Skip to main content

A Spectacular Secret

Lynching in American Life and Literature

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.

384 pages | 26 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2006

Black Studies

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature


"An impressive cultural and literary study of lynching’s oppressive power at the turn of the last century. . . . Historians working to unravel lynching’s tangled relationship to modernity will now have to grapple with Goldsby’s significant contribution to the conversation."

Amy Wood | Journal of American History

"An innovative contribution to the rapidly increasing body of scholarship on American lynching."

Sarah L. Silkey | H-Law

"Goldsby’s book deserves a serious reading by scholars who are looking for innovative ways of rethinking and remapping conventional understandings of lynching and mob violence and their relationship to modenity."

Karlos K. Hill | Journal of African American History

"Essential reading for those seeking to reconcile and understand the immense gap between the appearance of the modern US and its reality."

Michael Sanders | African American Review

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. A Sign of the Times: Lynching and Its Cultural Logic

2. Writing "Dynamitically": Ida B. Wells

3. "The Drift of the Public Mind": Stephen Crane

4. Lynching’s Mass Appeal and the "Terrible Real": James Weldon Johnson

5. Through a Different Lens: Lynching Photography at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century

6. In the Mind’s Eye


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press