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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.”

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