Monday, August 9, 2010

"A Diary from Dixie" by Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut

If the Confederacy had survived Lincoln's invasion, Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut might be a household name in the literary world.

And that's pretty good when one considers that her oeuvre was written without the slightest whiff of literary pretension or ambition.

highwayscribery is not sure if a deep interest in the Civil War, from the southern side of things, is necessary for her scribbling prowess to impress. But if it's there, "A DIARY FROM DIXIE" is for you.

Chesnut was well-positioned to chronicle Dixie's misery both as a South Carolina lady intimate with Jefferson Davis and his wife, and wife to a Confederate officer whose competence is apparent in his upward trajectory throughout the book's (and war's) course.

The authoress succeeds in engaging the reader without any real structure other than the natural chronology of events as she lives them. The gentle lady moseys from one happening to another, recounting those things she witnesses, and those others have told her about, with nary a transition.

But the recounting is so casual, the prose so clean, the reader is niever tried, taxed or bored. Chesnut was a feeling, seeing person with the literary chops to put what she felt and saw into words, as in this passage describing the family plantation, Mulberry, in Camden, South Carolina:

"It is so lovely here in spring. The giants of the forest -- the primeval oaks, water-oaks, live-oaks, willow-oaks, such as I have not seen since I left here -- with opopanax, violets, roses, and yellow jessamine, the air is laden with perfume. Araby the Blest was never sweeter."

There are fascinating, first-hand insights in "Diary" as to the way slaves and masters interacted, and the ambiguous attitude of negroes in the south when freedom beckoned, but their familiar world crumbled.

Chesnut's tones are not the stark blacks and whites of Harriet Beecher Stowe's south, rather a wide array of grays.

The relations between the furiously independent member states are also depicted, with Virginians, and Kentuckians, and Carolinians both north and south, remarked upon for their peculiar, geographically bound traits.

In these times, as a single electronic culture inexorably engulfs humanity, it is interesting to read about the differences between neighboring communities and see how they celebrated those differences.

The book's tone morphs from light to dark as the northern noose tightens around the Confederacy's neck. Noteworthy is the early opinion, expressed by rebels in high places, that the South had no chance of winning the war.

"Diary" tells us that had clearer heads prevailed, the cataclysm might have been averted.

The dominant portrait is that of a small, agrarian society confronting a behemoth that will leave no stone unturned, no home unburned, and kill-off a generation of fine young men -- not all of them enamored with slavery -- so much as loyal to their homeland.

"Others dropped in after dinner; some without arms, some without legs; von Boreke, who can not speak because of a wound in his throat. Isabella said, 'We have all kinds now, but a blind one.' Poor fellows, they laugh at wounds. 'And they yet can show many a scar.'"

Chesnut is in the rearguard, her lofty status slowly reduced to a state of hunger bourn with ladylike dignity. Hers is the Confederate women's story, a dreadful enumeration of lost sons, sundered families, and mothers literally dying from grief.

"Isabella says that war leads to love-making. She says these soldiers do more courting here in a day than they would do at home, without a war, in ten years."

Perhaps most valuable are those anecdotes Chesnut recorded which give the war between the states, and the Confederacy in particular, a greater depth and richer texture.

Without her we might not have known that President Davis' little boy died at home, nor of the suspicions that a turncoat on staff, or a spy snuck into the house, actually killed him in a cruel effort to demoralize Dixie.

The tragic deaths of innocents stepping out from a cave for some air in Vicksburg during the Union siege might have gone unrecorded. We could not be aware that France's last Count de Choiseul had thrown his lot in with the south and died for it, too.

Without her desperate scribblings, we would have known only the winner's account, and been denied the terrible beauties associated with losing, which is so much a part of life.

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