Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Timothy Egan has long-ago immersed himself in the racial history of the United States of America, having authored numerous articles and books on the subject over the course of his life. In 2023 he published another important work in his long line of investigations, titled A Fever in the Heartland. In it, he investigates the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920 under the leadership of D.C. Stephenson, its growth as an organization, and downfall at the hands of a deathbed confession.
Table of contents
Timothy Egan Opens the Stained Page of American History
The United States of America are a relatively young country, having only existed for a few hundred years, and nevertheless it has managed to leave greater and longer lasting imprints in history than many older entities. Though listening to some would lead one to believe the country’s past to be fraught with nothing but honour and glory, as Timothy Egan shows it in A Fever in the Heartland, there are some dark and vile chapters the people would be keen on forgetting.
Before moving on, I feel the need to point out this is indeed a work of non-fiction. While it is presented through a compelling narrative structure, as so many books in this genre are these days, it provides the reader with nothing but verified and researched facts, and the author has fairly earned his reputation as one of the more eye-opening and reliable history writers today.
In any case, the book begins by giving us a bit of context surrounding the Roaring Twenties, a time marked by Jazz, frivolous excess, and for many, captured perfectly in The Great Gatsby. There is, however, an aspect to the 1920s Timothy Egan is far more eager to touch upon than many others: the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
Egan traces the rise of the Klan in the Heartland and the West of the United States, exploring their hateful ideology and the horrifying steps they kept on taking against anyone who wasn’t both white and American. Their hatred extended from Blacks and Jews to Catholics and immigrants, whom they all deemed as inferior invaders to their precious homeland. While they started as a small organization, a man by the name of D.C. Stephenson changed it all.
Timothy Egan explores Stephenson’s life and career with the Klan, how he helped it practically explode out of the shadows into an organization endorsed by judges, churches, prosecutors, ministers, governors, and even senators. At the same time, he also looks into the life of the woman whose deathbed confession took much life out of the Klan: Madge Oberholtzer.
A History Laid Bare in A Fever in the Heartland
To start things off, if you’re already quite well-informed about Ku Klux Klan’s history and have gone down into the nitty-gritty details of it, then I’m certain you’ll be unlikely to make any new discoveries or come across previously-hidden revelations. As far as I am aware, no earth-shattering discoveries have been made about the Klan recently, and so this book is more of an attempt to put what is already known about it into a cohesive narration.
Timothy Egan doesn’t pull any punches in A Fever in the Heartland, nor does he allow his own ideas and judgments to get in the way. He acts as a true historian ought to, impartially laying bare the facts before us, allowing them to speak for themselves, and allowing us to imagine what they entailed and the degree of suffering or joy they brought to people.
Personally, I was only acquainted with the Klan’s history in broad strokes up until now, so my review of A Fever in the Heartland is from the perspective of a mostly-ignorant reader. While I do feel like I was bombarded with a few facts too many to retain them all, I thought the author succeeded in imparting on me the big picture in a memorable enough way.
While the author does remain largely impartial throughout the book, I don’t want you to think the tone is dry and monotonous from start to finish. He knows exactly which adjectives to use to impressively colour whatever subject he might be discussing, to make it all stick out vividly in your mind’s eye. There are also times when he dials it down, recognizing the mere truth that certain events actually occurred to be a powerful enough statement in and of itself.
In my opinion, the author’s main purpose in writing this book is quite simple: to ensure we don’t forget our history, lest we be doomed to repeat it. With the existence of the utterly despicable trend of rewriting the past in order to suit modern sensibilities and values (I have more than a few terrible words to say on the subject, but that’s another story), I think books like this one, where the truth is stripped naked for all to see, are becoming truly invaluable.
The Con of Hatred
With the book being written in a journalistic style it is quite easy to follow and digest, with Timothy Egan‘s narrative abilities being second-to-none. While it is, ultimately, just a collection of facts and their retelling, the book as a whole manages to feel like a bit of an actual adventure, one going beyond the historical events themselves into the minds of those who acted in them.
Most notably, I found myself absolutely mesmerized by the part where Egan details just how D.C. Stephenson managed to force the Klan’s values into virtually all layers of American society, whether religious, political, or otherwise. From today’s perspective, it seems completely barbaric and unimaginable that an organization with the Klan’s values could infect a society so profoundly, which made it all the more fascinating and terrifying in my eyes.
Though the author obviously doesn’t hold all the answers to everything, he does try and give us as much relevant context about the times as possible, explaining how a society can come to accept the sorts of morals and values it knows it ought to stand against. Nevertheless, he eventually hurts himself against the same wall as so many others before him, unable to explain the presence of the evil seed spoiling the hearts of so many, pushing them to avarice and demagoguery.
I also liked the fact A Fever in the Heartland is a book which takes the time to look at the many people who were affected by the Klan and the various ways in which they suffered, never allowing us to forget real men, women and children reaped the fruits of their hatred. Simultaneously, this leads to the more uplifting part of the book, the one dealing with those who stood up against them.
The book might have many harrowing segments, but Timothy Egan doesn’t blacken the pages completely, leaving us with a bit of hope for humanity by talking about the brave souls who, at their own risks and perils, fought back against injustice and refused to have their wills broken. As much as the books is a story about the Klan, to me, it’s also the story of these heroes who went against the grain and really did succeed against all odds.
|432||Viking||April 4 2023||978-0735225268|
The Final Verdict
A Fever in the Heartland by Timothy Egan is an essential read for anyone interested in the history of the Ku Klux Klan, the atrocities they committed, how they almost invaded America, and the courageous ones who put a stop to their countrywide rule. Sparing us no facts and presented through a compelling narrative, it is without a doubt one of the better history books on the subject out there.
If you’re looking to learn about some of the darker pages in American history or about the Klan specifically, then in my opinion, you could hardly do better than reading this book.
Timothy Egan is an American author, journalist and former columnist for The New York Times, having even received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2001. His first book, The Good Rain, won the 1991 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, and his 2006 book, The Worst Hard Time, earned him the National Book Award for Nonfiction.