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 activisteach 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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What People are Saying About This
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
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.
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
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
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
Perceptive, eloquent, and timely, Blight's book should find a wide and appreciative audience.
Gary Gallagher, author of The Union War