Vol. 43 No. 20 · 21 October 2021

Search by issue:

United States of Amnesia

In his excellent piece about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, Eric Foner points out that there were also ‘violent racial confrontations’ in East St Louis, Chicago, Washington and Seattle (LRB, 9 September). As a co-founder of the Elaine Massacre Memorial in Helena, Arkansas, I hope the events there will also be remembered when atrocities against African Americans in the years after the First World War are listed.

The massacre in Phillips County, which arose in response to an effort by black sharecroppers to organise a union (in the hope of receiving their fair share of the cotton crop revenue), began on the morning of 1 October 1919, when posses from the county seat of Helena made their way to Hoop Spur, a few miles north of Elaine. The posses killed as many as twenty sharecroppers; that afternoon, mobs from outside the county descended on the area, killing more indiscriminately. The next morning, US troops, armed with machine guns, arrived to ‘put down the black insurrection’, and for the next two days killed sharecroppers hiding in the canebrakes and the woods. There were a few isolated killings over the next four days. At a conservative estimate, more than a hundred blacks were killed, in nearly two dozen ‘killing fields’.

There are many reasons the Elaine Massacre has been neglected: it is the only major pogrom to have taken place in a rural location; no settlement was destroyed; the victims were poor sharecroppers rather than middle-class blacks; and the black community in Elaine did not have a John Hope Franklin to fight for public awareness of the tragedy. Ida B. Wells’s The Arkansas Race Riot, published in 1920, was little noticed.

Elaine and Tulsa were nearly identical: a hundred years of silence in both black and white communities. In neither case have the bodies been located. The Elaine Massacre took place in a frontier region, an area barely settled, a place of massive forests, sloughs and canebrakes, and teeming with wildlife: bears, wolves, wild boars, alligators. The bodies were left where they were murdered; nature disposed of the remains.

One major consequence of the Elaine Massacre was the US Supreme Court ruling Moore v. Dempsey (1923), the foundational ruling of the Civil Rights era. The court overturned the convictions of six sharecroppers who had been sentenced to death for conspiracy to murder whites, the alleged cause of the ‘uprising’. Their case was argued by Scipio Africanus Jones, a black lawyer from Little Rock. It was the first time since Reconstruction that the federal courts had intervened in a state criminal case using habeas corpus. Moore led to the expansion of federal oversight in state criminal cases. Using its precedent, the NAACP attacked Jim Crow laws in federal court, eventually securing the landmark school desegregation ruling Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

David P. Solomon
Helena, Arkansas

Fear Reigns

What Luke Jennings writes about abuse at the Royal Ballet is true of every ballet company I know (LRB, 27 September). I currently work for a national ballet company in Europe. Here, as in every com­pany for which I’ve performed, trading sexual fav­ours for better roles and positions is the norm. As Jennings rightly says, it is a learned behaviour and nothing is being done to change it. Fear reigns, the compet­ition is stiff, and if you want to succeed, you keep your mouth shut, or your short career will be made even shorter.

The exposing of insecurities, so that all can admire and admonish, is a vital part of becoming a dancer. A healthy dancer is, in my view, one who strikes a balance between demonstrating and hiding vulner­ability. It’s this that makes dancers susc­ept­ible to abuse. 

It begins with the system of instruction. Stories of children starving themselves before ballet assessments are too numerous to recount. I know girls who have been humiliated daily, beaten by teachers for getting a combin­ation wrong, and encouraged to smoke or take stimulants to keep their weight down. I have known teachers and directors who think nothing of sex­ually grooming dancers no older than sixteen. Dancers who succumb may well find it helps them reach the top, perhaps even to become a soloist or a principal dancer. Then, later in life, they may start teaching themselves, and the horrible cycle begins again. It is the job of leading artistic instit­utions to do everything in their power to change this culture of abuse. 

Name and address withheld

The Terrifying Vrooom

David West’s generalisations about I.A. Richards as a critic do not stand up to scrutiny (Letters, 12 August). Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929) are one thing, but it isn’t true that Richards remained a ‘proto-cognitivist’ and practised ‘an experimental method of psychology’ for the rest of his days. Richards’s books of the next fifteen years – which include Mencius on the Mind (1932), Coleridge on Imagination (1934), Interpretation in Teaching (1938) and How to Read a Page (1942) – explore such matters as the ‘mutual dependence’ of words in sentences, the writerly ‘control’ of polysemy, and the process of translating complex texts. The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936), full of brilliant examples of close reading, introduced the terms ‘vehicle’ and ‘tenor’ to the analysis of metaphor. William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity had appeared in 1930. Colin Burrow is right that Richards was not as sensitively attuned to ‘the range of social attitudes [that words] can imply’ as Empson, but the intellectual exchange between the two surely made an impression on Richards, who would write (in the Coleridge book) that ‘to ask about the meanings of words is to ask about everything.’

Nearly twenty years ago, in the LRB of 25 April 2002, Terry Eagleton too pegged Richards as a ‘classic empiricist’, who ‘held the view that meaning is a mental process rather than a way of doing things with signs’. Richards, though, from the 1930s onwards, was explicit about his interest in ‘semasiology’ – C.S. Peirce’s triadic sign theory. It bolstered his conviction that meanings (plural) are inseparable from the never-ending interpretative activity, moment to moment, and context to context, undertaken by individual readers and writers in relation to signs. Richards, literary critic, got less and less comfortable in the role of priestly mediator; that is the reason, as he later put it, that he ‘crossed the tracks’.

J. Mark Smith
MacEwan University, Edmonton, Alberta

Anglo-Catholic Radicals

Paul Flewers and Ian Beckwith write about Anglo-Catholic radicals (Letters, 9 September and 7 October). We should add to the roster the Reverend Stewart Headlam, who founded the Christian Socialist Guild of St Matthew in 1877. Two years later he formed the Church and Stage Guild, which some described as a mission to chorus girls, and he was well known as a campaigner for state education. He joined the Fabian Society in 1886, and conducted the funeral of one of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ protesters in 1887. In the 1920s he lived in a ménage à trois with Helen Elizabeth Lacy, the headmistress of Surrey Lane Central School for Girls, which my mother attended, and a retired dancer whom my mother knew as Miss Wooldridge. His publications include The Church Catechism and the Emancipation of Labour and The Socialist’s Church.

Anne Summers
Birkbeck, University of London

Mrs Gilroy

Marina Warner writes about Beryl Gilroy (LRB, 9 September). The ‘Nippers’ series of children’s books, published by Macmillan Educational from 1969 and aimed at working-class children who had few books at home, was actually created by Leila Berg. The ambition and scope of the series is indicated by the number of titles: at least 87 were published, 24 of them written by Berg herself, who also edited the series, with contributions from many other writers, including Jacqueline Wilson, Mary Cockett, Janet McNeill, Joan Eadington, Trevor Griffiths, Barbara Paterson and of course Gilroy herself, who contributed at least eleven titles.

These little books provided a way into reading by telling stories from ordinary life which children found it easy to relate to: Gran’s Glasses, Dad’s Pie, A Present from the Seaside etc. As a bookseller, I have come across the odd book in the series, but all are now out of print and, as Warner says, there seem to be no copies of Gilroy’s titles available.

Michael Hanks
Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire

In Praise of Indexes

Anthony Grafton’s piece on indexes called to mind a particular favourite, the index to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s book from 1992, From Counter-Reformation to Glorious Revolution (LRB, 23 September). Some entries tell an entire story (‘Andrewes, Launcelot, learned and holy bishop: a cautious courtier … disappointed of Canterbury … cultivated by Grotius … orientalist … against Erastianism … but also high flying episcopacy’). Some are intriguing (‘Gawdy, Sir Thomas: his pew rudely curtailed’; ‘Ma T’ang, a terrible eunuch’; ‘Puddle, a rare bitch’; and ‘Richelieu, Cardinal de … believes he is a horse’). But the most striking entries are those that relate to Cambridge University. After his unhappy time in the Fens, Trevor-Roper must have enjoyed the entries for the university (‘protected from historical study … incurious of its own history … envious of Oxford’s library’) and for Peterhouse, the college where he had recently been master: ‘a noisy mafia there … unventilated Fellows … a liberal interlude’. The index as an instrument of instruction, intrigue, humour and revenge.

Tom Weisselberg
London EC4

On Inis Meáin

Anne Enright, in her account of an open-air, rock-strewn performance on Aran of Beckett’s Happy Days, refers to an epic performance on Inis Meáin by the Druid Theatre of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (LRB, 23 September). I have heard that Synge, during the time he spent there, used to lie on the floor of his room, ear pressed to a crack in the boards, listening to the Aran islanders below.

Roger Morsley-Smith
London W4

Wrong Psychopath

David Runciman suggests that Peter Thiel is like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, ‘a man who will stab you in the eye with a ballpoint pen if you cross him’ (LRB, 23 September). That’s Joe Pesci in Casino. When crossed in Goodfellas, he kicks a man half to death, stuffs him in the trunk of a car and stabs him with a carving knife before burying him in a shallow grave.

Timothy Knapman
Weybridge, Surrey

Out From, Not Into

Rotterdam does lie on the New Meuse, as Laleh Khalili observes in her piece on the economics of oil (LRB, 23 September), but it is not a tributary of the Rhine – it is a distributary, flowing away from the main stream of the river and into the North Sea.

Alex Collins

What was she on?

Rosemary Hill nicely reviews the Garden Museum (LRB, 9 September). Two still life photographs from the exhibition are included. To my eye, the caption has the flowers the wrong way round: the photo on the left is the ‘morning glory arrangement’ while the photo on the right features the waterlilies, accompanied by the spikier flower Datura. (Quite right. We have made the switch in the online version of the piece – Eds.) Hill notes Constance Spry’s passion for ‘weeds’, but the photos may reveal other interests, too. I believe that both morning glory and Datura have hallucinogenic properties.

Jeff Curtis
Toronto, Ontario

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences