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A Southern Woman of Letters: the Correspondence of Augusta Jane Evans Wilson.

A Southern Woman of Letters: The Correspondence of Augusta Jane Evans Wilson, edited by Rebecca Grant Sexton. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. xxxv, 205 pp. $29.95 cloth.

TO MODERN READERS OF SOUTHERN LITERATURE, Eudora Welty's Edna Earl Ponder is a more familiar name than that of Augusta Evans Wilson's Edna Earl, the heroine of her 1866 novel, St. Elmo. Yet only Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin sold more copies in the nineteenth century than St. Elmo, and Wilson, the best-selling author of nine novels, was for much of her professional life "a household word across the United States" (p. xxi). Scholars have periodically renewed their interest in Wilson's fiction. In 1992, for example, academic presses reprinted three volumes of her work: Beulah (LSU Press), Macaria (LSU Press), and St. Elmo (University of Alabama Press). Rebecca Grant Sexton's carefully edited compilation of Wilson's correspondence, A Southern Woman of Letters, will usefully supplement the critical investigations of her fiction now possible.

Still, it can be hard to get excited about Wilson's novels. Even contemporary reviewers sometimes found her stories pedantic and overwritten, and anyone who has tried to read Beulah knows that the narrative is so dense with allusions--classical, historical, and sometimes indecipherable--that fully decoding them would require appending a separate volume. Her letters, although marred by an unfortunate tendency to use the archaic word "yclept," are less taxing to read. Now readers will struggle with different hurdles: Wilson's bitterly expressed Southern nationalism (she signed a letter in 1902 "Your sincere, unreconstructed rebel friend" [p. 184]), her opposition to universal suffrage, and her commitment to a domesticated womanhood that left little time for political opinion-making.

The letters are worth reading, though, both for the moments when they uphold our expectations and the times when they surprise us. Sexton pulls together in this volume correspondence scattered through more than twenty archives and spanning nearly fifty years, supplemented by extensive footnotes that embed Wilson in an anxious and weary South. The highest concentration of letters falls during the Civil War and Reconstruction, so that readers encounter Wilson at the same time that she was producing her most popular fiction. We witness situations rarely chronicled first-hand, including the difficulties involved in publishing a novel on a Southern press in the middle of the Civil War and the struggle Wilson faced between fulfilling the cultural role of woman as she defined it in her fiction and negotiating the boundaries of womanhood as she lived it in a world realigned by patriotic duty. She numbered among her primary correspondents well-known leaders, including General P.G.T. Beauregard, to whom she wrote in 1862: "It is not my privilege to enter the ranks, wielding a sword, in my country's cause, but all that my feeble, womanly pen could contribute to the consummation of our freedom, I have humbly, but at least faithfully and untiringly endeavored to achieve" (p. 42).

Sabotaging her own language here with classic female selfdeprecation, Wilson elsewhere sharpened her womanly pen to prize open questions ranging from Jefferson Davis's fitness to lead the Confederacy to the ill effects slavery exerted on white Southern womanhood, although never faltering in her allegiance to the South as a rightfully independent nation. Characterizing most Southern women as "enervated, lethargic, incapable of enduring fatigue, and as a class, afflicted with chronic lassitude" (p. 65), Wilson saw herself differently. So will we, given the energy and passion that makes her correspondence such appealing reading nearly one hundred years after her death.


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Author:McKee, Kathryn B.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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