Home » OL Weekly

Book Review: Ecstatic Nation

By (September 15, 2013) No Comment

Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848 – 1877ecstatic nation cover

by Brenda Wineapple

HarperCollins, 2013


Brenda Wineapple, who’s previously given readers a fine biography of Janet Flanner and excellent biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne (as well as 2008’s strangely captivating and far less easily categorized White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson), broadens her canvas considerably in her sprawling, extremely satisfying new book Ecstatic Nation. Here she’s indulging in biography writ large, the portrait of the United States in the decades of its worse, most defining national convulsions. She begins her story in 1848 when the racial tensions that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had diagnosed a generation earlier (and that John Quincy Adams – something of a hero to our author, and rightfully so – is railing against in vain as the book’s action opens) were finally coming to a murderous, confounding heat:

And there was the war, that terrible war, and all the while, before, during, and after it, the idea of compromise, which was being bandied about, debated, and often held responsible for the country’s failure to face its fatal flaws, for its selfishness and short-sightedness, and for the reconciliations, at the end of Reconstruction, that opened a new era (beyond the scope of this book) of Jim Crow.

She’s quick to add the fateful disclaimer, “I don’t presume to say what people should or should not have done, which is not to suggest I am without judgment, sorrow, or at certain times astonishment” – which is always a sure sign that an author is about to do a heaping pile of presuming, and thankfully, it proves true here as well. It’s always blissfully, thought-provokingly easy to tell what Wineapple thinks of the people who make up her narrative, from the aforementioned JQA, about whom she writes, “This was the son of a president and a president himself, who, after he left the executive office, had broadened” (our author’s affection for the verse of Emily Dickinson – from which the book takes its title – couldn’t be clearer than in the lovely off-kilter lilt of lines like that) to the resolutely enigmatic Illinois lawmaker Stephen Douglas:

Machiavellian though he may have been, a shrewd political operator though he was, and despite his unreflective racism, Douglas did believe in pure popular sovereignty as a matter of democratic principle. For him, it harked back to Thomas Jefferson, and he placed it at Jefferson’s feet. The people should decide. It was that simple. What Douglas failed to see – and this was his personal flaw as well as the moral pitfall of nineteenth-century America – was that popular sovereignty would eventually mean nothing if voters could cast ballots about whether or not to buy and sell other people.

The narrative of Ecstatic Nation, so irresistible and perfectly-orchestrated, catches dozens of such wonderful portraits in its net (this is very much a biographer’s view of American history, happily), including major players like General Ulysses S. Grant, P. T. Barnum, Horace Greeley, and of course Abraham Lincoln – and also minor figures like geologist and passionate polymath Clarence King, who receives in a total of perhaps 30 pages here a more intelligent and sensitive appraisal than he’s received from any previous biographer:

On Christmas Eve 1901, the nomadic Clarence King died, not yet sixty years old. His fall from grace, or what his friends considered grace, seemed shocking to those who thought they knew him well. But perhaps he was too superlatively American to be known by this small cadre of accomplished men. Perhaps King embodied in a tragic way the America still riven by a series of internal wars, the America that had mistaken a grand destiny for a pot of gold and that sought to bury its peevish, ambivalent feelings about race and so-called civilization under the cracking veneer of Gilded Age gentility.

But for all the virtuosity of these personal accounts, Wineapple’s main focus this time around is more sociological than personal; she attempts in Ecstatic Nation nothing less than a sympathetic but unflinching assessment of an entire fractured, romantic, bewildered, and often valorous people:

These countrymen in Tennessee and Virginia and Pennsylvania, countrymen from the backwoods of Missouri and Maine, had been rocked to sleep with stories about Washington and Jefferson; they had heard the same tales about Bunker Hill and Yorktown, the valor of Patrick Henry, and the flintiness of John Quincy Adams. Though they called their battles by different names – Confederates generally designating towns, such as Manassas, and Federals referring to nearby streams or rivers, such as Bull Run – they spoke the same language, shared the same history.

The end result is a big, engaging book unlike anything bookstores have seen since the great Page Smith laid down his pen. Ecstatic Nation is a triumph.


(all quotes from ECSTATIC NATION by Brenda Wineapple © 2013 Brenda Wineapple. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)