Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886)
Contributing Editor: Minrose C. Gwin
Classroom Issues and Strategies
It is important to consider Mary Chesnut and her work in context. Chesnut is well known for her criticism of slavery and patriarchy. Yet she is also very much a member of the wealthy planter class in her views on race. In addition, this is a massive work--close to 900 pages. It is, therefore, difficult to find "representative" sections that capture the breadth and sweep of the work as a whole.
In teaching Chesnut consider these strategies:
1. Provide historical context with attention to the intersections of race, class, and gender in southern culture. Consider especially the relative positions of white women and African American women in a patriarchal slave society. Students also need to understand the rise and fall of the Confederacy.
2. Require students to read and report on diverse sections of the work.
Students often ask questions related to Chesnut's "feminism" and her attitude toward race. For example, why does she blame African-American women for being sexual victims of white men? How implicated is she in the patriarchal order?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. This is an important social history of the Civil War era in the South.
2. At the same time, it is interesting both as a woman's autobiography--a personal history of struggle and hardship--and as a remarkable story of the trauma experienced by both white and black women in the Civil War South.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
This autobiography is a combination of a journal written on the spot and reminiscences of the Civil War period. (See The Private Mary Chesnut for the former.) There is, therefore, a fascinating combination of the personal and the public in Woodward's edition.
Hundreds of war reminiscences were published in the forty to fifty years after the Civil War. Poorly edited versions, both called A Diary from Dixie, were published in 1905 and 1949. Installments of the first edition were published in The Saturday Evening Post. Readers then were more interested in the actual events of the war years so vividly portrayed by Chestnut.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
I would suggest a contrast/comparison to an African-American woman's slave narrative, perhaps Harriet Ann Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which also decries white men's sexual misuse of female slaves--from the point of view of the victim. (Also see Uncle Tom's Cabin for similar themes.)
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Describe how Chesnut created this massive volume.
(b) Describe the life of an upper-class white woman in the Old South.
(c) Describe the editorial history of this volume.
2. (a) Compare to slave narrative, abolitionist or pro-slavery fiction, realistic or plantation fiction, or modern woman's auto- biography.
(b) Discuss Chesnut's relationships and attitudes toward: black women, her own husband and father-in-law, female friends (e.g., Varina Davis), or her own slaves.
(c) Describe how fictional techniques bring life to the diary format.
Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Gwin, Minrose. Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature. University of Tennessee Press, 1985. Chapter 2.
Jones, Anne Goodwyn. "Southern Literary Women, and Chronicles of Southern Life." In Sex, Race, and the Role of Women in the South, edited by Joanne V. Hawks and Sheila L. Skemp. University Press of Mississippi, 1983.
Junker, Clara. "Writing Herstory: Mary Chesnut's Civil War." Southern Studies 26 (1987): 18-27.
Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. Mary Boykin Chestnut: A Biography. Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Woodward, C. Vann. Mary Chesnut's Civil War. Yale University Press, 1981. Introduction.
---- and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld. The Private Mary Chesnut. Oxford University Press, 1985. Introduction.