- Writing Reconstruction: Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the Postwar South by Sharon Kennedy-Nolle
The political, social, and cultural upheaval of the Civil War and Reconstruction introduced a host of new characters into the American dramatis personae— the wounded veteran, the unrepentant Confederate, the carpetbagger, the widowed [End Page 69] plantation mistress, the emancipated slave and his/her family who define their freedom and citizenship. The postwar Southern literary landscape, drawing on these characters and the postwar context, gave new meaning to themes of regional divide and reconciliation. How, then, is a work of literary history, particularly one whose aim is to explore that period, to organize itself?
In Writing Reconstruction: Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the Postwar South, Sharon Kennedy-Nolle hits on a novel methodology. She draws scholarly inspiration from the most bureaucratic of sources—the map drawn up by the Union Army and U. S. government bureaucrats after the surrender at Appomattox. This map, which she kindly reproduces in the book’s early pages, divided the former Confederacy (most of it, anyway) into five districts and laid the geographic basis for the Freedmen’s Bureau rubric of assistant commissioners all reporting to a central commissioner in Washington. This structure provides Kennedy-Nolle with her chapter outline. In each of her five chapters save one (more on that later), she focuses on a single author. For this reviewer, the male authors were familiar. District Two, North and South Carolina gave us Albion Tourgée (novelist and legal scholar), and District Five, Louisiana/Texas contributed George Washington Cable. The women authors, and the locales from which they wrote were lesser known. The book opens with a strong chapter on Constance Fenimore Woolson, a Northern woman who set her travel sketches and short stories in Florida, which along with Georgia and Alabama comprised District Three; it ends with Octave Thanet, another Yankee and part-owner of a postwar cotton plantation in Arkansas.
These four writers were all white, with varying degrees of experience with actual enslaved people and divergent styles of fiction ranging from magazine pieces to staged readings, from travel guides to novels. Thanet even dabbled in photography, and one her photographs—a haunting portrait of an African American child laborer—graces the cover of the paperback edition of Writing Reconstruction. All of these white authors took up ideas concerning freed people and their future. While Albion Tourgée wrote a brief supporting Homer Plessy in 1896, Octave Thanet happily reproduced and reinforced racial and labor hierarchies on her plantation, which in true antebellum style she (re)named Thanford, in her own honor and that of her woman companion JaneCrawford. Kennedy-Nolle argues that all of these white authors, who published their work from in the last third of the nineteenth century, imagined roles for African Americans as citizens and laborers. Furthermore, each author explicitly saw the potential for African American freed women to manifest uniquely some of the new contours of freedom. Some of Kennedy-Nolle’s insights on this front are more convincing than others. Most effective are her explorations into Cable’s deployment of enslaved and free women characters in The Grandissimes that allows him to explore interracial love, sex, revenge, and the possibilities of freedom. Woolson’s comparisons between Balearic women laborers originating from a region in Spain and freed black women serves as a concrete reminder of the vagaries of the color line in the late nineteenth century.
Kennedy-Nolle’s most innovative chapter comes as she pushes the boundaries of her own formula. In her foray into District Four, composed by Virginia, Kennedy-Nolle chooses to focus on a geographic grey area, West Virginia. And, more innovatively, she explores a few African American writers associated with Storer College (an African American institution that closed in 1955) rather than choose a single, canonical author. This focus is a deft move on a few fronts. Firstly, it frees her to include African American writers without resorting to the “go to” list of late-nineteenth century African...