We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Contesting the Past, Reconstructing the Nation

American Literature and Culture in the Gilded Age, 1876-1893

Written by Benjamin A. Railton

Publication Year: 2007

Fables of American history embodied in Gilded Age literature

In this study of Gilded Age literature and culture, Benjamin Railton proposes that in the years after Reconstruction, America’s identity was often contested through distinct and competing conceptions of the nation’s history. He argues that the United States moved toward unifying and univocal historical narratives in the years between the Centennial and Columbian Expositions, that ongoing social conflict provided sites for complications of those narratives, and that works of historical literature offer some of the most revealing glimpses into the nature of those competing visions.

Gilded Age scholarship often connects the period to the 20th-century American future, but Railton argues that it is just as crucial to see how the era relates to the American past. He closely analyzes the 1876 and 1893 Expositions, finding that many of the period’s central trends, from technology to imperialism, were intimately connected to particular visions of the nation’s history. Railton’s concern is with four key social questions: race, Native Americans, women, and the South. He provides close readings of a number of texts for the ways they highlight these issues. He examines established classics (The Adventures of Huck Finn and The Bostonians); newer additions to the canon (The Conjure Woman, Life Among the Piutes, The Story of Avis); largely forgotten best-sellers (Uncle Remus, The Grandissimes); unrecovered gems (Ploughed Under, Where the Battle Was Fought); and autobiographical works by Douglass and Truth, poems by Harper and Piatt, and short stories by Woolson and Cook.

These readings, while illuminating the authors themselves, contribute to ongoing conversations over historical literature’s definition and value, and a greater understanding of not only American society in the Gilded Age, but also debates on our shared but contested history that remain very much alive in the present.


Published by: The University of Alabama Press


pdf iconDownload PDF


pdf iconDownload PDF
p. v

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. vii-x

In May 1876 the advertisements for one of America’s longest- running stage productions, the Howards’ touring Tom Show, underwent a significant shift. George C. Howard’s company had been performing Tom Shows since 1852, and their postbellum performances thus functioned as a reminder of the sectional division and Civil War that Uncle Tom had ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. xi-xii

This project has benefi ted enormously from conversations with many colleagues and friends, especially Michael Kaufmann, Allen Davis, Jeff Renye, Sari Edelstein, Mark Rennella, Ian Williams, Heidi Kim, Maria Gapotchenko, and Dan O’Hara. Thanks also to Paula Bernat Bennett, Carolyn Sorisio, Michael Hoberman, Patrice Gray, Lorene Lamothe, ...

read more

Introduction: An Ahistorical Exposition and a Historicist Argument

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 1-22

The 1876 Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia was, above all, a celebration of America’s material progress and prowess. Of the Centennial’s ten categories of exhibits, nine were direct manifestations of material culture (“I. Raw Materials,” “V. Tools, Implements, Machines, and Processes”); only the tenth, “Objects illustrating efforts for the improvement of the Physical, Intellectual, and Moral Condition...

read more

1. “He Wouldn’t Ever Dared to Talk Such Talk in His Life Before”: Dialect, Slavery, and the Race Question

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 23-70

On May 30, 1885, Alexander Crummell delivered the commencement address to the graduating class of Storer College, a freedmen’s college located in Harper’s Ferry. Despite that West Virginia town’s singular importance in the histories of slavery and African Americans, “thrilling memories” that Crummell could not entirely ignore, he nonetheless...

read more

2. “If We Had Known How to Write, We Would Have Put All These Things Down, and They Would Not Have Been Forgotten”: Silenced Voices, Forgotten Histories, and the Indian Question

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 71-112

In the post- Centennial decade, the mythic identity of the American West was undergoing an important shift: the early- nineteenth- century image of the West as an alternative to Eastern progress and development was being replaced by a vision of the West as the best example of American growth and democracy, a progressive vision which found its apotheosis ...

read more

3. “That’s the Worst of Being a Woman. What You Go Through Can’t Be Told”: Private Histories, Public Voices, and the Woman Question

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 113-160

Speaking before the Congressional Committee on Privileges and Elections in January 1876, the Unitarian reverend Olympia Brown emphasized her role as a representative female voice. Responding to male attempts to marginalize the suffragists, to the fact “that men are continually saying to us that we do not want the ballot; that it is only a handful of women ...

read more

4. “Quite the Southern Version”: The Lure of Alternative Voices and Histories of the South Question

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 161-202

The Centennial Exposition’s May 10, 1876, opening featured a Southern author in a prominent and reconciliatory role. Foremost among the opening ceremony’s artistic works was the Centennial Cantata, a short poem set to music; the Centennial Commission had specifically desired a Southern poet to write the Cantata’s words and musical cues, and ...

read more

5. “The Way They Talked in New Orleans in Those Days”: Voice and History in and on The Grandissimes

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 203-225

The short opening chapter of George Washington Cable’s novella “Madame Delphine,” published in 1881 and included in subsequent editions of the collection Old Creole Days, makes explicit the geographical, historical, and linguistic project with which Cable’s early fictional works were constantly engaged. The four page chapter, entitled “An Old ...

read more

6. Conclusion

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 226-237

Despite the dialogic complications provided by my chapters’ literary texts, the period under consideration ended with the monologue clearly triumphant. If the 1876 Centennial Exposition represented a strong and distinctive recurrence of a progressive national historical narrative, and a series of 1886 events illustrated that narrative’s firm entrenchment ...


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 239-263

Works Cited

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 265-304


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 305-312

E-ISBN-13: 9780817380205
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817315801

Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 183297118
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Contesting the Past, Reconstructing the Nation

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Sex role in literature
  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • National characteristics, American, in literature.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access