- Interpreting American History: Reconstruction ed. by John David Smith
There was a time when historians thought that once the effects of revisionism and the civil rights movement had washed over the historiography of Reconstruction, perhaps there would be little left to do. We have known for a couple of decades now that this has not been the case. Excellent scholarship continues to illuminate this important era's forgotten corners, to reconsider its big questions, and to expand its frame. Interpreting American History: Reconstruction, a collection of essays edited by John David Smith, provides the first book-length account of Reconstruction historiography since Thomas J. Brown's Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States (New York, 2006). Kent State University Press's Interpreting American History series is "intended for graduate students and others interested in historiography," and this volume would indeed be a useful starting point for anyone facing comprehensive exams. Nonetheless, while many of the essays are very strong, the quality is somewhat uneven, and more interventionist editing could have helped the essays form a more coherent whole.
The volume opens with an essay by John David Smith that provides the best summary of the historiography on Reconstruction that I know of, and not just because it is more up-to-date than older pieces. While following what we might call, to paraphrase E. Merton Coulter in The South During Reconstruction, 1865–1877 (Baton Rouge, 1947, p. xi), "the well-known facts" of Reconstruction historiography, Smith notes that the historiography's beginnings [End Page 187] involved more than just William A. Dunning and John W. Burgess. In describing the transitions from one school of thought to another, Smith discusses multiple authors and works rather than focusing too much on particular highlights. Andrew Zimmerman's essay on transnational historiography that closes the volume is also particularly strong, partly because of the clarity gained by his discussion of ideas in the text and the bibliography in the footnotes (more forest, less trees). Zimmerman's essay and research make clear that emancipation and Reconstruction in the United States were part of larger, global historical processes. American responses to the challenges of Reconstruction also served as models for other countries of how to use racial hierarchies to create empire and restructure the production of commodities.
The subjects of the essays provide a useful overview of the book: presidential Reconstruction, Radical Reconstruction, emancipation and race, national politics, gender and labor, intellectual and cultural history, and transnational history. The strengths and weaknesses of the individual essays aside, the book's division of chapters shapes what subjects are covered and influences the reader's overall impression of the historiography. It is unfortunate that Redemption was not given its own chapter since quite a lot of provocative work in the last twenty years has focused on this topic. Why is gender yoked to labor rather than race? To rephrase the question, is labor the key subject that the study of gender tells us about? One of the effects of the book's structure is that while each of the essays is self-contained and would work well enough on its own, there is a lot of overlap between them. This is unavoidable when studying historiography from a number of angles, but it is hard not to think that reading multiple times about Francis Butler Simkins's and Howard Kennedy Beale's interventions in the 1930s and 1940s or the importance of John Hope Franklin's and Kenneth M. Stampp's respective syntheses in the 1960s is not useful, to say nothing of the ritualized reckoning with Eric Foner's 1988 synthesis. Inevitably, a historiographical essay will become more uncertain the closer the literature approaches the time of writing, but to my mind, a couple of the essays make dubious use of the term recent and miss some fairly significant material (that is sometimes mentioned in another essay). The most problematic essay is Kevin Adams's "Presidential Reconstruction," which reads as more of...