Rothera on Diffley, 'The Fateful Lightning: Civil War Stories and the Magazine Marketplace, 1861-1876'

Kathleen Elizabeth Diffley
Evan C. Rothera

Kathleen Elizabeth Diffley. The Fateful Lightning: Civil War Stories and the Magazine Marketplace, 1861-1876. Print Culture in the South Series. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2021. 268 pp. $36.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8203-6065-2

Reviewed by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith) Published on Jhistory (January, 2023) Commissioned by Zef Segal (Department of History, Philosophy, and Jewish Studies, the Open University of Israel)

Printable Version:

Scholars have often asserted that the US Civil War did not produce much literature. Kathleen Diffley, currently associate professor of English at the University of Iowa, has written two volumes—Where My Heart Is Turning Ever: Civil War Stories and Constitutional Reform, 1861-1876 (1992) and The Fateful Lightning—that challenge this assumption. The Fateful Lightning reveals the breadth and depth of the fiction that emerged during and after the war. Although Diffley analyzes stories from numerous periodicals, her principal focus is on four magazines founded after the war in regions outside of New England: the Southern Magazine (Baltimore), The Land We Love (Charlotte), the Lakeside Monthly (Chicago), and the Overland Monthly (San Francisco). Her examination of the stories in these periodicals “reveals unexpected commemorative practices and narrative upshots complicating the literary Civil War that many believe they know” (p. 2). Diffley devotes one chapter to each of the four periodicals and also adds a particularly evocative story from that periodical and her analysis of said story. The volume is also lavishly illustrated, which is a nice complement to Diffley’s close readings of magazine fiction.

Chapter 1 discusses the Southern Magazine. Under editor William Hand Browne, stories in this periodical “began to sketch unexpected sites in Civil War stories, spaces that were harder to read: an apartment in Richmond, a mountain village in North Carolina, a shop in Atlanta, a bluegrass home in Kentucky” (p. 23). While it lasted, the Southern Magazine “enthusiastically pursued the task of establishing a selective regional literature, one that contested the memorializing practices of other postwar venues” (p. 29). Diffley argues that the regional literature of resistance embodied by the magazine was a consequence, to some extent, of the agitation for an international copyright law. Informal agreements increased royalty payments to foreign authors and their publishers. The resulting lack of cheap transatlantic fiction caused many US publishers to solicit fiction from regional contributors. The Southern Magazine embraced a conservative program that favored industrial development, foreign capital, immigrant labor, and creating coalitions with western interests. Caroline Marsdale’s “Cousin Jack” (December 1873), the story selected from the Southern Magazine, focuses on a family during the Civil War but also speaks to Reconstruction and “reveals a deeper uneasiness through its contrasting locales” (p. 51).

Chapter 2 turns to Charlotte’s The Land We Love. General D. H. Hill’s magazine offered “an uncommon witness to dashed hopes both in recollecting the war and in reconstructing the peace from North Carolina’s chief Piedmont city and railroad hub” (p. 62). In addition to discussing The Land We Love, Diffley also examines the newly robust operations of the United States Post Office and includes some intriguing analysis of commemorative stamps. Although The Land We Love was based in Charlotte, the South Hill celebrated looked less like the city and more like “the tilled lands of Mecklenburg County, where farmers were white and the American Revolution was a recent memory” (p. 71). Diffley contends that magazines like The Land We Love “ultimately helped to reconceive ‘the South’ and to engage emancipation by way of rebuttal, more or less through the commemorative practice understood as ‘postmemory’” (p. 80). Postmemory, a commemorative practice, involves “the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before” (p. 80). Diffley concedes that “enlisting the moral high ground of postmemory for patriarchal slaveholders and their fellow travelers in print can seem like privileging the sorrows of the Third Reich and its horrific and persistent appeal” (p. 82). Nevertheless, she argues, “casting the Lost Cause and its multiplying commemorative ventures as postmemory reanimates an anguish Hill would recognize while revealing the century’s eighteenth-century vision of liberty and justice as perpetually redefined through contest” (p. 82). Ina M. Porter’s “Road-Side Story” (August 1866) “reveals more than a stubbornly Southern patriarchy and the emerging strains of the Lost Cause” (p. 93) and “acknowledges the stature of white women too poor to wear petticoated silk and yet too capable to hide a willing needle” (p. 101).

Chapter 3 considers Chicago’s Lakeside Monthly. The stories in this magazine, Diffley contends, “were uncommonly attentive to something broken and then replaced—a father’s blessing, an engagement, the regiment’s commitment, planter authority” (p. 103). Chicago’s development was intimately linked with railroads and, consequently, people were very attentive to the “railroad opportunities that literally helped fuel the Lakeside Monthly” (p. 113). Editor Francis Fisher Browne included many tributes to the city’s self-made men, although he focused on self-made white men and, Diffley notes, the magazine’s “editorial enthusiasm for marshland individualism suffers from the neglect of self-made African Americans” (p. 122). Interestingly, the priorities of the Lakeside Monthly were rarely radical, but “few other monthlies reckoned with emancipation so broadly conceived” (p. 125). Helen E. Harrington’s “In the Palmy Days of Slaveholding” (August 1870), a tale of “slave rescue that is finally less attentive to black resistance than to white tutorial” concludes the chapter (p. 143).

Chapter 4 analyzes San Francisco’s Overland Monthly. Diffley begins with a lengthy discussion of stereographs and parallax and extended analysis of Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady’s photographs. “If baffled Americans needed help in reconciling the war’s disparate images,” she comments, “they were likeliest to get it from other pages of newsmagazines and from other periodicals that carried war stories” (p. 157). The Overland Monthly, she observes, “did not solicit the Chinese and Irish immigrants whose cheap postwar labor fueled foundries and machine shops, railroads and mines” (p. 162). Nor did the magazine really dwell on the postbellum South. Josephine Clifford’s haunting story “An Episode of ‘Fort Desolation’” (March 1871) focuses on Captain Arnold, his enigmatic wife, Mrs. Arnold, the white officers and African American soldiers garrisoning the fort, and African American servants. “If the cook, and the houseboy and the sergeant approximate an evanescent family and therefore a second story of ‘desolation’ as Civil War upshot,” Diffley contends, “it is a Reconstruction tale of black service and white theft” (p. 185). Importantly, the authors of the four stories Diffley includes were women. This is an excellent reminder of the roles that women, both well known and obscure, played in fiction writing and commemoration following the Civil War.

Diffley concludes with a coda in which she contends that scholars have placed too much attention on the Main Building and Machinery Hall at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Rather, just as she contends that scholars should focus on regional magazines in order to gain a more complete understanding of the fiction and literary offerings that emerged after the Civil War, she contends that two other buildings at the Centennial Exhibition, the Southern Restaurant and the Women’s Pavilion, should receive more scholarly scrutiny because these buildings illustrate how people conceived of the South in 1876. She also discusses a bust of Bishop Richard Allen, which has recently returned to Philadelphia at the same time that scholars are rediscovering Civil War stories in neglected periodicals. “As contributions to an ongoing national reconstruction,” Diffley concludes, “they may give students of a murky postwar decade much to imagine anew” (p. 204).

Diffley addresses the issue of circulation throughout the book and notes that none of these magazines reached more than fifteen thousand subscribers during their relatively short runs. Nevertheless, “thousands across the country discovered regional challenges to Federal prerogatives that would never have appeared” in other periodicals (p. 6). Indeed, Diffley finds in these periodicals an “alternative model of regional challenges to the Atlantic’s elitist façade” (p. 9). However, given the low circulation, one wonders about the effectiveness and impact of these regional challenges. This point aside, The Fateful Lightning offers additional proof that the US Civil War produced some fascinating literary outpourings and demonstrates that periodicals outside of New England offered readers interesting visions and divergent narratives about the United States. It will appeal to anyone interested in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century, literary history, and commemoration.

Citation: Evan C. Rothera. Review of Diffley, Kathleen Elizabeth, The Fateful Lightning: Civil War Stories and the Magazine Marketplace, 1861-1876. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.