Civil War and Reconstruction
I’m drawn to the Civil War and Reconstruction because I’m interested in how ordinary people experience government. The Civil War was fought over the question of federal power, and the fighting of the war, as well as the Reconstruction that followed, caused the federal government to grow in size and to take on new functions. I am currently at work on a history of how this process unfolded on the South Carolina Sea Islands. Seized by the Union early in the war, the Sea Islands experienced an occupation unlike any other. The islands' planters all fled, leaving Union troops in possession of the richest cotton land in the south--and nine thousand suddenly masterless slaves. In time, the soldiers and slaves would be joined by businessmen and missionaries, by government officials and abolitionists, and all of these people would have to learn how to live and work alongside one another in new ways. In the process, even the most conservative among them were persuaded that slavery should be abolished and that political and economic equality should be secured. But as it became clear that freedom and equality would require the federal government to be involved, even the most radical began to balk. By returning to this episode from the Civil War, The Department of Experiments argues that the US ambivalence about the federal government is bound up with the legacy of slavery.
I'm also interested in how government registers in literature. The writings of Civil War and Reconstruction debate the proper scope and function of government, but they also experiment with new techniques by which government can be depicted. (In the course of thinking about these writings, I published a short essay on the need to depict the federal government properly, as well as a longer essay on the rise of bureaucracy and bureaucratic writing during the Civil War and another on the Freedmen’s Bureau, the freedmen’s schools, and the development of the US welfare state). More recently, I’ve become interested in regions that were under direct federal rule: not only the southern states during Reconstruction, but also the western territories prior to statehood, and Washington, DC from the founding to the present day. While most people experience the federal government as remote and abstract, people in these regions experienced it with rare immediacy and the writings about these regions are unusually rich in their depictions. I look forward to writing a scholarly monograph, entitled The Southern, The Western, and Washington, DC, which finds in regional writings the origins of our current thinking about the federal government.
Trans-Atlantic Literary Studies
Although many of my current projects focus on the United States, I remain committed to trans-Atlantic scholarship. Until the very end of the nineteenth century, the United States refused to recognize international copyright and it was common for literary works to cross the Atlantic. Both British and US literature developed, then, in the context of a fully Anglo-American literary world. (Something similar could be said of our present day, although now literary works written in English not only cross the Atlantic, but span the globe). My first book, The Novel of Purpose (2007), explores the role that nineteenth-century reform movements played in constituting this literary world. I show how the trans-Atlantic campaigns for suffrage and against slavery, along with the crusade against drink, not only brought together a number of the most important writers on both sides of the Atlantic, but also gave them a new conception of what a novelist should be. The result, I argue, was a distinctively Anglo-American realism, one that unites Charles Dickens and George Eliot, Henry James and Mark Twain—and distinguishes them all from the realists of the continent.
I’ve also published a number of essays on trans-Atlantic subjects. Some of these advocate for a trans-Atlantic approach to nineteenth-century literature or explore the consequences of such an approach for our curriculum. Others consider new case studies, such as Anthony Trollope’s relation to the United States, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s relation to Great Britain, or Victorian criticism on the American novel.
Trans-Atlanticism also shapes my teaching, prompting me to offer courses in British as well as US literature—and to teach seminars that pair authors from each nation, most recently, George Eliot and William Dean Howells. Much of my trans-Atlantic teaching is done in “Literary Migrations” courses for the English department’s Common Ground curriculum. One of these courses, “The Bildungsroman Around the World,” follows the novel of education as it travels from mid-nineteenth-century Britain through the early twentieth-century United States to post-independence Africa; we consider how the genre changes as it moves from one nation and period to another. Another, “The American Renaissance and the Irish Revival,” puts two episodes of literary nationalism in comparative perspective—and then considers what US and Irish literature have meant for post-colonial authors around the world.