American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era

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Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, a century after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King, Jr., declared, “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.” He delivered this speech just three years after the Virginia Civil War Commission published a guide proclaiming that “the Centennial is no time for finding fault or placing blame or fighting the issues all over again.”

David Blight takes his readers back to the centennial celebration to determine how Americans then made sense of the suffering, loss, and liberation that had wracked the United States a century earlier. Amid cold war politics and civil rights protest, four of America’s most incisive writers explored the gulf between remembrance and reality. Robert Penn Warren, the southern-reared poet-novelist who recanted his support of segregation; Bruce Catton, the journalist and U.S. Navy officer who became a popular Civil War historian; Edmund Wilson, the century’s preeminent literary critic; and James Baldwin, the searing African-American essayist and activist—each exposed America’s triumphalist memory of the war. And each, in his own way, demanded a reckoning with the tragic consequences it spawned.

Blight illuminates not only mid-twentieth-century America’s sense of itself but also the dynamic, ever-changing nature of Civil War memory. On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the war, we have an invaluable perspective on how this conflict continues to shape the country’s political debates, national identity, and sense of purpose.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This inaptly titled book is a set of critical reflections on the racial attitudes and historical views of four great American writers—James Baldwin, Bruce Catton, Robert Penn Warren, and Edmund Wilson (and in an epilogue, Ralph Ellison)—around the time of the Civil War centennial 50 years ago. A Yale historian of the Civil War and its aftermath, Blight knows we're all limited by our origins and times, and each of his essays take up the ways each writer, Northern or Southern, black or white, addressed race and sectional reconciliation and how they got tripped up in their complications. Robert Penn Warren, for instance, "loved ambiguity" and believed truth about as significant an event as the Civil War "was just too messy and elusive." While spending too many words on each author's biography, Blight deftly reviews the critical reception, negative as well as positive, of each writer's works. Much contemporary criticism foreshadowed Blight's open-eyed evaluation of the works by which his writers are now most recalled. Still, this is a distinctive addition to the books about the Civil War and how we view it on the conflict's 150th anniversary. (Sept.)
Booklist (starred review)

As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War (2011–15) begins, historian Blight examines how we handled the centennial, which occurred at the infancy of the civil rights movement, and the persistent questioning about all the elements that were at the heart of the nation-rending civil conflict. History and great literature blend beautifully as Blight conducts his examination of the works of four writers—Robert Penn Warren, southern-born novelist; Bruce Catton, historian and journalist; Edmund Wilson, literary critic; and James Baldwin, northern-born essayist and race critic—providing background and context for their works and their views of the centennial and all its commercialism and hypocrisy. From their different perspectives, the four offer "a way of understanding the Civil War both as something very American and as an event in a larger human drama." Blight explores Warren's straightforward look at the racism at the heart of the war and the continued hypocrisy of southern commemorations, Catton's cold-eyed examination of the cost of war, Wilson's deconstruction of the war as a unifier of the nation, and Baldwin's chastisement of American racism. Throughout, Blight explores the mythology that came out of the Civil War and the sense of American redemption that did not include any examination of the tragedies of racism and slavery.
— Vanessa Bush

Charlotte Observer

David W. Blight's richly interpretive American Oracle contextualizes the sentimentalized celebration of the Civil War in the early 1960s within the tense realities of the civil rights era and the Cold War. Blight unravels the complexities of Civil War memory and meaning at a time when most white Americans considered restoration of the Union, not emancipation, as the war's grand result.
— John David Smith

Times Higher Education

This book is several things, suggests Blight, but he hits it best when he characterizes it as a "discussion of four Americans in search of their country's history." In doing so, he gives us more than a history lesson: he presents an introspective journey into America's most complex and enigmatic historical event through the minds of four exceptional storytellers. He offers us the opportunity to revisit a monumental tragedy and thereby invites us to probe its meaning. If we do, we will not only be reacquainted with a defining American moment but we will also learn more about who America is, and why.
— James T. Crouse

New York Review of Books

David Blight has written a searching and suggestive book.
— Andrew Delbanco


Overall a valuable contribution to historical understanding.
— D. Schaefer

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674048553
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/26/2011
  • Pages: 328
  • Sales rank: 985,758
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

David W. Blight is Class of 1954 Professor of History at Yale University.

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