Saturday, August 10, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Keep the Days

One of the most effective ways to attempt to understand the past is to delve into the primary sources of the period under study. That sounds all well and good, but one quickly encounters hurdles. Many primary sources are held in repositories with limited accessibility. In the digital age, that obstacle is getting lower, but it still remains. And while many collections of letters, diaries, and journals are now in print, even the best of edited versions often leave out chucks of information that can unintentionally alter the meaning of the writer of the documents.

As it does in approaching any subject, it helps to have an expert explain how best to go about the task at hand. Steven M. Stowe does just that in Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women.

Stowe open this impressively written work with a intelligent preface that explains the thesis of the book and how it is structured. He then gives a "Cast of Characters;" which offers brief bios of the 20 women's writings he chose to include in this study. All of the diaries that Stowe chose for this work have been published in one form or another. Many of them come from diarists familiar to Civil War enthusiasts. For example, included in it are Mary Boykin Chestnut, Sarah Morgan, Kate Stone, Cornelia Peake McDonald, Catherine Deveraux Edmonston, and Lucy Buck. While a handful of the 20 women come from Virginia and North Carolina, the majority of them hail from Deep South states. They all come from slaveholding families.

To help us better comprehend this subject, that of female diarists and diary keeping, Stowe gives us six chapters. The first two, "Reading the Diary," and "Keeping the Diary," both provide essential approaches to the subject matter. The other four chapters tackle common themes in the diaries; "wartime," "men," "slaves," and "herself." All of these four topics weighed heavy on the minds of the writers. And each one affected the other and all drastically changed each other between 1861-1865.

Each diarist "kept the days" by recording their thoughts and feelings, and each seemed to try to make sense of their quickly altering worlds. Here in the 21st century we may disdain the sentiments of white supremacy that many of these women express, but reading diaries with empathy (although there are limits) is important. However, recognizing what was wrong is just as important and should also be a reason that we read diaries. Edited/printed diaries are much like standard histories. Who edits them and when they were edited often influences how the diary, and thus the diarist is presented. It is important to remember this.

Stowe provides a beneficial appendix with significant information on the diarists such as: their birth and death dates, their marital status, notable points, dates covered by their diaries, where the original manuscript resides (if it still survives), which edited version of the diary was used in this work, which percentage of the original diary was published, and if other forms of the diary exist.

As mentioned above, Stowe's writing is a pleasure to read. He bring up excellent points for us to consider and helps provide guidance for those navigating the sometimes confusing world of Civil War diarists. I recommend it.

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