- Realist Ecstasy: Religion, Race, and Performance in American Literature by Lindsay V. Reckson
Lindsay Reckson’s Realist Ecstasy argues that realist writers at the turn of the twentieth century turned to ecstatic bodies in order to imagine bodily and social arrangements outside of those enforced by Jim Crow America. An ambitious project, this book brings together literary, performance, and secularism studies, suggesting that a nuanced understanding of regimes of power requires theoretical approaches that attend to both texts and bodies in movement. With chapters on W. E. B. Du Bois, Stephen Crane, the Ghost Dance, early photography, and Nella Larsen, Realist Ecstasy investigates the relationship between the visual, the performative, and the written in order to theorize the simultaneous hypervisibility and ghostly presence of America’s legacy of slavery in post-Reconstruction America.
Reckson’s book is beautifully written, and helpfully maps out several innovative theoretical approaches to Jim Crow America and American realism. Most productively, Reckson theorizes ecstasy as a methodology of being-beside that assumes disunity and instability of secularism, history, and the body. This formulation of ecstasy should help scholars of the turn of the twentieth century resist static formulations of narrative or power. To accomplish her ambitious theoretical goals, Reckson sketches a “hauntology of realism” that encourages readers to consider American fiction and scholarship as fundamentally haunted by pasts and persons excluded from the progress narrative of American history. In looking at post-Reconstruction America, the idea of haunting illuminates America’s inability to fully recognize and contend with its history of violent racial subjugation. [End Page 71]
Reckson is an expansive and creative theorist, and through her five chapters she also offers exciting reads of both canonical and understudied texts. Through her first three chapters she charts how ecstasy “unsettles realism’s normative techniques” (162). For instance, in her second chapter, “Archival Enthusiasm,” Reckson turns to Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. In this reading, Reckson draws on an “archive of practice” (a move that animates much of the book) to read Jim Conklin as embodying—in death—the instability of bodies despite the Jim Crow imperative to fix those very bodies (72). In the final two chapters, Reckson shifts her focus to texts that identify the ecstatic body as a site for the “recirculation of colonial and racial fantasies,” including James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (162).
Realist Ecstasy’s innovative approach to ecstasy also reveals something about how Reckson approaches religion. In conversation with a significant move in Religious Studies toward the study of embodiment, Realist Ecstasy imagines religion as a kind of performative, but for Reckson, that performance’s truth-value to observers and believers is bracketed. Hence, her ability to theorize ecstasy without discussing God. Indeed, in the introductory section “Being Beside; or, Ecstasy as Method,” the word “God” (or related words—divine, divinity, Creator) only appears once. Ecstasy for Reckson is fundamentally about being beside the self and boundaries between the self and community, and not about an interaction with the divine. Thus, Realist Ecstasy’s most exciting interventions are not with her study of the content of religion, but rather the tropic function of religious images, gestures, and performances. [End Page 72]