Making History

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One of the intellectual challenges of this job was to see the extent to which hindsight affected her views—something it was possible to examine by comparing portions prepared as much as two decades apart. I’d like to answer your question by reading a paragraph from my introduction: “The editor...began in a spirit of skepticism, with misgivings that it would become his duty to expose inconsistencies, anachronisms, distortions, hindsights, and special pleadings that would raise doubts about the worth and integrity of a famous book and its author. Well before the completion of the long task, however, a growing respect for the author and the integrity of her work began to replace the original misgivings. Given the kinds of liberties she took in revising and expanding the original Journal...Mary Chesnut can be said to have shown an unusual sense of responsibility toward the history she records and a reassuring faithfulness to perceptions...in her original Journal. It would be a regrettable and most ironic outcome of this effort to reveal the true nature of her work and an accurate text of what she wrote if it all resulted in lowering the esteem in which her work was held.”

You don’t think then that she used hindsight to make herself wise after the event?

No. And most diaries, I think, get some of that before they get into print. But she had gifts as a writer. I think of the diary as a literary work. It evokes the color and the passion, the feelings that climaxed in the experience of the Civil War, more than any one book that I know coming from a contemporary.

Did she consciously select or change materials for dramatic effect? For example, her running story of the failed courtship of her friend Sallie Preston by General John B. Hood—was that intended to parallel his military frustrations?

How consciously I’m not sure. Edmund Wilson called that particular episode a metaphor for the decline of the Confederacy, and I think that she is aware, as a writer, of what she is doing. But I have never, in the diary or in her correspondence, caught her out in an error on this or other relationships.

Your introduction mentions her “abolitionist leanings” and “militant feminism.” Do those qualities make this a particularly appropriate time to get reacquainted with her work?

Those feelings are prominent and conspicuous in the work, and they give a surprising degree of contemporaneity to her attitudes, particularly about the patriarchy that is so dominant. She’s in full rebellion against it.

Did she know that many of the powerful men around her were her intellectual inferiors?

She was thoroughly aware of it. Time after time she says, “If only I were a man.” One thing she wanted very badly, as a cultivated woman, was a diplomatic appointment for her husband to France—or as a second choice, to Great Britain. And she says: “If only Jeff. Davis would appoint me minister to Paris.” She knew her own capacities and had contempt for the men who were in charge.

Did it ever occur to her that her situation was comparable to that of an intelligent black?

No. She had her limitations. She undoubtedly was unsympathetic to slavery—you remember the well-known passage where she calls it a “monstrous system”—felt it was a disgrace, was glad that it was finished. But she never departed from the prevailing attitudes on race.

You said that she herself changed and eliminated some things in her revisions, and that earlier editions were likewise altered. How much did you restore? What standards guided you in re-creating the work?

Mary spoke of herself and her shortcomings and vanities with a great deal of candor, but there are limits, and when those limits are reached, one suppresses. My process was to put things back in when I thought them relevant. When she excludes something I think the reader ought to know to understand a passage, I put it back in. But in this I run head on into the editorial purists’ canon that you respect the writer’s wishes. That’s a literary obligation that I feel very strongly. But I also have an obligation as a historian to tell the reader what happened. And these two can’t always be reconciled. I admit that. So I sometimes simply intrude with things she rejected, mostly material that makes her appear vain, ridiculous, or too ambitious. For example, when she learned that Davis had let her down by not giving Chesnut either the British or the French missions, she was terribly disappointed and admitted it in her original diary, using a quotation from Macbeth: “All my chickens at one fell swoop.” But what she put in the edition she sent out for publication was simply: “My experience is different from other people’s. I find more satisfaction in public life than in private.”

How did you become a historian?

Not exactly by design. I started as an English teacher at Georgia Tech after getting my bachelor’s degree at Emory. Then I got interested in doing a book on Tom Watson [the Georgia Populist leader who began political life as a radical and ended it as an archreactionary]. The materials were at the University of North Carolina, and I got a fellowship to work on them as a doctoral candidate in history. That decided things.