In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Reconstruction in Literature and Intellectual Culture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Literary, Intellectual, and Educational Institutions

African American Studies Reconstruction in Literature and Intellectual Culture
Gene Andrew Jarrett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0001


The era widely known as Reconstruction runs from 1865, the official end of the Civil War, to 1877, when Southern Democrats conceded the United States Presidency to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for his pulling federal troops from Southern territories. During this twelve-year period, federal forces were deployed in the South to enforce the policies of Reconstruction. These policies included rebuilding and reforming the South to reflect a new social, political, and economic environment in which African Americans, formerly enslaved, could now lay claim to the constitutional franchise of citizenship and freedom—to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Scholars have analyzed how much the North and the South evolved during this period, the accomplishments and failures of Reconstruction, and how to determine the start and the end of this federal program. At the same time, a rich field has emerged connecting these issues to literature and intellectual culture. Upon establishing the Political and Legal Contexts of Reconstruction, scholars have investigated the Reconstruction-era Literary and Intellectual Traditions that demonstrated African American political agency and imagination against the backdrop of Southern Thought and Culture, Liberalism, and the politics of gender. These scholars have expounded on the thematic roles that Slavery and the Civil War, and Emancipation and Freedom, have played in the formation of African American Literary and Intellectual Memory during Reconstruction. And they have also pinpointed the informal and formal and private and public institutions responsible for the education of African Americans, for the elevation of their political self-awareness as an oppressed race, and for their access to the literary, cultural, and academic resources of racial uplift and self-empowerment.

General Overviews

Understanding the literary and intellectual contexts of Reconstruction requires knowledge of the historical circumstances under which the federal program came into being. General overviews tend to paint in broad strokes the importance of labor and class, Electoral and Party Politics, race relations between blacks and whites, and the experiences of African Americans amid the rise and fall, and the acceptance and rejection, of Reconstruction. First published in 1935, Du Bois 1998 is a pioneering, Marxist-influenced account of how black and white laborers failed to build a coalition against Southern landowners. Litwack 1980 draws on Primary Sources to document the myriad ways in which emancipated slaves adapted to postwar society. Berlin, et al. 1982– is a crucial study of how former slaves encountered and negotiated the new free labor system in the South, and how the internecine conflict between Southern property owners and laborers proved to be a controversial indicator of the socioeconomic inequalities that characterized American society. Rable 2007 focuses on how conservative Southerners strove to reverse the gains made by newly freed blacks. However, as Fitzgerald 2007 argues, the demise of Reconstruction had as much to do with the electoral and political insecurity of the Radical Republican bloc as with the Southern conservative challenges to pro-Reconstruction legislation and politicians. Stampp 1967 takes a more positive view of Radical Reconstructionists, arguing that they made positive changes to southern society even as racism and corruption undermined their efforts. Foner 1988 studies the development of race relations between blacks and whites after slavery in the context of a changing nation. Jenkins 2002 traces the experiences of African Americans trying to acculturate to a world in which bondage gave way to freedom, but in which freedom suffered the complications of political disfranchisement and socioeconomic exploitation. Richardson 2004 argues that class conflict played an important role in the failure of Reconstruction to achieve its goal of racial equality.

  • Berlin, Ira, Barbara J. Fields, Steven F. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867. Vol. 1, Series 1, Destruction of Slavery. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982–.

    Presents a documentary history of how former slaves navigated the new free labor system in the South during Reconstruction and details how they filled roles as military laborers, wage workers on former plantations, and independent farmers.

  • Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880. Free Press, 1998.

    First published in 1935 (New York: Russell and Russell), this influential book examines how African Americans reshaped American democracy through a Marxist lens and argues that black and white laborers failed to unite against Southern property owners. With an introduction by David Lewis.

  • Fitzgerald, Michael W. Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South. Chicago: Ivan R Dee, 2007.

    Departs from previous revisionist histories, which emphasized the progressive racial policies of the Radical Republicans, to demonstrate how internal divisions weakened the party and paved the way for the resurgence of racist policies in the South.

  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. The New American Nation Series. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

    Seminal book explores how black and white Americans reacted to the monumental changes of the post–Civil War era and traces the shift in race relations as the nation reconfigured itself in the wake of the conflict.

  • Jenkins, Wilbert L. Climbing Up to Glory: A Short History of African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

    Using primary and secondary sources, Jenkins traces the paths ordinary African Americans took as they struggled to gain autonomy, focusing on issues of law, gender, and the formation of families during this tumultuous era. Available online.

  • Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. Vintage ed. New York: Random House, 1980.

    Studying the South from 1861 to 1868, draws on memoirs, private papers, and agency records to document the ways in which former slaves reacted to emancipation and the new economic, social, and political opportunities they encountered.

  • Rable, George C. But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2007.

    Examines how conservative Southerners deployed various forms of violence to challenge federal authority, dismantle Republican-led state legislatures, and dominate the newly freed black population.

  • Richardson, Heather Cox. The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post–Civil War North, 1865–1901. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    While most historians attribute the failure of Reconstruction to Southern racism, Richardson asserts that class was an equally important factor in its demise as calls for a redistribution of wealth sparked a Northern backlash.

  • Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction, 1865–1877. New York: Vintage, 1967.

    Summarizes revisionist historical scholarship, examines the role of Radical Reconstructionists, and argues that they made positive changes to Southern society even as corruption, tax increases, and racism ensured the demise of their efforts.

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