A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided

Jackson Lears writes:

Amanda Foreman’s remarkable new book suggests that it takes a foreigner to clear the air of cant. By taking the British perspective, she captures the full complexity of the American Civil War: the confused aims and mixed motives of the combatants, the misperceptions of the foreigners whose favour they courted so assiduously. The result is a rich account on a stunningly broad canvas, populated by a fascinating array of characters. Mythic figures (Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Jackson), seen afresh, acquire sharper outlines. Second-tier players have their moment in the limelight: the secretary of state William Seward drinks too much and blusters about invading Canada; the US ambassador Charles Francis Adams keeps a stiff and chilly distance from London society, managing to seem both unformed and overly formal; the Confederate envoy James Mason says ‘chaw’ for ‘chew’, calls himself ‘Jeems’ and offends British officials with his crude racist remarks; the Southern spy Belle Boyd charms influential men with her deft flirtations. Meanwhile a motley British crowd jostles for involvement in the struggle: prodigal sons down on their luck, soldiers in search of adventure, journalists eager for a scoop. And more than a few British subjects, who share the misfortune of being on US premises at the wrong time, find themselves kidnapped into the Union or Confederate army.�

(LRB 19 May 2011)

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