Beyond obsolescence : the reconstruction of abolitionist texts
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Antebellum abolitionist writing has long been revered by cultural historians and literary scholars for its social and political role in bringing about the end of slavery in the United States. But what happened to abolitionist texts, which originally urged a pointed and timely social agenda, after emancipation? Most critical conversations around major abolitionist texts focus on their original publications. This study, however, demonstrates the significance of the republication, adaptation, and reception of those texts years later, well after slavery had been abolished but when the many legacies of slavery still defined a rapidly evolving political culture. Drawing on archival research and the methodological tools of book history, “Beyond Obsolescence” traces and analyzes texts that were revised, adapted, and republished during Reconstruction (1863 to 1877)—a time during which linguistic and narrative revisions both reflected and helped to produce the dramatic shifts occurring across the social landscape of the United States. The dissertation investigates a series of case studies that propose a way to read such textual revision in relationship to the shifting political culture of Reconstruction and the changing identities of African Americans within that political culture. Through a consideration of the writings and revised texts of Harriet Jacobs, Lydia Maria Child, William Wells Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and George Aiken, the project demonstrates how writers, editors, and playwrights reshaped their work in response to the demands of their audiences as well as public debates about the meaning of slavery, emancipation, and Constitutional change. These dynamic texts would keep alive a rich tradition of abolitionism even as they underwent revisions to meet the exigencies of a postbellum environment. Ultimately, “Beyond Obsolescence” provides a novel account of some of the most familiar anti-slavery texts and brings to light a crucial but overlooked history of US abolitionist literature.