Sunday, March 08, 2009

On the Brink of Civil War

I have lavished praise on John C. Waugh's On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How it Changed the Course of American History, and I take none of it back. But in fairness I do need to voice one modest criticism: Mr. Waugh provides too little detail concerning the collapse of the Omnibus Bill at the very end of July 1850 and the subsequent resurrection of the Compromise through separate pieces of legislation.

Page numbers alone will give you a feel for the imbalance. Mr. Waugh takes 172 pages to get the reader through the story to the death and burial of Zachary Taylor in mid-July 1850. The rest of the tale unfolds in a mere 11 pages of text. It's as if Mr. Waugh realized that he was approaching the page limit set by the publisher and simply condensed the ending. Mr. Waugh reviews the collapse and resurrection, but omits much of the detail. We certainly do not get the colorful character descriptions and dramatic word paintings that make the first 172 pages such a delight.

This is a significant loss given Mr. Waugh's storytelling abilities. The events of late July and August contain great inherent drama, and I have no doubt that Mr. Waugh could and would have made them compelling.

That said, I suppose I must look at the book as a glass three-quarters full rather than one-quarter empty. I'm grateful that most of the story of the Compromise, at any rate, has benefited from Mr. Waugh's vivid writing.

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