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Reviewed by:
  • Nations Divided: America, Italy, and the Southern Question
  • Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh
Nations Divided: America, Italy, and the Southern Question. By Don H. Doyle. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002. Pp. 130. $24.95.)

In this book, Don H. Doyle set himself the task of examining the American Revolution and Civil War in a larger international context and to "see it as one of many stories about building nations that contain diverse peoples and interests" (xiii). Recognizing the risks of falling into "an amorphous transnational study" (xiv). The author focuses mostly on comparing nation-building in Italy and the United States—two countries that shared a vexatious "Southern Question." Doyle's concern is not so much history in-and-of-itself, but its lessons for our own future, because "the American Union that Lincoln struggled to preserve offered a model of how peoples of remarkable diversity might learn to live together peacefully. It [End Page 193] also furnished a horrifying illustration of the price nations pay when they do not learn to live together. For better and for worse . . . America's past would become the future for many nations of the world" (94–95).

Italy serves as a comparative foil throughout the whole work to show that the American experience of conflicted nationhood, especially in relation to a subjugated southern region, has ample precedent in other parts of the world. Furthermore, Doyle was not the first to make this comparison—he relates the explanation of one of his own Italian contemporaries for the presence of Confederate flags in southern Italy: "We too are a defeated people. Once we were a rich and independent country, and then they came from the North and conquered us and took our wealth and power to Rome" (5). Like the American South, the Italian South was subjugated by force and was seen by national elites as a degraded region out-of-step with larger national aspirations. Doyle's book thus further wears out one of the most mauled mules of American academia (at no fault of Doyle)—the supposed myth of American exceptionalism.

Doyle makes a fair point when he points out that both contemporary Americans and Europeans forget how much ethnic conflict and "history" there has been in the United States (10), but laments over the provincial character of the American historical profession has been an old refrain. That impulse dates at least as far back to the appearance in 1968 of The Comparative Approach to American History, a collaborative collection of essays authored by a veritable honor roll of distinguished academic historians, and edited by none other than C. Vann Woodward himself. Furthermore, Woodward anticipated Doyle's own method of comparative history, with his point that "comparative reference can illuminate a discussion after the manner of an imaginative and disciplined use of simile, metaphor, or analogy" (15).

Indeed, Doyle's treatment of his topic has value more for its suggestive qualities than its analytical ones. Doyle succeeds in showing his readers how the American experience with sectional conflict is anything but unique, but a reader as interested as this reviewer in questions of causality will find it difficult to connect his observations with this important, but by no means exclusively so, aspect of historical inquiry. Furthermore, exactly how worthwhile is it for us to say that the history of the United States has marked similarities to other national histories? Is this really a point that needs to be made to the probable audience of a volume of academic lectures published by a university press? And considering the ample amount of recent academic interest in "transnational" history—see, for example, the volume of essays edited by Thomas Bender, Rethinking American History in a Global Age (2002)—what real historiographical impact can a set of lectures such as these command?

Nevertheless, all these criticisms may in fact miss the point. Doyle's work [End Page 194] seems to aim less at explaining the past than at pointing toward a possible future. Doyle believes that scholars have too closely associated nationalism with the worst forms of violence and oppression. Instead, Doyle would have "us revisit the first century of liberal nationalism when it was...


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pp. 193-195
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