The American Civil War still resonates through the US today. Deep moral divides, populism and fanaticism find their echo in today’s febrile cultural and political climate. And in July 2022, bestselling authors Sarah Churchwell and Karen Joy Fowler came to Intelligence Squared to discuss how history and literature can help us make sense of the current turmoil.
Churchwell’s new book The Wrath to Come analyses the history and legacy of Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel Gone With the Wind. The book became an overnight bestseller when it was published in 1936 and the film would famously go on to win ten Academy Awards. Churchwell traced the novel and film’s relationship to the myth of the Lost Cause – the romantic nostalgia for the Old South and the collective forgetting of the horrors of slavery – as well as Mitchell’s feminist portrayal of the book’s heroine Scarlett O’Hara, whose agency in the novel is achieved at the expense of people of colour. Fowler recounted the themes of her recent novel Booth, an historical epic set against the looming Civil War, which tells the story of the eccentric theatrical dynasty and its scion John Wilkes Booth, the supporter of slavery who made the fateful decision to decision to assassinate Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Churchwell and Fowler showed how stories and national myths from the past foreshadow and shed light on the controversies in America today – from the removal of Confederate statues, the rise of white nationalism and the Black Lives Matter movement.
‘Eye-opening and at times jaw-dropping; a powerful reminder of the prejudices and suffering horrors of the recent past, and a call to arms to learn from the lessons of history. Highly recommended‘ – Peter Frankopan
‘An extraordinarily and shockingly powerful read… With meticulous research and fine structure, it offers a most disturbing arc that transports us from now back to what we thought was another era but which is, in reality, so deeply enmeshed with the intolerances and prejudices of today. At times the narrative took my breath away. I was riveted from start to finish’ – Philippe Sands
‘Captures with enthralling vividness a country caught in the grip of fanatical populism, ripped apart by irreconcilable political differences and boiling with fury and rage …. An unalloyed triumph’ – Literary Review
‘Brilliantly recounts the story of the American theatrical dynasty that produced Lincoln’s assassin’ – Sunday Times Book of the Month