In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Albion W. Tourgée

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Articles and Book Chapters
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies
  • Primary Texts
  • Editions
  • Correspondence
  • Criticism
  • African American Critics on Tourgée’s African American Characters
  • A Fool’s Errand and Bricks without Straw
  • Bricks without Straw
  • Pactolus Prime
  • Journalism and Essays
  • Historical Studies

American Literature Albion W. Tourgée
Carolyn L. Karcher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 December 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0164


Albion Winegar Tourgée (b. 1838–d. 1905), born the son of a farmer of Huguenot descent in Williamsfield, Ohio, attended Kingville Academy, where he met his future wife, Emma Kilbourne, and enrolled at the University of Rochester, but he dropped out to join the Union Army upon the outbreak of the Civil War. His contact with fugitives from slavery and black soldiers in Union army camps converted Tourgée into a lifelong champion of racial equality. After the war, having earned his BA and a law degree, Tourgée moved with his wife to Greensboro, North Carolina. He soon assumed a key role in the state’s Reconstruction, first by contributing to North Carolina’s 1868 constitution, which still bears his impress, then by serving as a Superior Court judge (1868–1874) and battling the Ku Klux Klan. The thwarting of Reconstruction and restoration of white supremacy forced Tourgée to leave the South forever in 1879. He turned to fiction as a means of awakening the northern public to the terrorist violence through which southern whites defeated Reconstruction and reduced African Americans to neoslavery. A series of six novels retraces the history of the struggle against slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, culminating in the white-supremacist takeover: ’Toinette: A Tale of the South (1874), later abridged and retitled A Royal Gentleman (1881); Figs and Thistles: A Romance of the Western Reserve (1879); A Fool’s Errand: By One of the Fools (1879); Bricks Without Straw (1880); Hot Plowshares (1883); and Pactolus Prime (1890). By far the most famous and influential of the series, A Fool’s Errand, hailed as “the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of Reconstruction,” helped decide the outcome of the 1880 election, selling nearly 150,000 copies the first year and 600,000 in Tourgée’s lifetime. Bricks Without Straw deserves special attention for presenting Reconstruction through the eyes of the newly freed slaves, whom it portrays with striking accuracy. Among Tourgée’s many other novels, the best is Murvale Eastman, Christian Socialist (1890), whose title character, a clergyman, calls for justice to the working poor. The paired novellas John Eax and Mamelon; or, the South without the Shadow (1882), often grouped with the six Reconstruction novels, and the short-story collection With Gauge and Swallow, Attorneys (1889) deserve attention as well. Tourgée also won a huge biracial audience through his trenchant column for the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, “A Bystander’s Notes” (1888–1898), in which he crusaded against segregation, the disfranchisement of African Americans in the South, and lynching. He climaxed his career of advocacy for African American rights by challenging legally sanctioned segregation in the Plessy v. Ferguson case (1896), which he argued pro bono as the plaintiff’s lead attorney.

General Overviews

Testifying to the neglect of Tourgée, only one book-length general overview of his writings has yet been published: Gross 1963. For valuable brief discussions of his more important works, researchers should also consult Olsen 1965 and Elliott 2006 (both cited under Biographies).

  • Gross, Theodore L. Albion W. Tourgée. Twayne’s United States Authors 39. New York: Twayne, 1963.

    Covering all of Tourgée’s fiction and quoting extensively from his literary criticism, Gross also presents a succinct sketch of his career. The book’s strength lies in situating Tourgée’s Reconstruction novels in the context of those produced by white Southerners. Its main limitation is Gross’s acceptance of a now-discredited view of Reconstruction.

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