Matters of State: American Literature in the Civil Rights Era

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Matters of State: American Literature in the Civil Rights Era

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Title: Matters of State: American Literature in the Civil Rights Era
Author: Gram, Margaret Hunt
Citation: Gram, Margaret Hunt. 2013. Matters of State: American Literature in the Civil Rights Era. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: "Matters of State: American Literature in the Civil Rights Era" argues that American writers engaged with the American civil rights movement as it unfolded by turning their attention to the state and the state's relationship to its subjects and by imagining new forms for both. Postwar American literary culture, then, understood racial inequality not solely as a problem of identity and difference, nor simply as an economic problem, but as a problem of formal citizenship. Between around 1948 and around 1968, that problem as such spurred diverse and unruly literary inquiries into a range of matters of state, each taken up in dialogue with American constitutional law and each also a meditation on the particular capacities of literary art as a site for political thinking. William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor tried to reimagine the structure of federalism; James Baldwin and Harper Lee interrogated the real workings of democracy; Chester Himes and Sam Greenlee asked whether social movements ought to collaborate with the existing U.S. state in the first place; Norman Mailer, William Styron, Amiri Baraka, and others reoriented literary culture toward a new, post-civil-rights set of questions. Read as one archive, the novels and plays and essays that they produced tell a new story about American literature at midcentury: a story about literature's quasi-autonomous engagement with the political-theoretical questions that racial inequality had rendered urgent. They remind us of the complexity of history itself, and of the difficulty and uncertainty obscured by triumphalist narratives of democratic liberalism's inevitable civil-rights redemption. And they afford a glimpse into the kaleidoscopic legal worldmaking for which literary art in general can be an arena.
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