Ecstatic Nation

Taking a fresh approach to the US Civil War, biographer and literary critic Brenda Wineapple brings readers deep into the era's culture.

Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, by Brenda Wineapple, HarperCollins Publishers, 736 pages

The US Civil War is one of the most heavily chronicled events in American history. Finding a fresh approach to such a well-trodden era is difficult, to say the least. But in her new book, Ecstatic Nation, Brenda Wineapple has managed to do so. 

A biographer of 19th-century American writers (including Emily Dickinson and Nathanial Hawthorne), Wineapple teaches literature at both New York's New School University and Columbia University. That background serves her well in "Ecstatic Nation," as it leads her to eschew a narrow focus on political or military retellings of the Civil War in favor of one that incorporates cultural and social aspects.

Wineapple's view of Civil War-era America is that of a land bound with both energies and furies.

“In the roiling middle of the nineteenth century, when Americans looked within, not without, there was unassailable intensity and imagination and exuberance, inspirited and nutty and frequently cruel or brutal,” she writes. “There was also a seemingly insatiable and almost frenetic quest for freedom, expressed in several competing ways, for the possession of things, of land, and – alas – of persons. And in many instances, there was a passion, sometimes self-righteous, sometimes self-abnegating, for doing good, even if that good included, for its sake and in its name, acts of murder.”

"Ecstatic Nation" is not a book with a particular thesis to promote. Wineapple offers no original perspectives on the major players it covers, from John Quincy Adams to Abraham Lincoln to James Buchanan. For the most part, her views hew safely to present-day perspectives. Southern slavery was a monstrosity that anything but war was unlikely to eradicate. Lincoln was a great man, simultaneously cautious and zealous. Ulysses Grant was a well-meaning but ineffectual president in his efforts to reconstruct the South among more egalitarian lines.

And the brief window of opportunity opened at the end of the war – when it seemed as if African Americans might be able to become equal citizens – was swiftly shut as one leader after another capitulated to Southern demands for the restoration of white supremacy in exchange for achieving some sort of peace and stability in the nation as a whole.

“The time had come for forgetting and healing, erasing and conciliating,” she mourns in the book’s closing pages. Freedom for blacks would have to wait another century.

But if not novel in its views, "Ecstatic Nation" can claim innovation in its approach. Contemporary observations from Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hendy David Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Dickinson are scattered throughout the pages, appearing in context as the commentaries on the America of their time

Wineapple’s own literary talents are on full display, as well. She is a beautiful writer, at once lyrical and measured. “War came,” she writes, reciting Lincoln’s famous words. “Yet somehow those two words, accurate though they are, make the war seem inevitable; what came, had to have come. Perhaps, but perhaps not; for even with hindsight, it’s hard to say that this or that would or could have stopped the war.” That's just one delicious sample.

Wineapple's storytelling flair is also evident in the sketches of some long-forgotten characters. There is General Narciso Lopez, a Venezuelan man who persuaded slaveowners to finance his doomed attempt to annex Cuba for the United States. He appears to be political con man, the 1850s version of Ahmad Chalabi, who wooed Bush administration officials with tales of easy conquests of Iraq.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull, a radical feminist who called for sexual freedom, is quoted as writing that “she who married for support and not for love, is a lazy pauper, coward, and prostitute.”

Perhaps most inspiring and tragic is General Rufus Saxton, who attempted to help the newly freed slaves become self-sustaining individuals on land confiscated from the Confederacy. He wanted to help “every colored man, every head of a family, to acquire a freehold, a little place he can call his own.” His attempts at assisting African Americans to save their own money and work their own land came to naught, of course, as post-Lincoln presidents assuaged Southern apartheid and re-enslaved blacks under the name of Jim Crow.

All of this material combines to make "Ecstatic Nation" somewhat unwieldy. It is not a tightly argued book, or one that will spark new debates. But in providing a sense of the possibilities and tragedies of the era, of its passions and disappointments, Wineapple has given us a memorable book.

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