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Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Epic

A genteel southern intellectual, saloniste, and wife to a prominent colonel in Jefferson Davis’s inner circle, Mary Chesnut today is remembered best for her penetrating Civil War diary. Composed between 1861 and 1865 and revised thoroughly from the late 1870s until Chesnut’s death in 1886, the diary was published first in 1905, again in 1949, and later, to great acclaim, in 1981. This complicated literary history and the questions that attend it—which edition represents the real Chesnut? To what genre does this text belong?—may explain why the document largely has, until now, been overlooked in literary studies.

Julia A. Stern’s critical analysis returns Chesnut to her rightful place among American writers. In Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Epic, Stern argues that the revised diary offers the most trenchant literary account of race and slavery until the work of Faulkner and that, along with his Yoknapatawpha novels, it constitutes one of the two great Civil War epics of the American canon. By restoring Chesnut’s 1880s revision to its complex, multidecade cultural context, Stern argues both for Chesnut’s reinsertion into the pantheon of nineteenth-century American letters and for her centrality to the literary history of women’s writing as it evolved from sentimental to tragic to realist forms.

336 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2010

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature


“In a work of genuine scholarship and searching criticism, Julia Stern reveals the complex power and beauty of Mary Chesnut’s narrative and convincingly places it among the very best literature to emerge from the Civil War and its aftermath.”

Eric Sunquist, University of California, Los Angeles

Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Epic is a magnificent accomplishment. Chesnut’s portrait of the Civil War—its politics, its psychic complexities, its quotidian forms—is brought to life and into focus through a breathtaking combination of literary and historical analysis.  Beautifully written, forcefully argued, and speculatively dazzling, Stern has given scholars of American literature and culture a fascinating account of one extraordinary woman’s life, writings, and memory, which for all of their singularity, ultimately disclose the traumas of a nation at war with itself.”

Cindy Weinstein, California Institute of Technology

“The book on Mary Chesnut we’ve been waiting for! In this comprehensive and daring work, Julia Stern addresses matters literary, textual, cultural, and historical, making it clear that Chesnut belongs at the center of nineteenth-century American literary and cultural studies. Beautifully written, the book is energized by Stern’s passion for her subject. It will quickly emerge as the standard work on Chesnut and as essential reading for anyone interested in the American South.”

Robert S. Levine, University of Maryland

“In Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, Julia Stern mounts an impassioned defense of Mary Chesnut’s centrality to the American literary tradition. By deftly detailing the complexities of textual history even as she illuminates a rich cultural context, Stern weaves together the multiple strands of Chesnut’s unfinished epic with great care and creativity. Insightful and evocative, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Epic provides a wide-ranging discussion of the literary, generic, and cultural questions central to nineteenth-century literary studies.”

Teresa A. Goddu, Vanderbilt University

“This book is a triumph. Out of the confusion of multiple diaries, revisions and text fragments Julia Stern has given us nothing less than a new Mary Chesnut and a new Civil War epic. Her brilliant reconstruction of Chesnut’s literary ambitions makes a lasting contribution of significance to historians and literary scholars alike. If any chapter in American life reached epic proportions it was the Confederate one. In Stern’s book the rise and fall of that republic is evoked in all its riveting human drama.”

Stephanie McCurry, University of Pennsylvania

“An imaginative blend of feminist biography, literary criticism, and cultural brio.”

Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature

Table of Contents

List of Figures


1          Introduction

2          Walls: Epic in Miniature

3          Seeds: Fertility, Flowers, and Fratricide

4          Seeds: Fruits and Famine

5          Words: Reading and Writing

6          Smells: The Stench of Slavery and Sentiment

7          Masks: Theatricals in Black

8          Masks: Theatricals in White

9          Revolt: Family Troubles in the House Divided

10         Revolt: More Family Troubles in the House Divided

11         Recognition: Looking Defeat in the Face



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