Mary Chesnut’s Civil War
Southern women of all classes, probably more than women anywhere else, have for generations been valued for their physical beauty to the exclusion of any other quality. The ethos of the plantation, with its stress on male dominance, allowed, generally speaking, very little room for the development of women’s intellectual capacities, except in a closeted way and then only with vast condescension on the part of the men. Generation after generation of this form of acculturation produced droves of famously beautiful women, but also—in combination with a diminished emphasis on education—a kind of endemic regional dumbness too well known and too persistently remarked upon to be dismissed.
That there are many exceptions to this state of things, especially nowadays, is another sign of the South’s splendid resurgence as it joins the twentieth century; beauty and brains are not necessarily antipathetic in the same person. But until recent years the trials of a bright but plain woman in the South were more difficult than those of her sisters elsewhere who, though certainly fettered in many ways too, suffered less from the stigma of possessing actual intelligence. Difficult, perhaps, but in some ways more interesting. For even as recently as the 1940s, when I was growing up in the South, one could perceive the difference between the often stunning coed beauties who, like their counterparts in the past, fluttered effortlessly into poses of decorative blossoms, and those who were less favored physically but who were far more attractive because of their wit and charm. They created their own seductiveness.
Mary Boykin Chesnut was doubtless one of these: a not really good-looking woman (self-admittedly) whose very lack of beauty helped prevent her from becoming the stereotype of a plantation mistress—frail, dependent, vacuous—and whose compensating drive toward self-expression led her to writing one of the great chronicles of the Civil War. The likeness of Mary Chesnut that regards us from the dust jacket of the new edition of her book is rather plain—the nose too long, the jaw too broad, the eyes too large and dominating—but very winning nonetheless. The picture suggests intelligence and the whisper of mischief—clearly a woman one would have liked to know. That one does get to know her is the result both of her honesty and of the meticulous way in which she records her impressions of daily life in the South between the winter of 1861 and the summer of 1865.
Yet this is not really a “personal” narrative, and despite her candor and the piercing, almost ruthless way in which she dissects her own emotions, Mary Chesnut’s journal has its greatest value for the modern reader in the extraordinary panorama it presents of a culture being rent asunder. Not for its autobiography, not for its “fortuitous self-revelations,” says Professor Woodward in his introduction to Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, will the Chesnut chronicle be remembered, but “for the vivid picture she left of a society in the …
Mrs. Chesnut's Affair October 8, 1981