- Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women by Steven M. Stowe
By Steven M. Stowe. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
2018. Pp. 228. Cloth, $90.00; paper, $29.95.)
If you pick up this book, as I did, with the expectation of reading a substantive treatment of Confederate women and their experiences during the Civil War, you will be disappointed. The book is about diary keeping, about the relationship between the diaries and their authors, but mostly it's about the author's imagined connection to the diaries and the women who kept them. Steven M. Stowe, eminent scholar of the American South, seeks a way to connect with, to empathize with, and to understand a group of women whose values—foremost, ownership in humans—differ so starkly from his own. Thus the journey Stowe tells in this book is a personal one for him, one that allows him to better understand the world in which these women lived as well as his own: "I look to empathy to reveal ways I can think about myself as living and writing in my own time" (xi). His missives about the women and his attempt to make sense of their compulsion to record their wartime thoughts undergird this slim volume.
Stowe unapologetically resists using the diaries to write "big-picture Civil War history" (1). In fact, I suspect Stowe believes that the Civil War has impeded our understanding of the real significance of these diaries. On some level, he is correct. Historians of southern women and the Civil War search the diaries for relevant nuggets and too often ignore the larger context of the women, their emotions, their experiences. In a sense, we historians are exploiting and dishonoring the journaling of these eyewitnesses to war by selfishly plucking the factoids we need to plug into our arguments without considering the history of each of these texts. Implicit in the book is a kind of plea for modern readers to slow down in our research pursuits and take stock of the larger personal significance of the diaries and their authors.
The problem, however, is that that significance remains elusive. While Stowe's stated aim is clear—he seeks greater understanding of these women through their diary keeping—his argument is difficult to discern and harder still to follow. A chief obstacle to discernment is Stowe's writing style. He privileges literary flourish and contrived grammatical devices over clarity. For example, he deploys sentences without verbs for dramatic effect: "A book, an ordinary object" (37); "Stories of all sorts, fierce and gentle" (5); "Empty breath" (98). He engages in obtuse, jargony language that hinders comprehension: "I use the diary—just reading the diary—as a kind of rope line into the subjective darkness" (6). He overwrites: "Women felt the war killing a sweetness and strength as natural to the sexes as the [End Page 132] seasons were to nature" (99); "In the manipulation of surfaces, in the self-absorption it took for a mistress to mesh persuasion and force, a deeper subjectivity was an awkward thing, to be only quickly touched, and lightly" (117). I found myself reading and rereading passages in unsuccessful attempts to make sense of Stowe's thoughts.
For readers steeped in old-school rules of crafting prose, it will be difficult to swallow the incessant first-person insertions of the author into the text: "I take pleasure" (4); "I like how the poet Anne Carson writes" (79). While the use of the first person as a cheeky grammatical ploy risks annoying many readers, it's the centrality of the author in the text that will likely trouble most. Just one example: "I wonder about the war as something that raked over the self and femininity's promise about the sparks always flying upward. I read diarists dismayed at finding femininity emptied out and coming to find, by writing, that I scarcely know myself" (148). Stowe's journey of self-exploration through his examination of these women's diaries may make some readers uncomfortable; others will balk at...