Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877

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For America, the mid-nineteenth century was an era of vast expectation and expansion: the country dreamed big, craved new lands, developed new technologies, and after too long a delay, finally confronted its greatest moral failure: slavery. Award-winning historian and literary critic Brenda Wineapple explores these feverish, ecstatic, conflicted years when Americans began to live within new and ever-widening borders, both spiritual and geographic; fought a devastating war over parallel ideals of freedom and ...

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Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877

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For America, the mid-nineteenth century was an era of vast expectation and expansion: the country dreamed big, craved new lands, developed new technologies, and after too long a delay, finally confronted its greatest moral failure: slavery. Award-winning historian and literary critic Brenda Wineapple explores these feverish, ecstatic, conflicted years when Americans began to live within new and ever-widening borders, both spiritual and geographic; fought a devastating war over parallel ideals of freedom and justice; and transformed their country, at tragic cost, from a confederation into one nation, indivisible.

A masterful synthesis of political, cultural, and intellectual history, breathtaking in sweep and scope, Ecstatic Nation is a spellbinding tale of America—its glory and greed, its aspirations and humiliations—in this exhilarating and momentous period.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - David S. Reynolds
In…her splendid new history of the Civil War period, Brenda Wineapple takes us on a different ride…Lincoln is there, of course, along with all the other major players, but the usual dichotomies are replaced by a kaleidoscope of outsize personalities, conflicting visions and unforeseen events. In other words, Wineapple gives us history as it feels in real time: full of plans that backfire, schemes foiled by chance, outliers who suddenly change everything and happy endings that turn out to be not too happy after all…Wineapple makes good use of her gift…of communicating vast amounts of information in lively, cogent prose. She makes familiar historical figures seem fresh and unfamiliar ones seem vitally important. The result is a masterly, deeply moving record of a crucial period in American history.
Publishers Weekly
This lavish record of the eventful decades surrounding the Civil War explores a divided nation through the personalities of its growing and ideologically diversifying populace. Lincoln emerges as the iconic celebrity of the era’s central conflict, but the real stars are the supporting characters. Politicians, poets, slaves, slave holders, transcendentalists, Mormons, women’s suffragists, and Native American chiefs are just some of the colorful characters who run the gamut from “prolific and daring and conventional” to “spare and iron-willed” and “excessive and homegrown.” Acclaimed biographer Wineapple (White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award) gracefully choreographs a staggering number of primary sources, weaving disparate voices together into one revelatory thread. In her depiction of the bloodshed of the Civil War, she eschews “statistics defy comprehension,” focusing instead on specific scenes and personal stories that capture the magnitude of a pivotal moment before fleshing them out with analyses of contemporaneous reactions. The result reads like a series of biographies-in-miniature, a marvelous survey of both familiar and unsung American stories, contextualized and framed within one sweeping canvas. This is sure to enrich any reader’s understanding of the complicated history of Civil War–era America. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit.
Library Journal
Wineapple (Leon Levy Ctr. for Biography, CUNY Graduate Sch.; Hawthorne: A Life) paints a broad canvas of 19th-century American ideas, identities, and interests to show how compromise and common concerns fractured over slavery and other issues. Her book reveals more conceit than confidence and more confrontation than compromise by following the lives of a host of strong-minded and strong-willed men, and several women, contending for power in politics, letters, and society. Through them, Wineapple shows how private concerns became public controversies and the ways in which ideas about honor and duty informed—and then were shattered by—warmaking. She offers no new interpretive directions, but she does bring the age to life, especially through the eyes of writers. In extending her study westward, Wineapple shows an America on the make and on the move, shifting the national narrative from "the war" alone to one of the complications and contradictions of expanding freedom by conquest. Her powerful prose takes the pulse of a nation unmaking and remaking. VERDICT Readers looking for a reliable, readable, and riveting story of the people and process of Wineapple's chosen era will find this title well worth the ride.—Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-09-01
A sweeping look at the Civil War in the context of its social, cultural and intellectual climate. Wineapple (Modern Literary and Historical Studies/Union Coll.; White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 2008) begins with a bang: the death of John Quincy Adams on the House floor, after decades of fighting to end slavery. From there, she takes up the narrative of some 50 years of turbulent American history, full of grand schemes, bitter conflicts, brilliant characters and unforgettable stories. Among the plotlines are the effort by Southern slaveholders to find new territories to expand into, so as to preserve the balance between slave and free states in the Senate; the abolitionists' appeal to higher laws; the rise of transcendentalism, spiritualism and other quasi-religious philosophies; and the settlement of the West. It would be hard for a master novelist to top the cast of characters, who run the gamut from politicians to writers, soldiers, ministers, nurses, journalists and outright frauds. Wineapple covers the grand sweep of history, from the run-up to secession and the war itself to the Reconstruction era and its ultimate betrayal. Secondary plots abound, from plans to annex Cuba to the Indian Wars. Throw in all the quips, slogans, insults and grand sentiments of an age when educated men and women prided themselves on their eloquence, and you've got the recipe for a wonderful saga. Wineapple gives all the major players a turn in the spotlight and, in the case of the true giants of the era, Abraham Lincoln especially, their full due. The author effectively draws in all the currents of the time, from popular culture and polemical journalism to the grand literary monuments. Best of all, she brings it together in a compelling narrative that will enlighten readers new to the material and thoroughly entertain those familiar with it. History on the grand scale, orchestrated by a virtuoso.
Open Letters Monthly
“Extremely satisfying. . . . The narrative of Ecstatic Nation, so irresistible and perfectly-orchestrated, catches dozens of wonderful portraits in its net. . . . A triumph.”
Daniel Walker Howe
Ecstatic Nation is varied, original and engaging from cover to cover. All in all, this is a magnificent read for history lovers.”
Geoff Dyer
“The most ambitious and thrilling new book I read this year. . . . A complex, densely peopled and relentlessly gripping political, cultural, and military history of America from the build-up to the Civil War to the crumbling of Reconstruction in its aftermath. . . . Magnificent.”
The Washington Times
“For readers seeking a beautifully written, overall survey of mid-19th century America that leaves no major theme or character out, Wineapple’s account gets the highest recommendation.”
Ron Chernow
“A splendidly lyrical portrait of the decades that encompass both the Civil War and Reconstruction. . . . Beautifully written, artfully constructed, and passionately argued on every page, Ecstatic Nation stands forth as a model of narrative history.”
James Oakes
“There are good storytellers and there are good historians. Brenda Wineapple is both. Beautifully written and grounded in a prodigious mastery of the material, there is no other book like it. Seasoned scholars will be impressed. Interested readers will be riveted.”
David Blight
“A wonderful, unconventional narrative history, laced with finely-grained sketches of fascinating, conflicted people and harrowing events. Wineapple delivers for even the most avid readers about this era a series of surprises. This is the art of history informed by learning and written with style.”
Robert K. Massie
“A remarkable, mesmerizing book. . . . For many of us, the years before and after the Civil War have seemed hollow and empty, presided over by dreary, cowardly men. No longer, thanks to this book’s impeccable scholarship, vivid characterizations, and masterful storytelling.”
James McPherson
“Brenda Wineapple portrays the years of sectional conflict, Civil War, and Reconstruction on a broad canvas that has room for Emily Dickinson and Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis and Walt Whitman. Blending cultural and political history, Ecstatic Nation offers new perspectives on this transformative era.”
Jon Meacham
“This is a marvelous book. With narrative grace and surehanded scholarship, Brenda Wineapple has written a compelling account of an epochal (and too little understood) age. From the death of John Quincy Adams through the Civil War to the tragedy of Reconstruction, Wineapple tells the American story brilliantly.”
Annette Gordon-Reed
Ecstatic Nation is a brilliant portrait of American society in the mid-nineteenth century. . . . Wineapple’s deep research, deft character studies, and rich and nuanced storytelling bring this transformative period alive. A must-read for all lovers of American history.”
“A masterful, sweeping synthesis of a transformative time. . . . In Ecstatic Nation, Wineapple offers a beautifully written and skillfully woven narrative that anyone interested in American history should enjoy.”
Judith Thurman
“A rich, beautifully told chronicle of American politics and society between 1848 and 1877.”
“Wineapple’s history creatively quavers with the tensions of the transformative times.”
David S. Reynolds
“A splendid new history of the Civil War period. . . . Wineapple brings alive the vibrant, imperfect people behind the issues. . . . A masterly, deeply moving record of a crucial period in American history.”
The Los Angeles Times
Ecstatic Nation powerfully portrays life in the decades surrounding the Civil War, connecting history with modern-day debate. . . . A fresh and riveting account of America at war with itself. . . . Wide in scope and deep in detail.”
The Boston Globe
Ecstatic Nation is historical writing of the highest order. . . . With vivid portrayals of the principals of the period, Wineapple sets out the conflicts and causes that shaped the nation. . . . An indispensable guide to the forces that created our own time.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“Wineapple is a beautiful writer, at once lyrical and measured. . . . In providing a sense of the possibilities and tragedies or the era, of its passions and disappointments, Wineapple has given us a memorable book.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061234576
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/6/2013
  • Series: American History
  • Pages: 722
  • Sales rank: 792,158
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 2.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Brenda Wineapple is the prizewinning author of several books, including White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book. She lives in New York City.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 20, 2013

    Dissatisfied Nation

    I found the book to be mistitled and disappointing. Far from being ecstatic, by the end of the book, if not long before, the substance of events portrayed are discouraging. Moreover, Wineapple went off on tangents that frequently leave the reader wondering "what's her point/" The vignettes she included might have been illustrative of some underlying theme or issue. However, more often than not they stood isolated unto themselves.

    Perhaps the book was conceived to contextualize the Civil War by describing the events preceding and following the war. If so, the connections among events are not drawn tightly enough to make this obvious. By the end, my view of the book was unecstatic.

    A disappointed reader.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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