Other English 341 pages by Blair Saxon-Hill:
Final Project Proposal
The Feng Shui of Web Pages
The Blackened Text: The Scarlet Letter
Close Reading of Edward Taylor's "Meditation 26
Close Reading of Anne Bradstreet
Questions? e-mail Blair Saxon-Hill
Click to read the methodology.
To read the Civil War diary of Alice Williamson, a 16 year old girl, is to meander through the personal, cultural and political experience of both the author and one's self. Her writing feels like a bullet ricocheted through war, time, death, literary form, femininity, youth, state, freedom and obligation. This investigation attempts to do the same; to touch on the many issues that arise in the mind of the reader when becoming part of the text through the act of reading. This paper will lay no definitive claims to the absolute meaning of the diary, for it has many possible interpretations, for the journey is the ultimate answer. I seek to acknowledge the fluidity of thought when reading, a fluidity which incorporates personal experience with the content of Williamson's journal. I read the journal personally- as a woman, a peer in age to Alice Williamson, a surrogate experiencialist, a writer, an academic and most of all, a modern reader unaccustomed to the personal experience of war. I read the text within a context- as a researcher versed on the period, genre, aesthetics, and to some degree the writer herself. The molding of the personal and contextual create a rich personalized textual meaning .
I keep my journal hidden; the script, the drawings, the color, the weight of the paper, contents I hope never to be experienced by another. My journal is intensely personal, temporal and exposed. When opening the leather bound formality of Alice Williamson's journal a framework of meaning is presupposed by the reader's own feelings concerning the medium. Reading someone else's diary can be, and is for myself, an voyeuristic invasion of space. The act of reading makes the private and personal into public. Yet, for Alice Williamson and many other female journalists of the Civil War period, the journal was creating a public memory of the hardship that would be sustained when read by others. The knowledge of the outside reader reading of your life was as important as the exercise of recording for one's self; creating a sense of sentimentality connecting people through emotions. (Arnold)
The activity of understanding Alice Williamson's diary begins prior to reading the first word. The reader begins to identify part of the reading experience based upon their feelings on diaries themselves in the moments of suspension between knowledge of type of text and the reading of the first entry. After the gap between the personalization of the text and beginning to read; there is a encounter with the diary as text itself. The diary is filled with words. This basic idea is one to be noticed- Williamson's diary is scrawled with words on the page. The now browned paper covered with large free flowing cursive is written with an ink pen. It details not the lustfulness of a teenage girl nor the frustrations of daily chores or family dynamics as one might expect from a 16-year-old girl. The free flowing text is juxtaposed against the subject of the text concerned with death and war-time activities.
The Civil War was about freedom, and the telling of one's physical flesh about their destiny. Williamson's free words help to shape her read identity to the reader. The reader of Alice Williamson's diary reverses the Civil War mentality of the reading of one's flesh color determining one's destiny, to destiny of one's flesh is left in reading. Which is important because it leads you to see the diary describing the living and the dead's flesh with the readers version of Williamson's flesh, her writing. This fleshy history is in free-flowing cursive. Margot Culley argues in A Day At A Time that diaries "urge to give shape and meaning to life with words, and to endow this meaning-making with a permanence [sic] that transcends time." Williamson is sending a message to her "rebel brothers" and her invading audience that she is like her handwriting, relaxed in the progression history is taking.
Alice Williamson's consciousness of her audience reading begins on the first page of her diary on February 19, 1864. Alice Williamson begins "What a negligent creature I am I should have been keeping a journal all this time to show to my rebel brothers." As period journal writers many women felt a responsibility to document history for they felt that they were within an important historic period.
Williamson entreats her "rebel brothers" for their ear to listen to their memories in the opening of her journal. The non-rebel reader possibly feels a double intrusion; one of form, reading a diary; and the second of being the unauthorized "outside" reader invading. The non-rebel readers reading invasion parallels the Civil War activities in the state of Tennessee, the home of Alice Williamson. Issues of freedom, invasion, reconquest, anticipation, and honor found in the form, context and content in the diary of Williamson engages the reader. The addressed "rebel brothers" in the entry are validated in their male-battling; though the Civil War was not fought solely by men, by being made into the reason for the documentation. Williamson shows her dedication goes beyond an initial validation of the filial male fighter for throughout her journals there is a continual adherence to wartime topics. The non-rebel is implied to be not only to be not worth documenting for but too isn't even part of the family. Williamson seems to view herself as the female median between the rebel brother and the non-rebel non-family member. Williamson claims her value as a woman to be based upon her relationship with the documentation of the war, which she has come close to defaulting on, she titles herself a "negligent creature." Following the elegiac form where "death is frequently associated with the father or time" (Sacks, 8) Williamson's furthers the family motif (father, son) in an appropriate forum- the diary (temporal). Her filial relationship is based upon her ability to perform an action; writing. The obligatory act of writing places an emphasis on the readers act of reading for what was so important to create. Thereby placing the question in one's head of what other sort of acts is she obligated to do? Williamson creates everlasting life in the writing of death in her personalized forum. In her usage of physically free words she unifies all people, the reader and the fighting men and women of a race war, in historic memory. Peter Sacks in his article "Interpreting the Genre: The Elegy and the Work of Mourning," states:
Alice Williamson's journal like other womens' of the period was concerned with being read by someone else. Cornelia Peake McDonald thought her Civil War journal was so important that she rewrote lost parts in journal form, added memories and annotations to it years later, and even hand wrote eight identical copies of the 500-page diary for each of her children. (Gwin, 4) This is a far cry from hiding your journal from the peering eyes of others. Both women create a elegy for the dead with their own thoughts and metaphorical bodies (fleshy history) in a conscious form that is temporal. This is significant because these women intend to make history in a personal forum about a very public event. How women during the Civil War chose to do this becomes very important in the readers experiencial interpretation.
Reading the journal of Alice Williamson I was struck by the rigid style of the piece; unlike the large freeness of the text, she includes no sketches or quick jotting of thoughts. The adherence to standard journal form by Williamson parallels, amongst the many female diarists, that of Mary Chesnut's diary (1861-1865). Editor Vann Woodward of Mary Chesnut's Civil War states, "to all appearances she respects the Latin word diarium and its denial of knowledge of the future. Unforeseen events crowd in, unexpected guests arrive, messengers come and go. Each day brings its surprises." (Woodward, xvi) Alice Williamson's journal like Mary Chesnut does not tell you what will happen, for although we have part of Williamson's identity her handwriting we know nothing of her future until it is read and experienced. The writing of both women is not without a purpose, that of memory. A temporal memory is actively created, just as it is actively read. History is unexpectant; created when it is told, read or experienced it is nothing when it is unknown. The reader like the writer is unprepared for the next entry, each is a new experience, where candidness aptly represents the uncertain future events that change impact of each new day. Each day history is made. The activity of the text is duplicitous, it is literally filled with daily events of the war, but what the text does is synchronize the reader's movement from one entry to the next.
Similarly the real-life daily events of the period have a dramatic effect upon each subsequent event. War is a cumulative event married to the concept of time (also known as death (Sacks)). The consciousness of time is what one feels when performing the action of reading, to have the action visibly marked by the passing of dates gives evidence of the action and of the real-life events' impact, for it causes a progression. Uncertainty is felt in many instances, what will the next entry be, will I understand the references or will I become disoriented, will the temporal events continue to build? The uncertainty that the reader feels is paralleled to the uncertainty of the real-life experience heightened by war. The rhythmical expectant motion of each entry and day, mixed with the unexpectant element of the content; mimics the rigidness of the war, uniforms, daily routine, even a process in battle; which is contrasted with the vulnerability of war and death. The reader feels a comfort yet distinct vulnerability in reading Alice Williamson's diary, the probable feelings that she herself felt when writing. A sense of security is setup in communicating to through writing (or reading) something that has no agency. This is felt in the writing and reading of a diary heightened by the formal structure of the media. However, one may feel vulnerable in what is said, she speaks of war and death. Williamson seems to unintentionally scare at least some of her modern readers, her images are bold and unemotional, and thankfully secured on a page. Those accustomed to war most likely feel a different vulnerability, that of pained truth a reminder of their own lives insecurity. Williamson writes:
The engagement of the text is contrasted (undisruptively) by an oddity found in the text. Alice Williamson's age and sex are contrasted by subjects addressed in her journal, confusing both the modern and historical reader's response criticism. Female youth during the period represented "hopeful possibilities and prospects for the country...[and] motherhood defined the prime obligation in the young woman's future." (Fox, 757) This knowledge in the minds of the reader brings a striking difference between topics addressed and apparent institutional norms. The singular focus of the war and the absence of "feminine" issues is uncommon amongst Civil War journals by women during the period; even amongst the majority of journals geared toward the preservation of history as Williamson's. (East, University, Woodward) Her journal reads like a news reel rather than the expected incorporation of the coquettish /sentimental novel genre of the earlier period. The decrease of publishing during the war would have meant these novels most likely were still read by women such as Williamson, who proves an active reader, citing the daily newspaper in her journal: August 15: "All is quiet in G. today." This mornings paper brings a long list of names of persons ordered from Paducah to Conrad by Gen Payne: he has only been there a few days. Sambo in his political sermons says he has conquered "the great city of Gallatin which was so Śceeding by Śbellions" and gone to conquer Paducah. I pity that place. By citing the daily newspaper she works to assert her opinions with some backing. But also focuses her attention to external events rather than focusing on herself and the family.
Women during the Civil War became part of a transitional movement from the refined "lady" of the early 1800's, defined and judged by her religious devotion and her relation to her family prescribed to young girls in such magazines as the Godey's Lady Book; to a more modern conception of feminism. Women began to have a greater influence and role in the development of the larger society. (Kava, pg. 68-70) Some women especially Northern women now were becoming part of the educational system, health care work, abolition of slavery, work and even war, no longer cross-dressing to become soldiers. This is not to say that the "traditional" importance of women remaining in the domestic sphere was abolished, it certainly was not. Soldiers "needed" a place to come "home" to, something to be sustained; it was the women's job to still create this while trying to expand their roles in society.
Williamson excludes socially defined feminine issues from the topics of her journal, instead choosing to talk solely about the daily events of war in the personal forum using a temporal manner. This creates the feeling that the progression of time will not make new hopeful possibilities, clarifying that motherhood is not a prospect of the future she is looking forward to or planning for in the way we saw in The Coquette by Hannah W. Foster. She rejects the period's socialized obligation of motherhood, as well as the previous eras coquettish ideas. Yet, she complies to another form of obligation; that which is being read by the reader. The reader reads her alternative form of female obligation, that of recording of history for her "rebel brothers." It is interesting to note that she writes for her "brothers," making the period reader into a metaphorical sibling, versus creating a family by writing for her "rebel children." By rejecting her obligation in this manner she takes on the part of a masculine Rebel; someone who questions authority and fights through deceptive means. The same deceptiveness she describes the General having in the diary. The General Paine referred to by Williamson as Old Payne, Our king, his lordship, Tempest, and old hurricane; stole locals furniture for his own usage. (Eleazar) Williamson reference to this is:
In this passage Williamson describes personal belongings getting into someone else's hands, she displays a familial like obligation to protect Paine, while deceiving others. Is this perhaps what we the reader are doing, obtaining something personal, questioning our alliances and deceiving others?
The meaning of Alice Williamson's diary could be described as an example of the changing roles women's during the Civil War (Kava, Boatwright, Davidson, Gwin) represented by (what is often seen as) the pulse of a culture, its youth (Fox, 759), relayed first hand. But that is only half the story. The importance of reading a text as an experience is as crucial to the text as the subject. Clearly, we each come to the reading experience with our own personal baggage. The perception of a diary and femininity for each individual and time period is different. The form one writes in affects the reader's perception of the text and the message. The perception of time creates as much meaning as the text itself. The method of discussion can be healing form of elegy in a time of pain. Acknowledgment of one's audience creates history in a public manner serving to either include or exclude, heightening the readers awareness of their own interaction with the text.
Boatwright, Eleanor M. Status of Women in Georgia, 1783-1860. Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1994.
Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the WORD: Rise of The Novel in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Eleazar Arthur Paine. (3 May. 1998)
Durham, Walter & Thomas James. A Pictorial History of Sumner County, Tennessee: 1786-1986. Gallatin: Sumner County Historical Society, 1986.
East, Charles. The Civil War Diary of Sarah Morgan. London: University of Georgia Press, 1991.
Fox, Richard W. & Kloppenberg, James. A Companion To American Thought. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1995.
Gwin, Minrose ed. A Woman's Civil War: A Diary, with Reminiscences of the War from March 1862. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
Kava, Beth M. & Bodin, Jeanne. We, The American Women: A Documentary History. Science Research Associates, 1983.
Murfin, Ross C. ed. Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter- Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1991.
Sacks, Peter. "Interpreting the Genre: The Elegy and the Work of Mourning," The English Elegy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1985.
Tompkins, Jane P. ed. Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post- Structuralism. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980.
University Publications of America. "Southern Women and Their Families in the 19th Century: Papers and Diaries- Series A, Holdings of the Southern Historical Collections." (29 April. 1998)
Woodward, Vann C. ed. Mary Chesnut's Civil War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.