Analysis of Theodore Dreiser’s Nigger Jeff

“Nigger Jeff” is an early story in Theodore Dreiser’s career, but as his mature fiction does, it offers stark, detailed descriptions of powerful emotions that drive men and women into tragic situations. The story is a compelling and disturbing one about a lynching. The story portrays a weak-willed mob turned away by a resolute sheriff, the shattered and fearful accused black man, the grieving mother of the hanged man, the vengeful father of the violated white woman, and the mob that finally seizes and hangs the accused. Here, as in other Dreiser fiction, no character is HEROic but all are sympathetically portrayed. The characters are driven by powerful emotions they do not understand and cannot control. Even the law, in the guise of the sheriff, cannot prevent the lynching.

“Nigger Jeff” is also an initiation story of a young reporter who is sent to cover the event. Eugene Davies is at first eager and naive, then horrified, and finally committed to getting the whole story down on paper. For Davies, and for Dreiser, the story includes not only the lynching but also the beauty of the spring day as the body dangles at the end of the rope and the scene later at the black man’s house where the body is laid out and the mother sits sobbing in the corner.

Theodore Dreiser/The Paris Review

The story was written in 1899, a year before Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, and is probably based on a lynching Dreiser witnessed in 1893 as a reporter for a St. Louis newspaper. In the last two decades of the 19th century there were more than 100 recorded lynchings each year. By the 1890s lynchings were sometimes well-publicized, festive events, with newspapers carrying advance notices and railroad agents selling excursion tickets. At the same time, many spoke out against lynchings in newspapers, magazines, and public speeches.

Although Dreiser makes no explicit political statement about lynchings in “Nigger Jeff,” the story is in keeping with his lifelong political activism. Dreiser’s political commitment sprang from a childhood of poverty, and it extended to covering a coal miners’ strike in Appalachia and to joining the Communist Party late in his life.

The subject and Dreiser’s treatment of it are bold. Not surprisingly, he published the story in the small monthly Ainslee; he was friendly with one of the editors of this traditional, far from radical magazine. Later the story was included in the collection Free and Other Stories (1918).

Analysis of Theodore Dreiser’s Novels

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Dreiser, Theodore. “Introduction.” In Harlan Miners Speak: Report on Terrorism in the Kentucky Coal Fields. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932.
Pizer, Donald. “Theodore Dreiser’s ‘Nigger Jeff’: The Development of an Aesthetic.” American Literature 41 (November 1969): 331–341.
Schapiro, Charles. Theodore Dreiser: Our Bitter Patriot. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962.



Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story

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