Mary Boykin Chesnut’s A Diary from Dixie is among America’s most morally conflicting literary masterpieces—and now, thanks to her great-great grandniece, Martha M. Daniels, it’s finally been restored to its original, disquieting glory. A wry bon vivant of Charleston’s planter society, Mary Chesnut, born Mary Boykin Miller, was married to a U.S. Senator from South Carolina who became an aide and confidante to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, as well as a Confederate brigadier general. Due to this insider status, she became a fly on the wall of the Confederacy. Recognizing an incomparable historical opportunity, she grabbed her pen and never let go. From the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861 through Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Mary Chesnut chronicled the Civil War era in the most intimate of terms. For 20 years, through the early 1880s, she polished and pruned her text, streamlining 5,000 manuscript pages into a sleek 400-page volume intended for publication.
Chesnut also collected more than 200 photographs of the people and places of which she wrote, slowly filling scrapbooks with the images she hoped might accompany her recollections. These photographs weren’t included in the first 1905 edition of Chesnut’s Diary (published 19 years after her death), and in the 1930s they went missing. Then, in 2007, they turned up on eBay. Repurchased, edited and annotated by her heirs, they now appear in this newly published volume for the first time. Today, A Diary from Dixie is a uniquely multi-media American historical document.
In all of American letters, perhaps only Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with its heartrending tales of the slave system, rivals Chesnut’s Diary in terms of historical impact. As Daniels writes in her introduction, virtually every history of the Civil War published since 1905 has quoted from Chesnut’s account of Southern life. Novelists such as William Faulkner and Margaret Mitchell have drawn heavily from her well-wrought observations. Scarlett O’Hara’s Civil War greatly resembles Mary Chesnut’s. In fact, Chesnut’s private thoughts have permeated the culture to such a remarkable degree that even first-time readers of her Diary may experience the literary equivalent of déjà vu. Without her spirited, decorous model of white Southern ladyhood, the modern mythology of the Old South might never have existed—for better or worse.
One of my favorite things about the Diary is that it rides that fine line between history and gossip. The columnist Liz Smith once said, “Gossip is the news running ahead of itself wearing a red satin dress,” a comment Mary Chesnut may well have appreciated. (She had good reason for opting to publish posthumously.) Beyond recording the despotic tendencies of Jeff Davis, and the general consensus regarding the hopelessness of the “gallant, gay, and unfortunate” Confederates, Chesnut indulges in many delicious, if scurrilous, asides. (She is, at one point, accused by close relatives of having cultivated her brains at the expense of her heart.) For instance: “William Gilmore Simms is here,” she writes on March 17, 1862, “read us his last poetry: have forgotten already what it was about. It was not tiresome, however, and that is a great thing when people will persist in reading their own rhymes.” Such asides are enriched by Chesnut’s photographs, since it’s always delightful to put a face to an insult.
Of course, there’s more pathos than laughs in A Diary from Dixie. An American Iliad, its scenes of grief and suffering escalate with terrifying frequency as it progresses. By the end, Chesnut’s field of vision is littered with corpses. Upon hearing of the death of yet another friend, she writes, with Dickinsonian flair, “My heart stands still … without sensation of any kind—dead; and then, there is that great throb … The ticking of the clock begins, and I take up the burden of life once more. Some day my feeble heart will be too worn out to make that awakening jar.” The eloquence with which she describes such devastation is perhaps Chesnut’s greatest literary achievement.
Mary Chesnut’s A Diary from Dixie is marred by the appalling racism of the culture of Dixie. Regardless of her brilliance and independence of mind, Chesnut was also a slaveholder and a patriot of the Confederacy. This truth adds the burdensome weight of ugly history to her otherwise feather-light prose, and it has also, I believe, robbed her of the literary recognition she might otherwise enjoy. Like the Third Reich films of Leni Riefenstahl, Chesnut’s Diary is a work of highly objectionable genius. Daniels’ edition is the finest we’re ever likely to possess of a masterpiece as great and as troublesome as our national history.