Reenvisioning Reconstruction

Friday, October 6, 2017 9:45-5:00 pm, 405 Illini Union

This symposium addresses the complexities and rewards of a renewed examination of Reconstruction.  The subject of numerous historical reappraisals, our colloquy discusses the challenge of reimagining the literary history and cultural expression of this seriously understudied era of US cultural history.

To that end, we will host four scholars engaged in some of the most important and trenchant studies of this difficult subject—difficult because its study discovers and discloses one of the most painful eras in the US social life, difficult because its legacy continues to vex and sometimes disgrace the nation’s heritage.  At the same time, the creative energies of that time have seldom been understood in their diversity and richness, a neglect that this symposium is partly devoted to meet.

Our four speakers are drawn from around the country and are all engaged centrally in the reconstructing of Reconstruction.

Eric Gardner (Saginaw Valley State U), at 10:00: African American Literary Reconstructions and the “Propaganda of History”

This talk extends and revises the conceptual frameworks of W.E.B. Du Bois’s challenge to the Dunning School, David Blight’s consideration of the “politics of forgetting,” and a range of recent African Americanist inquiry to address Black places and absences in the literary history of US Reconstruction.  I examine how structures ranging from organizational schema focused on major authors/movements to obsessive 1865-centered periodizing have bound US literature. Furthermore, it explores how the need to pigeonhole African American literature between Plessy and the 1960s, and repeated failures to treat early Black literature on its own terms, have similarly—and shamefully—limited our sense of African American literary Reconstructions. Taking Edmonia Goodelle Highgate and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper as case studies, I study modes for expanding our senses of literary venue, genre, mode, location, time, and network. I do so to argue that recovery as praxis has not yet reached its radical potential and that we need a much richer sense of the imprints, erasures, denials, sounds, and silences of African Americans that were constructed and “destructed” before we can adequately conceptualize “Reconstruction.”

Rhondda Robinson Thomas (Clemson), at 11:00: Reconstruction, Public Memory, and the Making of Clemson University

The connection between Clemson University and the Civil War is largely hidden in monuments that honor its founder, US diplomat Thomas Green Clemson, and in the seemingly ordinary names of historical buildings that commemorate the University’s first leaders while obfuscating their commitment to the Confederacy. My talk examines how, in three significant ways, Clemson, which was built on John C. Calhoun’s Fort Hill Plantation, has functioned partly to memorialize the Confederacy since its establishment as a public land-grant institution in 1889 on the eve of the Nadir, the lowest point in race relations in the US, according to historian Rayford Logan: first, through the transformation of its founder, the slaveholding and Confederate soldier Thomas Green Clemson—Calhoun’s son-in-law—into a Renaissance Man and visionary philanthropist; secondly, through its failure to acknowledge publicly its debt to the earliest trustees and professors’ commitment to the Confederacy as well as to the use of the Fort Hill Plantation to oppress sharecroppers during Reconstruction; and third, through its lack of transparency regarding white students’ celebration of Confederate heritage from the university’s founding until the early 1970s when African American students demanded an end to such practices. In other words, what happens when a prominent Southern public university reconstructs itself as a top 20 higher education institution that refuses to remember its ties to the Civil War?

Brook Thomas (UC-Irvine), at 2:00: Reconstruction and the Aftermath of World War I: Giving Birth to What Sort of Nation(s)?

As part of my effort to uncover the impact that interpretations of Reconstruction had on US foreign policy,  I will look at  four figures, who influenced foreign policy in the wake of what John Maynard Keynes called a European Civil War –Woodrow Wilson, who wrote extensively on Reconstruction; his arch-enemy, Henry Cabot Lodge, who proposed what many consider the last attempt at Radical Reconstruction–the Federal Election Bill of 1890; Wilson’s ambassador to Italy, Thomas Nelson Page, an author of Reconstruction fiction; and Wilson’s onetime supporter, W. E.B. Du Bois, whose Black Reconstruction is arguably the work having the most influence on today’s historiography.

Elizabeth Renker (Ohio State), at 3:00: The Historiography of American Poetry and Other Aversions to Reconstruction

One of the most significant shifts in nineteenth-century US literary historiography since the 1990s has been the scholarly reassessment of “Civil War poetry” as an important archive rather than a blur of bad verse.  Yet the domain of what I call in this essay “Reconstruction poetry” has not yet entered the field-Imaginary.  My paper meditates on that absence and argues that now is the time to excavate and institutionalize the category as a routine location in our disciplinary frameworks.  Parsing the archive of Reconstruction poetry, I argue, excavates a rich array of primary sources still mostly missing from literary and historical accounts of Reconstruction (which typically focus on prose writings) and simultaneously contributes to the recent surge in scholarship about the social histories of poetry. Writing “Reconstruction poetry” into our field narratives would also serve to further destabilize the putative “break” at 1865 that Christopher Hager and Cody Marrs have challenged as a standard field periodization whose simplifications have become especially glaring in the present moment.

Our symposiasts will be joined by two UI faculty members, Justine Murison and Derrick Spires, along with two guest participants, Russ Castronovo (UW-Madison) and Julia Stern (Northwestern) for a concluding roundtable discussion at 4:00.

Posted in Past Trowbridge Events