Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 39-50
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The Homefront In Black And White
Kirsten E. Wood
Laura F. Edwards. Scarlett Doesn't Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. x + 271. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $29.95.
Alice Fahs. The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xi + 410 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $39.95.
Lyde Cullen Sizer. The Political Work of Northern Women Writers and the Civil War, 1850-1872. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. xvi + 348pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $45.00 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).
In 1882, Walt Whitman observed that "the real war will never get in the books." 1 As if volume alone could prove him wrong, novelists, amateur historians, and scholars have produced book after book on the Civil War, over 2,700 in the last six years, according to Books in Print. 2 Until recently, however, most such books addressed only certain aspects of the bloody conflict, namely the military and the political. By exploring the homefront and its complex relationship to military events and national politics, the three books at issue here contribute to ongoing efforts at reversing this trend: Sizer's and Fahs's monographs treat Civil War-era literature, while Laura Edwards's synthesis explores southern women's experiences. 3
Besides their common attention to non-military aspects of the war, the three books share similar approaches to politics. Much as they consider the war as more than the sum of its battles, they define politics to include familial relationships and popular culture as well as formal partisan and electoral proceedings. Edwards demonstrates that "the household stood at the juncture between private and public life" and that "domestic relations were inseparably connected to civil and political rights" (p. 3-4). Sizer and Fahs make a similar argument, demonstrating how wartime writing and reading prompted individuals--women, men, and even children--to rethink their relationship to the nation, often in highly personal terms. These historians also share [End Page 39] another theoretical premise: that single texts (or events and relationships, in Edwards's case) contain multiple meanings. Drawing on George Lipsitz, Sizer argues that "genre implies no inherent message" and that women's writings contained many, often contradictory threads (p. 7). Similarly, Fahs cites Mary Poovey's observation that texts "'always produce meanings in excess of'" their "'explicit design'" (p. 122). Edwards, meanwhile, teases out similar tensions in the documents of social history, exposing the lacunae and diverse meanings of anecdotes gleaned from court records, diaries, and letters.
Sizer's book encompasses two projects. The first is to investigate "political issues" in northern women's writings between 1850 and 1872. The second constitutes an "intellectual portrait" of nine popular women writers, mostly white and middle class: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny Fern, Lydia Maria Child, E. D. E. N. Southworth, Ellen Watkins Harper, Gail Hamilton (aka Mary Abigail Dodge), Louisa May Alcott, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. 4 Sizer situates these writers within the history of nineteenth-century reform, the woman's suffrage movement, and American letters.
The initial chapter does a marvelous job of comparing professional writers with ordinary women who never wrote for publication. Household responsibilities repeatedly broke into women's time for writing, whether they did so for publication or for their own amusement. As Harriet Beecher Stowe observed, "'nothing but deadly determination enables me ever to write; it is rowing against wind and tide'" (p. 20). While professional writers "went on to experience lives more like that of a 'free woman' in the 1850s and 1860s," they like other women of their class never escaped domestic duties (p. 21). Accordingly, they differed significantly from male writers, who had no need to steal time from the daily business of feeding, clothing, and cleaning their households.
In part because of the conditions in which they wrote, Sizer identifies women's writing as "political work." Women's writings were...