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Cover of Legal Realisms by Christine Holbo
September 2019
Oxford University Press

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Legal Realisms

The American Novel Under Reconstruction
Christine Holbo

U.S. historians have long regarded the U.S. Civil War and its Reconstruction as a second American revolution. Literary scholars, however, have yet to show how fully these years revolutionized the American imagination. Emblematic of this moment was the postwar search for a "Great American Novel"— a novel fully adequate to the breadth and diversity of the U.S. in the era of the 14th Amendment. While the passage of the Reconstruction amendments declared the ideal of equality before the law a reality, persistent and increasing inequality challenged idealists and realists alike. The dilemmas of incomplete emancipation, which would damage and define American life from the late 19th century onwards, would also force novelists to reconsider the definition and possibilities of the novel as a genre of social representation. "Legal Realisms" examines these transformations in the face of uneven developments in the racial, ethnic, gender and class structure of American society. Offering provocative new readings of Mark Twain, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Helen Hunt Jackson, Albion Tourgée and others, Holbo explores the transformation of the novel's distinctive modes of social knowledge in relation to developments in art, philosophy, law, politics and moral theory. As "Legal Realisms" follows the novel through the worlds of California Native American removal and the Reconstruction-era South, of the Mississippi Valley and the urban Northeast, this study shows how violence, prejudice and exclusion haunted the celebratory literatures of national equality, but it demonstrates as well the way novelists' representation of the difficulty of achieving equality before the law helped Americans articulate the need for a more robust concept of social justice.


Christine Holbo is an associate professor of English in literature at Arizona State University.

Praise for this book

"American 'realism' is different from its European counterparts — with quite different imperatives to representation. Christine Holbo's book gives the term fresh meaning by following the complex threaad of the realist urge through a dizzying array of texts, and by finding new ways to link literature, law and politics in the Gilded Age. This is a romp of intelligence."

Gavin Jones
Stanford University professor and author of "Failure and the American Writer: A Literary History"

"'Legal Realisms' reconstructs literary history to show how the novel's different modes of producing knowledge affected its possibilities for civic engagement in postbellum debates about what sort of nation should emerge from the Civil War. Bringing Stowe, Tourgée and Helen Hunt Jackson together with James, Howells, DeForest and Twain, Christine Holbo reconciles these competiong traditions of the novel with a greater sense of justice than the politicians who reunited the country."

Brook Thomas
University of California, Irvine, professor and author of "The Literature of Reconstruction: Not in Plain Black and White"