MARY BOYKIN CHESNUT: A Biography by Elisabeth Muhlenfeld


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Appearing almost in tandem with C. Van Woodward's new edition of Mary Chesnut's celebrated letters (see above), this is a gracefully written, carefully worked, unventuresome biography. We are introduced, in an orderly fashion, to Chesnut's childhood in South Carolina, her early adulthood, and the pre-Civil War years during which she wed a militant Southerner, followed him to Washington for his term as Senator, and watched with pride and foreboding as he resigned to aid the Confederacy. Professor Muhlenfeld (English, Florida State Univ.) meticulously precedes an apocryphal tale with ""a family anecdote holds that. . .""; and she is cautious where evidence is scanty. Her observations too, can be felicitous: Mary, she notes, ""provided herself with elegant dresses, left the responsibility of her toilette to her maid, arranged her hair simply, and hoped for the best."" But as event follows event, the restraint begins to resemble neglect. There is no analysis of Mary's attitudes toward blacks and whites, no study of her relationships (e.g., her friendship with Jefferson Davis' wife Varina), no sustained consideration, even, of her feminism or her loathing of slavery. Instead, we are whisked into the postwar years when Mary fancied herself a novelist and turned out several unpublished works. Here at last Muhlenfeld has recourse to analysis--but she examines Mary's technique as a novelist and largely ignores what the novels reveal about Mary or about the Old South. She retells the plots in detail; points out which real persons served as models for which fictional characters; dubs certain passages ""interesting,"" others ""successful,"" others ""flawed."" The reader of the letters may find all this of incidental interest--but it is in the letters, still, that Mary Chesnut comes alive.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1981
ISBN: 0807118044
Publisher: Louisiana State Univ. Press