- Mary Chesnut's Civil War Epic
Julia Stern's illumination of the literary Mary Chesnut is a masterpiece. Chesnut, as most southern scholars know, composed a rich diary of day-to-day life during the Civil War. She was a keen observer, a thoughtful commentator, and an archcritic of pretension and delusion. Once the war was over, she set out to expand her fragmentary account, a lengthy process during which Chesnut expanded her literary techniques and labored over fictional efforts. She died in 1886, with her rewriting incomplete. For over a century since, Chesnut's notes, diary entries, and successive redrafts and reimaginings have been variously published in a dense tangle of supposedly authoritative editions.
Included among these is C. Vann Woodward's Pulitzer Prize-winning annotation of the later redrafts, Mary Chesnut's Civil War, published in 1981, and Woodward's issue (with Chesnut's biographer, Elisabeth Muhlenfeld) of the original and considerably more spare diary from the 1860s, published as The Private Mary Chesnut in 1984. Stern imagines the original diaries from the 1860s as "the epigrammatic scaffold for what, in the final decade of her life, [Chesnut] crafted into literary art." And if she takes the Woodward and Muhlenfeld editions as principally truer to the author's intentions, she nevertheless takes the entire editorial corps to task gently for failing to recognize the importance of "Chesnut's editorial [End Page 563] process" (117). Stern's brilliant contribution is not merely to draw a bright line between two conceptions of Chesnut's work—that of the 1860s and that of the 1880s. It is also to remind us, building on the work of Michael O'Brien, that Chesnut was an extraordinary intellect and to plot the distance between the two bodies of her work as evidence of a dramatic shift in American literary history.
Stern's chief task in each chapter is to consider a conventional theme from Chesnut's larger oeuvre and to closely read across that theme from both the original diary and the 1886 text. Chapters focus on slavery, family, the social world of the Confederacy, and black resistance—as seen through the eyes of the Mary Chesnut of the 1860s and the Mary Chesnut of the 1880s. Stern is attentive to both historiographical and theoretical import, particularly when the subject turns to Chesnut's relation to sentimentalist fiction, and whenever Harriet Beecher Stowe enters the narrative. Indeed, in Mary Chesnut's Civil War Epic, Stowe seems to function as a plot device, clarifying the link between Stern's subject, Chesnut, and the modernist literary traditions that would emerge at the end of the century.
The book sparkles with new insights into the literary history of the Civil War era. In one especially fine example, after noting that Mary Chesnut singularly refused the Lost Cause in the decades after the Civil War, Stern turns to Jefferson Davis's autobiographical process, reading it through the work of David Blight, Tony Horwitz, and others. "Chesnut's oppositional vision," Stern asserts, "had everything to do with the most basic aspects of her character, which impelled her to tell the truth as she saw it" (144).
As Stern describes it, the arc of Chesnut's creative work reminds me of the nostalgic productions of Eliza McHatton Ripley, the Louisiana grand blanc who, unlike Chesnut, fled the Confederacy before the dark times, taking up residence at a sugar plantation in Cuba, where she began the laborious drafting and revising process that resulted, first, in From Flag to Flag, published in 1889, and then, after even more reconsideration, in Social Life in Old New Orleans, published immediately after the author's death in 1912. In Ripley's case, the distance from the Civil War added an increasingly melodramatic quality to her prose. It would not be easy to make a place for Ripley in Chesnut's forthright, realist literary trajectory, nor does Ripley, with her frank enthusiasm for slavery, fit easily into the Lost Cause tradition. If Chesnut's redrafting brought her to a...