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One Man’s History is Another Man’s Imagination: Reconstructing US Civil War-Stories in the 20th and 21st Centuries

October 18 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

An African American woman, Bree Newsome, clings to the top of a flagpole. In her extended right hand is a Confederate flag she has just removed. In the background is the roof of the South Carolina statehouse.
Reuters/Adam Anderson Photos

Andrew Thomas

Dana-Allen Dissertation Fellow (2021-2022)

English Department, UW–Madison


Whether it be the events of January 6, 2021 at the nation’s capital where Trump supporters were seen wearing “MAGA Civil War” t-shirts; or the 2017 “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia that centered around the removal of a Confederate monument; or the activist Bree Newsome’s scaling of the South Carolina state house’s flag pole in 2015 to remove the Confederate flag regularly flown there—the iconography and public memory of the US Civil War remains a hotly contested topic that often produces lethal results. And though we are six years removed from the war’s sesquicentennial, it is less commonly recognized that we are in the middle of Reconstruction’s sesquicentennial. Reconstruction was that brief twelve-year period (1865-1877) in US history following the Civil War where the institutionalization of Black social advancement, and with it the idea of the first multiracial or even post-racial democracy, seemed like a possibility. While it is common to see popular and academic histories trace a genealogy from the unfinished project of Reconstruction to the Civil Rights era, there has been a recent call in Americanist literary scholarship to further expand and revise our timelines and dating methods of the literatures of the US Civil War and Reconstruction.

To that end, my presentation pairs W.E.B. Du Bois’s landmark history Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880 (1935) with Karen Tei Yamashita’s kaleidoscopic experimental novel I Hotel (2010) to consider how the historical nineteenth-century US Civil War and Reconstruction became abstracted as transnational and transhistorical concepts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These works demonstrate how civil war is a historiographically unique moment of heightened national and international fantasy that produces reconstructive methods of artistic practice as well as scholarly criticism. Furthermore, they illuminate associations between the cultural imaginaries of twentieth- and twenty-first-century African American and Asian American artists who produce “civil war-stories”: stories written from the position of the civilian, the refugee, and the second-class citizen that draw parallels between the domestic legacies of the US Civil War and Reconstruction and US involvement in foreign civil wars and reconstruction attempts. In creatively reconstructing contested histories, the Afro-Asian imaginary this talk considers expands the conceptual terrain of civil war, the literary terrain of civil war and reconstruction-era texts, and provides novel responses to a seemingly well-historicized event.


Andrew Thomas is a PhD candidate in the English Department at UW–Madison. He is a native of Houston, Texas, and studied English, political theory, and classics at the University of Houston before receiving his MA in English from the University of Mississippi. His MA thesis focused on how southern and southwestern writers represented psychological responses to environmental damage. Since arriving in Madison, he studies how various public spheres represent national and international conflict and what these representations tell us about history and historiography.

When he is on campus, he is most energized in the classroom. As a first-generation student himself, he seeks to create an accessible learning environment for those students who feel that they may not belong at the university. He has taught numerous freshmen writing classes—for which he won a 2020 campus-wide Innovation in Teaching Award—and literature discussion sections, as well as tutored in the Writing Center and at Oakhill Correctional Institute. He has also worked on an organic farm and is currently volunteering with the Grow Program/Allied Fresh community partnership on Madison’s West side.

When he is off campus, he is camping, gardening, or hiking with his endlessly energetic border collie, Alfred.


October 18
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
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