For America, the mid-nineteenth century was an era of vast expectation and expansion: the country dreamed big, craved new lands, developed new technologies, and after too long a delay, finally confronted its greatest moral failure: slavery.Read more...
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For America, the mid-nineteenth century was an era of vast expectation and expansion: the country dreamed big, craved new lands, developed new technologies, and after too long a delay, finally confronted its greatest moral failure: slavery. Award-winning historian and literary critic Brenda Wineapple explores these feverish, ecstatic, conflicted years when Americans began to live within new and ever-widening borders, both spiritual and geographic; fought a devastating war over parallel ideals of freedom and justice; and transformed their country, at tragic cost, from a confederation into one nation, indivisible.
Populated by idiosyncratic, unforgettable characters such as P. T. Barnum, Walt Whitman, George Armstrong Custer, Horace Greeley, and Jefferson Davis, Ecstatic Nation moves from the vehement debates about slavery through the devastations of the Civil War and its aftermath. It explores the terrible complexities of Reconstruction and the fledgling hope that women would share equally in a new definition of American citizenship, and it traces the lust for land and the lure of its beauty from a frenzied rush to riches to the displacement of Indians. And it looks forward--toward the promise of a more perfect Union for all.
A masterful synthesis of political, cultural, and intellectual history, breathtaking in sweep and scope, Ecstatic Nation is a spellbinding tale of America--its glory and greed, its aspirations and humiliations--in this exhilarating and momentous period.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-05-13
- Reviewer: Staff
This lavish record of the eventful decades surrounding the Civil War explores a divided nation through the personalities of its growing and ideologically diversifying populace. Lincoln emerges as the iconic celebrity of the era’s central conflict, but the real stars are the supporting characters. Politicians, poets, slaves, slave holders, transcendentalists, Mormons, women’s suffragists, and Native American chiefs are just some of the colorful characters who run the gamut from “prolific and daring and conventional” to “spare and iron-willed” and “excessive and homegrown.” Acclaimed biographer Wineapple (White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award) gracefully choreographs a staggering number of primary sources, weaving disparate voices together into one revelatory thread. In her depiction of the bloodshed of the Civil War, she eschews “statistics defy comprehension,” focusing instead on specific scenes and personal stories that capture the magnitude of a pivotal moment before fleshing them out with analyses of contemporaneous reactions. The result reads like a series of biographies-in-miniature, a marvelous survey of both familiar and unsung American stories, contextualized and framed within one sweeping canvas. This is sure to enrich any reader’s understanding of the complicated history of Civil War–era America. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit.
A pivotal era in American history
When John Quincy Adams died in 1848, much of the nation was in the midst of exuberance and exultation. For many people it was a time of great optimism, for reasons including the discovery of gold in California and the establishment of the new Free Soil political party. At the same time, there was also greed, violence and a refusal by many to consider a solution to the nation’s most controversial issue: slavery. In her masterful, sweeping synthesis of a transformative time, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, Brenda Wineapple explores what followed Adams’ death in a wonderfully readable book that holds our interest on every page. It is a rare combination of cultural, political, intellectual and military history that brings this pivotal period to vivid life.
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention, realizing that their entire project could rise or fall depending on how they handled the issue of slavery, had decided to leave the word “slave” out of their final document. Through the years other compromises were reached on slavery until the word “compromise” went from being regarded as an act of statesmanship to an epithet. The abolitionist Wendell Phillips noted, “The great poison of the age is race hatred,” which affected white attitudes not only toward black slaves but also toward Native Americans.
By the spring of 1866, in the wake of the Civil War, Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared the women’s rights movement was in “deep water.” Led by Frederick Douglass and Henry Ward Beecher, among others, the American Equal Rights Association was created to lobby the government for equal rights for all, female and male, black and white. But many abolitionists felt it was only the “Negro’s hour,” rather than, as Stanton said it should be, the “nation’s hour.”
Wineapple introduces us to familiar names such as Clara Barton and P.T. Barnum, as well as a wide array of lesser-known figures, such as Lydia Maria Child, a popular author of children’s literature who was also an abolitionist. Child is best known today for the Thanksgiving Day jingle “Over the river, and through the wood,” but her other works included an influential book advocating immediate emancipation of the slaves, a novel about interracial marriage and a compilation on the condition of women.
In Ecstatic Nation, Wineapple offers a beautifully written and skillfully woven narrative that anyone interested in American history should enjoy.