Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


In these notes, I have avoided citing literary critics since this is something I do extensively in the book counterpart. That said, I must mention Bruce Blansett's 2013 essay, “Swamp Doctor to Conjure Woman: Exploring ‘Science’ and Race in Nineteenth-Century America.” published the 2013 collection Southern Frontier Humor: New Approaches. This essay was very influential in my reading of sleep culture in Chesnutt's work. For instance, Blansett argues that “‘A Deep Sleeper’ is an overt satire of both Dysæsthesia Æthiopis and of the belief in black persons’ propensity for sloth” (97). Blansett also notes that the tale questions the legitimacy of white medicine but stops short of viewing it as a hypothesis for how the likes of Cartwright came to such racist conclusions. Implicit in Julius’s tale is a historical practice, in which slaves used deception, cunning, and medical discourse to “conjure” the supposed experts whose role it was to define and diagnose.

Prominent black activists during Chesnutt's era also sought to historicize stereotypes of Black laziness and fatigue. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903),* W.E.B. Du Bois writes: 
 Ignorant it may be, and poverty stricken, black and curious in limb and ways and thought; and yet it loves and hates, it toils and tires, it laughs and weeps its bitter tears, and looks in vague and awful longing at the grim horizon of its life,--all this, even as you and I. These black thousands are not in reality lazy; they are improvident and careless; they insist on breaking the monotony of toil with a glimpse at the great town-world on Saturday; they have their loafers and their rascals; but the great mass of them work continuously and faithfully for a return, and under circumstances that would call forth equal voluntary effort from few if any other modern laboring class. Among the people there is no leisure class. We often forget that in the United States over half the youth and adults are not in the world earning incomes, but are making homes, learning of the world, or resting after the heat of the strife. But here ninety-six percent are toiling; no one with leisure to turn the bare and cheerless cabin into a home, no old folks to sit beside the fire and hand down traditions of the past; little of careless happy childhood and dreaming youth. The dull monotony of daily toil is broken only by the gayety of the thoughtless and the Saturday trip to town. The toil, like all farm toil, is monotonous, and here there are little machinery and few tools to relieve its burdensome drudgery. But with all this, it is work in the pure open air, and this is something in a day when fresh air is scarce" (145-6). 


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