- Writing Reconstruction: Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the Postwar South by Sharon D. Kennedy-Nolle
In Writing Reconstruction: Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the Postwar South, Sharon D. Kennedy-Nolle has a multipart plan. First, she illuminates the influence that the federal military divisions of the American South had on southern Reconstruction literature. Second, she argues for the cultural relevance of that poetry and prose (significantly including nonfiction). Kennedy-Nolle persuasively argues that southern Reconstruction literature often operated as “fictional test cases” for the Reconstruction Amendments, to “limn the nation’s future while reconstructing its past,” and in the process realized southern writers’ goals of a nationwide impact (p. 23). Just as important, and functioning as the third part of her argument, Kennedy-Nolle contends that these southern writers frequently delineated African Americans, and African American women in particular, as positive agents of change.
Although Kennedy-Nolle’s focus on Constance Fenimore Woolson, Albion Tourgée, the faculty and students of Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, George Washington Cable, and Octave Thanet might initially appear limited, she employs these writers as microcosms of the five military districts that the federal government created from the eleven Confederate states. These literary activists acknowledged that African American women were the real threat to Confederate tradition because they had the potential to challenge definitions of citizenship and could act as creative insurgents from the margins.
Kennedy-Nolle finds fecund and, until now, relatively little known subjects in Storer College and Thanet, and her elucidation is most welcome. Even the well-known Tourgée benefits from a new examination, particularly one that applies his understanding of inheritance and trademark laws to his civil rights philosophy. And although Cable has received considerably more recent attention, Kennedy-Nolle’s reading of him as an occasional caricaturist of Creoles and freedpeople (in order to reach mass audiences and ultimately to argue for equal treatment) is a unique interpretation, if one with which this reviewer disagrees. Indeed, the Cable chapter provides a useful example of the book’s ambition but also shows how the work at times strains under it. For instance, while considering Cable within New Orleans’s sociopolitical context is laudable, it is also daunting because of the irreducibility of that city’s utterly unique cultural composition. Multiple books could be dedicated to New Orleans’s ethnic diversity and Cable’s delineations of it alone.
Much more successful is Kennedy-Nolle’s treatment of Storer College, where she mines fascinating material from the Storer Record and the Storer College catalog to show clear relationships between the black school’s “embattled relation to the white residents of Harpers Ferry” and “how gender, class, race, and region knotted with the postwar issues of labor, property, reputation, and duty to inform the meaning of citizenship” (p. 124). The author also productively explores how Storer student Coralie Franklin “worked within the system to successfully empower black women” while foreshadowing forward-thinking southern writers’ dangerous reliance on the rhetoric of compromise (p. 176). [End Page 696]
Kennedy-Nolle makes a compelling case for the creative significance of Reconstruction literature and the effects of federal districting on that writing, further dismantling the notion of the monolithic South. If the many moving parts, including the ouroboros of cultural influence, can on occasion seem force-fitted or elided (chiefly in the case of Minorcan women and Creoles as stand-ins for freedpeople or the omission of historical context for Cable’s later novels and Mark Twain’s vitriol for Cable), her work will nevertheless inspire lively and complex discussions in the fields of American history, literature, and southern studies.