English 250

Research Seminars: Reconstruction

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
3 Fall 2012 Wagner, Bryan
Thurs. 3:30-6:30 201 Wheeler

Book List

Chesnutt, C.: The Marrow of Tradition; Dayan, C.: The Law is a White Dog; Du Bois, W. E. B.: Black Reconstruction; Harper, F. E. W.: Iola Leroy; Muhammad, K.: The Condemnation of Blackness; Toomer, J.: Cane; Twain, M.: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


“Among the revolutionary processes that transformed the nineteenth-century world, none was so dramatic in its human consequences or far-reaching in its social implications as the abolition of chattel slavery,” the historian Eric Foner has written. And nowhere was this revolutionary process more dramatic, more all encompassing, than in the United States—the only society in the history of the world where ex-slaves were granted citizenship rights and political representation directly on the heels of emancipation. Reconstruction was an exceptional moment in world history, to be sure, but one that swelled with the main currents of its time. It was an experiment in statecraft that tried to remake society all at once, turning a traditional situation where individuals were restricted by inherited relations of dependency into a modern scene based on the liberty to contract. This course aims to grasp Reconstruction, in all its complexity, as a narrative problem. We will be thinking in the abstract about the nature of historical transition, and in particular about the role of violence in times of transition, while we look to some of the major works from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries that turned Reconstruction into a story to be passed down. We will pay close attention to how these works sustain their most parochial commitments—to blood, family, race, nation—by adapting the moral vocabulary of the marketplace, and we we will observe how they represent history as romance, tragedy, and farce. Along the way, we will mark the formal devices (marriage plots, frame narration, analepses) that move these works from slavery to freedom while considering the material conditions (the stratification of the book trade, the professionalization of historical research, the emergence of the cinema) that determined how such devices could be employed.

We will also be reading through a collection of shorter works (ethnography, fiction, history, poetry, polemic, theory, and criticism) by writers such as Sterling Brown, William Dunning, Elsie Clews Parsons, Albion Tourgee, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Woodrow Wilson.

Films include Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith), Within Our Gates (Oscar Micheaux), and Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming).  

This course satisfies the 19th-century historical breadth requirement.

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