Cultural Reconstruction: Nation, Race, and the Invention of the American Magazine, 1830-1915
Scott-Childress, Reynolds J.
Gilbert, James B.
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Cultural Reconstruction asks: How did the U.S. develop a national culture simultaneously unified and fractured by race? The little-examined history of American magazines offers a vital clue. The dissertation's first part demonstrates how postJacksonian American culturists, deeply disturbed by the divisive partisanship of "male" politics, turned to the "female" culture of sentimentality with the hope of creating a coherent and inclusive nation. These culturists believed a nationally circulating magazine would be the medium of that culture. This belief derived from the wide success of the penny press revolution of the 1830s. Cutting against the traditional reading of the penny press, Cultural Reconstruction claims that newspapers were a major proponent of sentimentality but were barred from creating a national audience by their intense local appeal. Antebellum magazinists, from Edgar Allen Poe to James Russell Lowell, attempted to adapt the sentimental worldview of the penny press to a national audience, but were frustrated by a series of cultural rifts expressed chiefly in gendered terms. Part two of the dissertation examines how the postCivil War magazine furthered the project of sentimentality and became the leading medium of national culture. Responding to the 1870s collapse of Political Reconstruction, editors such as Richard Watson Gilder at the Century employed a series of innovative aesthetic strategiesgreater realism, local color, and regional dialectbelieving they were creating a cultural panorama of American life. But this project of reconstruction was riven by two fundamentally conflicting visions of American identity: the regional versus the racial. The dissertation explores correspondence between Northern magazinists and white and black Southern authors (George Washington Cable, Charles Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Thomas Nelson Page) to reveal how race won out: Northern editors helped invent and popularize "Southern" memories of the Old South and the Civil War. In the process, the magazines nationalized white Southern conceptions of racial separation and prepared the way for the explosive nationwide reaction to the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Cultural Reconstruction shows how twentieth-century American national unity was paradoxically bound up in racial division.