- Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women by Steven M. Stowe
In Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women, Steven M. Stowe uses several familiar Civil War era diaries to examine how slaveholding women used their diaries to make sense of their world "as the Civil War blew through everything they trusted in life" (p. ix). Using published diaries that are familiar to "readers of all sorts of Civil War history," Stowe crafts a thoughtful, personal reflection on diary writing (p. xii). Rather than mine these familiar sources for what they might say about big-picture Civil War history (as historians have done in the past), Stowe argues for a different reading, one that embraces the complexities and contradictions of diary writing, a form that Stowe describes as "true to uneven life" (p. xiii).
Keep the Days is organized into a preface and six chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 consider the diaries and the women who wrote them. In chapters 3 through 5, Stowe adopts a thematic approach, examining what these women wrote about war, men, and slavery. He then returns to the diarist as subject in the final chapter. Biographical and bibliographical sections bookend the text, providing important information about the individual diarists, the edition of the diary used in the text, and the publishing history for each woman's diary.
Stowe's discussion of diaries as texts should be required reading for anyone interested in the challenges of reading published versions of primary sources like diaries. "The diary is made for permanent impermanence, for the time being," Stowe notes in his preface (p. xiii). The alterations began with the diarist herself, as previous days' entries were revised and reversed, as evidenced by the original diary's physical imperfections: "the manuscript's folds, nicks, ink blots, erasures, doodles, and sometimes, close to the binding inside, the stubs of [End Page 456] razored-out pages" (p. 7). Equally challenging are the additions, omissions, and other editorial changes that happened when a diary was published. In a fascinating discussion of the "two worst-case editorial sagas" of the diaries of Sarah Morgan and Mary Boykin Chesnut, Stowe points out how published diaries often reflect the priorities of their editors rather than their authors (p. 14). In "multiple, heart-stopping interventions," the editors of the Morgan and Chesnut diaries "brought the big-picture Civil War to the foreground by toning down the diary's daily voice—'trivia'—which might interfere with the narrative of robust and tragic warfare" (p. 16). In other instances, the editors fabricated entries to craft "a familiar Civil War narrative"; by doing so, the editors have "erased [the] diary's inside references and insider's voice" (p. 17). Even the most careful editors, Stowe reminds us, "take a slice of the orange," editing out text when a diary is not to be published in its entirety (p. 18).
The alterations that can and do occur when a diary is published shape the presentation of difficult topics such as slavery. If the original is available, comparisons can be made. However, as in the case of Cornelia Peake McDonald's diary, the original was lost or destroyed, so comparison is impossible. McDonald is one of two diarists in Stowe's study who said almost nothing about their slaves in their diaries. As Stowe notes, McDonald edited her diary after the war, which raises the question whether postwar politics led McDonald to remove black people from her text.
Keep the Days is an important contribution to Civil War historiography. As Stowe writes in his conclusion, while historians might make too much of the '"trivial"" aspects of diaries, "it is far easier to make not enough" (p. 157).