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A World on Fire


I read James Cobb’s Georgia Odyssey—a short history of the state—earlier in the month in preparation for our upcoming visit. Then I read Ron Rapoport’s The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf, hoping it would give me some background both on life in Georgia and on the history of the Masters golf tournament. Not so much, but it was informative, at least regarding Jones’ highs and lows at the major tournaments of the 1920s and 1930. I also looked around for books that would have more to say about post-Civil-War economic life in the South, one of Cobb’s principal themes.

Among the books I considered was A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration, the book for which Steven Hahn received both the Bancroft Prize and the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2004. Not only that, Steve’s an old friend from long ago, a classmate in junior high and high school. I’ll get to it some day.

Eventually I settled on a book that has long been on my list, Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War. (It was published originally in the UK in 2010 with the alternative subtitle “An Epic History of Two Nations Divided.”) It got rave reviews on its US appearance, ultimately making the NYT’s 10 best books list of 2011 with the blurb: “Which side would Great Britain support during the Civil War? Foreman gives us an enormous cast of characters and a wealth of vivid description in her lavish examination of a second battle between North and South, the trans-Atlantic one waged for British hearts and minds.”

In his long review in the New Yorker, Rick Hertzberg called the book

an immensely ambitious and immensely accomplished—and just plain immense—work of narrative art. At a third of a million words sprawled over nearly a thousand pages, “A World on Fire” is not far south of “War and Peace.” Yet the pages fly like the wind—like “Gone with the Wind”—because there’s so much life, so much action, and so many vivid people in them.

This pretty much says it all: both why I’ve been tempted to read it and why I’ve shied away. How could I resist a work of narrative art? Yet, did I really want to tackle a thousand-page book on the Civil War?

One thing for sure, I didn’t want to read another straightforward Civil War history. I’ve read plenty, including James McPherson’s own immense and sprawling Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. But Foreman’s book comes at the war from a different angle, and there was that promise of its being a page turner.

In his WSJ review, Michael Burlingame echoed Hertzberg, calling Foreman “such an engaging writer that readers may find this 958-page volume too short” and going on to explain that “she supplements the traditional scholarly approach to British-American relations with an array of testimony from dozens of British witnesses to and participants in the Civil War. Their diaries, letters, reminiscences and newspaper reports provide insights into the war that differ from similar accounts by Americans, who perforce could not achieve the detached perspective of foreigners.”

I took the plunge. I’m 200 pages in. Not racing through exactly—it’s been too busy a week for that—but I’m finding it absorbing.

We’re in December 1861 now, with the focus on diplomatic relations between the US and Britain following the illegal seizure by US Captain Charles Wilkes of two Confederate diplomats on their way to London, James Mason and John Slidell, from the British mail packet Trent. Will Britain declare war? The time lag in communication between the two countries makes the situation especially problematic. The leading characters to this point have been William Seward (the US Secretary of State), Charles Francis Adams (the US ambassador to Britain), and their British counterparts, John Russell and Richard Lyons.

There’s been one battle scene—the first battle of Bull Run, or Manassas—brilliantly told from the vantage of William Howard Russell, famed war correspondent for The Times (of London), and Frank Vizetelly, war artist and correspondent for Illustrated London News. (A special pleasure of the book is the inclusion of many of Vizetelly’s illustrations.) Although the great battles of the war aren’t the book’s focus, I’m looking forward to Foreman’s treatment of the ones to come. And to much more, though it may take a while.

Categories: Books, History
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