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FW: H-SAWH Book Review: Coryell on Wilson, _A Southern Women of Letters_ [A.J.E. Wilson]

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      -----Original Message-----
      From: Jennifer McDaid [mailto:JMcDaid@...]
      Sent: Tuesday, July 08, 2003 9:41 AM
      To: H-SAWH@...
      Subject: H-SAWH Book Review: Coryell on Wilson, _A Southern Women of
      Letters_


      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-SAWH@... (July 2003)

      Augusta Jane Evans Wilson. _A Southern Woman of Letters: The
      Correspondence of Augusta Jane Evans Wilson_. Edited by Rebecca Grant
      Sexton. Women's Diaries and Letters of the South Series. Columbia:
      University of South Carolina Press, 2002. xxxv + 205 pp. Illustrations,
      notes, bibliography, and index. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 1-57003-440-0.

      Reviewed for H-SAWH by Janet Coryell <coryell@...>, Department of
      History, Western Michigan University

      "Cacoethes Scribendi!" Augusta Jane Evans's "Incurable Itch to Write"

      Augusta Jane Evans (1835-1909), a Georgia native, published her first
      novel in 1855. She wrote to make a living, for her father had gone
      bankrupt when Evans was ten and she felt compelled to contribute to the
      family income as her parents moved from Georgia to San Antonio, Texas,
      and
      finally to Mobile, Alabama. Evans's domestic novels centered around
      heroines who had to fend for themselves and make their own way in the
      world. The novels echoed Evans's own life, as her work proved lucrative
      enough to support her and much of her family throughout her career. She
      wrote the majority of her eight best-sellers before marrying Lorenzo
      Madison Wilson in 1868. She and her husband settled at their estate,
      Ashland, in Mobile, where Augusta Jane Evans Wilson assumed the role of
      the post-bellum "Southern Lady." Her production of novels slowed
      considerably and reflected the change in her circumstances, featuring
      heroines who were punished, instead of rewarded, for their independence.

      Her last work was a short story-cum-novel published in 1907.

      Evans was a remarkably popular writer and one of the best-known
      novelists
      in the country during the nineteenth century. Children were named after
      her
      and her literary characters. Her novel _St. Elmo_ (1866), about a
      rake and the woman who demanded he reform himself rather than
      rely on her, reached millions of readers and remained in print through
      the first half of the twentieth century. When Evans died in 1909, her
      funeral outshone any others held in Mobile.

      As a domestic novelist, however, and as a pro-secessionist, ardent
      Confederate sympathizer, and unreconstructed Rebel, Evans would have a
      difficult time making it into the pantheon of nineteenth-century
      _literati_. So, despite her status as one of the country's best-selling
      authors in the nineteenth century, she is not in the canon of American
      nineteenth-century literature. Rebecca Grant Sexton's edited collection
      of Evans's correspondence in _A Southern Woman of Letters_ offers good
      literary reasons for this. "Pedantic" does not begin to describe
      Evans's
      style of writing. The term, after all, is defined as "narrowly,
      stodgily,
      and often ostentatiously learned." Stodgy and ostentatious would
      certainly apply, but can a writer who quotes the Bible, Latin, French,
      and
      German with equal ease and routinely drops classical allusions be termed
      "narrow?" I think not.

      Evans critic and New York humorist Charles Henry Webb perhaps had it
      right when he asserted that Evans had "inadvertently swallowed a
      dictionary as a child" (p. 137), thus providing herself with an
      inexhaustible font of obscure allusions, phrases, and words with which
      to
      enlighten or bludgeon (take your pick) her readers. She was, as a
      novelist
      with nine published works (of which eight were best-sellers), determined
      to provide "guidance and moral instruction for others" through
      literature,
      according to Sexton (p. xxii). This she seems to have accomplished, as
      her books always sold magnificently--even during the Civil War, when her
      novel _Macaria_ (1864), an apology for the Confederacy, reached
      best-seller status in both the South and the North.

      Sexton's goal in editing some of Evans's letters is to add to our
      understanding of the lives of women during the nineteenth century. It
      is
      a goal partially met. Sexton edits Evans's letters with painstaking
      attention to the letters' contents. She has done a truly remarkable and
      outstanding job at discovering the sources of Evans's inexhaustible (and
      exhausting) supply of obscure remarks, asides, quotations, and
      allusions.
      There are holes, however, that an editor and historian would like to see
      filled to better understand the context of Evans's life and work
      represented in the letters.

      Evans occupies a place in nineteenth-century culture that has been
      detailed in other sources, most recently in works on women politicos and
      female writers who participate in the public sphere carefully but
      determinedly, as did such Evans contemporaries as Ada Clare of New York,
      Anna Ella Carroll of Maryland, and Louisa S.C. McCord of South Carolina.

      Like these other women, Evans wrote to politicians (including
      Confederate Congressman J.L.M. Curry and Confederate Vice President
      Alexander Stevens) and generals (particularly P.G.T Beauregard). She
      offered political advice. She offered military advice. She consoled
      losers (Beauregard), whose plans, she argued, were always better than
      the
      ones followed by those in power. She dressed her letters in the
      "requisite deference" (p. xxxi), as Sexton aptly puts it, and then
      sallied forth in her inimitable style to say exactly what she pleased.

      The letters themselves provide glimpses of life in the deep South
      portion
      of the Confederacy during the war. Evans discusses politics throughout
      the period, details her work nursing soldiers in the hospital she
      established (named "Camp Beulah" after one of her best-sellers), and
      describes her painstaking care nursing an injured brother. In one
      memorable letter written to Curry in July 1863, she suggested that he
      change the public lecture topic he proposed to something that did not
      theorize on whether Southern women are affected by slavery
      "prejudicially"
      (p. 65). Evans accepted that it was true that slavery did not
      necessarily
      benefit white women. Because white women had slaves, they did not
      labor.
      Therefore they did not want to labor. They could not work, since their
      lack of labor enervated them. But wait--it was not that they were
      morally
      weak or constitutionally unwilling, she wrote. White women did not run
      around as did their Northern or English counterparts, since, as Evans
      put
      it: "A southern woman who emulated the peripatetic performances of her
      English Sister, would unquestionably find herself the victim of Sun
      stroke, or brain fever" (p. 66). Yes, thought Evans, slavery was
      probably
      not that beneficial to white women. Perhaps Curry should turn to a
      topic
      in politics instead.

      This edition includes primarily Evans's letters to Curry and Beauregard,
      with whom she had close and long-running correspondence; it also
      includes
      letters to a confidante, Rachel Lyons Heustis of South Carolina, to whom
      Evans wrote repeatedly of her domestic affairs as well as her political
      opinions. These three recipients are chosen by Sexton because of the
      number of letters to them present, one presumes, in the twenty-two
      available collections listed by the editor. It would be useful to know
      exactly how many of Evans's letters do survive, and what proportion of
      the
      whole the letters in Sexton's edition make up. Such a measure would
      help
      place these three relationships into a clearer context. It would also
      be
      helpful to know about the rest of the collections and what types of
      letters they contain. The whole corpus of Evans's correspondence is
      never
      delineated; consequently, the reader cannot determine where these
      letters
      reside within that corpus.

      The book's bibliography seems a tad dated; Sexton's use of secondary
      literature is, in certain areas, very dated. She offers Carroll
      Smith-Rosenberg's pathbreaking work on women's homosocial networks to
      interpret the Lyons Heustis letters, but then argues rightly that the
      work
      is less than useful, since the letters do not exhibit the homoeroticism
      that Smith-Rosenberg sought to explain.[1] Sexton's alternate
      interpretation of the sometimes-affectionate/sometimes-distant
      relationship between Evans and Lyons Heustis--that Evans was famous and
      busy--suffers from the "so-what" factor. More distressing
      for historians is the marginal attention paid to military history,
      despite Evans's consummate interest in it. Sexton relies on a
      fifty-two-year-old history of the Confederacy for most of her
      interpretations of Southern military actions and participants.[2] None
      of
      the current literature on women politicos appears; Mary Kelley's
      eminently
      useful work on literary domesticity appears in the bibliography, but not
      in the interpretation of Evans's work.[3]

      For scholars in literary studies and women's studies (the book's
      designation by the Library of Congress), Sexton's work provides an
      adequate explanation of Evans's role within the development of the genre
      of
      the domestic novel. _A Southern Woman of Letters_ also provides a
      glimpse
      of the domestic conflicts that many women writers persevered through and
      incorporated into their works. The book is useful for scholars of
      nineteenth-century history because it explains so many of the classical
      allusions that bedevil contemporary scholars. Sexton's edition of
      Evans's
      letters requires a bit more work, however, to fully explain Evans's
      importance in the history of nineteenth-century Southern women writers.

      Notes

      [1]. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual:
      Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America," _Signs_1 (1975):

      pp. 1-30.

      [2]. E. Merton Coulter, _The Confederate States of America, 1861-1865_,
      A
      History of the South Series, Vol. 7 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ.
      Press, 1950).

      [3]. Mary Kelley, _Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity
      in
      Nineteenth-Century America_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

      Copyright (c) 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits
      the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit,
      educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the
      author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and
      H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses
      contact the Reviews editorial staff: hbooks@mail.h-net.msu.edu.

      Antoinette G. van Zelm
      Interpretive Specialist
      Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area
      Center for Historic Preservation
      Middle Tennessee State University
      Box 80
      Murfreesboro, TN 37132
      (615) 898-2637
      avanzelm@...
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