A Nation Divided

November 3, 2004 | 7 books mentioned 3 min read

There is a sort of raw bitterness gripping the country these days. People in the red states and the blue states are feeling fear and rancor, and it is directed at each other, not terrorists. From every radio, television, and newspaper, we are hearing that we live in a nation divided. It is true, the citizens of this country occupy a wide and diverse range of viewpoints on many subjects. And we each huddle around one party or the other, one candidate or the other, and the distance between the two camps can seem vast. A sampling of the headlines: “Bush vows to unite a divided nation” says the Chicago Tribune. “Very close vote shows U.S. still deeply divided” says the San Francisco Chronicle. “A deepening divide between red and blue” says the CS Monitor. There are hundreds more. So this might be a good time to look back at some other times when our nation has been divided, just for the sake of perspective. And, of course, there are some great books that can help us do this.

The Civil War: A nation doesn’t get much more divided than this. Forget red map, blue map; this was grey map, blue map, brother against brother. For four years the nation was torn asunder. 560,000 dead. It becomes hard to declare that our nation is divided when you remember the Civil War. You can read about the period of time when the country was at its most divided in The Civil War, 3-Volume Box Set, an iconic history by Shelby Foote. Or if you prefer a one volume treatment, you can try James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, another fantastic book. These are, of course, just two selections among hundreds on the topic.

Civil rights: These days we’ve got battling bumper stickers and arguments about torn up lawn signs. People are declaring that they will move to Canada, while others say good riddance, but it wasn’t long ago that this nation was divided over Civil Rights and desegregation. Brave souls fought against voter intimidation and school segregation and faced the seething anger of those who used firehoses, police dogs, and even murder to maintain the status quo. The pundits will tell you now that we are a nation deeply, perhaps irreparably, divided, but how divided can we be compared to our struggles against segregation and Jim Crow? There is much to read on the topic, but the articles contained in the Library of America’s collection Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963 provide a glimpse of the Civil Rights movement as it was happening (don’t forget the second volume, 1963 to 1973, when you finish the first). Another (again, out of many) worth reading is Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer winner from 2002, Carry Me Home : Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (excerpt).

McCarthyism and the Red Scare: Do you regret anything you did in college? Did you used to be a member of another political party? In the 1950s you could have been dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and made to explain yourself. Those labeled “Reds” faced blacklists and public derision. The nation for a time was divided between McCarthy’s supporters and those they sought to label as communists. People may accuse the recent campaigns of similar fearmongering, but our country is not so divided that House Committees are wrongfully accusing private citizens of treasonous acts. There are many books that cover the historical details, but I’ve always found Arthur Miller’s parable of McCarthyism, The Crucible to be much more powerful. One of my favorite films is also a parable of these troubled times. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront

So there are just three examples of exactly how divided this country can get. I don’t think the red-staters and blue-staters will be getting together for a picnic any time soon, but things aren’t going to get as bad as these examples from American history. We live in times that are difficult and uncertain, but after witnessing the self-pity and rending of garments that have resulted from this campaign and the election that followed, I thought it best to try to put things in perspective. It made me feel better, how about you?

Update: Some of my fellow bloggers are also turning to books to get them past their post-election malaise. Have a look at this excellent post at Conversational Reading. Bookninja, meanwhile, gives us a more foreboding reading list.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

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