I’m going to talk about Mary Boykin Chesnut. I want to ask you, how many of you know her famous epic, sometimes called A Diary from Dixie, sometimes called Mary Chesnut’s Civil War? How many of you have heard those names? I’d like to see a show of hands. Well, less than half. I was expecting a few more. How many of you saw the Ken Burns Civil War series? About the same number. Well, that might be why you know Mary Boykin Chesnut, because she was a major source and her voice is heard a lot throughout that series. I forget the name of that British actress who did such a good job playing her, but she’s really good.[1] Well, then, I want to ask you another question. How many of you know that Mrs. Chesnut wrote novels? Now, that’s paring the number down a bit. So, what I want to do is talk primarily about her novels, the unknown new book in Chesnut. She wrote two of them. She left them in manuscript form at her death, and they were not published until 2002, when the University of Virginia Press published this one-volume collection called Two Novels. They were virtually unknown for 130 years and they are still relatively unknown. The two novels are entitled The Captain and the Colonel, and Two Years – or The Way We Lived Then. Both are interesting and worth reading, but I’ll treat only one here. I thought I would treat two, but I have a time limit of forty-five minutes and I pared it down to forty and I didn’t have time for both. So, only one, and that one is Two Years – or The Way We Lived Then. It dates from 1876 and is based loosely on some of the events of Mrs. Chesnut’s early life, when she was Mary Boykin Miller, daughter of South Carolina Governor Stephen Decatur Miller of Stateburg, South Carolina, which is in Sumter County. Governor Miller was a staunch nullifier. He was an active secessionist, a real Southern nationalist, far ahead of his time. He’s a wonderful study. Sadly, there’s no biography of Stephen Decatur Miller.

The novel’s first-person narrator is a young lady named Helen Newtown Howard, now in her sixties as the outer frame of the novel begins. You have a framed novel (you literary people will understand what we’re talking about). The outer frame of the novel is sixty-year-old Helen Newtown Howard. The novel proper begins as a flashback to when Helen was a girl of sixteen years old. So, it’s the sixty-year-old lady who’s been through life looking back at her sixteen-year-old self. Well, you can see what complexity is possible. You can see how this might have some possibilities. And of course, it’s been done before. The action of the novel begins in the autumn of 1836, after the Nullification Crisis and Governor Miller’s term in office. Miller’s out of office and nullification has died down. South Carolina has gotten some of the things they wanted and things have calmed down. Helen is in school in Charleston at Madame Talvande’s, at what is now the Sword Gate House on Legare Street. The Sword Gate House is where Mary Boykin Chesnut (then Mary Boykin Miller) went to school. Madame Talvande was a French national who ran a very prestigious boarding school for young ladies. In other words, Mary Boykin Chesnut is writing from her own experience. Helen Newtown Howard is sixteen years old and was attending Madame Talvande’s. So, the novel has autobiographical elements (though it’s not strictly autobiographical). When you read about Helen in school at Madame Talvande’s, Mrs. Chesnut, realist that she was, is essentially recording the way it was when she was there. For that reason, this novel is thus a great primary document. The details are very realistic. When the novel opens, Helen’s father has just had her removed from that school because he’s received reports that she’s having moonlight strolls on The Battery. The gentleman with whom she has been strolling is a well-to-do upcountry man by the name of Sydney Howard. This is a fictitious man who becomes Helen’s husband at the end of the novel. Howard is modeled closely after James Chesnut Jr., of Camden, South Carolina, Mary Boykin Miller’s future husband. When her father confronts Helen with the information he’s received about the moonlight strolls on The Battery, Helen replies: “You’re wrong. Sometimes there wasn’t a moon.”[2] That’s Mary Chesnut’s fire. In this reply, we hear the unmistakable voice of Chesnut the diarist. “There was no moon sometimes, Dad.” The father is moving the family from South Carolina to their frontier plantation in Mississippi. The weeping, angry teen is forced to go with them. She pleads to stay in Charleston, but her dad ain’t having any part of that, with that moonlight strolling. She pleads to stay, to no avail. Mary Boykin Miller had done the same with the same result.

So, off the family goes to the rough frontier. Miss Chesnut does a good job of creating the narrator’s character, made complex by the before and after layers of time. The grown woman reflects on shortcomings common to youth, and then, sometimes painfully, Helen’s own. The narrator paints a picture of her young self as a romantically inclined girl who sees the world through novels. This is probably autobiographically correct. All of Helen’s daydreams come from heroines like Joan of Arc. She writes: “Joan of Arc. With her for awhile I performed heroic and patriotic feats – always saving my Country at full speed on the most beautiful of horses.”[3] Typical, again, that she focuses on the pretty trappings while missing the important things, and like the protagonist in the Jane Austen novel, she’s been reading too many romances. (Those of you who know Jane Austen will think immediately of Northanger Abbey). Of her education to this point, the mature narrator sees that her worldview had come almost solely from romance literature. When the company gets boring on the carriage journey to Mississippi, Helen translates a French novel with the help of a French dictionary, her trusty companion. Like Mary Boykin Miller, she had learned the language at Madame Talvande’s and was especially fond of French literature. By focusing her attention on the page, Helen places a wall of print between herself and the world, one of the great dangers for a writer, as Mrs. Chesnut herself may have learned. The novel must thus be read as a tongue-in-cheek narrative with the butt of the joke being the narrator’s young, naive self. The older lady is looking at her young, naive self and you get all this wonderful, dramatic tension. Her family calls her an “affected fine lady.”[4] At one point, her sister, Fanny, says: “Ef we ain’t tired of your airs.”[5] The key words are “affected” and “airs.”

Helen is learning, though, even if it’s a slow process. When the family passes through Mobile, Alabama, they attend Sheridan’s play, The Rivals. I think this actually happened because there was a very fine theater in Mobile in that day, and as they passed through Mobile, they probably did attend that play. This is an extremely important play symbolically. Young Helen identifies with the play’s central character, whose name is Lydia Languish, and Lydia reads novels and romances and tries to model her life on them. Helen says: “Then I listened in rapt attention for a cause best known to myself.  I hung my head as the lovely Lydia went on making a fool of herself (without a pause).”[6] Even at that age, Helen was beginning to see herself as “a silly, sentimental, romantic little fool.”[7] There’s Mary Boykin Chesnut. She takes no prisoners, even herself. This is Chesnut at her choicest: “‘There the tragedy comes in,’ cried I laughing,” but then she says: “‘To me it is all delightful.’ The sting of the insulting comparison was drowned in my enjoyment of the play.”[8] So there’s her spirit again, or her resilience, and she throws herself into watching the play. Literature, again becomes the measuring stick for Helen and this time for the good. Helen, like Mrs. Chesnut herself, had spirit. The French call the trait joie de vivre. Margaret Mitchell said that the generation before her called it “gumption.” I like that word, gumption. That’s Margaret Mitchell’s term for spirit. Mitchell’s most famous character and probably the Southern character best known worldwide has this trait –  Scarlett O’Hara has gumption. There’s much of both Helen and Mrs. Chesnut in Mitchell’s resilient character, Scarlett O’Hara. We know for a fact that Mitchell researched the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston and used A Diary from Dixie as an early major source for Gone with the Wind. Although there’s a possibility the manuscripts were available, it’s not likely that Mitchell knew of Mrs. Chesnut’s novels.

Two Years breaks in half midway with the death of Helen’s father in Mississippi, the family’s return to South Carolina, and Helen’s return to Madame Talvande’s school in Charleston. There she resumes her moonlight battery strolls. But the novel’s unity is not impaired while it is jumping about in setting because the change in setting is just another step in Helen’s education in life. The novel might just as appropriately be entitled The Education of Helen Newtown. The work ends with Helen’s marriage to Sydney Howard when she is eighteen years old, about the same age as Mary Boykin Miller when she married. When we leave the newlyweds, the mature Helen reflects back that it was only then that her education in life began in earnest. In a way, the novel thus provides a good preamble to A Diary from Dixie, set at the beginning of the War when Mrs. Chesnut was thirty-seven years old. I think that’s the proper way to read these books. You read Two Years – or The Way We Lived Then, then you read the Diary (so-called; it’s really an epic). It’s not really a diary. It’s not a memoir. It’s its own thing. It’s been called an epic now, and I think probably because of all the epic trappings, that’s what she intended it to be. Education thus ties the two halves of the novel together. Education of several sorts, and with much still left to be learned at the end. The apparent surface disjointedness that one critic has cited is not disjointedness at all when looked at in this way. It’s the loose, flowing, episodic nature of life and character in the process of becoming. And you literary people know that’s called the bildungsroman, a novel of character development. It’s a classic illustration of the bildungsroman. The learning continues to the work’s end. And the most important thing to say here is that the learning doesn’t stop there and will not stop there. And she basically says: “Okay, this is the beginning. I’ve given you the beginning.” In the novel’s final pages, her dead father’s grieving body servant, Dick, says to Helen: “You have a heap to learn yet.”[9] And she does. And the mature Helen understands that she did. She had just tried to pay Dick money for a favour, and he’s offended. Dick is the community’s best fiddler for dances, but he refuses to play again after his master’s death, no matter how much money they offer him. He’s grieving. In response to her bad form in trying to give him the cold, abstract dollar, Dick says: “My old Master he done me justice – he knowed what I was.”[10] He’s implying that Helen doesn’t know what he is, and she doesn’t, and she realizes that later. Money as pay-off is not the same as affectionate regard and respect. The Southern way is personal relationships rather than a colder region’s abstraction. Taking the abstraction one step further, hollow words rather than even money, is what Mrs. Chesnut calls “a cheap philanthropy,” one which costs the giver nothing. “A cheap philanthropy.”[11] Wow! She skewers again. I mean, she can just skewer you with a few words. That’s one of those memorable phrases Mrs. Chesnut is particularly good at creating, and it’s worth remembering that we see excellent examples of “cheap philanthropy” today. Helen reflects back on her meeting with Dick: “I had come out for wool, but it seemed I was going back shorn.”[12] Helen is thus learning what her father already knew, and that’s part of it, too, you know, the older you get, the wiser your parents become. She’s basically saying the same thing.

The novel has more unity in-depth of theme and artistry than it has been credited with. More than an historical document, it’s a solid literary achievement. There are many vignettes that remain vividly in the mind years after reading. These vignettes, these small, dramatic scenes are so vivid years after you read them. That’s a good test of a writer’s skill, and Mrs. Chesnut passes that test admirably in Two Years. Her choice of words, her wit, her uncanny ability to capture the essence of character in so short a space, her staging of dramatic scenes that get to the crucial heart of the matter – these make her one of America’s great writers. And I don’t hesitate to say that now that I’ve read the novels (and, of course, the epic). She’s celebrated for all those traits in her Diary from Dixie, but her novels are not yet known. When they are known her place in literature is likely to rise. I think that’s why it’s important to know these novels and add them to the canon. One more note about the novel’s form. Its episodic nature makes it akin to Celtic literary tradition, befitting its author’s Scots-Irish inheritance. It has been said that there’s no such thing as the Irish novel if “novel” is defined narrowly in the linear, plotted English novel manner. James Joyce’s Ulysses is thus no novel by traditional English standards. Because of her Scots-Irish background, I like to place Mrs. Chesnut in that same tradition. That helps explain some of the problems that some critics have with her book. They are demanding a traditional English plot form, a chronological structure. If you say: “Okay, loosen it up and think about Ulysses,” you’ll be fine, because the novel possesses major thematic unity.

So, the work is unified in a thematic way, even more than with the education frame. It’s a unified work because it has the education frame of a bildungsroman, but it’s also unified in another way. It’s a courtesy book. The most famous example of a courtesy book is Baldesar Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, which is an Italian Renaissance work telling the Italian court how to behave. “Here’s what’s necessary for good manners in the court.” Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote this book to teach manners. Both of Chesnut’s novels (but mainly this one) contrast good form and manners with bad form and manners. And guess what? She at sixteen was the example of bad form. The mature Helen is looking at the young Helen and saying: “I’ve grown older and wiser. I may not know it all, but I’m implying certain standards of good conduct by showing how I myself violated them.” She’s not pointing a finger at anybody else. She defines for us what good manners are. That’s why this book is a book of universal significance. And it speaks to me today far more effectively than Emily Post’s focus on superficial things.

First and foremost, the key standard of good manners is to have more regard for the feelings of others than for one’s own. That’s simple enough. Be more aware of (and more considerate of) other people’s feelings than your own. Helen’s young self failed miserably. Learning to subordinate one’s feelings to others is the process of growing up, which some unfortunately never do. They stay in a state of arrested adolescence no matter what age they reach. This is not the case with Helen, and I don’t think it was the case with Mrs. Chesnut. The Newtown family, in passing through an uninhabited stretch of Mississippi frontier, is forced to ask a new settler for a place to spend the night. His wretched log cabin is bare. There’s a scrawny chicken (the family’s last chicken) scratching around in the yard for worms. Mrs. Chesnut paints a vignette typical of the many affective scenes throughout the novel. I’ll read the passage as an example of why this work qualifies as very good literature. This is a two-page passage, so bear with me:

“Once after plunging all day in mud and mire, limestone clay so stiff it had to be chopped from the wheels with an ax; then suddenly sinking sloughs, which seemed bottomless quick-sands; long after night we saw the light of a solitary log house. Outside was a traveler in the act of removing his saddlebags, and in it, we found the inevitable man and his wife and baby. These were painfully polite persons. They sprung out of bed and throwing back the bedclothes offered us their places. My parents declined with thanks the generous hospitality and we huddled together with our backs turned. By this time we were accustomed to sleep like cats on a pile of cushions barricaded by shells and chairs. But the woman at daylight next day, killed her last chicken before our very eyes, and picked it. We saw it in its death throes. She put it in a pot with two sweet potatoes. She said there was not another mouthful of food of any kind in the house. The man with the saddlebags we left to share this last morsel of her food. My father as we left said, ‘Mount your horse. There’s not enough there for the poor woman herself or her child.’ The man hung his head – but remained to partake of this scanty repast. We could not eat what we saw die. Tatty had a bottle of milk. She did not suffer. We fasted. All appetite had departed at the sight of the chicken’s death agonies – for awhile.  We did not find another house until noon. Dan said ‘now we knew what the starving poor felt.’ He tried to support us by stoical example – and words. ‘Let Fanny howl, she is an untutored savage. We are civilized beings. We should know [how to] bear our pain in silence.’”[13]

Well, what is she going to have to bear? In 1861-1865, in the 1870’s and 1880’s, she’s going to do a lot of bearing pain in silence. So, Helen’s mature self now understands clearly what the frontier couple sacrificed in following the ironclad rule of hospitality, and it’s a beautiful example of it. Helen’s father saw immediately that they were on the point of starving, but offered their last food to the guests. The rule of hospitality is all the more ironclad because it is unwritten, a part of the essential good manners of the culture. At another house where there’s been a hog butchering that morning, Helen refuses to eat “the nightmare of pork,” as she calls it, and resorts to the travel hamper for a biscuit. She eats it in the carriage by herself and reads a George Payne Rainsford James romance of English high society, where the plot might revolve around something as superficial as the way to tie a cravat or how to use a new pair of opera glasses.[14] To Helen in this scene the food and its presentation are more important than the spirit in which it’s offered or the feelings of those offering it. After the family leaves, Helen’s parents give her double lectures on her rudeness. Oh, they hang fire on her (as they should). There are many scenes in the novel set during meals. This is another artistic leitmotif, unifying the work thematically and giving it structure. In considering Helen’s refusal to eat “the nightmare of pork,” one is reminded of the 20th century Florida novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s insightful comment: “No greater offense can be given in the rural South than to refuse a meal.”[15]

Rawlings’s comment explains why Helen’s parents fussed at her so heatedly. She broke one of the culture’s rules about hospitality, this time from the one receiving it. It works both ways. As in all situations involving manners, there are two sides. It’s equally important that participants on both sides know how to play their parts. Helen hasn’t played her part in this delicate dance. She has, in effect, rejected one of the oldest covenants of mankind. The rituals of breaking bread together and of being willing to put one’s feet under the same table signifies trust and a desire for getting along. We can see why her parents were so upset and how much the mature Helen learned from the episode. We often make the mistake of focusing only upon the dispenser of hospitality, but the recipient has just as important a role and perhaps an even more complicated and subtle set of rules to follow. Helen learns this as well. Chesnut’s novel is an excellent portrayal of the nature of the Southern code of manners and certainly amounts to a primary source in its discussion and definition.

The novel’s second standard of good manners is to be less critical of superficialities. Young Helen’s focus on the surface is often her worst fault. She’s always making fun of the way people look or the way people dress, and she’s oblivious to the fact that she’s hurting other people’s feelings in the process, as in the scene where she laughs at the quivering cheeks of a fat man whom she calls “the jellyfish.” She does this a lot, skewering people with her wit. It’s a vivid description, but she’s letting her talent get the better of her manners. Of her poor governess, Mrs. Grindstone, she says: “My young partners at the dancing school would have been too happy for such a moustache.”[16] She then states: “I confess, I stared – perhaps beyond the limit allowed by good manners.”[17] She not only stares, but she has to restrain a fit of laughter at the less than sophisticated subject (and the subject is grotesque). This recognition of the ludicrous and grotesque in human nature, while it makes for a good author like Edgar Allen Poe or Flannery O’Connor or Cormac McCarthy, it doesn’t always make for good manners. I suspect Mrs. Chesnut had to walk that tightrope all her life because she certainly had as strong a sense of the grotesque as our best writers did.

A third main violation of good manners is Helen’s intransigence. Her inflexibility. Her refusal to conciliate. This trait leads to a conceited, strident, and overbearing nature. People said Mrs. Chesnut had that trait. Helen’s parents are not this way at all, and they’re always lecturing her upon it, which, of course, as a headstrong and rebellious teen, she hates. After half a century, Helen now fully understands those pained looks her father often gave her. As a young woman, she hasn’t as yet learned discretion to curb her tongue or the truism of the English aristocracy that it hasn’t survived by intransigence. Intransigence is unyielding extremism, the unbending fanaticism of ideology, of holding pet hobbies, one’s most cherished abstractions, above a regard for an individual’s feelings. It’s that, for example, which led to Robespierre’s unrestrained glee at lopping off the head of Marie Antoinette, to Stalin’s Russian bloodbath, and to Oliver Cromwell’s laying waste to Ireland and the monasteries in England. You can you can look at intransigence in that way, as that fanatical ideology which can only bring destruction. She’s very much aware of this. Cold abstraction kills – most literally. Mrs. Chesnut’s fellow writer and distant cousin (they were related through the Millers) William Gilmore Simms said: “The puritan fanatic is the source of our modern Yankee.”[18] He linked Cromwell’s treatment of Ireland with the North’s coming conquest of the South, which he predicted in August of 1859. Simms wrote:

“The New England people, from the time of Oliver Cromwell, must be annoying somebody – Red men or Quakers, or Manhattanese Dutch and Southrons, after they have fairly overcome all the others! They have exterminated the Red men – abolished the Dutch – burnt out the Quakers – stole and sold the negroes, till they could steal and sell no longer; and the question now is, by what process shall they kick or burn us Southrons out, or kill us off!”[19]

There’s the intransigence that the Southerner feared, the ideological fanaticism of all those “isms” and “ologies” that were flying in the burnt-over regions of New York. Well, in Mrs. Chesnut’s novel intransigence and zealotry are always the arch-enemies of courtesy. No manual of good behavior will allow them. That is why, I suspect, I’ve often heard in the South that there are two topics that that are taboo in polite conversation: politics and religion. They are strictly off-limits. More could be said on the novel’s portrayals of other points of good form that constitute good manners, from the role of hospitality for both the giver and the receiver, to acts of personal kindness, but they all revolve around the subordination of one’s personal feelings to those of others. It’s the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you writ large. So, for Mrs. Chesnut (as Southerners in general) any code of manners is undergirded by the Biblical tradition that pervades Southern culture. In the case of Mrs. Chesnut’s family, I’m reminded of one window of understanding opened to me several years ago by Mrs. Chesnut’s great-great-grandniece, Mrs. Marty Daniels. She told me her family still uses a code abbreviation, “F.H.B.” When non-family members are present and anything becomes in short supply, elders look at youngsters and remind them quietly, “F.H.B.,” which is the abbreviation for “family hold back.” If a little tyke is about to get the last piece of cake or whatever is getting in short supply, he hears “F.H.B.” and changes his mind. “Oh, I’m not hungry anymore.”[20] So, we see the Chesnut good manners coming right down to the present day, and Mrs. Daniels is a wonderful hostess. She is the epitome of hospitality. “Family hold back” involves all the points of good form that Mrs. Chesnut’s novel dramatizes so successfully and memorably: hospitality, regarding others before oneself, knowing what is important and what is not, rejecting one’s feelings for the feelings of others, and selflessness over selfishness. It’s the diametric opposite of the modern pushing-in that leads to pushiness and bumper stickers that read “I Don’t Give a Damn How You Did it up North!” You can see why pushing-in is so offensive to these rural folks who prefer the code of live and let live. That’s our Southern code.

William Gilmore Simms is pertinent one more time. He defined good manners as the generous and tender regard to the sensibilities of others.[21] This then is the core of good manners that transcends both elegance and eloquence, and which, in the final analysis, is the epitome of both. Southerners understand that. It’s not the great chandeliers and furniture and whatever else. I love Owen Wister’s description of Old Charleston as opposed to the robber barons of the North, where the vying women try to outdo one another in garish opulence. So important was civility to the antebellum Southern mind that Stark Young defined the landed Southern aristocracy as “an aristocracy of manners.”[22] Now, these are Chesnut’s phrases in Two Years: “One tires of self laudation, Boston style ‘Freedom to worship God’ – and Mammon, and above all our noble selves! Let us Laud and magnify ourselves and everything that is ours!”[23] Here, Mrs. Chesnut gives an excellent description of the new world dawning, the crass, vulgar, no-mannered era of I-centered me, my, mine generations which we know is our own time. For the worst of us, manners are a quaint relic of the past. So are chivalry and civility. Once again, William Gilmore Simms provides Mrs. Chesnut support and a virtual gloss. In 1870, after the South’s disastrous loss and six years before Mrs. Chesnut wrote her novel, he wrote in one of his final essays (the last words he penned), describing the victorious North:

“To so great a degree did these people, in many sections, carry it [their hatred of the South], that it became painful for them to hear the word ‘Chivalry’ and the title ‘Gentleman’ uttered, as these seemed tacitly to describe the characteristics of the Southern people. ‘Chivalry’ and ‘gentleman’ finally became a sort of scoff among them, especially as they heard of these beautiful virtues, from European tongues, as especially belonging to the South. There was an awful consciousness, among too many of them born yesterday, and with no other capital of character than a fashionable tailor could supply – assisted by the stolen crests from some English gentleman’s carriage –  that there was a very substantial difference in the training and development of the two sections, and they preferred to ridicule the character which they found themselves unable to acquire, or even to assume.”[24]

Simms goes on to say how the North now ridicules the patriot statesmen and heroes of Old Virginia and the South in general:

“May God forgive him the double damning sins of malignancy and stupidity. He but follows in the wake of wretches who are destroying his own country, as they have destroyed ours. The end is yet to come. Under the asinine legislation of Congress the gulf between the sections widens daily, and the uncompromising Secessionist may quietly and silently congratulate himself that the tearing asunder of the Union, and forever defeating the hopes to behold again a united people, are about to be effected by processes and parties very different from those upon which he relied. It is a law – illustrated by every page of history – that usurpation becomes tyranny, and tyranny always commits suicide!”[25]

Simms was absolutely prophetic, was he not? Mrs. Chesnut’s key theme of learning to be more aware of others is another way of seeing an individual’s growth into chivalry. This theme was sounded from the novel’s very beginning when Helen’s mother tells her headstrong daughter: “You must learn to make the best of things. You will find this world does not arrange itself exactly to suit you.”[26] Here Helen’s mother is cautioning against egocentrism, seeing oneself as the center of the universe. For her, as well as Mrs. Chesnut, egocentrism is the great corroder of civilization. Helen’s brother, Dan, after witnessing the plight of the frontier couple on the verge of starvation, will not eat their last food and thus goes hungry himself. He tells his sister: “We are civilized beings. We should know [how to] bear our pain in silence.”[27] Dan suffers hunger, but he had seen worse pain in the couple’s desperate situation. But their dire circumstance did not prevent them from thinking of others, from making the sacrifice of their last chicken and two sweet potatoes for strangers whom they would likely never see again. There is no complaining. There’s only hospitality. Their chivalry, even if displayed in a cabin, is still the genuine article. Young Helen realizes this. The mature Helen writes: “Miss Newtown said nothing; for in her life was speechless.”[28] As a grown woman who had done her share of suffering in silence, she now has proper sympathy for those who made such sacrifices. In her great epic, Mrs. Chesnut spoke of the quiet suffering of women whose losses in the War caused them to turn their faces to the wall and die of grief.[29] The mature Helen in the 1870’s says she appreciates her own suffering people in Charleston for the same reason: “Why did I then, why do I now prefer this city by the sea to the whole world?” She answers, it is because the men are there are gentlemen, who: “are strong men, they work with smiling faces coûte qui coûte [at all costs]. And they bear ridicule with a careless shrug…In face of all difficulties when a race continues from father to son, perfect in manners, scrupulously correct in conduct, gentlemanlike in bearing even though they work like galley slaves, it is a thing to thank God for.”[30]

Historians often say that it was the War that taught Mrs. Chesnut these things, but this novel demonstrates that the War likely only reinforced wisdom that had been accruing slowly for several decades, wisdom that perhaps helped her to survive the War and its hard realities. If so, it was the Southern code of manners that she had learned to live by which gave her the strong, straight spine of support for survival. Anybody who survived all that merits some respect. We look at them today and say, “Wow, how did they do this?” But the culture was very strong, and it was strong for these reasons, and it gave them the spine to survive. I think it’s this that perhaps explains North Carolina novelist Reynolds Price’s comment that “surviving, rather than flourishing, has always been a Southern specialty.” Chesnut’s novel and diary are thus tied closely together and in order to appreciate the diary the novel must be read and understood. The novel does far more than provide context. It may, in fact, prove a key to interpretation. So, Two Years – or The Way We Lived Then (or, if you will, The Education of Helen Newtown) is a Southern courtesy book written with Mrs. Chesnut’s trademark humour, good sense, brutal honesty, uncanny discernment, and a lively, effective literary style. It reminds me a lot of William Faulkner’s The Reivers, another courtesy book in which the grandfather/narrator tells his grandson about his own erring adolescent self and the lessons he learned about what constituted right conduct and gentlemanly behaviour. In other words, good manners. My feeling is that Mrs. Chesnut’s and Faulkner’s novels across the centuries’ time tell us more about certain shared Southern values than even the best secondary sources we can muster. They are all the more effective because they are dramatized, portrayed, not just abstractly written about as the historian would. I was privileged to give a shorter version of this talk back in March, I believe, at the University of South Carolina, on the occasion of the reuniting of Mrs. Chesnut’s photo albums with the diary manuscript at the University library. This was a major celebration for the University. The other two speakers were historian Walter Edgar and my friend Marty Daniels, Mrs. Chesnut’s, great-great-grandniece. The audience was the Thomas Cooper Society (now the Friends of the Libraries) and a scattering of students, and I couldn’t resist saying:

“This college was barely three decades old when Mrs. Chesnut’s novel is set. The motto on the University seal, chosen in 1801, is from OVID: Emollit Mores Nec Sinit Esse Feros. As an undergraduate in the 1960’s, we translated the motto as ‘education polishes and prevents rudeness,’ which is a loose translation.[31] We might even more loosely translate it, in light of the novel I’ve just talked about, as ‘proper education polishes and prevents bad manners.’ In this way my alma mater can be said to represent the ideals of her people at their best and a lasting standard for which to strive. It seems that if education fails to further the mission expressed in the University seal, then it is not doing its job. The modern often speaks of an increased standard of living, but the traditional Southerner, out of the wisdom of her culture speaks instead of a standard of behaviour and faith.”

There were many University folks present at the talks. Miss Daniels afterwards said that might give them something to think about over the next couple of weeks. I replied that it probably wouldn’t. But anyway, you do what you have to do. You profess. That’s what professors do. Then you leave it to the future. The same may be said here at Seabrook this evening. Thank you.


[1]The lady in question is the late Julie Harris who is probably best remembered for her roles in East of Eden (1955) and The Haunting (1963). Curiously enough, Harris portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln in the 1976 made-for-TV movie The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, which was based on a 1972 Broadway play of the same name, which also starred Harris in the title role (and for which she won a Tony Award). She also took a turn playing Joan of Arc opposite Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone.

[2]Technically, she doggedly says: “It was not always moonlight.”

[3]Mary Boykin Chesnut, Two Novels, 121.

[4]Ibid., 116.


[6]Ibid., 148.



[9]Ibid.,  213.

[10]Ibid., 212.

[11]This is a reference to Mrs. Chesnut’s entry of 27 November, 1861: “What self-denial do they [Mrs. Stowe, Greeley, Thoreau, Emerson, Sumner] practice? It is the cheapest philanthropy trade in the world – easy. Easy as setting John Brown to come down here and cut our throats in Christ’s name…Their philanthropy is cheap.” See Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, 245-246.

[12]Two Novels, 213.

[13]Ibid., 122-123.

[14]This occurs on page 114. The phrase “nightmare of pork” does not appear until much further along in the journey, on page 149, but it sums up Helen’s squeamishness quite accurately. The G.P.R. James novel she read is Darnley; Or, the Field of the Cloth of Gold, which is a piece of historical fiction set during the famously extravagant summit meeting between Henry VIII of England and Francis the I of France.

[15]Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek Cookery (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943), 218.

[16]Two Novels, 124.


[18]See W.G. Simms’s review of J.T. Headley’s Life of Oliver Cromwell in the Southern Quarterly Review, Vol. 14, 28, 519. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moajrnl/acp1141.1-14.028/531

[19]W.G. Simms in the Charleston Mercury, 20 August 1859, quoted in William Gilmore Simms’s Selected Reviews on Literature and Civilization, 163.

[20]Of all things, Shirley Temple’s 1935 film The Littlest Rebel portrayed this exactly. At her own birthday party, Temple’s character gives up her ice cream (the very last of the ice cream) to satisfy a guest.

[21]W.G. Simms, Egeria: Or Voices of Thought and Counsel, for the Woods and Wayside (Philadelphia, E.H. Butler, 1853), 253: “The only true source of politeness is consideration – that vigilant moral sense which never loses sight of the rights, the claims, and the sensibilities of others. This is the one quality, over all others, necessary to make a gentleman.”

[22]See Young’s essay, “Not in Memoriam, but in Defense,” in I’ll Take My Stand.

[23]Two Novels, 168.

[24]W.G. Simms, Charleston Courier, 22 January 1870, quoted in William Gilmore Simms’s Selected Reviews on Literature and Civilization, 192.

[25]Ibid., 192-193.

[26]Two Novels, 112.

[27]Ibid., 123.

[28]Ibid., 150.

[29]See Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, 370-371, 452-453, and 625.

[30]Two Novels, 176-177.

[31]Per the U.S.C. website, the literal translation is: “Learning humanizes character and does not permit it to be cruel.”

James Everett Kibler

James Everett Kibler is a novelist, poet, and Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Georgia, where he taught popular courses in Southern literature, examining such figures as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Wendell Berry, and Larry Brown. Born and raised in upcountry South Carolina, Kibler spends much of his spare time tending to the renovation of an 1804 plantation home and the reforestation of the surrounding acreage. This home served as the subject of his first book, Our Fathers’ Fields: A Southern Story, for which he was awarded the prestigious Fellowship of Southern Writers Award for Nonfiction in 1999 and the Southern Heritage Society’s Award for Literary Achievement.

One Comment

  • Howard Talley says:

    I met Marty Daniels a number of years ago in Columbia and was graciously invited to the
    Chesnut ‘homeplace’ near Camden, SC. Alas, I have never followed up. I was hoping to
    ‘discover’ that my GG Grandfather, whose middle name was Boykin and from Camden,
    was kin to Ms. Chesnut (or James) and Marty. Sadly, General Sherman’s march had destroyed any
    chance I might have had to demonstrate such kinship,but I will never forget the humble
    manners which you describe, and attribute, to Marty and our southern ancestors. And
    my GG Grandfather was more likely named after the Boykin Spaniel! He disappears from
    the public record after the WBTS.

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