The War on WordsSlavery, Race, and Free Speech in American Literature

The War on WordsSlavery, Race, and Free Speech in American Literature

Michael T. Gilmore

Print publication date: 2013

ISBN: 9780226294131

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract

How did slavery and race impact American literature in the nineteenth century? This book argues that they were the carriers of linguistic restriction, and writers from Frederick Douglass to Stephen Crane wrestled with the demands for silence and circumspection that accompanied the antebellum fear of disunion and the postwar reconciliation between the North and South. Proposing a new interpretation of nineteenth-century American literature, this book examines struggles over permissible and impermissible utterance in works ranging from Thoreau's “Civil Disobedience” to Henry James's The Bostonians. Combining historical knowledge with readings of some of the classic texts of the American past, this book places Lincoln's Cooper Union address in the same constellation as Margaret Fuller's feminism and Thomas Dixon's defense of lynching. Arguing that slavery and race exerted coercive pressure on freedom of expression, the book offers here a transformative study that alters our understanding of nineteenth-century literary culture and its fraught engagement with the right to speak.