DeVelvis on Stowe, 'Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women'

Author: 
Steven M. Stowe
Reviewer: 
Melissa DeVelvis

Steven M. Stowe. Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 228 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-4096-9.

Reviewed by Melissa DeVelvis (University of South Carolina) Published on H-SAWH (July, 2019) Commissioned by Lisa A. Francavilla (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series and Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53972

In what is clearly a labor of love, Steven M. Stowe’s Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women explores both “a way of writing the Civil War and of reading it, too” (p. ix). Using twenty well-known diaries, Stowe explains how women “rose to meet the Civil War with words,” showing the reader how best to understand these words along the way (p. x). Perhaps most importantly, Stowe argues for the inclusion, and even prioritization, of life’s mundane “trivia” when attempting to understand the lives and times of Southern women during the war (p. 12).

Almost all of Stowe's subjects lived in what we now call the Deep South and all were members of the planter class, “the belles of Southern sentimental mythmaking” who lived on wealth accumulated through enslaved labor (p. x). A helpful appendix provides biographies for these women. While Stowe refuses to view them as sympathetic figures, he does stress the importance of empathy, “a grasp on what another person’s experience feels like,” in reading their diaries (p. x). The use of empathy, he writes, leads to understanding not only the cruelties of a slave-owning society but also “how slaveholding women could believe their lives were good lives” (p. xi). Though discussion of the Confederacy remains highly charged outside of academia, Stowe cautions contemporary readers that mocking these Southern women creates “the opposite of empathy; it is a moral slam dunk from modern times. And it defends us against the enemy, making her a simple villain and feckless, and certainly not one of us” (p. 54). This serves as a warning against contemporary moralizing, but at times Stowe’s musings on empathy come across as preemptive defenses against criticism.

Keep the Days is broken into six chapters and the first two shine brightest. Chapter 1 concerns “the diaries as they are today” and the often harmful changes editors made in their aim to make the texts “well-behaved” (p. xv). Stowe deliberately chose published and familiar diaries to best illustrate the desire of editors and readers alike to “skip around” in search of a linear narrative of the “big picture” Civil War, with little regard for daily “trivia” (p. 1). Stowe rightly argues that this gendered idea of women’s trivia—repetition, passages about love, church, and social visits—is "devalued" and marginalized, while pointing out that “no good editor” would consider cutting the trivia in official military accounts of the war (p. 12). Cutting these passages, Stowe warns, omits critical knowledge of not only the diarist, but time itself—“how the long day passed, and how long it was,” and how the war fit into these days (p. 21). The second chapter examines why women kept diaries. Here, Stowe elaborates on how diary-keeping “stretched time into ungainly shapes” as narratives of battle coexisted with a laundry list of the day’s chores (p. 32). Wartime writing allowed women to regain some semblance of control as narrators over the events swirling around them, sometimes serving as an emotional “safety valve” for the diarist (p. 32). Perhaps, Stowe muses, editors cut these emotional outpourings to save the diarists from public embarrassment. Whatever the reason, these edits obscure the fact that in Southern women’s diaries war was a presence, not the plot.

The next three chapters—“Wartime,” “Men,” and “Slaves”—are, by Stowe’s admission, hardly the only topics worth scholarly attention in women’s diaries. These three, he reasons, simply “read as a diarist’s best moments of doubt and play on the page” (p. xvi). In his section on men, Stowe refers to the romance of war as “eros” without ever quite defining the term, which, when read alongside complicated passages on writing “commentary” as “an act of exile,” might create obstacles toward Stowe’s goal of a wider readership (pp. 70, 31). That is not to say that ruminations on abstract concepts like time are not useful. Stowe’s study of the flexibility of war’s end, dubbed “stop time,” and his section on the confusion of gradual emancipation capture this period in ways that “big picture” Civil War histories often obfuscate.  

By necessity, some sections include speculation. Stowe is usually explicit when he suggests potential thoughts and feelings of women long gone. Conjecture arises most often in his chapter entitled “Slaves,” which examines how and when individual enslaved people appear as actors rather than lumped together as “part of the diarist’s personal landscape of home and things cherished” (p. 115). Stowe tells us that when women wrote about slavery, they were inconsistent and contradictory. In many cases, they wrote nothing at all. He offers his interpretation of these silences but leaves room for negotiation. The final chapter, “Herself,” is a brief nineteen pages that in many ways feels like a catchall, with its three sections of religion, femininity’s charm, and emotions. The religious content in particular should be familiar to scholars of Civil War women, but it is unclear why these unrelated categories reveal more about the “self” than topics in the previous chapters.

Stowe forgoes the “footnotes and tribal talk” of historiography and relegates most scholarship to a brief “Note on Reading” in the appendix (p. xv). Few, if any, historians are referenced within the text. Stowe instead spotlights essayists and writers such as George Orwell and Anne Carson. Stowe is a self-professed “reader and lover of historical diaries” and adopts a personal tone throughout the book that allows for beautiful, passionate, and sometimes convoluted prose (p. xiv). He closes with a plea: “don’t lose the diary’s text—or any text—in the happy din of historical sources” (p. 157). Perhaps other works have made this caution or explained the methodological difficulties of relying upon edited diaries, but none have done so with such clarity when explaining what we miss in cutting the “trivia.” Stowe's work is an excellent example of how to perform a textual, almost literary, analysis without losing sight of historical context. This reviewer suggests Keep the Days for all who work with diaries, and insists upon it for those who examine women and the American South.

Citation: Melissa DeVelvis. Review of Stowe, Steven M., Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women. H-SAWH, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53972

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