Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Booknotes: Living by Inches

New Arrival:
Living by Inches: The Smells, Sounds, Tastes, and Feeling of Captivity in Civil War Prisons by Evan A. Kutzler (UNC Press, 2019).

Differences of opinion remain when it comes to assessing how much malice played a role in how POW camps were administered by both sides, but everyone can agree that Civil War prisons were places that no one wanted to stay in for very long. A great many books have been written about Civil War prisons (both Union and Confederate) and the POW experience, but Evan Kutzler's Living by Inches: The Smells, Sounds, Tastes, and Feeling of Captivity in Civil War Prisons certainly adopts a unique focus and direction. 

It is "the first book to examine how imprisoned men in the Civil War perceived captivity through the basic building blocks of human experience--their five senses. From the first whiffs of a prison warehouse to the taste of cornbread and the feeling of lice, captivity assaulted prisoners' perceptions of their environments and themselves." Particular chapters address the prison psychology of night, the smells of Civil War prisons, the common plague of lice, noise, and hunger.

Much more than a descriptive study, the book also closely examines how sensory perceptions affected the prisoners' minds and physical well-being. Kutzler "demonstrates that the sensory experience of imprisonment produced an inner struggle for men who sought to preserve their bodies, their minds, and their sense of self as distinct from the fundamentally uncivilized and filthy environments surrounding them. From the mundane to the horrific, these men survived the daily experiences of captivity by adjusting to their circumstances, even if these transformations worried prisoners about what type of men they were becoming."

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