Margaret Junkin Preston, Poet of the Confederacy: A Literary Life

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Margaret Junkin Preston, Poet of the Confederacy: A Literary Life * Stacey Jean Klein * Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007 * xviii, 138 pp. * $34.95.

Stacey Jean Klein begins with an impressive display of bravado. She asserts that her analysis of Margaret Junkin Preston, drawn from her dissertation, will augment the scholarship of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, George Rable, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Catherine Clinton and revise how historians view the gendered roles of elite white, southern women during and after the Civil War. Unfortunately, her evidence falls far short.

Margaret Junkin Preston is best remembered as the sister-in-law of Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. This volume's greatest contribution is its reminder that Preston also had a literary career that spanned five decades and brought her regional and national recognition. Achieving such literary longevity and respect was groundbreaking, given Preston's socioeconomic status in 1840s-90s Lexington, Virginia. Klein claims that these accomplishments were the result of a careful manipulation of prescribed gender roles and expectations. She recasts Preston as one who willingly embraced the mask of Confederate nationalism long before she believed in the cause, solely because it allowed her the opportunity to maintain a career as a publishing author.

Through eight chronological chapters Klein reconstructs the minute details of Preston's daily life. She scrutinizes Preston's relationships with her father, the Rev. George Junkin (president of Lafayette College, then Miami University in Ohio, and finally of Washington College in Virginia), and her sister and closest friend, Ellie (who married Jackson in 1853). She explores Preston's 1857 marriage to John Thomas Lewis Preston, the most prominent man in Lexington, and her subsequent introduction into elite Virginia society. She traces the unique ways in which intellect and education, social class and political savvy, and the sheer drive to succeed pushed Preston into the life of an author. Yet nowhere in Klein's account is there evidence that Preston faked her Confederate nationalism or saw it as a means to legitimize a socially unacceptable career. Her assertion that Lexingtonians were ashamed to have a female writer in their midst puts her in opposition to such scholars as James I. Robertson, Jr., Mary Price Coulling, and Pamela H. Simpson. This assertion, essential to Klein's thesis, stands in stark contrast to the evidence laid out by Preston's stepdaughter in her 1903 text, The Life and Letters of Margaret Junkin Preston, wherein Preston's contemporaries recalled how proud they were to have her in town.

Klein's argument is likewise dependent on portraying J. T. L. Preston as a harshly conservative and thoroughly anti-intellectual bear who despised the idea of his wife engaged in literary pursuits. Yet all known evidence, including letters cited in Klein's book, suggests that J. T. L. Preston, while apparently possessing genuine misgivings, also openly and enthusiastically encouraged his wife's talent. It is expedient to state that he must have undergone a transformation of character by the time he wrote her in 1861, "Would that I may be able to wield my sword when in battle, as you wield your pen," but there is simply no evidence to support this claim (p. 46).

In the end, the thesis of this book is built upon a premise that cannot be proven. Klein has attempted to make waves by claiming to have discovered an elite southern woman who expediently embraced Confederate nationalism in order to make a literary name for herself. This is dangerous business. To be fair, Klein specifically contends that Preston was only disingenuous about her support of the Confederate effort for the first three years of the war. Never mind that her husband was perpetually in danger on the battlefield after early 1861, or that one of her stepsons lost an arm in 1862, or that another was killed in 1862, or that Jackson, her beloved brother-in-law and closest confidant in the years between Ellie's death and her own marriage, was killed at Chancellorsville. …