Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Because Ed called me out on how I chose to periodize Reconstruction in HIST (and rightly so), I think it's worth dwelling on the subject of periodization for a moment, especially because all of us who teach the US survey have to draw lines around when a subject begins and when it ends in order to teach it. Otherwise things become untenable and the thread is lost.
The problem of periodization was the most difficult intellectual hurdle I encountered in writing a textbook. You want to keep narrative drive and you can't get too far ahead of yourself. But does Reconstruction really end in 1877? It's easy to say no, but this is not without problems of its own. Ed, how do you bring Reconstruction to 1898, the capstone moment of, well, reforging the white republic, when we haven't even explained America's increasing role in the world yet? And how do you talk about that role in the world when you haven't even taught the industrial revolution yet (which starts when, again?)? And then do you then teach about the conquering of Hawai'i before you get to, say, the stunning growth of New York City in the latter half of the 19th century (and in the rest of the industrializing north to boot)? I don't mean to come down on Ed (one of my favorite pastimes) but simply to point out that while I might agree with Ed that Reconstruction lasts at least until 1898 or 1954, that's a tough way to teach it.
You can see the problem. Strictly thematic tellings of the survey counter this problem, but the cost is narrative and coverage. The solution for me, in HIST and in the classroom, is to take small chunks, think about how this chunk makes sense to the next chapters and the one before it, and build from there.
This isn't to say there is no flexibility. In fact, I completely buy into the idea of moving the date of Reconstruction up to 1863, when the first serious plans for reunion were aired and debated. That's not too much of a challenge.
But to push it past 1877 makes things trickier, for the reasons mentioned above. As of now, in both lecture and textbook, I end things in 1877, then come back to the Reconstruction story (with a brief, repetitious recap of Reconstruction--never undervalue repetition!) in my lecture on "The New South" (which I gave today in fact, the starting point of which is the origin of the term "Jim Crow," which goes back to 1830).
Perhaps ironically, too, the weight of history plays a role in my decision to persist in ending Reconstruction in 1877. There is of course a certain logic to ending the chunk in 1877 because of the removal of the military from the south and the political compromise that led to it, but there is an important homage to the past we must make when we challenge it, which is to say there is a reason that lots of historians before us have capped the period at 1877. It doesn't make absolute sense of course, but any attempt at periodization never does. And before we chuck out the older historiography we need to understand why it was there in the first place.
This is a problem that comes up time and again in the survey: no periods make absolute sense, but some time frames make more sense than others. This is a fun intellectual problem that demonstrates, for me anyway, how history is really made by historians who are sympathetically attempting to understand the past.