The loaf of American history is rarely sliced this way: one end at the revolutionary year of 1848, when women rebelled in New York, gold was discovered in California, and John Quincy Adams, the last tie to the Revolutionary period, expired in Washington; and the other in 1877, when America was unrecognizable to antebellum eyes, having grown in size, stature, and style and having purged slavery but not bigotry.
But Brenda Wineapple has cut off this chunk of mid-century America to examine, seeing in it closure and opening both, a period of exuberance and energy but also struggle and savagery, a time of imagination and industry but also introspection and impatience.
“Ecstatic Nation’’ is an idiosyncratic title — it comes from Emily Dickinson — for an idiosyncratic book, but in looking at America from a different perspective she illuminates the American past and sets out what in 1848 was called the future: “a time of delirium, failure, greed, violence, and refusal: refusal to listen and to find — or create — that hard common ground of compromise; refusal to bend, so great was the fear of breaking; refusal to change and refusal to imagine what it might be like to be someone else.’’
The terrain she covers is not unfamiliar even to a middling 11th-grader slogging through a stifling survey course in American history: national debate about expansion and slavery, civil war and reconstruction, manufacturing and malodorous captains of industry. But like the time she portrays, there is a passion in these pages — a forward momentum that is not only historical but also rhetorical. It is not exactly popular history — Wineapple teaches at Union College, which predates this period by a half-century — but it is historical writing of the highest order.
But not of the traditional order. Along with the customary political characters of the period there are appearances of P.T. Barnum and Emily Dickinson. This is not cultural history, and it is not counterculture history, but it is vivid history. As a result Wineapple is able to discuss Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln and to say of Lincoln that he offered a Union, in words from “Leaves of Grass,’’ that was “always calm and impregnable.’’
Can you use this as your only reading excursion into this period? Probably not. Can you use this as an introduction, or supplement, to a more conventional survey? Absolutely — and you will be rewarded genuinely and generously.
Wineapple provides the smell and the feel of the era. And besides two of the five senses she engages the mind, as in this meditation on the crisis of secession before the Civil War: “Though argued as a democratic right, secession was a slap to democratic government . . . Yet most secessionists saw themselves as protecting the Constitution, not tearing it apart; secession was their duty.’’ Or in this, about the 15th president: “[James] Buchanan had supported secession by not opposing it.’’
Much of the book consists of what painters sometimes call “miniatures,’’ small portraits of meaningful moments, including an especially evocative sketch of Robert Gould Shaw and his fabled 54th Massachusetts, the black regiment among whose dead he was buried.
Sprinkled throughout are several intriguing nuggets: Stonewall Jackson was “as fanatical in his way as John Brown.’’ The song “Dixie,’’ which we associate with the Confederacy, was originally a Northern minstrel song. Dorothea Dix, the Union superintendent of nurses, concentrated her recruiting efforts on unattractive women over 30. (She found 3,200 of them.) The term “agnostic’’ was coined by the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley.
Then there is the notion that the Confederacy expired as its raison d’etre expired, with the acceptance of the idea of using black soldiers in battle. “By admitting that the slave could fight and die for a cause and that if he did so he deserved to be free,’’ Wineapple writes, “the Confederacy could no longer logically argue that it fought to defend slavery.’’
With vivid portrayals of the principals of the period — especially Andrew Johnson, Thaddeus Stevens, and Horace Greeley, whom she describes as a “reformer, crank, brilliant editor and man of his time’’ — Wineapple sets out the conflicts and causes that shaped the period and the nation, even the free-love movement, and examines why the revolution that gave freedom to the black was unable to provide the vote for the female.
At the end of the period the nation turned from issues of justice toward issues of commerce. “Righteous indignation about slavery had given way to righteous indignation about alleged political corruption,’’ she explains, “and the complexities of principled compromise — and of principle — had subsided into a largely bombastic politics of conciliation.’’
This is a book written in the style of Van Wyck Brooks, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Carl Sandburg, with a dash of David McCullough, meant here as praise even if Wineapple’s scholarly colleagues sneer at such historical accessibility. It is a portrait of a time consistently misunderstood in our time. As such it is an indispensable guide to the forces that created our own time.David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.