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Open Access Publications from the University of California

“Our ice-islands”: Images of Alaska in the Reconstruction Era

  • Author(s): Charlton, Ryan
  • et al.
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License

Abstract: Over the last two decades, scholars of Reconstruction have expanded their focus beyond the traditional regional and temporal boundaries of the campaign in order to situate the postbellum reconstruction of the South within a broader process of national consolidation unfolding across the continent. Though this perspective has reinvigorated Reconstruction scholarship, it has done so by excluding archipelagic spaces. In order to move beyond a continental model of Reconstruction, this essay explores the era’s representations of Alaska, focusing specifically on the popular image of the territory as a chain of icebergs or “ice-islands.” The first section of this essay traces the origin of this image in the political cartoons of Harper’s Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast and others. The second section analyzes the reverberations of this image in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s 1880 story of Reconstruction Florida, “The South Devil,” which juxtaposes a subtropical swamp with a shattering field of arctic ice to question the integrity of the continent and the national reunion narratives predicated on it. The controversy surrounding the 1867 Alaska Purchase reveals that Reconstruction was always debated in terms that exceeded the continent. Greater attention to the Alaska Purchase can decontinentalize our perceptions of Reconstruction while enhancing our understanding of the scope of US imperialism in the nineteenth century.

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