Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Mary Chesnut kept her journal from early in 1861, just before the Civil War began, to shortly after the end of the war, in 1865. Her commentary on the conversations and events of her day reveals a keen awareness of the oppression to which women—black or white, slave or free—were subjected during that period. While she would not consider herself a feminist, her diary reveals sensibilities and concerns that place her far ahead of her time and led to problems in the publication of her work after her death.

Chesnut’s diary is also important as a historical document. Since she and her husband were socially prominent and he was a major figure in the war itself, everyone who was important in the war was dramatized in her pages. Because of the Chesnuts’ position, they were always at the scene of major events—in Montgomery, Alabama, for the formation of the Confederacy and later in Richmond, Virginia, its second capital; in Charleston, South Carolina, for the firing on Fort Sumter, which began the hostilities of the war; in various towns and cities near the path of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea, often just escaping capture; and after the end of the war, back at their plantation near Camden, South Carolina. After the South’s defeat, the Chesnuts experienced the terrors and privations of the war’s aftermath: poverty, raids, destruction, and at times near starvation.

Yet it would be misleading to think that one can learn from the diary only about major events of the war. Mary Chesnut was interested in and cared about everything. She wrote about the slaves on the plantation with the same attention to the individual that she gave to major social, political, and military figures, so that the reader learns much about slavery and...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Chesnut was passionate about the plight of women, seeing all women, even the wealthiest, as slaves to men. Though she was very fond of her husband and of other male family members and friends, she was appalled at much male behavior and often exclaims against it in the diary. One of the horrors that most disgusted her was the practice (of which her husband was apparently not guilty) of white men raping slave women and keeping them and their children in the household. She draws a vivid comparison between women condemned as prostitutes and men whose households are shamelessly peopled with their unwilling mates and children. She felt sorry for all the women involved—both for the men’s wives and daughters and for the African American women—and for the children.

She also was shocked at the silence of women, except on the topics considered to be appropriate to them—social events, finery, the duties of the household. The much-praised softness of the voices of women she believed to be the result of this suppression: “So we whimper and whine, do we? Always we speak in a deprecating voice, do we? And sigh gently at the end of every sentence—why? . . . Do you wonder that we are afraid to raise our voices above a mendicant’s moan?” Along with this repression, Chesnut noted a contradictory impulse of men to blame the women they had rendered powerless: Her own husband “cannot forbear the gratification of taunting me with his ruin, for which I am no more responsible than the man in the moon. But it is the habit of all men to fancy that in some inscrutable way their wives are the cause of all evil in their lives.”

It is both appropriate and ironic that Chesnut’s diary was almost lost to history when the woman she trusted to be her editor long resisted publication because of Chesnut’s indelicacy. Isabella Martin thought that she was protecting her relative’s memory. This sentiment gives the reader some idea of the suppression of women’s voices that Mary Chesnut never accepted. One can be very glad that she did not, for she speaks as a woman and to women, and to men, in a voice that all people need to hear.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Aaron, Daniel. The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973. A brief but perceptive discussion of Mary Chesnut and her diary. Particularly valuable is the examination of specific characters and groups of characters.

Freeman, Douglas Southall. The South to Posterity: An Introduction to the Writing of Confederate History. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1964. Calling the diary “a remarkable human document,” Freeman offers passages from Chesnut’s character sketches.

Martin, Isabella D., and Myrta Lockett Avary. Introduction to A Diary from Dixie, as Written by Mary Boykin Chesnut, Wife of James Chesnut, Jr., United States Senator from South Carolina, 1859-1861, and Afterward an Aide to Jefferson Davis and a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army, by Mary Chesnut. Edited by Isabella D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary. New York: Peter Smith, 1929. Chiefly interesting for Martin’s explanation of why she delayed publication of the diary for so long.

Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. The longest and best biography of Chesnut, it contains an overview of the diary and its publication history and seven chapters divided by milestones in Chesnut’s life. The study is based on Muhlenfeld’s 1978 University of South Carolina Ph.D. dissertation, “Mary Boykin Chesnut: the Writer and Her Work,” which also includes Chesnut’s memoir on her sister Kate and an essay on James Chesnut, Jr., Mary’s husband.

Williams, Ben Ames. House Divided. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1947. A Civil War novel by Mary Chesnut’s descendant who published the second major edition of the diary. Draws heavily on A Diary from Dixie, and one of the characters is modeled on Mary Chesnut herself.

Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962. Of the writings on Mary Chesnut, this work makes strongest case for the diary’s literary qualities. Wilson calls it “an extraordinary document—in its informal department, a masterpiece.”

Woodward, C. Vann. Introduction to Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, by Mary Chesnut. Edited by C. Vann Woodward. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. The best overall introduction to Chesnut’s life and work.