[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-SAWH]: DeVelvis on Stowe, 'Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Mon Jul 29 14:10:13 MDT 2019


---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Date: Mon, Jul 29, 2019 at 3:35 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-SAWH]: DeVelvis on Stowe, 'Keep the Days: Reading
the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women'
To: <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>


Steven M. Stowe.  Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of
Southern Women.  Chapel Hill  University of North Carolina Press,
2018.  228 pp.  $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-4096-9.

Reviewed by Melissa DeVelvis (University of South Carolina)
Published on H-SAWH (July, 2019)
Commissioned by Lisa A. Francavilla

DeVelvis on Stowe, _Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of
Southern Women_

In what is clearly a labor of love, Steven M. Stowe's _Keep the Days:
Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women_ explores both "a way
of writing the Civil War and of reading it, too" (p. ix). Using
twenty well-known diaries, Stowe explains how women "rose to meet the
Civil War with words," showing the reader how best to understand
these words along the way (p. x). Perhaps most importantly, Stowe
argues for the inclusion, and even prioritization, of life's mundane
"trivia" when attempting to understand the lives and times of
Southern women during the war (p. 12).

Almost all of Stowe's subjects lived in what we now call the Deep
South and all were members of the planter class, "the belles of
Southern sentimental mythmaking" who lived on wealth accumulated
through enslaved labor (p. x). A helpful appendix provides
biographies for these women. While Stowe refuses to view them as
sympathetic figures, he does stress the importance of empathy, "a
grasp on what another person's experience feels like," in reading
their diaries (p. x). The use of empathy, he writes, leads to
understanding not only the cruelties of a slave-owning society but
also "how slaveholding women could believe their lives were _good_
lives" (p. xi). Though discussion of the Confederacy remains highly
charged outside of academia, Stowe cautions contemporary readers that
mocking these Southern women creates "the opposite of empathy; it is
a moral slam dunk from modern times. And it defends us against the
enemy, making her a simple villain and feckless, and certainly not
one of us" (p. 54). This serves as a warning against contemporary
moralizing, but at times Stowe's musings on empathy come across as
preemptive defenses against criticism.

_Keep the Days_ is broken into six chapters and the first two shine
brightest. Chapter 1 concerns "the diaries as they are today" and the
often harmful changes editors made in their aim to make the texts
"well-behaved" (p. xv). Stowe deliberately chose published and
familiar diaries to best illustrate the desire of editors and readers
alike to "skip around" in search of a linear narrative of the "big
picture" Civil War, with little regard for daily "trivia" (p. 1).
Stowe rightly argues that this gendered idea of women's
trivia--repetition, passages about love, church, and social
visits--is "devalued" and marginalized, while pointing out that "no
good editor" would consider cutting the trivia in official military
accounts of the war (p. 12). Cutting these passages, Stowe warns,
omits critical knowledge of not only the diarist, but time
itself--"how the long day passed, and how long it was," and how the
war fit into these days (p. 21). The second chapter examines why
women kept diaries. Here, Stowe elaborates on how diary-keeping
"stretched time into ungainly shapes" as narratives of battle
coexisted with a laundry list of the day's chores (p. 32). Wartime
writing allowed women to regain some semblance of control as
narrators over the events swirling around them, sometimes serving as
an emotional "safety valve" for the diarist (p. 32). Perhaps, Stowe
muses, editors cut these emotional outpourings to save the diarists
from public embarrassment. Whatever the reason, these edits obscure
the fact that in Southern women's diaries war was a presence, not the
plot.

The next three chapters--"Wartime," "Men," and "Slaves"--are, by
Stowe's admission, hardly the only topics worth scholarly attention
in women's diaries. These three, he reasons, simply "read as a
diarist's best moments of doubt and play on the page" (p. xvi). In
his section on men, Stowe refers to the romance of war as "eros"
without ever quite defining the term, which, when read alongside
complicated passages on writing "commentary" as "an act of exile,"
might create obstacles toward Stowe's goal of a wider readership (pp.
70, 31). That is not to say that ruminations on abstract concepts
like time are not useful. Stowe's study of the flexibility of war's
end, dubbed "stop time," and his section on the confusion of gradual
emancipation capture this period in ways that "big picture" Civil War
histories often obfuscate.

By necessity, some sections include speculation. Stowe is usually
explicit when he suggests potential thoughts and feelings of women
long gone. Conjecture arises most often in his chapter entitled
"Slaves," which examines how and when individual enslaved people
appear as actors rather than lumped together as "part of the
diarist's personal landscape of home and things cherished" (p. 115).
Stowe tells us that when women wrote about slavery, they were
inconsistent and contradictory. In many cases, they wrote nothing at
all. He offers his interpretation of these silences but leaves room
for negotiation. The final chapter, "Herself," is a brief nineteen
pages that in many ways feels like a catchall, with its three
sections of religion, femininity's charm, and emotions. The religious
content in particular should be familiar to scholars of Civil War
women, but it is unclear why these unrelated categories reveal more
about the "self" than topics in the previous chapters.

Stowe forgoes the "footnotes and tribal talk" of historiography and
relegates most scholarship to a brief "Note on Reading" in the
appendix (p. xv). Few, if any, historians are referenced within the
text. Stowe instead spotlights essayists and writers such as George
Orwell and Anne Carson. Stowe is a self-professed "reader and lover
of historical diaries" and adopts a personal tone throughout the book
that allows for beautiful, passionate, and sometimes convoluted prose
(p. xiv). He closes with a plea: "don't lose the diary's text--or any
text--in the happy din of historical sources" (p. 157). Perhaps other
works have made this caution or explained the methodological
difficulties of relying upon edited diaries, but none have done so
with such clarity when explaining what we miss in cutting the
"trivia." Stowe's work is an excellent example of how to perform a
textual, almost literary, analysis without losing sight of historical
context. This reviewer suggests _Keep the Days_ for all who work with
diaries, and insists upon it for those who examine women and the
American South.

Citation: Melissa DeVelvis. Review of Stowe, Steven M., _Keep the
Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women_. H-SAWH, H-Net
Reviews. July, 2019.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53972

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
License.




-- 
Best regards,

Andrew Stewart



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