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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.

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

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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.

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