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Counterfactual Narratives of the Civil War and Slavery

  • MADHU DUBEY (a1)

This essay examines an overlooked dimension of the American literary preoccupation with slavery since the 1970s – the mass-market genre of alternate histories of the Civil War that began to proliferate after the end of the civil rights movement. Focussing on the genre's unique blend of historical realism and counterfactual speculation, the essay argues that these novels turn to the Civil War in order to reevaluate the trajectory of US racial history and to reckon with the dramatic racial realignments of the post-civil rights period.

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1 David Lambert points to a strain of “Black-Atlantic counterfactualism” that engages in a kind of historical conjecture distinct from the better-known phenomenon of speculative fictions about slavery, which emphasize the continuing resonance of the past in the present. See Lambert, David, “Black-Atlantic Counterfactualism: Speculating about Slavery and Its Aftermath,” Journal of Historical Geography, 36 (2010), 286–96. Lambert focusses primarily on nonfictional writing about slavery, except for a brief discussion of Steven Barnes's Alternate America novels Lion's Blood (2002) and Zulu Heart (2003). The genre of alternate history is almost entirely missing from the growing body of speculative historical fiction by African American writers since the 1970s. The few exceptions, such as Steven Barnes's novels and Bernardine Evaristo's Blonde Roots (2008), are imagined histories in which Europeans are enslaved by Africans rather than counterfactual narratives of “what almost was.” African American speculative fiction about slavery remains entirely uninterested in the Civil War as a watershed moment of US history; the rare novels that do touch on the Civil War, such as Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada, do so to highlight its failure in bringing about real freedom.

2 Phil Patton, “Alternate History: Lee Defeats Grant” (1999), at

3 Blight, David, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001). On the impact of the civil rights movement on the Civil War Centennial commemoration also see Blight, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); Cook, Robert, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961–1965 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007); Wiener, Jon, “Civil War, Cold War, Civil Rights: The Civil War Centennial in Context,” in Fahs, Alice and Waugh, Joan, eds., Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 208–25.

4 Cook, chapter 6.

5 Blight, Race and Reunion, 4.

6 On these realignments in American racial politics from the early 1970s through the early 1990s see Omi, Michael and Winant, Howard, Racial Formation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 1994), 113–37; Steinberg, Stephen, Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 97179.

7 Nesbitt, Mark, If the South Won Gettysburg (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1980), xi. A New York Times article about plans to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in several southern states emphasized “how divisive the war remains, with Americans continuing to debate its causes, its meanings and its legacy.” Online responses to the article from more than 400 readers contending over the causative role of slavery attested to the reporter's claim that “any master narrative of the war seems elusive” even in the twenty-first century. “Celebrating Secession without the Slaves,” New York Times, 30 Nov. 2010, A12. Also see Brinkmeyer, Robert Jr., “The Civil War and Contemporary Southern Literature,” in Brown, Thomas, ed., Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 92111, on the extent to which slavery continues to be downplayed as a causative factor in contemporary Civil War fiction by white southern writers.

8 Hellekson, Karen, The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1999), 42.

9 Alkon, Paul, “Alternate History and Postmodern Temporality,” in Cleary, Thomas, ed., Time, Literature and the Arts: Essays in Honor of Samuel L. Macey (Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 1994), 6585, 68.

10 McHale, Brian, Postmodernist Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1987), 87.

11 In his discussion of “postmodern fantastic historiography,” Jameson views narratives that invent unreal histories as indicative of the waning of historicity in the late twentieth century. See Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 368–69. Similarly, for Brian McHale, who regards realism as a necessary component of any definition of historical fiction, “a fantastic historical fiction is an anomaly.” McHale, 88.

12 Jameson, 284.

13 Ibid., 286, 285. Also see Canary, Robert, “Science Fiction as Fictive History,” in Clareson, Thomas D., ed., Many Futures, Many Worlds: Theme and Form in Science Fiction (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1977), 165–66.

14 Turtledove, Harry, “Introduction,” in Turtledove, ed., The Best Alternate History Stories of the Twentieth Century (New York: Del Rey Books, 2001), ix.

15 Philip Roth, “The Story behind The Plot Against America,” at

16 Lowenthal, David, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, MA; Cambridge University Press, 1985), 23.

17 Jakes, John, Black in Time (New York: Paperback Library, 1970), 80, 71.

18 Harrison, Harry, Rebel in Time (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1983), 268.

19 Jakes, 52–53.

20 Ibid., 23, 171, 51, 106.

21 Rosenfeld, Gavriel, “Why Do We Ask ‘What If’? Reflections on the Function of Alternate History,” History and Theory, 41, 3 (2002), 90103, 93.

22 Jakes, 107, 61.

23 Ibid., 18, original emphasis, 170.

24 Stapp, Robert, A More Perfect Union (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 29, 197.

25 Ibid., 206.

26 Harrison, 168.

27 Ibid., 190, 268.

28 Ibid., 290; Jakes, 170.

29 Jakes, 157; Harrison, 152, 285.

30 Turtledove, Harry, The Guns of the South (New York: Del Rey Books, 1992), 160.

31 Suvin, Darko, “Victorian Science Fiction, 1871–85: The Rise of the Alternative History Sub-genre,” Science-Fiction Studies, 10, 2 (1983), 148–69, 149.

32 Edgar McKnight, “Alternative History: The Development of a Literary Genre,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina, 1994, 60.

33 Moore, Ward, Bring the Jubilee (Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 1955), 179.

34 Ibid., 219.

35 McKnight, 61.

36 Moore, 222. This sense of historical contingency also marks another alternate history published while the civil rights movement was still under way, Kantor's, MacKinlay If the South Had Won the Civil War (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1960). Here, the South wins the Civil War and, in the absence of coercive pressure from the North, readily emancipates the slaves. Kantor envisions the actual history of the Civil War as a horrific counterfactual possibility: if the South had been defeated in the war, the “inevitable result” would have been “a period of enforced amalgamation” leading to “common hatred directed at the Negro” (93). As in Bring the Jubilee, the course of history is shown to hang on the thinnest thread of chance: in the alternate history in which the South wins the Civil War and goes on to abolish slavery, it is Union general Grant's accidental death, caused by his horse's reaction to a cat–dog chase, that brings about “monumental effects” for future US history (12).

37 Moore, 62.

38 Blight, American Oracle, 113, 27.

39 The future that Lee sees in Catton's book is inspired by “a continuing search for justice and equality between the races, one incomplete even in that distant day, but nonetheless of vital import to both North and South. This seems to [Lee] to be in accord with a continuation of the trends that have grown here in [the nineteenth] century.” Turtledove, Guns of the South, 435.

40 McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 88, 89.

41 Gallagher, Catherine, “When Did the Confederate States Free the Slaves?”, Representations, 98, 1 (Spring 2007), 5361, 59.

42 Jameson, Postmodernism, 370–75.

43 McKnight, 211.

44 Turtledove, Guns of the South, 431.

45 Ibid., 351.

46 Kantor, If the South Had Won the Civil War, 91.

47 Nesbitt, If the South Won Gettysburg, 95.

48 Ibid., 95, 96.

49 Gallagher, 54.

50 Ibid., 57, 61.

51 Gallagher substantiates her argument solely with reference to counterfactual narratives of the Civil War written by historians rather than novelists.

52 Willmott, Kevin dir., CSA: The Confederate States of America (IFC Films, 2004).

53 Morrow, James, “Abe Lincoln in McDonald's,” in Benford, Gregory and Greenberg, Martin, eds., What Might Have Been, Volume II, Alternate Histories (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 146–59, 151, 149, 153.

54 Elias, Amy, Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 110–12, 123–24.

55 Morrow, 152.

56 Wilson's, Robert Charles story “This Peaceable Land,” in Hartwell, David and Cramer, Kathryn, eds., The Year's Best SF (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 3664, similarly suggests that a violent and costly war was necessary to end slavery. In Wilson's counterfactual reality, the Civil War is averted by political compromise and chattel slavery dies out as industrialization of southern agriculture makes it increasingly unprofitable. But ex-slaves who remain in the South are herded into institutions (called Liberty Lodges) that proscribe “reckless reproduction” and allow them to “live out their lives with their basic needs attended to for an annual fee” (48). This dystopian scenario implicitly validates the course of actual history, which the story represents as an alternate reality imagined by Harriet Beecher Stowe: “a part of me wishes that that war had indeed been fought if only because it might have ended slavery. Ended it cleanly, I mean, with a sane and straightforward liberation, or even a liberation partial and incomplete – a declaration, at least, of the immorality and unacceptability of human bondage – anything but this sickening decline by extinction” (58).

57 Bisson, Terry, Fire on the Mountain (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 1988), 76.

58 Ibid., 66, 75.

59 Ibid., 115, 75, 76.

60 Ibid., 113.

61 Ibid., 144.

62 I am echoing the titles of two important books about the racial realignment of American liberalism in this period: Stephen Steinberg's Turning Back; and Reed, Adolph Jr., ed., Without Justice for All: The New Liberalism and Our Retreat from Racial Equality (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999).

63 Hartman, Saidiya, “The Time of Slavery,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 101, 4 (2002), 757–77, 772.

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Journal of American Studies
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