- "Across the Gulf":Working in the "Post-Recovery" Era
What do critics mean when they use the phrase post-recovery? It is a paradoxical term in many ways—valid, because we have moved so far beyond the simple recovery of forgotten or understudied women writers to asking far more critically challenging and culturally significant questions about these writers and their texts; but the term is also invalid because it suggests an end to the necessity of recovery. Rather than post-recovery, I prefer to view recovery as a multi-phased process in which the next phase of our work will be that of regeneration. We have accomplished so much since I was a graduate student in the mid-1980s when we read Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley and then skipped to Margaret Fuller, followed by an even greater leap forward to Edith Wharton. I have always thought that my attraction to Rebecca Harding Davis was in part due to her repeated use of the term "across the gulf" as a recognition of how many cultural grand canyons had not yet been bridged. What we need to do, of course, is to continue our recovery work while at the same time pushing ourselves to pose more challenging questions about individual texts or sets of texts and the ways they disrupt what we think we know about our particular periods of specialization. That is, reaching across the gulf is not simply building bridges to an understanding of the past; it is equally generating new and different ways of theorizing what we discover in the process.
To envision ourselves as having already recovered the "significant" pretwentieth century texts borders on a stultifying state of self-satisfaction. So, in what ways can we advance our intellectual engagement with recovered texts while continuing to delve into cultural and textual "gulfs" that yet remain? Let me begin to answer that question by using a particular era, the Civil War years, as a means of suggesting both a compendium of texts that have as yet been under-studied and the kinds of questions that might be raised by considering these texts through the lens of extraordinary cultural changes that emerged in [End Page 284] these years. Yes, I am taking a "historical" approach; no theorizing of a field has "legs," as it were, unless it is rooted in a deep knowledge of the culture it seeks to elucidate. Therefore, I want to use this essay precisely as a series of questions. As I often tell my students, graduate education should primarily be a process of learning to ask ourselves increasingly complex questions about texts, about the environments in which they were produced, and about how differing theoretical approaches can help us to ask more complex questions of texts and of ourselves. I will suggest how such a process of expanding our interpretive frameworks might aid us in moving through the moments of transition inherent in expanding the work of recovery to a regeneration of the field, a process that recognizes there never is a "post" to educating ourselves about a particular era and its literature.
The Civil War Era as Test Case
Significant analyses of this period's literary and cultural productions have already marked the importance of the Civil War years for women writers—from the work of Elizabeth Young, Frances Smith Foster, Lisa A. Long, and the many editors of the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers to Alice Fahs's examination of the reciprocal impacts of the war and popular culture. Recent collections of poetry and short fiction produced in the mid-1860s include Faith Barrett and Cristanne Miller's "Words for the Hour": A New Anthology of American Civil War Poetry, Kathleen Diffley's To Live and Die: Collected Stories of the Civil War, 1861–1872, and Frederick Finseth's The American Civil War: An Anthology of Essential Writings. Other important studies, such as Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, bridge history, literature, and the visual arts in provocative ways to demonstrate cultural concepts that were altered during the war.1 This body of primary and critical work is the...