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Representations of readers and scenes of reading in American literature of the Civil War

Vanessa Y Steinroetter, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This dissertation examines the ways in which literary representations of readers and scenes of reading comment on societal disruptions during the Civil War. I contend that the war’s cultural transformations and the anxieties they produced—such as fear of African American upward mobility—were taken up by contemporary writers through the theme of reading. I demonstrate that the figure of the reader reveals how individuals of different social classes, genders, or racial backgrounds grappled with social and cultural norms, either straining against or reconciling themselves to them. I focus on those types of reading that either broke with antebellum conventions or gained visibility during the war, such as letter reading or the reading of casualty lists in newspapers. In order to make claims about a diverse set of publics, I draw on poems, fictional texts, and essays by recognized and newly recovered writers that appeared in widely read periodicals such as the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Weekly. By placing the works of figures who have been treated elsewhere into revealing new relationships with less familiar works, my project significantly expands our understanding of the literature of the Civil War, a moment in literary and cultural history too often neglected in favor of the antebellum period or seen as a mere precursor to post-bellum realism. ^

Subject Area

Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Steinroetter, Vanessa Y, "Representations of readers and scenes of reading in American literature of the Civil War" (2011). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3449989.