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Mrs. Chesnut’s Affair

In response to:

In the Southern Camp from the August 13, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

Why Mary Chesnut chose to spend the early 1880s fabricating a fake diary of her life during the Civil War can never be known for sure. But on the basis of what C. Vann Woodward has told us about her life in his factually careful but analytically underpowered introduction to a new edition of the diary, we at least can assume that, having endured the humiliating failure in her efforts to become a published novelist, Mrs. Chesnut thought she might have better luck as the author of what purported to be a historical document.

What your reviewer, William Styron [NYR, August 13], does not understand is that to stress the factitiousness of Mrs. Chesnut’s diary, as I did in my New York Times review, is not to suggest that it is a work to be ignored. It merely means that we now must revise our ways of dealing with the book. Instead of thinking about it as a historical document, we must regard it as a work of fiction. Instead of relying on it as a contemporary account of the wartime South, we must regard it as an account of what the 1880s chose to remember about the wartime South.

Our belated awareness of the diary’s true nature will also serve to deepen our admiration for the sagacity of Mark Twain, who in the very years when Mrs. Chesnut was quietly manufacturing her book, repeatedly called attention to the South’s penchant for cultural fraud.

Kenneth S. Lynn

Washington, DC

William Styron replies:

Mark Twain may have been right about certain manifestations of cultural fraud in the South of his time, but Mary Chesnut’s work was scarcely among them. Professor Woodward’s introduction and my review speak for themselves. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War is neither fiction nor a fraud. It is a perfectly legitimate reconstruction of first-hand material and will be read not as the work of a novelist—failed or otherwise—but as that of a remarkably penetrating and capacious historian.

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