guns and Trumpets" military history, or for that matter, think of the entire History Channel!) Yet in going back through the text after identifying this fault I could not find a single extraneous example. In each case he is using a vignette for a solid purpose, to illustrate some nuance of the phenomena. My only other complaint deals with his final goal, to understand why lynching passed from the American scene. In this I believe that while he did a great job explaining how it happened, I think that his explanations of "why" are a little too open-ended. Of course, as he himself conceded at the outset, this is really only the first (historical) book on the topic and therefore there is room for much more scholarship in the field.