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When he encountered Mary Chesnut's Civil War diary, Edmund Wilson noted Mrs. Chesnut's uncanny ability to anticipate the outcome of events and to make use of day-by-day observations as if she were writing a novel. What Wilson did not know was that various editors had tinkered with the diary and that in the years following the Civil War Mary Chesnut herself had developed and shaped her original entries for publication. Now, thanks to the judicious editing of C. Vann Woodward, the great Yale historian of the South, we can read nearly the whole of Mary Chesnut's work and see precisely which passages came from the original journal of Civil War vintage and which were revised in later years. And this more authentic version is if anything more impressive as the account of an exceptional woman and the society she both represented and questioned. Born into the slave-holding, fire-eating South Carolina aristocracy, Mary Chesnut loved being waited on by adoring servants; she spoke French, entertained lavishly, and flirted, by turns, with gallant young Colonel This and cantankerous old Colonel That. Like her husband and friends she endorsed secession from the Union; on the eve of the firing on Ft. Sumter, she recalled, ""I wanted them to fight and stop talking."" But hers was an independent mind; her intellectual detachment was as pronounced as her immersion in Southern society. She mocked the patriarchal order and was disgusted with the swaggering tyrants who demanded subservience from their wives and sexual surrender from their slave women. She hated dueling and the provincialism of her peers, and she expressed pride at having shocked people with her unorthodox opinions. Heresy of all heresies, she even hated slavery, that foundation of Southern life. Mary Chesnut, these 800 pages reveal, had the involvement and the remove, the sensitive ear and the observant eye, a mania for writing and a life worth writing about, which make this splendid volume worthy of the editor's efforts.

Pub Date: April 15th, 1981
ISBN: 0300029799
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press