Professor Brenda Wineapple: Union professor and acclaimed author


By Kate Collins

Professor Brenda Wineapple teaches American literature in Union’s Department of English, with a major focus on the 19th century. In the last year, she has published her newest book titled Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis and Compromise, 1848-1877.

Other books that Wineapple has written include Genet: A Biography of Janet Flanner, Sister Brother Gertrude and Leo Stein, Hawthorne: A Life and White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, a winner of the Washington Arts Club National Award, a New York Times Notable Book and named best nonfiction book of 2008 in The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor and The Economist.

When speaking of her most recent book, Wineapple referred to the nineteenth century time frame when stating: “There is much to discover, and I believe that, in any case, each age writes its own history, as Emerson said. I asked different questions than other writers had and, as a result, came up with different answers, even though I covered a period where people feel they know a great deal. There’s always something new, and there are always new ways of presenting and writing about the past.”

Last Monday night, Wineapple spoke in the Nott about her new book, which covers over a 30-year period.

Ecstatic Nation focuses on figures such as P.T. Barnum, Susan B. Anthony, Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, all of whom lived within that time and, according to Wineapple, “worked together to redefine the American nation.”

She stated that when researching for her book, she tried to “figure out what these people were about and what they stood for, discovering things where people said that there was nothing to discover.”

Professor Wineapple stated that when writing her books, she approaches the situation as well as the subjects as if she is a person from another world looking in. She has the capability to understand what is linked beneath various stories, developing a system of rationality.

It was exceedingly hard to find this system of rationality when looking at the events in the 19th century.

Wineapple commented that, at first, she couldn’t link the events and rationalize how they were related, until she came upon the topic of popular sovereignty. This led her to Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and the topic of slavery, as well as the Mormons, who believed they should have the right to vote and practice their religion.

From popular sovereignty, Wineapple was led to the topic of compromise which, she discovered, came up a lot in this time period.

It is a word written into American history, “metaphorically and actually.” After noticing the pattern of compromise,Wineapple sought to discover the meaning of compromise in the 19th century, which, according to her, was a “time when people wanted to make the country a better and truer place.”

When asked what her inspiration for her latest book was, Wineapple stated that she had written about the 19th century from several different angles, but had always wanted to write “narrative history that wasn’t dry or boring — and to confront exactly what intrigued and perplexed [her] about this complex period.”

Wineapple wanted to take a distinct approach to the time period and really go after what she was interested in. She stated her specific interests and what perplexed her, by saying: “For instance, how and why and where the war began; and how the period before and after the war are intimately connected with the cultural, literary and even technological changes of those 30 years.”

She continued, “I wanted to know what Walt Whitman had to do with P.T. Barnum, and what both had to do with, say Lincoln and George Armstrong Custer-and even with Susan B. Anthony. I wanted to know why the Radical Republicans failed, and if they were as cutthroat as I’d heard they were. I wanted to know the origins of the Lost Cause and what Twain, a Southerner, thought about it. I wanted to be known as much as possible, and to let the reader feel the period, smell and taste it and be shaken by it.”

When asked if she plans to write another book, Wineapple responded, “Yes, I plan to write another book. I’m a writer, and that’s what writers do. I’m not happy or content when I’m not writing.”


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