Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War

Article excerpt

Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War. By Elizabeth Young. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1999. xvi + 389 pp. $47; 33 [pounds sterling] (paperbound $18; 13 [pounds sterling]).

`In a sermon he delivered shortly before the American Civil War began, New England minister Henry Ward Beecher declared that "manhood,--manhood,--MANHOOD,--exercised in the fear of God, has made this nation' (p. 1). Thus, with Beecher's ringing assertion, does Elizabeth Young open her study of women's writing in connection with that war, proceeding shortly to observe that `criticism of Civil War fiction foregrounds the works of white male authors' and generally assumes that `a Civil War novel is a book by a white man about a white man in combat'. Such male primacy Disarming the Nation aims to challenge, destabilize, and overturn, as categories and concepts of race, gender, and sexuality are subjected to continuous, searching scrutiny. The military Civil War remains always at the centre of attention, but also `the writers under discussion employ the idea of "civil war" as a metaphor to represent internal rebellions, conflicts, and fractures' (p. 17).

Each of the book's six chapters is concentrated principally upon one text, the first of which is necessarily Uncle Tom's Cabin by `the little woman who made this great war', as Lincoln is reputed to have hailed her on meeting, `the little woman' being of course `Manhood' Beecher's sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe's fellow New Englander, Louisa May Alcott, worked as a nurse in a Union Army hospital until laid low by typhoid, and afterwards recorded and meditated upon her experiences in Hospital Sketches. Both Stowe and Alcott were committed abolitionists, who saw the feminization of American culture as a prerequisite for ethical and political progress, to the extent that for Alcott, `at its broadest reaches, feminization becomes feminism' (p. 106). Their modes of thinking, however, were essentially racist, blacks being often presented as figures of comedy or disorder, albeit `incorporating the legacy of Stowe, Alcott's writings use the image of unruly blackness as a feature of her self-representation in an attempt to escape the constraints of white femininity' (p. 80).

Less familiar to most readers will be Elizabeth Keckley, an African-American who managed to buy her own freedom and become a highly successful seamstress and during the war dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln, hence the title of her memoir, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. …

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