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The War on Words

Slavery, Race, and Free Speech in American Literature

The War on Words

Slavery, Race, and Free Speech in American Literature

How did slavery and race impact American literature in the nineteenth century? In this ambitious book, Michael T. Gilmore argues that they were the carriers of linguistic restriction, and writers from Frederick Douglass to Stephen Crane wrestled with the demands for silence and circumspection that accompanied the antebellum fear of disunion and the postwar reconciliation between the North and South.

Proposing a radical new interpretation of nineteenth-century American literature, The War on Words examines struggles over permissible and impermissible utterance in works ranging from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” to Henry James’s The Bostonians. Combining historical knowledge with groundbreaking readings of some of the classic texts of the American past, The War on Words places Lincoln’s Cooper Union address in the same constellation as Margaret Fuller’s feminism and Thomas Dixon’s defense of lynching. Arguing that slavery and race exerted coercive pressure on freedom of expression, Gilmore offers here a transformative study that alters our understanding of nineteenth-century literary culture and its fraught engagement with the right to speak.

344 pages | 1 halftone | 6 x 9 | © 2010

History: American History

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature



Times Literary Supplement

The War on Words delivers an impressively wide-ranging reinterpretation, at once rigorously astringent and perceptively sympathetic, of how canonical American writers coped with the formidable challenges not to engage in public talk about slavery and racism. Though some of Gilmore’s assessments are bound to provoke controversy, no serious reader of this book—which should indeed be required reading for all serious Americanists—will fail to come away informed and invigorated by Gilmore’s understanding of the de facto constraints on expression that confront even our ‘free’ society, both then and now.”

Lawrence Buell, Harvard University

The War on Words is a brave and brilliant book that explores the fact of censorship, particularly as it operated in matters of slavery and race, in nineteenth-century American literature and politics. While positioning the Civil War as the moment when ‘the nature of utterance’ shifted from the comic to the tragic, from prophecy to indirection, from abolitionists to the Klan, Gilmore nevertheless attends to the consistency, across the century, with which words are championed, attacked, feared, and erased. With remarkable range and acuity, Gilmore convincingly demonstrates that what could not be said is as significant an impetus for the production and understanding of American literature as what could.”

Cindy Weinstein, California Institute of Technology

“Starting from the silences and evasions about race in the Declaration and Constitution, Michael T. Gilmore traces the fate of free speech as he conducts a compelling re-envisioning of the whole span of nineteenth-century American political culture and literature—from Emerson, Thoreau, and Lincoln to Stephen Crane, Twain, and Thomas Dixon. Using Bartleby’s mid-century silence as a brilliant hinge to its narrative, The War on Words moves from heroic antebellum proponents of words as deeds to the ‘tragedy of linguistic impotence’ that marked the betrayal of African-Americans as Reconstruction unraveled and realism reflected the repudiation of racial equality. In Gilmore’s expert hands nearly a score of canonical figures are accorded fresh and persuasive readings; The War on Words is an exciting book.”

Ross Posnock, Columbia University

“Gilmore’s interpretations explain the texts’ plot twists and figurative language in original ways, and with illuminating reference to historical contexts.”


“Michael T. Gilmore’s execution of his thesis is vigorous, enlightening, and arguable in a positive sense.”

American Literature

Table of Contents


Part I: Slavery, Race, and Free Speech

Part II: Antebellum

Emerson: Prospects

Thoreau: Words as Deeds

Fuller: History, Biography, and Criticism

Hawthorne and the Resilience of Dissent

Stowe: From the Sacramental to the Old Testamental

Part III: Antebellum/Postbellum

Speech and Silence in Douglass

Whitman: From Sayer-Doer to Sayer-Copyist

Slit Throats in Melville

"Speak, man!": Billy Budd in the Crucible of Reconstruction

Intertext: "Bartleby, the Scrivener"

Part IV: Postbellum

Tourgée: Margin and Center (with an Addendum on Jackson and the Indian Question)

James and the Monotone of Reunion

Was Twain Black?

Crane and the Tyranny of Twelve

Choking in Chesnutt

Dixon and the Rebirth of Discursive Power




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