restricted access 7. Reconstruction: Intellectual Life and Historical Memory
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Intellectual Life and Historical Memory 151 Chapter Seven Reconstruction Intellectual Life and Historical Memory K. Stephen Prince Since the early twentieth century, political and social methodologies have dominated the historiography of Reconstruction. The first generations of scholarship on the period—notably the work of the Dunning School—focused almost exclusively on the electoral and legislative history of the postwar era. Early revisionist critics like Kenneth Stampp disagreed with Dunningite conclusions but largely maintained a focus on high politics. With the arrival of the Civil Rights Era, practitioners of the new so-called social history revolutionized the study of Reconstruction, putting the experience of emancipated African Americans front and center. To find the deepest significance of Reconstruction, social historians argued, one should not look to Congress and state capitols, but rather to the farms, cities, and plantations of the South. Since the 1960s, much of the best work on Reconstruction has sought to recast the history of the period from the bottom up. Between them, political and social historians have defined the boundaries of Reconstruction studies, influencing research agendas and shaping scholarly understandings of the period. In this context, it is not unreasonable to ask where one might look to find the cultural and intellectual history of Reconstruction. At first glance, the field seems rather barren. As historian Leslie Butler explains, most “intellectual and cultural historians have not 151 k. stephen prince 152 focused specifically on the ‘classic’ period of Reconstruction or the constitutional, political, or economic processes of Reconstruction.”1 Appearances, however, can be deceiving. If full-fledged intellectual and cultural histories of Reconstruction are relatively rare, scholars working on a wide variety of topics have recognized that the period posed intellectual problems just as surely as political and social ones. Indeed, with a slight shift of perspective, it becomes clear that the history of Reconstruction is, in large measure, a history of ideas. For proof, it is only necessary to ask a simple question: what do historians write about when they write about Reconstruction? The answers to this question—race, region, gender, labor, violence, democracy, power, freedom—are topics with which cultural and intellectual historians of the United States are intimately familiar. Reconstruction was not just about political access or plantation labor relations. It was, at its core, a struggle over meaning, ideology, and narrative. On this level, Reconstruction offers fertile ground for intellectual and cultural historians. Beforeproceedingfurther,somedefinitionsareinorder.Though they are related, intellectual history and cultural history are not synonymous. While intellectual history focuses on the works of an elite group of writers and thinkers, cultural historians tend to take a much more democratic approach with regard to subjects and sources. In fact, cultural history might be fruitfully understood as intellectual history written from the bottom up. Beyond this, cultural historians tend to concern themselves not merely with the history of ideas, but with the ways in which regimes of knowledge have been created, disseminated, and contested in the past. In recent decades, the field of cultural history has grown in prominence and visibility, while the influence of intellectual history has waned.2 For those interested in the intellectual life of Reconstruction , however, an awareness of both methodologies is essential. A unifying principle connects the two approaches: ideas matter and they die slowly. Intellectual and cultural historians agree that history is more than the study of past events. It is also the study of the way that people have imagined, understood, and explained their Intellectual Life and Historical Memory 153 world. Cultural and intellectual productions are not simply reflections of the past. They form an essential component of it. Taking these definitions as a starting point, it is possible to sketch out a historiography of intellectual life during Reconstruction. It must be admitted at the outset that most of the authors of the works cited in this essay did not consider themselves intellectual or cultural historians or intend to write studies in these genres. Most, in fact, were explicitly engaged in different projects: political history, social history, gender history, biography, memory studies. Even so, a recognition of the significance of ideas and ideology pervades all of the volumes enumerated here. Significantly, the history of Reconstruction provides an ideal canvas on which to explore the shifting relationship between intellectual work (both elite and popular) and on-the-ground social realities. Far from a lacuna or a blind spot in the historiography, the intellectual and cultural history of Reconstruction represents a rich and significant site of scholarly inquiry. Before addressing...


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Subject Headings

  • Reconstruction (U.S. history, 1865-1877).
  • Southern States -- Politics and government -- 1865-1950.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1865-1951.
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