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Mary Chesnut’s Diary

Mary Chesnut’s Diary
By Mary Boykin Chestnut
Penguin Classics, 2011

It was Edmund Wilson, in his intensely idiosyncratic Patriotic Gore, who first elevated the American Civil War diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut to ‘classic’ status by overpraising its contrived novelistic effects, and as with so much of Wilson’s work, the formulation stuck. So it’s not surprising to see, finally, an edition of Chestnut’s diary issued as a Penguin Classic, the press even going so far as to reprint the edition of the text with which Wilson himself would have been familiar, A Diary from Dixie, edited by Isabella Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary in 1905. Other and more famous editions of this the diary have appeared since, most notably C. Vann Woodward’s Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, but the move to use an older edition is typically astute on Penguin’s part: it’s no doubt cheaper, and it’s at least an attempt to ante-date Wilson’s hagiography.

That attempt is almost exploded by the present volume’s introductory essay, which is surely as gaspingly imbecilic a piece of prose as Civil War expert Catherine Clinton has ever written, but if we cross our fingers and hope that most readers skip most introductions, there’s still the diary itself.

Chesnut was the daughter of a plantation owner and the wife of an aide to Confederate President and arch traitor Jefferson Davis, and thus she was heavily invested, personally and intellectually, in the cause of the South. This would make her diary historically important even if it were nothing else, but alas, Wilson was almost right: Mary Chesnut is a wonderfully immediate writer. She has a perfect ear for when and how often to liven the tempo of her daily accounts with arch humor:

March 11th 1861 – Harriet Lane has eleven suitors. One is described as likely to win, or he would be likely to win, except that he is too heavily weighted. He has been married before and goes about with children and two mothers. There are limits beyond which! Two mothers-in-law!

The bulk of her account is a depiction of the mental and emotional toll exacted by being a member of the war’s losing side, and she can be so vivid in this task that the scattered (historically priceless) little cultural details are overshadowed by it. The combination will keep just about anybody reading:

June 3rd 1862 – Sad down at my window in the beautiful moonlight, and tried hard for pleasant thoughts. A man began to play on the flute, with piano accompaniment, first “Ever of thee I am fondly dreaming,” and then, “The long, long weary day.” At first, I found this but a complement to the beautiful scene, and it was soothing to my wrought-up nerves. But Von Weber’s “Last Waltz” was too much; I broke down. Heavens, what a bitter cry came forth, with such a flood of tears! The wonder is there was any of me left.

A Diary from Dixie was a huge bestseller in New England when it first appeared a century ago; Mary Chesnut enjoyed a brief vogue then long before Woodward’s book (or Ken Burns’ TV documentary The Civil War) came along. Now, thanks to Penguin Classics, she returns to bookstores and offers her morally bankrupt charms to a whole new spectrum of readers. A Penguin collection of the letters of William Lloyd Garrison would be equally charming, and compensatory.