- The Literature of Reconstruction: Not in Plain Black and White by Brook Thomas
It is clear why Brook Thomas dedicates his extensive study of Reconstruction to his "best students and teachers": they taught him well. In The Literature of Reconstruction, he has distilled the complexities of political will, constitutional law, and the imaginative expanse of the historical novel into a work of cultural synthesis that teaches us as much about the systemic failures of American racial integration after the Civil War as it does about period literature. In seven substantial chapters and a lengthy introduction, Thomas challenges readers to consider that a deeper understanding of Reconstruction emerges by emphasizing the themes of race and inheritance, imperialism, and federal versus state sovereignty that circulate through postemancipation fiction instead of bickering about dates. Indeed, Thomas suggests, we would do better to think of Reconstruction as an era that spilled into the first decades of the twentieth century than as a chronology with a fixed terminus. The fourteen authors at the center of the study, including strange bedfellows such as Thomas Dixon, Charles Chesnutt, Constance Fenimore Woolson, and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton (this last understudied and thus an extremely welcome addition), created thinly veiled fictions "to spin political allegories with national implications" (2). Historians will appreciate the historicist base of Thomas's operations: that literature is a repository for the accretion of historical denouement, where aesthetic evaluations carry little weight. Literary critics may find this formula less satisfying.
What distinguishes Thomas's interpretation of Reconstruction literature from that of more conventional critics is his methodology. Rather than reading individual fictions as a locus for seeking meaning, one book at a time—an approach that characterizes numerous works of literary history—Thomas shows, when he addresses a new political, legal, social, or economic context, how circling back to some of the forty-two works that comprise his analysis creates a more richly layered portrait of an era that should not, as echoed in his subtitle, be cast in "plain black and white." What he finds, burrowing deeply into interdisciplinary crevices that range from Supreme Court decisions to political biography to cartoons, photographs, and illustrations from novels by Albion Tourgée, Dixon, and Thomas Nelson Page, is that the logic of racial apartheid is too simplistic a paradigm by which to measure Reconstruction. Contradictions in conventional wisdom abound: Frederick Douglass makes sense of reconciling with the Aulds, who yanked away reading lessons; Mississippi senator [End Page 548] L. Q. C. Lamar, a vigorous advocate of white supremacy, found sense in biracial cooperation; and former Union officer–turned-novelist John William DeForest, whose Bloody Chasm (1881) reads like the nonsense of "a Hollywood screwball comedy" (60), appeals to bedraggled southerners by demonstrating northern sympathy to their self-preservationist cause—one of many exceptions to "the romance of reunion" narrative, which described a simpler road to postwar reconciliation.
I was grateful for Thomas's plot-entwined summaries of novels that are long out of print and equally engaged by Thomas's account of the peripatetic Tourgée, who managed to write novels while soldiering, politicking, and lawyering. Not only did this Ohioan-turned–North Carolinian present a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court opposing the Jim Crow consequences of Plessy v. Ferguson, but he also opposed the anti-immigration mentality of the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882 and 1892—a haunting prequel to today's xenophobia over Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Tourgée ennobles black manhood in at least three of his novels from the 1870s and 1880s but swims upstream in a river that has already recast black martial valor as ineffectual (even by the likes of Stephen Crane) and black character as infantile. Similarly, Thomas's chapter on fictional representations of the Ku Klux Klan identifies Joel Chandler Harris, Dixon, and Page as reversing Tourgée's representation of historic depredations against black community builders. Thomas reads A Fool's Errand (1879) as a vehicle to depict white southerners...