The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War (Paperback)

The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War By Jeff Sharlet Cover Image

The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War (Paperback)


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An Instant New York Times Bestseller.

A National Book Critics Circle Finalist for Nonfiction

One of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2023

One of The New Republic's Best Books of 2023

“A riveting, vividly detailed collage of political and moral derangement in America.” —Joseph O’Neill, New York Times Book Review

One of America’s finest reporters and essayists explores the powerful currents beneath the roiled waters of a nation coming apart.

An unmatched guide to the religious dimensions of American politics, Jeff Sharlet journeys into corners of our national psyche where others fear to tread. The Undertow is both inquiry and meditation, an attempt to understand how, over the last decade, reaction has morphed into delusion, social division into distrust, distrust into paranoia, and hatred into fantasies—sometimes realities—of violence.

Across the country, men “of God” glorify materialism, a gluttony of the soul, while citing Scripture and preparing for civil war—a firestorm they long for as an absolution and exaltation. Lies, greed, and glorification of war boom through microphones at hipster megachurches that once upon a time might have preached peace and understanding. Political rallies are as aflame with need and giddy expectation as religious revivals. At a conference for incels, lonely single men come together to rage against women. On the Far Right, everything is heightened—love into adulation, fear into vengeance, anger into white-hot rage. Here, in the undertow, our forty-fifth president, a vessel of conspiratorial fears and fantasies, continues to rise to sainthood, and the insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt, killed on January 6 at the Capitol, is beatified as a martyr of white womanhood.

Framing this dangerous vision, Sharlet remembers and celebrates the courage of those who sing a different song of community, and of an America long dreamt of and yet to be fully born, dedicated to justice and freedom for all.

Exploring a geography of grief and uncertainty in the midst of plague and rising fascism, The Undertow is a necessary reckoning with our precarious present that brings to light a decade of American failures as well as a vision for American possibility.

Jeff Sharlet is the New York Times best-selling author or editor of eight books, including The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War and The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, adapted into a Netflix documentary series. His reporting on LGBTIQ+ rights around the world has received the National Magazine Award, the Molly Ivins Prize, and Outright International’s Outspoken Award. His writing and photography have appeared in many publications, including Vanity Fair, for which he is a contributing editor; the New York Times Magazine; GQ; Esquire; Harper’s Magazine; and VQR, for which he is an editor at large. He is the Frederick Sessions Beebe ’35 Professor in the Art of Writing at Dartmouth College, where he lives in the woods with many animals.
Product Details ISBN: 9781324074519
ISBN-10: 1324074515
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: March 5th, 2024
Pages: 368
Language: English
Jeff Sharlet’s rich narrative prose unpacks a worldview in which US democracy is an existential threat. These essays are an essential read for all Americans.
— Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works

One of my favorite nonfiction writers anywhere, just an incredible writer, and an incredible reporter. [The Undertow] is I think, among his best work ever.

— Chris Hayes - All In with Chris Hayes

[Jeff Sharlet’s] stories are as necessary as they are harrowing. The writing is explicit and expansive, almost cinematic, like looking at a battlefield from above. Altogether, it’s a rare achievement, a cultural-political book that is literary.… [The Undertow] has a narrative arc that captures the fever pitch of the past decade.

— Ann Neumann - Guardian

I deeply appreciate Sharlet’s mythic-religious approach, and how it enables him to capture what other journalists miss. Data can only tell half the story, and usually the half that’s less interesting. Add to that the book’s welcome ambition, both as journalism and literature. This is no mere compilation of bullet points. This is journalism-as-art, attempting to capture the mood of the nation at this fraught moment, that others in the future may know how it felt to live through the present. Hopefully there will still be readers then.
— Adam Fleming Petty - Washington Post

Much has been written about the figure of Trump: his biography, his appeal, his hold on the Republican Party. Some too have written about [Donald] Trump’s antecedents in the broader conservative movement. But Sharlet offers something new.… As Sharlet chases [Ashli] Babbitt’s ghost across a fractious landscape, he documents a new kind of civil war. States do not face one another on the battlefield; there is no rebel government. Instead, the battlefield is everywhere, and combatants have, in a sense, already seceded from the United States. That the secession occurred in their minds makes it no less real. They are armed, and they are backed, too, by power and money. They have successfully enthralled a major political party, and their allies are capturing courts and state legislatures. The other side is still catching up to the danger it’s in.
— Sarah Jones - New York

[The Undertow] is a foreboding drive through the backroads of the country’s rising militancy. From campy Trump rallies and a memorial service for the January 6 insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt to a televangelist’s church in Miami and a self-declared prophet in Omaha, Sharlet takes a hard, unwavering look at the nation’s guns-and-Bibles underbelly.

— James Sullivan - Boston Globe

Jeff Sharlet’s startling, Didion-esque The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, with its CinemaScope landscapes and slightest of hopes, visits the dirt lanes and country rallies where Christian nationalism threatens.

— Christipher Borrelli - Chicago Tribune

A literary anthropologist looking at society and its ills, pondering what it means and how we got here. It’s that curiosity and energy that comes across in his writing, both smart and easy to read while also packed with context and information.
— Kevin Koczwara - Esquire

[Sharlet] may be unusually hopeful for an author invoking civil war in his subtitle, but [he] is not deluded.… [A] dark travelogue of a nation of ‘simmering violence’ in which QAnon-influenced rabbit-holers stalk perceived enemies, often without making headlines.… He wants readers to feel empathy for…those he met along the way. Some of them might be ‘worst of the worst,’ but ultimately we need to understand the right and its vulnerabilities.
— Stuart Miller - Los Angeles Times

Sharlet’s books require the kind of reportage that feels both immersive and terrifying—his work takes him deep into uncomfortable territory, holding a mirror up to the world we think we live in to reveal another place altogether. That’s what The Undertow promises: a deep dive into the religious dimensions—and fanaticism—of American politics. From a conference for incels to the celebrated martyrdom of a Capitol rioter, Sharlet’s new book will be a must read for everyone looking to understand how the country got to where we are.

— Emily Firetog - Literary Hub

At once heartbreaking and quietly hopeful, The Undertow navigates the slow-motion collapse of America with compassionate reporting and acute, devastating prose. These dispatches immerse readers in the currents threatening to pull a nation apart, while skirting the nihilism that could drag us under.

— Jessica Bruder, author of Nomadland

In these reports from America’s different corners there comes a feeling for why we’re so broken and what it might take to heal. Brilliant, lucid, incisive, meticulously reported—Jeff Sharlet is at his best here even when we are not.
— Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

That America is deeply divided is undeniable. Yet underneath this polarization lies a rich tapestry of human experience, stories of individuals inspired by myths, driven by fears, and searching for meaning. At once unexpectedly sympathetic and profoundly disquieting, Jeff Sharlet’s work shows how the task of binding our nation together is a daunting one, but the fate of American democracy depends on it.
— Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne

Brilliant, humane, and incisive, Jeff Sharlet illuminates the fault lines of a fractured nation. His meticulous reporting connects the dots on a stark but hopeful journey.
— Wajahat Ali, author of Go Back to Where You Came From

A riveting, insightful reading of ‘Real America’—the fearful, violent, and sometimes chaotic lives of people who are caught in a maelstrom of social, economic, and racial tensions. Weaving religion, hate, hope, and fear into stories that catch us unaware, Jeff Sharlet confronts us with the realities of the shifting American psyche—a must-read in order to understand the conflicting voices and tensions in America today.
— Anthea Butler, author of White Evangelical Racism

A frightening, wholly believable vision of an American cataclysm to come—possibly soon.
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)