Untimely Dem Cover

Untimely Democracy: The Politics of Progress after Slavery

Available now from Oxford University Press

From the abolition era to the Civil Rights movement to the age of Obama, the promise of perfectibility and improvement resonates in the story of American democracy. But what exactly does racial “progress” mean, and how do we recognize and achieve it? Untimely Democracy uncovers a surprising answer to this question in the writings of American authors and activists, both black and white.

Conventional narratives of democracy stretching from Thomas Jefferson’s America to our own posit a purposeful break between past and present as the key to the viability of this political form—the only way to ensure its continual development. But for Pauline E. Hopkins, Frederick Douglass, Stephen Crane, W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles W. Chesnutt, Sutton E. Griggs, Callie House, and the other figures examined in this book, the campaign to secure liberty and equality for all citizens proceeds most potently when it refuses the precepts of progressive time. Placing these authors’ post-Civil War writings into dialogue with debates about racial “optimism” and “pessimism,” tracts on progress, and accounts of ex-slave pension activism, and extending their insights into our contemporary period, Laski recovers late-nineteenth-century literature as a vibrant site for doing political theory.

Untimely Democracy ultimately shows how one of the bleakest periods in American racial history provided fertile terrain for a radical reconstruction of some of our most deeply held assumptions about this political system. Offering resources for moments when the march of progress seems to stutter and even stop, this book invites us to reconsider just what democracy can make possible.


Read the introduction to the book here.


Praise for Untimely Democracy:

“While the promise of freedom is often coupled to the train of historical progress, Untimely Democracy argues that it is time to derail this conventional assumption. Looking at writers as diverse as Pauline Hopkins and Stephen Crane, Gregory Laski overturns not just settled ideas about chronologies but also the political desire to sever the past from the present. This is a clear and compelling read.” –Russ Castronovo, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Laski’s meticulously researched volume offers critical insight into how slavery shapes American democracy in the past and the present. It also offers essential analysis of postbellum literature.” –Soyica Diggs Colbert, Georgetown University

“Laski’s complex and sophisticated text will have great appeal to political theorists and political philosophers as well as scholars of American political development and American letters and literature.” –Lilly Goren, New Books Network

Untimely Democracy…resonates with wide audiences interested in the question of progress…. Throughout his book, Laski offers a message that is imperative for all citizens of American democracy and perhaps of the world: claims of progress from past to present do nothing but catapult past problems into the future, awaiting solution.” –Rebecca Brenner, Black Perspectives, the official blog of the African American Intellectual History Society