On the Excessive Indulgence of American Parents

We just came across this complaint about parenting practices:

“When Mr. Tomlinson opened [the New Bern Academy], he was apprized of the excessive Indulgence of American Parents, and the great difficulty of keeping up a proper discipline; more especially as his school consisted of numbers of both Sexes.”

Sound familiar? Apparently it’s an age-old problem. This quote is from a letter written by James Reed in 1772. Reed was a missionary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, a British missionary group, and was serving in Craven County, North Carolina, home of the Newbern (then spelled as one word) Academy. Reed goes on:

“But when the children grew excessive headstrong, stubborn and unruly, & likely to endanger the welfare of his School, he used to correct and turn them out of School, & make some little difficulties about their Readmission. Unfortunately for Mr. Tomlinson, this piece of policy gave very great umbrage to two of the trustees, who ever since their children were corrected and turned out of School, have been his most implacable enemies.”

One of the staff members working on the digital edition of the Colonial Records of North Carolina found the letter. The digital version isn’t ready just yet, so for now you’ll have to go to the books to read the whole letter: you can find it in the published Colonial Records of North Carolina, vol. 9, pp. 238-244.

Bronson Alcott in North Carolina

Fans of Louisa May Alcott know that her popular novel Little Women was to some degree a fictional account of her family. The father in Little Women is mostly absent, away at the Civil War. In March, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Geraldine Brooks, readers get the back story on Mr. March. We learn that he was a poor man from Connecticut who went south as a peddler. In the South, he was seduced by the intellectual atmosphere of wealthy plantation households even as he was shocked to learn the harsh measures used to deny education to enslaved African Americans. Louisa May Alcott’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, came south as a peddler and a teacher in the 1820s, and North Carolina was on his itinerary. The North Carolina Collection has a brief account of his time here in the form of a research paper by University of North Carolina professor Raymond Adams. Professor Adams read “Bronson Alcott in North Carolina” before the Philological Club of the University in May, 1944. The North Carolina Collection has the typescript of that paper available for anyone who wants to explore the history behind the early chapters of Geraldine Brooks’ interesting novel.

Gurganus on Floyd

Yesterday’s Charlotte Observer reported that Allan Gurganus is working on new book. Tentatively titled Fourteen Feet of Water in My House, the novel will be set in North Carolina in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Gurganus is the editor of the 2006 volume of New Stories from the South. The Observer piece includes a great quote from the introduction: “Bad Southern Lit is like Bad Southern Oysters. Nothing will make you sicker when it’s ‘off.’ “

The NC Origins of “Goofy”

Reading Charles Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine” recently, I was admiring, among other things, the word “goopher” itself. In the story, and in African American folk tales, a goopher is a spell or curse put on a person or thing. You often see references to “goopher dust,” which the conjurer would sprinkle upon whatever it was he wanted to inflict. This is one of those great words that is used as a noun, adjective, and verb.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites Chesnutt’s story, first published in 1887, with the first published use of the word. However, the Dictionary of American Regional English lists an 1880 appearance of “goopher” in William Wells Brown’s My Southern Home.

I had been lamenting to colleagues here about the disappearance of the word from common conversation as I thought it had many practical uses, such as, for example, “It sure is hot today. If I stay out there for more than a few minutes I feel like I’ve been goophered.” But then, as I looked through the dictionaries, it occurred to me that a variation of goopher may still be used, though with a slightly different meaning. The word “goof” or “goofy,” meaning silly, didn’t start to appear in written works until the 1920s. The OED doesn’t list an origin, citing it simply as “slang,” but I think it’s connected to goopher. Certainly somebody who had been goophered would behave in a manner well out of the ordinary, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a connection between the two words.

August 1887: The Goophered Grapevine

This Month in North Carolina History

“The Goophered Grapevine” is the first story in The Conjure Woman, published in 1900. North Carolina Collection.

In August of 1887 “The Goophered Grapevine,” a short story by Charles Waddell Chesnutt appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. It was the first story by an African American ever printed in that respected magazine and marked the emergence of Chesnutt on the American literary scene. Chesnutt’s father, Andrew Jackson Chesnutt, had been born a mixed-race, free person of color in Fayetteville, North Carolina, but had moved his family to Cleveland, Ohio, where Charles Chesnutt was born.

After the Civil War, the elder Chesnutt returned to Fayetteville with his family to open a grocery store. Charles Chesnutt spent seventeen years of his life in North Carolina gaining what formal instruction he could and beginning an ambitious program of self-education. He married Susan Perry of Fayetteville and began a family. After several years as a teacher and school principal, Chesnutt left the state with his wife and children and ultimately returned to Cleveland where he established a successful career as a stenographer and attorney. Chesnutt was determined to provide for his family through his stenographic business, but he was also drawn to literature and writing.

While in North Carolina he had collected ideas for characters and tales from the African American community around him and in the 1880s began submitting stories to the popular press. Although his first efforts were derivative of popular fiction of the day, Chesnutt returned to his roots for “The Goophered Grapevine.” In the short story, set in eastern North Carolina, a northern, white visitor describes a conversation with Uncle Julius McAdoo, an old freedman, who tells a strange tale of a cursed grapevine in his African American dialect.

“The Goophered Grapevine” resembles the plantation fiction of such popular authors as Thomas Nelson Page, but while Page wrote sentimentally of the love of ex-slaves for their white masters and the good life of the old plantation, Chesnutt wrote of African Americans who viewed the antebellum world in which they had lived with less affection and more honesty. Uncle Julius is a shrewd man with a hidden agenda. His former master was both gullible and comically dishonest, and surrounding the world of slave and master is “conjure,” a mixture of superstition and magic. “The Goophered Grapevine” is Chesnutt’s most anthologized work and appears as one of several similar stories in his first book, The Conjure Woman.

Chesnutt continued to write short stories but devoted himself particularly to novels in which he dealt more seriously with the interaction of race and southern society. Although his work was critically well received, he never achieved financial independence as an author, and in the latter part of his life Chesnutt devoted himself to writing speeches and essays on racism in the United States. His literary reputation declined in his lifetime, but modern critics place Charles Chesnutt in the first rank of African American and southern writers.


William L. Andrews. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Charles W. Chesnutt. The Conjure Woman. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1900. Available online from Documenting the American South.

Jesse S. Crisler; Robert C. Leitz, III; and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906-1932. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Julian Mason. “Chesnutt, Charles Waddell.” In American National Biography, vol. 4. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.