Book Public: ‘Longing for Connection’ by Andrew Burstein

Book Public: ‘Longing for Connection’ by Andrew Burstein

It’s generally understood that knowing our history is one step toward figuring out the present—and even the future. Modern nations like the United States and modern historical practices in the West were established and developed over the same centuries, so the effort to understand the past and know our history in order to understand present situations is really important.

The prehistory of the United States begins in the British colonies on the central east coast of mainland North America. The origin story we tend to promote sometimes favors generalizations rather than distinctive details. It puts forth national ambitions as though they were collective and uniform; but really, they present perhaps a more skewed version of the lives of those who lived through such dramatic times—times that surely were much more involved and distinctive and that provoked a range of emotions.

What is an emotional history? What of the “emotional history” of the United States? How do we begin to understand that from our vantage point today?

This is what historian Andrew Burstein investigates in his latest book, Longing for Connection: Entangled Memories and Emotional Loss in Early America. He focuses on the period from America’s founding through the Civil War.

Studying history doesn’t mean just a focus on only particular parts of history, ideologies, or people. It requires instead a full, incisive and honest look at a nation’s past means— what historian Jill Lepore has said, “calls for reckoning with the entirety of the thing to tell a national story that is both true and binding in this country of immigrants.”

Lepore also wrote, “Nations, to make sense of themselves, need a kind of agreed-upon past. They can get it from scholars, or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will.”

Let’s stop on “scholars”—historians like Andrew Burstein who have a knack for really bringing us into the past as wholly relevant in any examination of our present situations and future existence.

Early Americans, he reminds us, showed the same penchant for deep emotions that we have today. That’s worth remembering—rather than perceiving human beings in earlier times as one-dimensional, incapable of self-awareness or self-examination. In this same look at emotions, the fears of the time emerge as being resonant, human, universal, timeless. They include fear of ocean travel, fear of change, fear of any kind of loss.

And the early Americans did what some of us still do today—they read. Their reading choices might seem Miltonian to us today; it was what was available, particularly for the educated. They read Don Quixote, the poetry of Alexander Pope, the plays of William Shakespeare.

The examination and expression of the interior life was “a thing” back then, too. Burstein illustrates this through a series of chapters with a panoply of more figures of the past, including Nathan Hale, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln.

Burstein examines letters, diaries, and other ephemera—including the poetry and novels of the time—to come to a clearer understanding of the emotional history of these Americans. Verse and figurative language—like metaphor—were omnipresent in the literature of the time for those Americans seeking to express their deep emotions.

Fans of Andrew Burstein’s Lincoln Dreamt He Died, will find similar lines to trace about the ways that interrogating the emotions of these early generations of Americans can help us see how their lives were shaped by these emotions and feelings. He shows again in his latest book how when we gain a fuller understanding of our own past, we find the same ideas and values that shape our lives today.

Burstein’s deep research and examination of the early writings of figures we have some familiarity with is made accessible, as he does the navigating for us and untangles the knots of emotion and experience of the earliest Americans.

Examinations of history have led to a number of movements and direct action in contemporary times by citizens moved by the lessons of the past, including such notable events as the removal of statues, the need to discern ethical practices for journalists, the ongoing debate about the appropriateness of books and other curricular content. These are very real examples we’ve experienced collectively in recent times that reveal why knowing our history is important.

The focus on the emotion and sentiment in the history of the early American republic that Burstein offers, makes way for an understanding of what we know about human beings generally–that we are emotional and feeling, that we long for connection–even in the midst of the more difficult chapters of U.S. history. Understanding what went on then helps us follow the trajectory of our country–even through today. Accounting for the emotional life of those who lived during this wide swath of history gives us even more to connect to.

It’s one thing to study history and learn in vague and general ways what people did and said. It’s quite another thing, as we see in Andrew Burstein’s Longing for Connection, to be privy to specific details about what they read and felt–the things they longed for the most. The book is such an impressive look into literature and history–and ways that Americans have always been interested in considering their inner lives–and connecting to each other.

Andrew Burstein is the author of Longing for Connection: Entangled Memories and Emotional Loss in Early America. It’s published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
He is the Charles P. Manship Professor of History (emeritus) at Louisiana State University. The author of numerous books, including Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello and The Passions of Andrew Jackson, he is also the coauthor of Madison and Jefferson and The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality.