Publisher’s Weekly Talks with Amanda Foreman

A Narrative Symphony of the Civil War:

Publisher’s Weekly Talks with Amanda Foreman

By Wendy Smith  — Apr 18, 2011

In A World on Fire, bestselling biographer Amanda Foreman traces turbulent Anglo-American relations during the Civil War.

This massive history is very different from your first book, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. What drew you to the subject?

Actually, Georgiana was the interloping subject. I’d gone to Oxford to do graduate studies in the history of the slave trade, but I came across Georgiana’s letters, gave up that thesis, and wrote one on her instead. When I learned that Georgiana’s great-nephews supported opposite sides in the American Civil War, I knew this would be the perfect sequel. It was a fascinating microcosm of British attitudes, and it brought me back to something I’d always wanted to finish.

Your father is American, your mother English; you were raised and educated in both countries. Was that dual perspective valuable?

Absolutely! When I started reading British books about Anglo-American relations during the Civil War, I saw this complete disconnect between what historians read on the page—someone’s letters, for example—and the realities of Washington at that time. American histories were the same; they had these mad ideas about how Parliament worked, or what people really meant when they said A, B, or C. All my life I felt simultaneously deracinated and rooted in both places, and now it’s my greatest strength: I’m culturally bilingual.

How did you go about interweaving the individual stories of British volunteers on both sides with the broader history of diplomatic relations and the progress of the war?

That was the most rewarding aspect for me. It was difficult to have multiple viewpoints and keep the narrative moving, but then I thought of how music is written. I tried to construct a narrative symphony with my story lines, so that readers don’t really notice as themes and melodies shift from strings to drums to flute, because the development at all times takes you forward.

Do you think you’re taking a commercial risk with such a long, complicated text?

A massive risk, especially since I took 12 years after Georgiana was such a success! In fact, my first publishers in England fired me because they didn’t want to take that risk. But I was lucky, because I went to Stuart Proffitt at Allen Lane, who’s an outstanding editor. He loved this project, and I worked really hard on it with him and with Susanna Porter at Random House. It worked out extremely well, because they are so different. Susanna’s specialty is historical fiction and female biography, which is why I had her for Georgiana. She would say, “You know what? This is really boring. I’m lost here, and I have no idea what you’re talking about.” While Stuart would say, “You know, I don’t think you followed through very well on your argument about the battle ofGettysburg.” They read it with two different sets of eyes, and you never get that; I am so grateful.

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Booknote: 1861 by Adam Goodheart

From the publisher:

In time for the 150th anniversary of our defining national event: an original and altogether gripping account of how the Civil War began.

1861 is an epic of courage and heroism beyond the battlefields. Early in that fateful year, Americans began to rally around an idea of remaking the country into a morally coherent stronghold of liberty. This second American revolution inspired a new generation to reject their parents’ faith in compromise and appeasement, to do the unthinkable in the name of an ideal.

The book introduces us to a heretofore little-known cast of Civil War heroes—among them, an acrobatic militia colonel, an explorer’s wife, a close-knit band of German immigrants, a regiment of New York City firemen, and a young college professor who would one day become president. Adam Goodheart takes us from the halls of the Capitol to the slums of Manhattan, from the mouth of the Chesapeake to the deserts of Nevada, from Boston Common to Alcatraz Island, vividly evoking the Union at this moment of ultimate crisis and decision.

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Booknote: My Name is Mary Sutter

From the publisher:

In this stunning historical novel, Mary Sutter is a brilliant, headstrong midwife from Albany, New York, who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Determined to overcome the prejudices against women in medicine—and eager to run away from her recent heartbreak—Mary leaves home and travels to Washington, D.C. to help tend the legions of Civil War wounded. Under the guidance of William Stipp and James Blevens—two surgeons who fall unwittingly in love with Mary’s courage, will, and stubbornness in the face of suffering—and resisting her mother’s pleas to return home to help with the birth of her twin sister’s baby, Mary pursues her medical career in the desperately overwhelmed hospitals of the capital.

Like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Robert Hicks’s The Widow of the South, My Name Is Mary Sutter powerfully evokes the atmosphere of the period. Rich with historical detail (including marvelous depictions of Lincoln, Dorothea Dix, General McClelland, and John Hay among others), and full of the tragedies and challenges of wartime, My Name Is Mary Sutter is an exceptional novel. And, in Mary herself, Robin Oliveira has created a truly unforgettable heroine whose unwavering determination and vulnerability will resonate with readers everywhere.

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Booknote: The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It

From the publisher:

After 150 years the Civil War is still our greatest national drama, at once heroic, tragic, and epic-our Iliad, but also our Bible, a story of sin and judgment, suffering and despair, death and resurrection in a “new birth of freedom.” Drawn from letters, diaries, speeches, articles, poems, songs, military reports, legal opinions, and memoirs, The Civil War: The First Year gathers over 120 pieces by more than sixty participants to create a unique firsthand narrative of this great historical crisis. Beginning on the eve of Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and ending in January 1862 with the appointment of Edwin M. Stanton as secretary of war, this volume presents writing by figures well-known-Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Mary Chesnut, Frederick Douglass, and Lincoln himself among them-and less familiar, like proslavery advocate J.D.B. DeBow, Lieutenants Charles B. Haydon of the 2nd Michigan Infantry and Henry Livermore Abbott of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and plantation mistresses Catherine Edmondston of North Carolina and Kate Stone of Mississippi. Together, the selections provide a powerful sense of the immediacy, uncertainty, and urgency of events as the nation was torn asunder. Includes headnotes, a chronology of events, biographical and explanatory endnotes, full-color hand-drawn endpaper maps, and an index. Companion volumes will gather writings from the second, third, and final years of the conflict.

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Booknote: Beaufort 1849

From the publisher’s web site:

After years abroad, Jasper Wainwright returns to Beaufort, South Carolina, home of his unruly youth. Slavery and Sea Island cotton have made this summer seat of plantation owners one of the wealthiest and most cultured cities in America . . . and also the most hotheaded, secessionist city in the South.

Jasper’s cousin, Henry Birch, wants him to marry his niece, Cara, a pianist and the prettiest girl in the county. Believing slavery doomed, Jasper has no desire to settle in the South again and so resists both Henry’s matchmaking and his growing fascination with Cara. Then anonymous letters in The Charleston Courier give Jasper an inkling that maybe the South could change.

Though his freed slave, Jim, who travels with him, is antsy to leave, Jasper lingers in Beaufort. Amid a whirl of parties, waltzes and duels, Cara is never far from his eyes or his thoughts. As cries for secession grow louder, Jasper works desperately to convince Beaufort planters that gradual emancipation and transition to a wage-based economy could avert the coming storm of war. Will Beaufort be another Pompeii, its civilization disappearing in a cataclysm it refuses to foresee?

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Booknote: This Great Struggle

From the publisher’s web site:

Referring to the war that was raging across parts of the American landscape, Abraham Lincoln told Congress in 1862, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope on earth.” Lincoln recognized what was at stake in the American Civil War: not only freedom for 3.5 million slaves but also survival of self-government in the last place on earth where it could have the opportunity of developing freely.

Noted historian Steven E. Woodworth tells the story of what many regard as the defining event in United States history. While covering all theaters of war, he emphasizes the importance of action in the region between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River in determining its outcome. Woodworth argues that the Civil War had a distinct purpose that was understood by most of its participants: it was primarily a conflict over the issue of slavery. The soldiers who filled the ranks of the armies on both sides knew what they were fighting for. The outcome of the war-after its beginnings at Fort Sumter to the Confederate surrender four years later-was the result of the actions and decisions made by those soldiers and millions of other Americans. Written in clear and compelling fashion, This Great Struggle is their story-and ours.

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Booknote: The Grand Design by Donald Stoker

From the publisher’s web site:

Of the tens of thousands of books exploring virtually every aspect of the Civil War, surprisingly little has been said about what was in fact the determining factor in the outcome of the conflict: differences in Union and Southern strategy.

In The Grand Design , Donald Stoker provides a comprehensive and often surprising account of strategy as it evolved between Fort Sumter and Appomattox. Reminding us that strategy is different from tactics (battlefield deployments) and operations (campaigns conducted in pursuit of a strategy), Stoker examines how Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis identified their political goals and worked with their generals to craft the military means to achieve them–or how they often failed to do so. Stoker shows that Davis, despite a West Point education and experience as Secretary of War, failed as a strategist by losing control of the political side of the war. His invasion of Kentucky was a turning point that shifted the loyalties and vast resources of the border states to the Union. Lincoln, in contrast, evolved a clear strategic vision, but he failed for years to make his generals implement it. At the level of generalship, Stoker notes that Robert E. Lee correctly determined the Union’s center of gravity, but proved mistaken in his assessment of how to destroy it. Stoker also presents evidence that the Union could have won the war in 1862, had it followed the grand plan of the much-derided general, George B. McClellan.

Arguing that the North’s advantages in population and industry did not ensure certain victory, Stoker reasserts the centrality of the overarching military ideas–the strategy–on each side, showing how strategy determined the war’s outcome.

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