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Civil War Diary Revisited

New book reexamines a Southern woman’s complex literary portrait of the Civil War

July 7, 2010 | by Jasmine Rangel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Mary Chesnut, a daughter of a former governor of South Carolina, was the wife of a highly placed Southern politician before the Civil War. During the war years, she hosted a salon that brought together everyone from foot soldiers to generals to leading poets and newspaper editors of the time.

Julia Stern, professor of English and American Studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University, first learned about Chesnut and her highly acclaimed diary through Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War. Stern's later reading of "Mary Chesnut's Civil War," the winner of a 1982 Pulitzer Prize, changed her life. "It was the greatest reading experience of my life," she said.

In Stern's new book, "Mary Chesnut's Civil War Epic" (University of Chicago Press, 2010), she argues that Chesnut's revised diary offers the most trenchant literary account of race and slavery until the work of Faulkner.  

To Stern, the revised diary, with Chesnut's restored 1880s revisions and details of her journey from high-class Southern status to hints at her eventual post-Civil War poverty, covering issues mundane to grand, puts Chesnut in the ranks of Walt Whitman. She "perhaps was the best writer of the whole war," Stern said.

Q: Why is the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1981 edition of Chesnut's diary so important?

A: Chesnut started writing things down in 1861. Around 1863, someone suggested that she should publish what she was jotting in her red leather diary. At that point, the diary became much more self-conscious and self-aware. Later, after the war was lost and Chesnut and her husband had been ruined financially for decades, she revised her jottings. This was a very literary reshaping. That's why I call it epic.  But in the first edition, published in 1905, a lot of Chesnut's writings about slavery were edited out. Some were put back in a 1949 edition, and the 1981 version puts all of them back, including what she crossed out from the 1860s jottings. You can see the choices she made.

Q: Why was Mary Chesnut able to transcend the limits imposed on women during the time and provide such important insights?

A: She was childless, which becomes an important detail in her writing. She probably wouldn't have written anything if she'd had children. She was unusually at leisure, even for an aristocratic woman. She had a fantastic education. She was a great reader, and she wrote down everything she had read, everything from Charles Dickens novels to naval histories of the Greeks in the time of Aristotle. She was fluent in foreign languages. She was incredibly talented, and she had an extremely sardonic, witty sense of humor. But she was also very sympathetic. 

Q: Tell us what compelled you to work on this book.

A: When I started working on the project, I wanted to look at what it feels like to hold people in slavery. What do you tell yourself that allows you to think it's okay? Mary Chesnut acknowledges it isn't, and she says slavery must go, but with it much joy. She liked, for example, not having to cook or clean. In the South at that time, the aristocratic class had known no other way. So I was most interested in finding out how this brilliant, well-educated, witty and seemingly empathetic person could tolerate people in slavery. What does that tell us about the whole system and about the culture?

Q: Elaborate on what sets Mary Chesnut apart. 

A: Her slavery views are unexpected for a very conservative, elite white woman. She knows that slavery was wrong, but she also believes that the subject is complicated. And she expresses important insights about human rights without becoming an abolitionist. She might have agreed with abolitionists like John Brown that slavery was wrong, but she disagreed with his willingness to kill people to end black bondage and free all African-American slaves. And she was critical of abolitionists such as Horace Greeley, who was the editor of the New York Tribune, because she felt they disapproved of slavery without knowing what it was like to live in the South.

She was also, strangely, a sort of proto-feminist. She talks about women not having money. She has this remarkable view of female possibility and female education. She thinks the institution of marriage is very unjust, even though she's married. She has these ideas that are 100 years ahead of their time, yet she remains a traditional, conservative wife.

Q: How does Chesnut's work compare to other Civil War diaries?

A: Most Civil War diaries are by men, and the few by women were mostly by nurses, including Louisa May Alcott, the writer of "Little Women." But none of the others were as ambitious or accomplished as that composed by Chesnut, by any means.

Q: What was your goal in writing "Mary Chesnut's Civil War Epic?"

A: My greatest desire in writing the book was to help people see that Mary Chesnut may be the greatest American woman writer of the 19th century. I wouldn't necessarily say she's better than George Eliot, because Eliot wrote 10 exceptional novels that people still read. What's tragic about Chesnut is that people didn't know her work. It wasn't published until 1905, after she was dead.

She offers such great lessons, especially about slavery and the war. How did Americans enslave each other and, soon after the slavery question helped fracture the Union, kill more than 620,000 fellow Americans? And think about the innumerable Americans wounded during the war. How did Americans live to tell the story? Chesnut tells a story of regional attachments and then, once they failed, of surviving, and at the same time offers insights into the injustices and complexities of the times. I think there's a great lesson for all of us in that 
Topics: People