Julia Nitz on ‘Belles and Poets’: “Literary Allusion is Cultural Currency”

Elite Southern white women during the Civil War era were accomplished readers and writers, and the eight women profiled by Dr. Julia Nitz in her new book, Belles and Poets: Intertextuality in the Civil War Diaries of White Southern Women, were no exception. The women in Nitz’ book kept eloquent diaries in which they transcribed lines of poetry, quoted from plays and novels, and referenced fictional characters, themes and plots in order to make sense of their lives and the war.

Literary allusion, long dismissed by cultural historians, is not just embellishment, according to Nitz. Fictional worlds were these diarists’ “second home.” Because literature is shared, its invocation allowed women, often at home, to join public — even transatlantic — conversations about the nature and role of women and about the morality of slavery. Examining the literary allusions of these women, therefore, provides a conduit into their hearts and minds, and, Nitz hopes, into the roots of racism.

Nitz is a lecturer in Anglo-American cultural studies at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. She co-founded the Intercontinental Crosscurrents Network, members of which study the literal and metaphorical networks created and navigated by European and American women during the nineteenth century. I had the privilege of speaking with her recently via Zoom.

I understand that the idea for this book was born at least in part out of your professional interest in transatlantic literary and cultural conversations. But what was it about the diaries of white Confederate women that especially intrigued you?

One of the most intriguing things about the diaries is also quite sad. When you read these diaries, you’re fascinated by these women, their ideas, their humor, their satire, their criticism of men or politics, and then you come to their views on slavery and on the enslaved, especially in the latter part of the war. And these views are just so horrible. And you wonder how these things can go hand-in-hand. You have these lovely women, some of them young women who have a fresh but critical outlook on life, and they are entirely racist — not just from our point of view but from any point of view. I wanted to enter their minds a bit, try to understand their view of the world and their view of people and whether that view was something unique to them or whether it was shared.

What did you find? Were their racist views unique or shared?

Racism was a transatlantic phenomenon. It was not unique to the women in the Confederacy. The idea that there are differences between people, that there exist races and that they have different idiosyncrasies, and that there are hierarchies between groups of people — that was something that was shared and contested across the Atlantic.

As you stated, there is much to admire about these women. They read widely. They yearned for self-knowledge and self-improvement. They identified with strong women in literature. But there is much to loathe, too. They projected and compartmentalized and rationalized. They were selfish and self-righteous, and they framed themselves as martyrs and victims. Above all, they were incapable of recognizing the immorality of slavery. Why do you think slavery was such a blind spot for them?

I think at the bottom of it is an inability to perceive the enslaved as human beings. It’s so ingrained into their perception of the world. They could empathize on certain levels. There are moments where you see empathy and sympathy, but they did not regard the enslaved as equals or as equally suffering. They would differentiate between the good and the bad enslaver. They criticized Harriet Beecher Stowe for her representations of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They’d say, “We’re not all Legrees.” Those are bad people. They’re not us. They’re the exceptions. They thought of themselves as benevolent and charitable. They took care of their “servants.” Nonetheless, they viewed the enslaved as a species apart.

After the war, loss and despair might have played a role. The carnage was incredible. Acknowledging that you might have been wrong, that your way of life is wrong, that your perception of the world is wrong… That’s difficult. It caused crises with the women. You have to remember that these women believed that slavery was God-ordained, and losing the war meant something was wrong with that belief. They couldn’t grasp it. And, of course, after the war ended, they intended to reestablish white supremacy.

The fact that they were well-read? Well, literature opens up fictional worlds, possible worlds, but the way we enter them and what we make of them is something else entirely. We relate to the characters in literature, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can empathize with others.

Diaries of that day were not, as you write, “the private documents under lock and key as we consider them today.” They were “semi-public writing spaces” that the women knew might be read by their husbands, by their descendants, and eventually by the general public. Given this, what is your opinion on the honesty of the diarists? Can we believe what they tell us?

We can trust them because, at moments, it seems like they can’t help themselves; they have to note things down. At other moments, you can see how constructed their writing is. They’re presenting a version of events. But they don’t manage to hide their feelings and perceptions at all times, or they don’t bother to. And they don’t always want to tell someone something. They used literature to work through an idea or a feeling, and they’re relating to literature in order to make sense of their lives.

Did elite white Northern women keep diaries and allude to literature in the same way elite white Southern women did?

Northern women didn’t perceive this moment in time as such a historical event, so they didn’t feel the need to record it. They were also not in the middle of the war, because most of the war took place in the South. But when it comes to literary allusions, they used the same methods, and even referenced the same texts at times. In Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches from 1863, for example, she referenced “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the same poem Confederate diarist Mary Chestnut uses in her diary in a different context.

It’s notable how the diarists interpreted and “used” particular works of literature. For example, they read William Cowper’s poem “The Task” not as a condemnation of slavery, which it was, but as a condemnation of Northern aggression. It seems readers are generating meanings from literature that authors didn’t intend — which is a core postulate in Roland Barthes’ famous essay, “The Death of the Author.” But you don’t necessarily agree with Barthes. Why?

When I was saying I would not quite agree with Barthes and the “death of the author,” I was more concerned with the writing of the women, because it does matter that they get a voice. In postcolonial studies it matters who can actually tell something. The danger in talking about the death of the author is because only white males can afford that concept. But it’s true that what I’m really interested in is the reader’s perception—how people read texts and make sense of them. So, in this sense, he is right. When you think about intertextuality, it’s really the reader who’s creating the meaning.

Which diarist impressed you most during your research?

Sarah Morgan. It’s mostly her wit, her humor, and her ability to make fun of herself. At one point she was being annoyed by all the children in the house. She said that she wanted to live somewhere else, Spain perhaps, with a sign above the door that read, “No Men or Children Allowed.” This need for a room of one’s own — I could relate to that. Wanting to be independent.

And Mary Chestnut. She was disturbing. She felt that she was in a state of enslavement within her marriage and compared herself with a woman on an auction block. She had this deeply ingrained feeling that slavery was detrimental to the morality of white people, particularly white men who would take advantage of their position of power in relation to black women. After the war, she styled herself as being anti-slavery, but she wasn’t. She was so literate, so well-versed in history, literature, and political discourse. She saw through things — political machinations and what have you — but she was racist, very selfish, and self-centered.

How does an understanding of the intertextuality of southern white women’s Civil War diaries contribute to an understanding of our culture today?

Literary allusion is cultural currency. And literature is important for the spread of ideas and the creation of particular mind-sets. Understanding the mind-set of people during the Civil War, including how women made sense of their lives through literature, and understanding also what happened in the war’s aftermath are vital if we are to grasp what is going on at this moment. What is the history of institutionalized racism? What are its roots and why can’t we get rid of it? It’s not just a phenomenon in the United States. I would argue that behind it is the legacy of slavery and the post-war failure of Reconstruction. But also Southerners were able to dominate the literary market and the discourse of memory concerning the Civil War. The diaries, which were shared and published, were part of that domination.

What is your next project?

I’d actually like to look at how particular texts are being read by different people at different points in time. For example, Frederick Douglass uses Shakespeare and other British authors to convey messages, but he has a very different reading from Southern women. Or Lord Tennyson’s “The Princess.” Queen Victoria uses the same passage in “The Princess” as Mary Chestnut. Margaret Fuller uses the passage, too. But they’re interpreting the poem quite differently. Queen Victoria interprets it as anti-women’s emancipation, and she thought Lord Tennyson proved her point, whereas Fuller, a women’s rights advocate, believed Lord Tennyson was making a point for women’s emancipation.

Belles and Poets:
Intertextuality in the Civil War Diaries of White Southern Women

By Julia Nitz
Louisiana State University Press
Published November 4, 2020