Mary Chesnut's Civil War Epic
by Julia A. Stern
University of Chicago Press, 2009
Cloth: 978-0-226-77328-5 | Electronic: 978-0-226-77331-5
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

A genteel southern intellectual, saloniste, and wife to a prominent colonel in Jefferson Davis’s inner circle, Mary Chesnut today is remembered best for her penetrating Civil War diary. Composed between 1861 and 1865 and revised thoroughly from the late 1870s until Chesnut’s death in 1886, the diary was published first in 1905, again in 1949, and later, to great acclaim, in 1981. This complicated literary history and the questions that attend it—which edition represents the real Chesnut? To what genre does this text belong?—may explain why the document largely has, until now, been overlooked in literary studies.

Julia A. Stern’s critical analysis returns Chesnut to her rightful place among American writers. In Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Epic, Stern argues that the revised diary offers the most trenchant literary account of race and slavery until the work of Faulkner and that, along with his Yoknapatawpha novels, it constitutes one of the two great Civil War epics of the American canon. By restoring Chesnut’s 1880s revision to its complex, multidecade cultural context, Stern argues both for Chesnut’s reinsertion into the pantheon of nineteenth-century American letters and for her centrality to the literary history of women’s writing as it evolved from sentimental to tragic to realist forms.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Julia A. Stern is associate professor of English and American Studies and the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

REVIEWS

“In a work of genuine scholarship and searching criticism, Julia Stern reveals the complex power and beauty of Mary Chesnut's narrative and convincingly places it among the very best literature to emerge from the Civil War and its aftermath.”

— Eric Sunquist, University of California, Los Angeles

Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Epic is a magnificent accomplishment. Chesnut’s portrait of the Civil War—its politics, its psychic complexities, its quotidian forms—is brought to life and into focus through a breathtaking combination of literary and historical analysis.  Beautifully written, forcefully argued, and speculatively dazzling, Stern has given scholars of American literature and culture a fascinating account of one extraordinary woman’s life, writings, and memory, which for all of their singularity, ultimately disclose the traumas of a nation at war with itself.”

— Cindy Weinstein, California Institute of Technology

“The book on Mary Chesnut we’ve been waiting for! In this comprehensive and daring work, Julia Stern addresses matters literary, textual, cultural, and historical, making it clear that Chesnut belongs at the center of nineteenth-century American literary and cultural studies. Beautifully written, the book is energized by Stern’s passion for her subject. It will quickly emerge as the standard work on Chesnut and as essential reading for anyone interested in the American South.”

— Robert S. Levine, University of Maryland

“In Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, Julia Stern mounts an impassioned defense of Mary Chesnut’s centrality to the American literary tradition. By deftly detailing the complexities of textual history even as she illuminates a rich cultural context, Stern weaves together the multiple strands of Chesnut’s unfinished epic with great care and creativity. Insightful and evocative, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Epic provides a wide-ranging discussion of the literary, generic, and cultural questions central to nineteenth-century literary studies.”

— Teresa A. Goddu, Vanderbilt University

“This book is a triumph. Out of the confusion of multiple diaries, revisions and text fragments Julia Stern has given us nothing less than a new Mary Chesnut and a new Civil War epic. Her brilliant reconstruction of Chesnut’s literary ambitions makes a lasting contribution of significance to historians and literary scholars alike. If any chapter in American life reached epic proportions it was the Confederate one. In Stern’s book the rise and fall of that republic is evoked in all its riveting human drama.”

— Stephanie McCurry, University of Pennsylvania

“An imaginative blend of feminist biography, literary criticism, and cultural brio.”
— Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature

TABLE OF CONTENTS

List of Figures

Acknowledgments

- Julia A. Stern
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226773315.003.0001
[Mary Boykin Chesnut, epic, bellum period, wartime musings, Civil War, American literature]
This book argues that Mary Boykin Chesnut composed one of the greatest epics in American letters, a work never read in its own century. Having drafted observations in diary form between 1861 and 1865, Chesnut reviewed the manuscript in 1866 and put it away until the late 1870s, when she began to transcribe the jottings of the bellum period into full sentences and complete thoughts. Departing at times from her original wartime musings and working imaginative elements into the story, the 1880s Chesnut came to reenvision the smoothed-over Civil War fragments with an eye toward creating a more ambitious account. In a final burst of creative energy between 1880 and 1883, the diarist of the 1860s fashioned herself into a literary writer, giving expression to the devastation of an entire society. Scholars have speculated about just how “unfinished” her manuscript was. Had Chesnut lived another decade or more, she might have continued her revisionary efforts as long as such labor remained possible. (pages 1 - 28)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Julia A. Stern
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226773315.003.0002
[Mary Chesnut, epics, type scenes, martial world, loss and death, theme]
Mary Chesnut's 1880s narrative offers a kaleidoscopic vision of the Southern home front and the political command center of America's most murderous conflict. Encyclopedic in scope and size, epics are built from repertoires of “type scenes,” thematic staples revealing the breadth and depth of their creators' imaginative purchase on a represented universe: the woman surveying her city at war, the hero voyaging to the underworld, and the revelation of the protagonist's disguised identity are three keystones of the literary genre that inspired Mary Chesnut's transformation of her diary. Chesnut deploys thematic building blocks used in the epic tradition since scribes first recorded Homer's songs hundreds of years after his moment, and her use and adaptation of type scenes offer insight into her vision of the martial world and its relation to her feelings about loss and death on the home front. (pages 29 - 48)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Julia A. Stern
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226773315.003.0003
[flowers and food, fertility, epic literature, unfruitfulness, fratricide, domestic convention]
The literary significance of flowers and food in Mary Chesnut's 1880s book, her versions of homey epic catalogue, local-color flourish, or domestic sentimental convention certainly are worth considering. But most significantly, the work's interest in “seeds” broadly conceived—and in fertility itself—links Chesnut's project to a central subject of epic literature from the Odyssey through The Waste Land. Chesnut's own unfruitfulness, other women's belated pregnancies, and particularly, what seemed to her the fecundity of Mulberry Plantation's slave women preoccupied her throughout her scribbling life, from the initial 1860s jottings through the reworkings undertaken in the years before her death in 1886. This chapter argues that the relation of fruit and fertility offers a key to some of the deepest structures of the messy, marvelous book she left off completing in 1883. To begin, the chapter turns to Chesnut's own experience of fruit, fertility, and its absence. (pages 49 - 78)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Julia A. Stern
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226773315.003.0004
[Mary Chesnut, narrative, stone fruits, ethnography, food ways, plantation]
This chapter takes up Mary Chesnut's images of seeds in order to move from their floral to their fruitful significance as crucial motifs in the 1880s narrative. The seeds in question here have ripened into edible artifacts, and they preoccupy the 1860s Chesnut well before food actually grows scarce in Richmond and Columbia in the winter of 1864–65. Through a series of scenes featuring the unexpected gifts of garden-fresh provisions, particularly seeded and stone fruits and delicate spring peas and asparagus, the 1880s writer reveals the way in which this rarified diet, enabled by the generosity of privileged friends, set her apart from even the most elite Confederates with whom she traveled. Similarly, the writer's ethnographic account of her Northern-born mother-in-law's gustatory habits, unchanged despite sixty years on a Southern plantation, constitute an incisive picture of the link between food ways and identity. (pages 79 - 106)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Julia A. Stern
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226773315.003.0005
[reading and writing, Mary Chesnut, words, wartime provisions, food ways, Confederate elite]
Wartime provisions as elemental as peaches and as confected as “moonshines” all played a role in Mary Chesnut's catalogue of the food ways of the Confederate elite. Beyond affording documentary detail of an aspect of bellum social history rarely included in the works of her memoir-writing contemporaries, food for the writer of the 1880s almost always bore social and political meaning. But Chesnut's compendium of convivial meals and edible gifts consumed over four years of strife constituted just one of several of the lists that contributed to the epic significance of the reworked 1880s narrative. Another of the writer's encyclopedic inventories can be summarized under the heading “words.” In her 1880s narrative, Chesnut explored assorted practices of reading and writing, which for her transcended their basic, communicative function. (pages 107 - 132)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Julia A. Stern
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226773315.003.0006
[slavery, Mary Chesnut, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Mary Cox Chesnut, sentiment, Stowe]
This chapter on Mary Chesnut's scrutiny of slavery, sentiment, and Stowe first explores details of Uncle Tom's Cabin itself as they resonate in Chesnut's 1880s narrative. Particular characters—Tom, Eva, Topsy, and Legree—captivated and also inflamed the writer and her peers, particularly proslavery women such as Louisa McCord, who reviewed the novel in January 1853. Chesnut's own thesis was that Stowe knew nothing of slavery, plantation life, or “Negro” culture under bondage in America. Accordingly, her central grievance was offered on the grounds of Stowe's cultural ignorance. After exploring Chesnut's “magnificent obsession” with Uncle Tom's Cabin, the chapter turns to the remarkable ways in which Chesnut inadvertently and unconsciously identified her mother-in-law, the profoundly Christian, charitable, and voraciously bookish Mary Cox Chesnut, with Stowe's heroine, little Eva. Finally, the chapter looks at her reminiscence about being invited, along with twelve other young ladies, to serenade president-elect George Washington at Trenton en route to New York for his inauguration in 1789. (pages 133 - 166)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Julia A. Stern
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226773315.003.0007
[Mary Chesnut, recreational drama, slaves, narrative, political life, Civil War]
Mary Chesnut explored the politically strategic dissimulation of slaves in the elite homes of herself and her peers; and she took up the tonic distraction of recreational drama put on by members of her white planter circle, calculated to elevate the sagging spirits of the Confederate generals and their officers and ladies posted in Richmond. By juxtaposing what might be called theatricals in black and theatricals in white, this chapter attempts to gain access to dimensions of slave consciousness and planter anxiety obscured at the manifest level of Chesnut's 1880s narrative. The writer was acutely aware of the various theaters bisecting Southern political life: the home front versus the battlefield, the political arena versus the domestic realm, the world of elite white privilege versus that of slave servility. These domains not only overlapped but actually changed places before Chesnut's eyes during the Civil War years. Later in her 1880s book, Chesnut wrote about how Southern cities largely inhabited by women, children, the elderly, and remaining slave populations were invaded by Sherman's western armies. (pages 167 - 190)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Julia A. Stern
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226773315.003.0008
[theatricals, Mary Chesnut, St. Domingo, Indian Mutiny, global analogues, narrative]
This chapter turns to the strangely inappropriate-seeming amateur theatricals mounted by the Richmond elite at the lowest point of the South's military prospects in 1864. Their frivolity impressed Mary Chesnut's husband, recently promoted to brevet brigadier general, as fiddling while Rome burned. A less partisan onlooker might have understood the theatrical frenzy as the planter class's collective attempt at self-distraction from a political and military disaster over which they had no control. Chesnut alludes repeatedly to St. Domingo and the Indian Mutiny in her narrative. These two events, one past, one contemporary, serve as global analogues, shorthand for all she most fears about the potential for violence simmering under the surface of master–slave relations at home. The 1880s writer searched the globe for such examples, though the case of Virginia's Nat Turner had unfolded virtually in her own backyard. (pages 191 - 206)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Julia A. Stern
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226773315.003.0009
[racial bloodshed, Mary Chesnut, African American bondage, Southerners, Civil War, St. Domingo]
In order to appreciate Mary Chesnut's response to black on white bloodshed in her own South Carolina, it is helpful to understand her somewhat idiosyncratic ideas about the institution of African American bondage. Like many elite white Southerners on the eve of the Civil War, Chesnut worried about the looming prospect of “another St. Domingo” or a “second John Brown.” Such terms constituted planters' shorthand for a number of apocalyptic racial fantasies: the slave caste rising up en masse against the masters and slaughtering them, eventually overturning the brutalities of the plantation system (as in Haiti) or an armed white visionary evangelizing enslaved blacks to end their subjugation through violent conflict (as had John Brown). Details from Chesnut's 1880s narrative suggest that, although she shared many of the racist attitudes of her social class, she had come to conclude that slavery was wrong as early as the 1830s. (pages 207 - 230)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Julia A. Stern
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226773315.003.0010
[slave narrative, slaveholding, Mary Chesnut, psychological migration, psychological realism, humanity]
Mary Chesnut's work remains unique to both slave narratives and master's accounts of slaveholding from the mid-nineteenth century; she alone seems to want to get inside the minds of her slaves, to know what they are thinking, to attempt to understand their actions. Though her initial desire for this kind of psychological migration may have been defensive—the better to know what the slaves are planning so as to remain on guard—at some point her reasons shifted. The fully developed character studies of Laurence, Molly, and Ellen, which are absent from the 1860s diary jottings, afford her 1880s narrative its psychological realism and her politics a humanity that many other former mistresses never revealed, moving her closer to the action of profound sympathy described by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. (pages 231 - 252)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Julia A. Stern
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226773315.003.0011
[Mary Boykin Chesnut, war, persona, misrecognition, black humor, social disintegration]
Mary Boykin Chesnut was nothing if not an observant witness to her times, and this chapter explores through two key episodes her own transformations of status, as the energies of war swept her from Camden to Montgomery to Richmond to Columbia and again toward home in the late spring of 1865. In each instance, Mary Boykin Chesnut went unidentified in her proper persona and was shaken to the core by the misrecognition. Crafted in the 1880s along Homeric lines, but laced with distinctive black humor, these episodes offer a war-spanning summa of Chesnut's struggle for self against a social world disintegrating under her feet. (pages 253 - 266)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Notes

Index