Writing Reconstruction: Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the Postwar South

Writing Reconstruction: Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the Postwar South

Writing Reconstruction: Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the Postwar South

Writing Reconstruction: Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the Postwar South


After the Civil War, the South was divided into five military districts occupied by Union forces. Out of these regions, a remarkable group of writers emerged. Experiencing the long-lasting ramifications of Reconstruction firsthand, many of these writers sought to translate the era's promise into practice. In fiction, newspaper journalism, and other forms of literature, authors including George Washington Cable, Albion Tourgee, Constance Fenimore Woolson, and Octave Thanet imagined a new South in which freedpeople could prosper as citizens with agency. Radically re-envisioning the role of women in the home, workforce, and marketplace, these writers also made gender a vital concern of their work. Still, working from the South, the authors were often subject to the whims of a northern literary market. Their visions of citizenship depended on their readership's deference to conventional claims of duty, labor, reputation, and property ownership. The circumstances surrounding the production and circulation of their writing blunted the full impact of the period's literary imagination and fostered a drift into the stereotypical depictions and other strictures that marked the rise of Jim Crow.

Sharon D. Kennedy-Nolle blends literary history with archival research to assess the significance of Reconstruction literature as a genre. Founded on witness and dream, the pathbreaking work of its writers made an enduring, if at times contradictory, contribution to American literature and history.


The unending tragedy of Reconstruction is the utter inability of the American
mind to grasp its real significance, its national and worldwide implications

—W. E. B. Du Bois

With this statement, W. E. B. Du Bois concluded Black Reconstruction in America, his brilliant reexamination of the post–Civil War era. He sought to reconstruct the common, pernicious perceptions most Americans held about the era. Lamenting their apparent inability to grasp that Reconstruction was a problem pertinent to “the very foundations of American democracy,” Du Bois wistfully added that if this understanding had been achieved, “we should be living today in a different world.” Writing during the depths of the Depression and influenced by the rise of fascist dictatorships across Europe, Du Bois was appropriately pessimistic, but his conclusion was not entirely correct. a remarkable and diverse group of American writers had sensed the promise of Reconstruction for African Americans and thought it worth celebration and commemoration. the literature they created deservedly occupies a unique place in literary history.

Witnesses to the drama of Reconstruction, these writers crafted their observations into an idealistic literature as they explored the new constitutional guarantee of citizenship for the freedpeople (as former slaves were then designated). Writers of the post–Civil War era helped initiate what Du Bois characterized as “the beginning of Negro Development” by celebrating a truly new birth of freedom for this country. They envisioned new ways for former slaves to participate fully in the nation’s cultural, political, and economic life as citizens. However, the creation of this body of writing, its publication, and its reception also contributed to the “unending tragedy” Du Bois poignantly described. This story’s trajectory points to what went awry as Reconstruction unfolded and explains why the period is often marked as much by misunderstanding and misplaced faith as by inspired reform and genuine hope.

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