Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Booknotes: Keep the Days

New Arrival:
Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women by Steven M. Stowe
  (UNC Press, 2018).

"The personal diary—wildly ragged yet rooted in day following day—was one place Americans wrote their war. Diaries, then, have become one of the best-known, most-used sources for exploring the life of the mind in a war-torn place and time. Delving into several familiar wartime diaries kept by women of the southern slave-owning class, Steven Stowe recaptures their motivations to keep the days close even as war tore apart the brutal system of slavery that had benefited them. Whether the diarists recorded thoughts about themselves, their opinions about men, or their observations about slavery, race, and warfare, Stowe shows how these women, by writing the immediate moment, found meaning in a changing world."

Steven Stowe's Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women studies "the inner lives of these unsympathetic (!) characters, Stowe also explores the importance—and the limits—of historical empathy as a condition for knowing the past, demonstrating how these plain, first-draft texts can offer new ways to make sense of the world in which these Confederate women lived." Twenty published diarists—some household names to Civil War readers (among them Mary Chestnut, Kate Stone, Emma Holmes, and Sarah Morgan to name a few) and others like Pauline DeCaradeuc, Anna Maria Green, and Emma LeConte less well known—go under the book's microscope, which generally focuses on the last half of the war when the worlds of these women collapsed and were destroyed.

"Chapter 1 is about the diaries as they are today ... In Chapter 2 the focus shifts from reading diaries to the women that wrote them ... Chapters 3, 4, and 5 take up themes women found inexhaustible in fashioning the war into their war: violence, men, and slavery ... Chapter 6 is about the diarist as she saw herself." The volume concludes with an appendix that serves as a general guide to the diaries and diarists.


  1. Yes, the "unsympathetic" comment raised hackles for me too, seeming to suggest a lack of objectivity in the book. Reading the introduction makes it clearer that the author constructs this as sort of his own journey of discovery in reading the diaries; there is a great deal of his personal voice and it's as much a literary work as a historical one. Empathy as a reading tool plays a large role as well, though I'm not sure his use of it is as unique as he suggests. He also explains that the "messiness" of the diaries attracts him, which makes it surprising to me that he relied wholly on published diaries.

    1. Hi Will,
      I agree with your thoughts, and that prospective readers should read the introduction (most of which is available online), which does a good job of describing the author's method and purpose.

      I believe the reason Stowe went with published diaries only is that a part of his analysis and criticism involves how diaries are edited for publication.


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