American Oracle

American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era

David W. Blight
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    American Oracle
    Book Description:

    David Blight takes his readers back to the Civil War’s centennial celebration to determine how Americans made sense of the suffering, loss, and liberation a century earlier. He shows how four of America’s most incisive writers—Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin—explored the gulf between remembrance and reality.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06270-2
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. PROLOGUE. “Five Score Years Ago” Civil War and Civil Rights
    (pp. 1-30)

    A breeze eased the intense heat of the late August afternoon as the huge crowd, weary but peaceful and jubilant, leaned forward to listen. All along the reflecting pool of the Washington Mall, people steadied their sore feet and peered up at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the unofficial secular temple of the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Southern Baptist minister who had become the preeminent face and voice of the Civil Rights Movement, stepped to the microphones and delivered a short, transcendent oration to the world on the meaning of the unfinished American Civil War, and...

  4. CHAPTER ONE “Gods and Devils Aplenty”
    (pp. 31-80)
    Robert Penn Warren

    Robert Penn Warren never stopped asking “what history was.” Endlessly pondering the meaning and nature of the past was, to Warren, as natural as breathing. He first heard the music of poetry and storytelling as a small boy at his grandfather’s feet, sitting on an unkempt lawn in front of a farmhouse in Christian County, Kentucky, in 1911. He likely did not know it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War that year, but his grandfather Gabriel Thomas Penn, a Confederate veteran, did not let him forget it. Warren’s grandfather lived on the isolated farmstead some thirty-five miles from...

  5. CHAPTER TWO A Formula for Enjoying the War
    (pp. 81-128)
    Bruce Catton

    Like Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton “soaked up Civil War history” in his youth at the turn of the twentieth century. For the man who would become the most prolific and popular historian of the war, that soaking occurred way up north in Michigan, in the “cut-over lumber country” almost three hundred miles northwest of Detroit. Into this “friendly, changeless world,” the boy named Charles Bruce Catton was born in 1899, in the little town of Petoskey. Soon afterward, the family moved a bit farther south to Benzonia, near beautiful Crystal Lake. His father, George R. Catton, was the devoutly...

  6. CHAPTER THREE “Lincoln and Lee and All That”
    (pp. 129-182)
    Edmund Wilson

    Edmund Wilson came relatively late to the history of the Civil War. He did not soak it up in childhood amid his well-to-do family in Red Bank, New Jersey, at the turn of the twentieth century. It would take two World Wars, one of which he participated in and the other of which he opposed, a Cold War he loathed and for which he refused to pay his taxes, and nearly fifty years before he would seriously read and write about the war that shaped his father’s generation. But as a shy only child, born in 1895, he did grow...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR “This Country Is My Subject”
    (pp. 183-250)
    James Baldwin

    On September 24, 1964, aboard an Alitalia flight from Europe soon to land in New York City, the intercontinental commuting writer James Baldwin scratched out a handwritten letter to his friend Mary Painter, an economist working at the United States Embassy in Paris. It was a volatile, tense, and increasingly violent time in the daily developments of the Civil Rights Movement, in which Baldwin had become a famous player. Indeed, by 1963–1964 Baldwin’s words, as speaker and essayist, as well as his photograph, had become ubiquitous in the American and European press. Fearing for his own physical safety and...

  8. EPILOGUE. “The Wisdom of Tragedy” Ralph Ellison Had a Dream
    (pp. 251-258)

    After his magnificent novel Invisible Man was published in 1952, Ralph Ellison became a powerful and prolific essayist. His essays examined the meaning of race and identity in American society and culture with unique insight and imagination. Ellison possessed a profound sense of history, but he only rarely addressed the Civil War specifically as an enduring marker in the nation’s past.

    In the summer of 1953, while at a symposium held in Harvard University’s Memorial Hall, which is physically one of the largest Civil War monuments in the United States, Ellison experienced what Arnold Rampersad calls an “epiphany that overwhelmed...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 261-294)
  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 295-300)
  11. Index
    (pp. 301-315)