One of the difficulties of studying history lies in the inherent tendency of people to not see themselves as playing a small role in a larger story. We are all the center of our own universe, after all, so it’s hard to remember that everything isn’t actually revolving around our own brilliance. Our actions are our own, but they make up a part of the larger trajectory of human progress. In studying history, the goal is to compose these fine details into a larger picture that is both clear and informative. Like a painting composed of individual dots, if you stand so close that you focus on the details, you run the risk of losing sight of the canvas’s breadth. Conversely, if you stand so far back that you can see the totality of the subject, you can lose the details that give explanation for the overall composition. There needs to be balance. Great works of history provide just enough detail for close examination, but stand far enough back for the larger canvas to be clear.
This book doesn’t have that balance.
Over and over again, we are given fairly detailed sketches of the lives of historical figures. From central players like Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, to comparatively marginal figures like Thurlow Weed. Taken individually, the stories are interesting and informative. Taken as a whole, this has the disconnected feel of a dream half-remembered upon waking.
A goal I’ve set myself this year is to understand the end of the 19th century in America, in the hopes that it could bring some clarity to current events. From labor strikes to fractious political back-biting, to rampant economic expansions counterpointed by deep depressions, robber barons, racism, the rise of nationalism, expansion westward, and the embedding within society of the framework upon which our current society has been constructed. We have far more in common, today, with the world of Grover Cleveland than we do with George Washington, but we speak of the latter as the generation of our Founding. Slavery and the Civil War didn’t just divide the states, they created the country we know from the ashes of the Republic we’ve left behind.
The period covered in this book is the infancy of the United States. Our founding fathers didn’t wear pantaloons and powdered wigs, they wore sack coats and trousers.
But this book isn’t about that. It’s a series of vignettes displaying the discontent of a deeply divided nation, and while I don’t fault this book for not being what I wanted it to, I do think it fails to cohere around a central narrative. Much of After Lincoln focuses on the lives of the people who played a part in this era, but the epilogue follows the course of the fight for Civil Rights into the late 20th century. Apart from the temporal overlap of the two, there doesn’t seem to be much focus on how Andrew Johnson and other leaders of the era led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There’s a disconnect between the intent of the book and the practice of telling the story that is never resolved. Instead of a narrative full of interwoven characters, it’s a piecemeal and often haphazard recounting of Reconstruction Era America.
And, for that, I find the book wanting, despite the sometimes rich tapestry that’s created.
Not previously reviewed for CBR.