American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era

American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era

by David W. Blight
     
 

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David Blight takes his readers back to the Civil War's centennial celebration to determine how Americans made sense of the suffering, loss, and liberation a century earlier. He shows how four of America's most incisive writers-Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin-explored the gulf between remembrance and reality.

Overview

David Blight takes his readers back to the Civil War's centennial celebration to determine how Americans made sense of the suffering, loss, and liberation a century earlier. He shows how four of America's most incisive writers-Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin-explored the gulf between remembrance and reality.

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

Choice

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

Ken Burns
The ghosts of the Civil War never leave us, as David Blight knows perhaps better than anyone, and in this superb book he masterfully unites two distant but inextricably bound events with insightful dissection of the works of four of our best writers, writers obsessed with coming to terms with our original sin.
Fitzhugh Brundage
Truly a tour de force… intellectual history and criticism at the highest level, told with passion and artistry.
Gary Gallagher
Perceptive, eloquent, and timely, Blight's book should find a wide and appreciative audience.
Caryl Phillips
Blight's elegant narrative enables us to see the full, enduring, significance of the Civil War in the consciousness of four major writers. An outstanding achievement.
Tony Horwitz
The Civil War has given us not only great history, literature, and art, but also great works of thought. David Blight enriches this canon by probing the war's power to haunt and inspire every generation. American Oracle is intellectual history at its best—deep terrain, mined by a scholar who brings gems to the page.
Michael Kammen
During the middle decades of the twentieth century the United States faced a dual challenge—of civility and memory, each one race-related. David Blight develops deep biographical links to connect and explain those troubled years, and does so with eloquence. He thereby adds a brilliant new aspect to the field of American memory studies.
Booklist (starred review) - Vanessa Bush
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.
Charlotte Observer - John David Smith
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.
Times Higher Education - James T. Crouse
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.
New York Review of Books - Andrew Delbanco
David Blight has written a searching and suggestive book.
Choice - D. Schaefer
Overall a valuable contribution to historical understanding.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674725973
Publisher:
Harvard
Publication date:
10/07/2013
Pages:
328
Sales rank:
693,100
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

What People are saying about this

Michael Kammen
During the middle decades of the twentieth century the United States faced a dual challenge—of civility and memory, each one race-related. David Blight develops deep biographical links to connect and explain those troubled years, and does so with eloquence. He thereby adds a brilliant new aspect to the field of American memory studies.
Michael Kammen, Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture (Emeritus) at Cornell University and Past President of the Organization of American Historians
Ken Burns
The ghosts of the Civil War never leave us, as David Blight knows perhaps better than anyone, and in this superb book he masterfully unites two distant but inextricably bound events with insightful dissection of the works of four of our best writers, writers obsessed with coming to terms with our original sin.
Tony Horwitz
The Civil War has given us not only great history, literature, and art, but also great works of thought. David Blight enriches this canon by probing the war's power to haunt and inspire every generation. American Oracle is intellectual history at its best—deep terrain, mined by a scholar who brings gems to the page.
Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic
Fitzhugh Brundage
Truly a tour de force… intellectual history and criticism at the highest level, told with passion and artistry.

Fitzhugh Brundage, author of The Southern Past

Caryl Phillips
Blight's elegant narrative enables us to see the full, enduring, significance of the Civil War in the consciousness of four major writers. An outstanding achievement.

Caryl Phillips, author of Dancing in the Dark

Gary Gallagher
Perceptive, eloquent, and timely, Blight's book should find a wide and appreciative audience.
Gary Gallagher, author of The Union War

Meet the Author

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

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