The Approaching Fury

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

One of the most challenging problems faced by historians is how to make history come alive for the reader. Historical accounts of famous events or periods are often dry and lifeless, making the people involved seem remote and unconnected. Historian Stephen B. Oates, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts and author of many books on the Civil War era, including an important biography of Abraham Lincoln, has taken a distinctive approach with this book by letting the characters speak for themselves in the first person about their lives and the part they played in history.

The work covers the period from 1820 to 1861 in the United States, as the country struggled with the complex issues of slavery, westward expansion, and states’ rights. The seventy- two monologues of the thirteen speakers powerfully re-create the climate and events during the forty years preceding America’s greatest national tragedy: the Civil War. The metaphor in the title, Oates tells readers, comes from the figures themselves, as they all in their own way describe the approach of war in terms of a “gathering storm.”

Oates begins with the Missouri crisis of 1820, as pro- and antislavery states struggled to maintain a balance of power in the national legislature, then moves on to Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, the rise of the abolitionist movement, the nullification crisis in South Carolina, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the Compromise of 1850, the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the presidential election of 1860, and finally secession and war. Oates has chosen thirteen people who lived during the period and significantly influenced the course of events. Each speaker takes his or her turn on the stage, talking about the critical events that swirled around them or in which they played a part. To create these monologues, Oates examined the letters, speeches, interviews, and memoirs of each personage and simulated how, if they were reminiscing aloud, they would describe the events in which they were the principal players or eyewitnesses. Like an actor preparing for a role, Oates tries to get into character in order to experience what his characters were thinking and feeling. For example, Nat Turner, as he sits in jail awaiting execution, recounts his life as a slave and explains why he decided to rise up and revolt against the evil institution of slavery. Turner talks of his two months on the run and gives his reasons for the slaughter of white slave owners. Harriet Beecher Stowe tells readers why she was moved to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, her passionate dramatization of the evils of slavery, while George Fitzhugh, Southern intellectual and slave owner, defends slavery as being necessary for progress in a civilized society. Readers meet the firebrand abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his disciple and former slave Frederick Douglass, and experience the interplay and passion between them as the abolitionist movement gains strength throughout the nation.

Oates’s technique has been compared to that of director Robert Altman in his films Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993), where the narrative segues from one figure to another and back again, showing how their lives intersected and how their words and actions influenced each of them. Oates has said that he also drew inspiration from actors Hal Holbrook and Julie Harris, who impersonated Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson on stage. The effect of the book’s narrative technique is that the characters seem to be reminiscing out loud, which was the author’s intent. Particularly vivid are the first-person accounts of the massacre of proslavery sympathizers at Pottawatomie Creek in 1856 as told by John Brown, the radical abolitionist who had come to Kansas to prevent it from becoming a slave state, and Brown’s daring raid of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

The most fascinating portion of the book concerns the most pressing issue of the day—whether newly admitted states would be slave states or free states. As new territories were being settled, the big question was whether slavery would be permitted or...

(The entire section is 1698 words.)