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The Literature of Reconstruction

, 400 pages

16 b&w illus.

November 2016



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The Literature of Reconstruction

Not in Plain Black and White


In this powerful book, Brook Thomas revisits the contested era of Reconstruction. He evokes literature’s immediacy to recreate arguments still unresolved today about state versus federal authority, the government’s role in education, the growing power of banks and corporations, the paternalism of social welfare, efforts to combat domestic terrorism, and the difficult question of who should rightly inherit the nation’s past. Literature, Thomas argues, enables us to re-experience how Reconstruction was—and remains—a moral, economic, and political debate about which world should have emerged after the Civil War to mark the birth of a new nation.

Drawing on neglected nineteenth-century historiographies and recent scholarship that extends the dates of Reconstruction in time while stretching its geographic reach beyond the South, The Literature of Reconstruction uses literary works to trace the complicated interrelations among the era’s forces. Thomas also explores how these works bring into dialogue competing visions of possible worlds through chapters on reconciliation, federalism, the Ku Klux Klan, railroads, and inheritance. He contrasts well-known writers, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thomas Dixon, and Charles W. Chesnutt, with relatively neglected ones, including Albion W. Tourgée, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, and Constance Fenimore Woolson. Some authors opposed Reconstruction; others supported it; and still others struggled with mixed feelings.

The world Thomas conjures up in this groundbreaking new study is one in which successful remedies to racial wrongs remain to be imagined.

Brook Thomas is a Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California–Irvine. He is the author of Civic Myths: A Law-and-Literature Approach to Citizenship and American Literary Realism and the Failed Promise of Contract.

"Thomas’s stated intention is to connect literature to the broad sweep of history rather than provide unified analyses of single literary works or authors. His insights are incisive, and throughout the book he displays deep knowledge of the history and historiography of Reconstruction. This book is a valuable addition to the scholarship of a period that is often framed solely by the idea of literary realism. Students of 19th-century US literature or history will likely find the book fascinating. Highly recommended."

"The Literature of Reconstruction offers a thorough analysis of the fiction and poetry that played an essential role in broader debates about reunion, federalism, race relations, industrialization, and more.... [The Literature of Reconstruction] is a meaningful addition to existing scholarship that addresses the cultural, legal, and political histories of the Reconstruction era."

"Brook Thomas’s The Literature of Reconstruction is a critical intervention into both the historiography and the literary history of Reconstruction, unsettling multiple critical commonplaces regarding the memory and meaning of this era."

"Brook Thomas excels as an interdisciplinary scholar. This cogent and clearly written book represents a major addition to the literary and historical scholarship on Reconstruction."

"Thomas is the ideal scholar to provide insight into the ways a wide range of authors engaged the momentous changes of Reconstruction in their writing. Yet another classic work of Americanist scholarship by Brook Thomas—and a timely one indeed."

"An eye-opening investigation of the literature of Reconstruction by the leading authority in the field. Paying close attention to legal, cultural, and political history, Thomas shows how works by Tourgée, Cable, Dixon, Chesnutt, Ruiz de Burton, and a number of other writers engaged key debates on national reconciliation, race, and the nature of government authority. Beautifully written and intellectually engaging from the first to last page, Thomas’s book should quickly emerge as the standard work on the subject."

"By expertly reading Reconstruction literature as historiography and Reconstruction historiography as literature, Brook Thomas has produced a masterwork and a must-read not only for literary scholars but also for historians. He both rewrites the literary history of Reconstruction and also brilliantly lays out new ways of approaching arguably the most important and misunderstood era in US history."

"Brook Thomas masterfully bridges the gap between history and literary criticism. His readings of literary texts enrich and enlighten, while his analysis remains grounded in its historical context. Thomas embraces the deep complexity of the period, offering a Reconstruction that moves far beyond 'plain black and white.'"

"Historians have long recognized the importance of Reconstruction; this book will ensure that literary critics do so as well. Brook Thomas expands our sense of what Reconstruction was, reminding us that it didn't end in 1877, nor was it confined to the south. More important, he complicates our sense of what Reconstruction meant—and what it continues to mean. With his customary rigor and clear-sightedness, Thomas eschews the 'black and white' of earlier accounts and gives us instead a richer array of greys."

"The first comprehensive literary history of the Reconstruction era, it is gracefully written, careful and cogent in its arguments, with new insights on almost every page. It is a major accomplishment highlighting the intimate links between war, literature, and memory. It should be required reading for anyone interested in American literature and history and the nation's ongoing dilemmas with slavery and race, welfare, and the role of the national government."

"The Literature of Reconstruction is an important intervention in scholarship on Reconstruction. It is full of original insights and innovative arguments that will benefit literary scholars and historians."

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