Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

A New Southern Woman: The Correspondence of Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson, 1871-1883

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

A New Southern Woman: The Correspondence of Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson, 1871-1883

Article excerpt

A New Southern Woman: The Correspondence of Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson, 1871-1883. Edited by Giselle Roberts. Women's Diaries and Letters of the South. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. [xxii], 306. $49.95, ISBN 978-1-61117-103-7.)

Making sense of the depth to which the Civil War transformed the South is a question explored in Giselle Roberts's edited volume of the letters of Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson. Roberts situates her analysis in the timeworn debate over whether the war served as a watershed event in the lives of white southern women and contends that when one considers the spatial and temporal context of women's lives a complex picture of the new southern woman comes into focus. Using the example of Neilson and her female kin, Roberts demonstrates that women's efforts to construct a postwar feminine identity became "a personal journey, a family endeavor, and a community effort," thus rendering the reconstruction of white southern womanhood a fluid process dependent on individual circumstances (p. 2).

Born into a modest planter family in Tennessee, Neilson began life surrounded by the trappings of southern gentility. Yet her father's mismanagement of the family finances forced the family to relocate to Columbus, Mississippi, where Neilson received a formal education and prepared to enter society. The Civil War, however, disrupted Neilson's life course, forcing her to endure economic hardship and a broken family circle. After the war, struggling family circumstances gave way to joyful times when she met her husband, John Albert Neilson. The couple married in 1871 and remained in Mississippi, where they built a home and a family.

Although Neilson's early life followed the path of a traditional southern belle, her adult years veered from the conventions of the Old South and directed her toward a new sense of womanhood. …

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