Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Writing at the Crossroads: Sophia Hawthorne's Civil War Letters to Annie Fields

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Writing at the Crossroads: Sophia Hawthorne's Civil War Letters to Annie Fields

Article excerpt

If the civil war was, as Shelby Foote suggested ..., the "crossroads of our being," how did women imagine that crossroads? (6)

Lyde Cullen Sizer, The political Work of Northern Women Writers and the Civil War, 1850-1872.

Sophia Peabody Hawthorne met Annie Adams Fields for the first time in London in June of 1859. Fields was the young, beautiful new bride of powerful editor and publisher James T. Fields. The acquitance between the two women was renewed one year later as the Hawthornes and the Fieldses traveled together across the Atlantic to their homeland. According to Rita K. Gollin, Annie later remembered Sophia on this trip as "a 'second Scheherezade,' a 'romancer in conversation [who] filled the evening hours by weaving magic webs of her fancies'" (92). Those "magic webs" took epistolary form once the two arrived in America, settling into their lives--Sophia in Concord, Annie in Boston--and into an intimate friendship that spanned the decade. (1) The friendship, and the correspondence, dissolved in the late 1860s amid financial disputes between the then-widowed Sophia and Annie's husband, James, concerning royalties from Nathaniel's books. Until that time, though, Fields was for Hawthorne "that ... sacred sort of nature which provokes my entire confidence." (2) She wrote to Annie of matters large and small, of those strinkingly at the center of her life, such as the illness and death of her husband, and of those more exterior to her but perhaps equally as formative, such as her nation's Civil War. For this extraordinary epistolary friendship took place during an equally extraordinary time--the US Civil War period--and this historical backdrop provides a rich context within which to examine Hawthorne's correspondence with Fields, specifically her treatment of gender.

Housed in the Boston Public Library, Hawthorne's unpublished letters to Fields have been studied by scholars in the past, most often for what they could reveal about their author's famous husband, the last years of his life, and his wife's editing of his journals after his death. (3) More recently, Gollin surveyed the letters in her 2002 biography of Annie Fields. And, in a 2006 essay, I explored Hawthone's writing of the war in the letters, arguing that she thereby contributes to and participates in what Lyde Cullen Sizer calls "an alternative history and narrative of the [Civil W]ar"--a story told by women about women's experience of that great conflict (n). (4) In the present essay, I push this analysis further, focusing not solely on Hawthorne's representation of the war, but also on her writing of gender within wartime, when rebellion and revolution against the state and its sociopolitical constructs were enacted daily. For, as scholars have noted, war in general, and perhaps civil war in particular, tends to destabilize and disorder gender roles and identities. Christa Hammerle notes gender inversions in her fascinating examination of World War I correspondence, while Margaret R. Higonnet, in "Civil Wars and Sexual Territories," argues for the specific power of civil wars "to transform women's expectations" (80). In their studies of women writers and the US Civil War, Elizabeth Young and Lyde Cullen Sizer concur. As Young notes, this "concentrated moment of social flux ... catalyzed and authorized multiple modes of civil disobedience for women" (14); "a fuller account of the conflict sees it not only as a war fought by women as well as men, but also and more fundamentally as a war over the meaning of gender itself" (2). Sizer writes cogently that "the war was ... a cultural as well as a military battleground [, as w] omen fought over the limits to their sphere, a sphere already within the war's reach" (84).

Sophia Hawthorne entered into this cultural warfare in her letters to Fields, where instances of civil disobedience and rebellion abound. Sometimes gendering herself male, at other times writing herself into male roles, and, at still others conducting open warfare with male authority, Hawthorne simultaneously conceives and creates in the correspondence alternative written selves and a world of extended influence, possibility, and power for women. …

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