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This chapter examines contemporary and emerging developments in the literatures of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It argues that two particular genres have recently taken root: stories about people previously overlooked by mainstream accounts of the era; and stories that approach the Civil War and Reconstruction as a source of philosophical meaning. The chapter explores the major iterations of these burgeoning genres and documents their ongoing evolution in texts such as George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet, Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones, and James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird.
Every era is momentous in its own way, but some eras are more momentous than others. Between 1851 and 1877, the USA underwent a Civil War of epic proportions, resulting in more than 750,000 deaths, the destruction of slavery, and the formation of a multiracial democracy. Yet these events merely hint at the multitude of changes that rocked American society in this period, affecting everything from the definition of citizenship to literacy rates and mourning rituals.1
Between 1851 and 1877, the U.S. underwent a whirlwind of change. This volume offers a fresh account of this important era, assessing the many developments - both major and minor - that transformed American literature. In a wide range of chapters, scholars re-examine literary history before, during, and after the Civil War, revealing significant changes not only in how literature is written but also in how it is conceived, distributed, and consumed. Cutting across literary periods that are typically considered separate and distinct, and incorporating an array of methods and approaches, this volume discloses the Long Civil War to be an era of ongoing struggle and cultural contestation. It thus captures the dynamism of this period in American literary history as well as its ever-evolving field of study.
Cody Marrs’s “The Civil War in African American Memory” considers the ways in which African American writers in the wake of emancipation tried to answer the question “How should one remember a revolution that was never allowed to complete itself?” During Reconstruction, Marrs argues, two forms of emancipationist memory emerged. On the one hand, many African Americans saw the Civil War as a historical rupture, a break that required commemoration; on the other hand, many saw it as a historical link, part of a longer and enduring struggle for liberation. Marrs retraces how these views of the war took shape in African American life-writings, periodicals, poems, and speeches that used emancipationist memory to reframe the world remade by the Abolition War. That tendency to turn back to the past to apprehend the present, he argues, is the defining feature of African American memory of the war during this period, and it is what ultimately ties these two commemorative modes together, revealing the war to be both an act and a process, an event as well as an ongoing struggle.