The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War

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The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War. By Adam Arenson. (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. [xii], 340. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-674-05288-8.)

"Cities do not exist in isolation," Adam Arenson reminds us (p. 218). Their histories can only be understood by exploring the "national and transnational webs of politics, economy, and culture" within which cities rose or fell (p. 219). In this fine book, Arenson tells the national history of nineteenth-century St. Louis, Missouri. Located at the conjunction of the North, South, and West, St. Louis was enmeshed within a "cultural civil war," as "three incompatible regional visions" squared off over manifest destiny, the politics of slavery, and the future of the nation--a fight in which St. Louis would be both battleground and, ultimately, three-way victim (p. 2).

Arenson opens his story with St. Louis's "refounding and redefinition" after its Great Fire in 1849 and then traces how the city's boosters, politicians, and cultural leaders attempted to navigate internal ethnic tensions, conflicts over slavery, and the local experiences of the Civil War and Reconstruction, all the while maneuvering on the national political stage in an extended campaign to secure St. Louis's greatness as a national city (p. 11). The chapters dealing with the Civil War are some of the strongest. In contrast to most Missourians, residents of St. Louis "lived out the war in a state of tense uneventfulness," and Arenson does an excellent job of showing the underlying ethnic, class, and gender dimensions of loyalty and disloyalty in this divided city (p. 132). Arenson carries his story through Reconstruction and beyond, from the quixotic plan to make St. Louis the new national capital, to the fraudulent census count of 1870 that enabled city leaders to declare St. …


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