Narrating the Future

“What is past is prologue.” William Shakespeare's line from The Tempest is inscribed on Robert Aitken's statue Future, located on the northeastern corner of the National Archives Building in Washington. For Jason Phillips, this monument must present an astute observation of American life. In his Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future, he examines how Americans—both leading up to the Civil War and during the bloody conflict—strung events together to create a grand narrative about the future. Their imaginations affected their decisions and the direction of the country during a pivotal moment in our nation's history.

Looming Civil War begins by discussing the original concept of “looming,” an experience sailors often went through while at sea, “where refraction lifted land and ships into the sky.” This illusion inspired such legends as the Flying Dutchman and caused seafarers to imagine land that simply was not there. Looming offers Phillips a useful metaphor for the way in which nineteenth-century visions “formed, spread, and made history” in the United States. “First,” he writes, “some spark, an event or object captured people's attention. Then, a unique atmosphere elevated and enlarged that spark, making it loom larger than reality. Finally, observers and visionaries focused on it and reported what appeared to be beyond the horizon.” Like the famous ghost ship, the future loomed over the heads of many Americans who lived, and died, during the 1850s and 60s.

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