Brenda Wineapple’s Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 is a sweeping work of American history, chronicling a period of immense change through the era’s monumental events and the diverse American personalities behind them.
Your previous books have been primarily biographies. Why this broader historical narrative?
I’d conceived of my last book, White Heat, as a double history, [about] what happened to Emily Dickinson’s poems, and the development of abolitionism. History plays a large role, but since it’s filtered through people, people understand it as biography. For me, the relationship between the two had become porous, so when the opportunity came to write this book, I wanted to move even further away from biography. And I’m intrigued by how you tell history. How do you narrate it? How do you figure it out?
In writing this book, were you more interested in people or events?
The events—because it’s such a huge and complicated period. I thought to myself, “There’s so much going on in this particular period, how am I going to begin to organize it?” Then I thought, “If I were reading newspapers from the 19th century and I was from Mars, how would I put the various events together on the front pages?” They all appear in the newspaper at the same time, so I started thinking, “What are the events that are plaguing people—that people are debating—and how do they relate to one another?”
How did you lay out the book’s scope?
I began with the questions that perplexed me. Was the war inevitable? Did the people living at the time foresee what was starting to happen? It’s a cliché, that we have 20/20 hindsight, but what did they see? What did they think they were doing? What books were they reading? And the people writing those books, what were they trying to say? It was all part of the same moment—the way we might have a moment now, yet we don’t even step back and think about the various ways in which seemingly disparate cultural events or politics are related. That’s what I was looking for—connections.
You profile a lot of eccentrics in the book. Is eccentricity built into the “American character”?
I think so. There’s tremendous room for eccentricity, and that’s really rather wonderful. That gives so much spice, so much seasoning, so much diversity. And it’s not just a question of racial or other kinds of diversity—we forget about people who just have different points of view, different ways of structuring their lives.