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A New Look at the Often Barely United States


In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

There’s a final chapter about the 21st century that I’d originally intended as a travelogue. I would leave the studies behind and hit the road to interview the members of today’s secessionist movements, in Texas, California, Alaska, Hawaii, New England.

But I got married, I had kids, and the history was so absorbing that I just didn’t get around to it. But the other reason that changed is because the idea of division suddenly became more relevant. I thought I’d have to go look for evidence of secession today, but it kind of came to me, with Trump’s election and the uproar for secession in California, which lasted a few months. And this whole question about whether there could be a second civil war. Charlottesville happened. This all made it much easier for me to show that these questions weren’t just antiquated but relevant to contemporary American life.

What creative person (not a writer) has influenced you and your work?

Frederick Law Olmsted. He was a writer for a little while, but we know him as the designer of Central Park and Prospect Park. I live on Prospect Park, which a lot of people say — and I think — is his masterpiece. I have this pet theory about it: that it’s a visual, physical metaphor for the union, and was intended as such by Olmsted. He started working on it in 1866, after the war. The great flaw in Central Park, which had been designed before the Civil War, was the transverse roads that go east to west and divide it. When Olmsted inherited Prospect Park, there was also going to be a road running through it — Flatbush Avenue. And he said, no, no, that won’t work, for reasons that I think have to do with the Civil War and his experience with it. So he moved the park entirely to one side of Flatbush to give it unity.

The other thing I love about the park is that the whole idea behind it is artifice, that art could surpass nature, so he was sculpting the land the way a sculptor might a block of marble. But that’s not how nature works. The hills he built up are constantly eroding, and the ingenious water system he created immediately broke down. So if it is a metaphor for the union, it shows that maintenance has to happen constantly. The park — and the union, I think — is not this one-time creation that can run by itself. It requires this great investment of work and, really, love.

Persuade someone to read “Break It Up” in 50 words or less.

“Break It Up” offers an entirely new way of thinking about these supposedly United States: The country has always been divided by race and region, interests and ideas. There was no guarantee it would hold together in the past, and there’s none now. Maybe it’s time to pull the plug.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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