“Reconstructing Secularisms” describes how turn-of-the-century arguments over the boundaries of literary realism were inextricably linked to the politics of secularism. This chapter follows tropes of religious excess as they circulate throughout realist fiction, from William Dean Howells’s interlocking diagnoses of racial and religious hysteria in An Imperative Duty (1891) to W. E. B. Du Bois’s more ambivalent description of the “frenzy” of the black church in “Of the Coming of John,” his early experiment with realist narrative in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Resonating through such descriptions is a question about the aesthetic and political function of ecstasy in the aftermath of Reconstruction. While Howells depicts the black church as a site of emotional and bodily excess, Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South (1892) and Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892) radically challenge this formation, offering an important take on the uses of ecstatic collectivity. They also gesture to the imminent secularism of literary history, which has largely omitted these texts from the boundaries of realism, perhaps in part because they articulate a critical relationship to secularism as a silent but hegemonic force in the Jim Crow era’s hysterical regulation of racial difference.
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