The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861, by Stephen B. Oates, HarperCollins, New York, 1997, $28.
The vast pantheon of Civil War literature is graced with titles focusing on the underlying causes of America’s bloodiest conflict. Politics and economics, racial and social undercurrents, states’ rights and Manifest Destiny–all have received minute scrutiny. Far too often, however, the sweeping human drama of the era is lost amid a tangled forest of facts, figures and interpretations. This missing ingredient–what one might term humanity–permeates The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861.
“At first,” admits author Stephen B. Oates, “I intended to write this book in the traditional third-person voice of the biographer and historian. When I tried to compose, however, I could not get beyond the first page.” This momentary hesitation proved invaluable. Serendipity led Oates down another path. The result is a book so far removed from everything that has come before that it may well signal a whole new genre of historical writing.
The magic lies in the inherent intimacy of the first-person point of view. Thirteen characters–central figures such as Henry Clay, Jefferson Davis and William Lloyd Garrison–comment on the momentous events in their own voices, revealing their innermost thoughts, feelings and prejudices. With passion and precision, Oates weaves these monologues into a dizzying tapestry. The protagonist in one section becomes the antagonist in the next. Constantly shifting viewpoints emphasize the profound influence of differing perceptions upon the course of history. We stroll through the decades in the shoes of men and women who, by word and deed, action and reaction, brought the nation to the precipice of war.
While purists might scoff at Oates’ unusual approach, a closer look reveals a bedrock foundation of documented research. Wherever possible, Oates employs the words of the personalities themselves, drawn from speeches, letters and reminiscences. He fills in the gaps with dramatic scenes and imagined conversations, presented each in the peculiar rhythm and language of the individual character.
The effect is stunning. Stephen Douglas leaps off the page in all his profane glory, locking horns with Abraham Lincoln in a bitter rivalry that spans 25 years. John C. Calhoun, his voice dripping with defiance, proclaims slavery as “good for the master race and good for blacks and indispensable to the happiness of both.” Harriet Beecher Stowe storms onto stage as the most eloquent voice of the abolitionist movement. John Brown strikes out for Kansas “in a one-horse wagon filled with revolvers, rifles, powder, and two-edged artillery broadswords.”
In short, Oates captures the human essence of these towering figures with an overwhelming power that no traditional narrative can match. With a mounting sense of horror we watch the sputtering fuse grow shorter and shorter. Clashing ideologies, partisan politics, sectional prejudices–all combine to form a bubbling cauldron of sectional distrust. Human frailties drag the nation, kicking and screaming, beyond the point of compromise to the earth-shattering crisis at Fort Sumter.
The Approaching Fury sets a new standard in an area of literature already known for its passionate eloquence. Every reader, from rank novice to lifelong student, will come away with a new understanding of the tumultuous decades that culminated in America’s most heartbreaking tragedy. The best news of all is that Oates is hard at work on a sequel that will cover the war years. It will be awaited with keen anticipation.