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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On a troubled century that defined the nation

And you think we're a politically fractured nation now?

The Los Angeles Times has posted my review of Brenda Wineapple's fine new history, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, which explores the national mood in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. You could fill a library with the volumes that have been written about those turbulent and violent days, but Wineapple's book stands out as a broad cultural history. It's light on battle details - incorporating the major, pivotal moments while eliding the incremental skirmishes - and deep on politics and cultural collisions.

I've argued in the past that one of the propellants of our current cultural frictions is a failure to acknowledge that different races, cultures, and economic strata have different views of our national history. That has infused the debate around Detroit and its economic collapse. But it crops up elsewhere, too, as we saw with Paula Deen and a recent survey in which Georgia Republicans thought more highly of her than Martin Luther King Jr. Same country, different views. Same as it ever was.
It's hard in an era of voter suppression efforts in minority neighborhoods, with a Supreme Court that devalues the Civil Rights Act, and when an armed Florida vigilante can spark a confrontation and then claim self-defense, to not measure past against present. Especially given the argument streaming through conservative America that this is a post-racial society in which blacks no longer need special protections from the legal system.

Whites and blacks have a different history in these same United States, and it behooves us to recognize that. And to sense — in the present — the weight of the past. Wineapple's Ecstatic Nation does a laudable job of bringing to life not just the Civil War but the society in which it occurred — and has evolved into the present.
It's a good book. It can take patience in places, with a wide cast of characters and quotes that can make for burdensome reading. But it's well worth the effort.
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