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Jennifer James’s analysis of African American war literature from the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century fills a considerable void in the study of African American letters. James’s simple argument, “that there . . . exists a substantial body of imaginative literature by African Americans chronicling war” (7), is a persuasive one, as she frames her study within issues not just of race but of gender, class, and nationalism as well. James examines such canonical texts as William Wells Brown’s Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine, a Tale of the [End Page 898] Southern States and Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem along with other lesser-known works, such as T. G. Steward’s The Colored Regulars in the United States Army, to demonstrate the various transformations and configurations that the figure of the black self takes in African American war literature.
In her Introduction, “Sable Hands and National Arms: Theorizing the African American Literature of War,” James posits two reasons for why black Americans speak out (or write, as it were) about war. The first reason James gives is the fact that “the United States is a nation ‘made by war.’” “The literary history of any community within the United States,” James continues, “must necessarily include war as text, subtext, or context” (9). Secondly, and related to the first explanation, “The effects of war . . . have the power to disrupt even the most deeply ensconced notions of national, racial, and gender identity” (10). It is the depiction of this disruption of identity through African American war texts that James traces in this study. James ends her Introduction by posing a question that underlies the writing of all of the texts that she discusses: What is it that African Americans are fighting for when they are drafted into or join the armed services? The answer—citizenship rights—James finds, is not as simple as it sounds.
In chapter 1, “Civil War Wounds: William Wells Brown, Violence, and the Domestic Narrative,” James assesses Brown’s attempt to combine an accurate depiction of black military life with a representation of the troops that portrays their nobility and courage. James examines Brown’s nonfiction works and his 1853 Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter, noting that his “particular notion of a politically useful domesticity relies . . . on an idealized heterosexual union whose hallmark is its very mobility: black men and women forming a political alliance that is impervious to time, space, and history” (36). In his 1867 reworking of Clotel, this time titled Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine, a Tale of the Southern States, James argues, Brown complicates America’s simple and sentimental understanding, and literature’s romantic treatment, of the Civil War. In this single text, James suggests, “Brown actually has written two very different novels posing as one.” He combines “sentimental abolitionism” and the standard war narrative to discuss the changes needed to achieve black equality (48). Chapter 2, “Fighting Fire with Fire: Frances Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and the Post-Civil War Reconciliation Narrative,” looks at Harper’s and Dunbar’s novels, placing them “in conversation with a particular genre of American sentimentalist war fiction that flooded the marketplace in the decades following the war: the reconciliation/reunion narrative” (55). The focus of the reunion in Harper’s Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted, contends James, is not the presumed union of the North and South but rather the restoration [End Page 899] of a unified black community, one separate—particularly in a domestic context—from the white community. James suggests that Paul Laurence Dunbar presents a darker appraisal both of the perception of black military participation and of the possibility of reconciliation during and immediately after the Civil War.
Chapter 3, “Not Men Alone: Susie King Taylor’s Reminiscences of My Life in Camp and Masculine Self-Fashioning,” places the only autobiography in existence by an African American woman who is a direct participant in the Civil War within the contexts of two genres: African American autobiography...