Book Talk: Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood by Colin Woodard
The author of American Nations returns to the historical study of a fractured America by examining how a myth of national unity was created and fought over in the nineteenth century--a myth that continues to affect us today.
About the Book
Union tells the story of the struggle to create a national myth for the United States, one that could hold its rival regional cultures together and forge, for the first time, an American nationhood. It tells the dramatic tale of how the story of our national origins, identity, and purpose was intentionally created and fought over in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On one hand, a small group of individuals--historians, political leaders, and novelists--fashioned and promoted a history that attempted to transcend and erase the fundamental differences and profound tensions between the nation's regional cultures. America had a God-given mission to lead humanity toward freedom, equality, and self-government and was held together by fealty to these ideals.
This emerging nationalist story was immediately and powerfully contested by another set of intellectuals and firebrands who argued that the United States was instead an ethno-state, the homeland of the allegedly superior "Anglo-Saxon" race, upon whom Divine and Darwinian favor shined. Their vision helped create a new federation--the Confederacy--prompting the bloody Civil War. While defeated on the battlefield, their vision later managed to win the war of ideas, capturing the White House in the early twentieth century, and achieving the first consensus, pan-regional vision of U.S. nationhood in the years before the outbreak of the first World War.
This narrower, more exclusive vision of America would be overthrown in mid-century, but it was never fully vanquished. Woodard tells the story of the genesis and epic confrontations between these visions of our nation's path and purpose through the lives of the key figures who created them, a cast of characters whose personal quirks and virtues, gifts and demons shaped the destiny of millions.
Reviews and What Readers Say
“ Woodard traces a gradual, emerging consensus of American unity. It’s a dark tale. This country purchased its sense of itself as a unified whole at a high price, he writes: that of racial equality. . . . In Woodard’s hands, [history] leaps to life. He shows just how powerful a form popular nonfiction can be in the hands of a disciplined writer who won’t tolerate generality or abstraction. . . . The writing is relentlessly accessible. . . . This is that rare history that tells what influential thinkers failed to think, what famous writers left unwritten. . . . Woodard demonstrates that something more complicated than reason is always afoot, some swirl of politics, events, and wordless popular sentiment that sweeps the hapless thinker in its wake."
—Jill Leovy,The American Scholar
“ Overall, Woodward effectively shows how the country struggled to create a national myth, and an international image of unity. . . . Woodard is a gifted historiographer, and this excellent work will be appreciated by anyone interested in American history and how it came to be written."
“ One of the most original books I read in the last year was American Nations. . . . During my five years as an ambassador in the United States, I spent a lot of time studying the voting patterns of different states and reading American history, and I have to say I find Woodard’s thesis to be fully borne out by my own observations."
—John Bruton, former European Union ambassador to the United States
“ In a compelling mash-up of the contemporary political geography of authors like Joel Garreau and Dante Chinni with the ethnography and history of David Hackett Finscher (Albion’s Seed), [Colin] Woodard divides North America into eleven distinct “nations." . . . [A] fascinating new ethnographic history of North America.” —Alec MacGillis, The New Republic
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Colin Woodard, a New York Times bestselling author and historian, is the state and national affairs writer at the Portland Press Herald, where he received a 2012 George Polk Award and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. A longtime foreign correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and the San Francisco Chronicle, he has reported from more than fifty foreign countries and six continents. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, Smithsonian,Politico, and dozens of other publications. A graduate of Tufts University and the University of Chicago, he is the author of American Nations, American Character, The Lobster Coast, The Republic of Pirates, and Ocean's End. He lives in Maine.