The Triangle Club presents: Emancipation’s Grizzly Moment: The Battle of Antietam, Future Shock, and California Dreamin', by Kathleen Diffley
During and immediately after the Civil War, more than 300 narratives focusing on national upheaval circulated in some sixteen contemporary periodicals, many in the culturally dominant Northeast. But from the South and West came less predictable stories, peculiarly so when they turned during Reconstruction to the ambiguous fate of free blacks and former slaves. While the storytelling South routinely skirted the issue of new social relations, as domestic dependencies were disrupted by emancipation, literary magazines in upstart cities newly joined by a network of rails were more venturesome.
That was especially true in San Francisco, where the Overland Monthly was founded in 1868 to challenge Boston’s Atlantic, and the California grizzly bear put its iconic paw on the railroad tracks to become the magazine’s title-page emblem. Of the ten Civil War stories that circulated before Reconstruction ended, four were preoccupied with the insistent claims of African Americans—on the plantation, on picket duty, on the frontier, and on the run. Still, the narrative contours of black purpose were oriented by white authority and what Jonathan Crary has called the “techniques of the observer.”
In a stereographic era, where the photographed dead of Antietam had already countered the battlefield “truth” of familiar wood engraving, the result from San Francisco was emancipation’s blur, particularly as a company of Colored Troops storms the Virginia countryside, a black sergeant in New Mexico takes action, and fugitive slaves in Kansas witness a crazed daughter’s keening. Thanks to the staged magic of California spectacle, a reckoning with political audacity slipped into the photograph’s blank spaces, where social promise flickered.
Kathleen Diffley is the author of Where My Heart Is Turning Ever: Civil War Stories and Constitution Reform and the editor of To Live and Die: Collected Stories of the Civil War, a volume drawn from her continuing attention to the stories that circulated in periodicals of the 1860s and 1870s. Most recently, she has also edited Witness to Reconstruction, a collection of 16 essays about Constance Fenimore Woolson in the ravaged postwar South, and she is currently at work on a book about telling the war in a magazine culture shaped by market concerns.