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Empire of Ruin


Black Classicism and American Imperial Culture

John Levi Barnard

01 June 2022

ISBN: 9780197635100

248 pages

In Stock

Price: £22.99


Empire of Ruin traces the cultural history and reception of the classical tradition in African American cultural production. While the classical tradition has provided a repository of ideas that have allowed white American elites to conceive of the nation as an ideal Republic, Empire of Ruin offers a critical counter-narrative, showing how African American writers, artists, and activists have characterized this as emblematic of a national commitment to an economy of enslavement and a geopolitical project of empire.

  • Advances a new theory of "black classicism"
  • Considers the function of classicism within American culture at large and reads black classicism as part of a larger critique of that culture
  • Argues that classicism functions as a "language of power" and is itself central to the cultural hegemony that underlies and authorizes the regime of oppression and enslavement

About the Author(s)

John Levi Barnard, Associate Professor of English and Comparative and World Literature, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

John Levi Barnard is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative and World Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Table of Contents

    Chapter 1: Phillis Wheatley and the Affairs of State
    Chapter 2: In Plain Sight: Slavery and the Architecture of Democracy
    Chapter 3: Ancient History, American Time: Charles Chesnutt and the Sites of Memory
    Chapter 4: Crumbling into Dust: Conjure and the Ruins of Empire
    Chapter 5: National Monuments and the Residue of History


"Honorable Mention for the 2018 MLA William Sanders Scarborough Prize "

"This is a brilliant study of power in the US. ... Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty." - L. L. Johnson, CHOICE

"John Levi Barnard's Empire of Ruin is an exhaustively researched, tightly woven analysis that takes scholarship on black classism in a fresh, original direction. He demonstrates how African American writers from the Revolution through the civil rights era and beyond have exposed the central role of the classical tradition in supporting slavery and creating oppressive narratives of national and racial identity. An expert study of the politics of culture and the ongoing vision of African American literature and liberation, this book is required reading for specialists in American Literature, African American Studies, Cultural Studies, Rhetoric, and Public History. In the ruins of the classical past, as this book hauntingly presents, rest meanings that continue to haunt and divide our present times." - Barbara Mccaskill, University of Georgia

"Barnard deftly illuminates how figures such as Phillis Wheatley, William Wells Brown, and Charles Chestnut, among others, summoned classical resonances to occasion a critique of the intertwined discourses in the U.S. about democracy, imperialism, and racial formation throughout the long nineteenth century. Over a series of acute and elegant readings, Barnard's book as a whole serves as a trenchant intervention in the still ongoing debates about race and Western modernity, not only the latter's formation but its continued expansion, and a necessary reminder of how black cultural producers have reinvented the ruins of empire into monuments and testimonies of freedom. ... [it] rewards its readers by compelling a reassessment of some of the central lines of critical inquiry of African American Studies and Classics, equally for where they intersect as where they diverge, to reveal how both fields are committed to animating ... the promise of humanism." - Ivy Wilson, Northwestern University

"This lucid and deeply learned book forces us to reconsider the cultural work of classicism; it also announces the arrival of an important new critic. Working across centuries, cultures, and canons, John Levi Barnard offers a series of bravura readings that grant coherence and urgency to a heretofore understudied African American cultural tradition. Barnard's deft discussion of Phillis Wheatley, Charles Chesnutt, and Kara Walker, among others, reveals their withering critiques of American imperialism and white supremacist idealogy." - Coleman Hutchison, University of Texas at Austin