Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Interview with Mary Lynne Gasaway Hill and Ginny McNeill Raska

What was southern life like during and after the Civil War?

In The Uncompromising Diary of Sallie McNeill, 1857-1867, edited and with an introduction by Ginny McNeill Raska and Mary Lynne Gasaway Hill, a female diarist from that period, shares her candid thoughts, observations, and details of her daily life.

Raska and Hill will be delivering a program and signing books tomorrow at the Brazoria County Historical Museum. Click here for details.

". . . these artifacts provide a rich picture of Southern life before, during, and after the Civil War through voices that have not necessarily been heard before."

Here, Hill tells us about Sallie McNeill and her unique perspective on these turbulent times:

Q: Who was Sallie McNeill?

MARY LYNNE HILL: Sallie McNeill,1840-1867, was the granddaughter of Texas planter and slaveholder, Levi Jordan, of Brazoria County. She was one of the first graduates from a Texas institution of higher education, earning her diploma from Baylor University, as a member of the esteemed class of 1858, which included Dora Pettus Hobby, Mary Louisa McKellar Herndon, and Rachel Barry Stewart.

Q: Fascinating! What important insights does this book shed on this particular era? How do Sallie's opinions and ideas stand apart from those of her peers?

MLH: Sallie's reflections on her time and place are similar to those of many of her peers with regard to her sustained spiritual self-examination, as well as her attitudes toward slavery, and eventually, toward emancipation. However, Sallie's diary possesses characteristics that set it apart: her private focus in an era when diaries were often expected to be shared; her college education in a place where educational opportunities were severely limited; and her decision to remain single in a culture where marriage was expected.

Sallie's education was extraordinary for her time, but especially, for her place. In 1850, only one Texas child in five received any instruction at all ─ let alone a college education! I think her education contributed significantly to her decision not to marry. She had several suitors but declared that "Imagination cannot conceive of a worse state than a loveless marriage" and, as she did not find her 'beau ideal," she chose not to marry. Ironically, this is possible only because a man, her grandfather as patriarch, was willing to support this major economic decision of Sallie's ─ even though it was certainly a counter-cultural decision!

Sallie's attitudes about slavery and emancipation are, on one level, what one expects from a white female from a wealthy slaveholding family. However, in her text, because she wrote for herself alone, she reveals that she and her brother, Calvin, often felt like crying out against slavery ─ although, not surprisingly, she never did challenge slavery in any public way, that we know.

Ginny McNeill Raska

Q: Why is it so important that Sallie chose to write for herself?

MLH: Many female diarists of the Southern planter class, such as Mary Boykin Chesnut (A Diary from Dixie), wrote with publication in mind or wrote for their children ─ they expected their work to be read by at least their families, if not also by their larger communities. Sallie's text, which is part of the Romantic movement in American Literature, is a private exploration of her sense of self in relation to her community and her faith . . . and because she does not fear eavesdropping, she is rather candid about herself, others, and the events & issues of the day, including marriage and slavery.

Q: Tell me about the Levi Jordan Plantation in Brazoria, Texas. What role did this project play in your research?

MLH: Levi Jordan purchased 2,222 acres in Brazoria County in 1848, settling there with their daughter Emily and her husband, James C. McNeill, Sallie's parents. Jordan was only one of fifty Texas planters who owned more than 100 slaves. Sugar and cotton were the predominant crops with the plantation housing one of the largest sugar mills in the Texas Sugar Bowl. In 1984, the University of Houston, under the direction of Dr. Ken Brown, began archaeological investigations of the slave and tenant quarters, uncovering one of the richest deposits of African-American artifacts in the Unites States. Several of the carved bone artifacts that were discovered, including the cameo on the dust jacket of the Diary, were included in the Smithsonian exhibit, "Before Freedom Came: African-American Life in the Antebellum South."

Ginny McNeill Raska, editor of Diary and descendant of Levi Jordan, worked with Dr. Brown and his students (which ultimately included myself in 1993) through the painstaking process of transcribing the Diary (which is made up of seven individual 'booklets') to discover what it might reveal about the artifacts being unearthed. However, in this process, it also became clear that the Diary was important for its own literary and historical sake.
At the close of the twentieth century, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. asserted that of those who had created "nineteenth-century life, it is the inner lives of women, along with those of people of color, which remain largely terra incognita." The Diary in conjunction with the archaeology begin to shed light on to this terra incognita. While the archaeological investigations revealed life in the Quarters, Sallie's reflections revealed life in the Big House. Together these artifacts provide a rich picture of Southern life before, during, and after the Civil War through voices that have not necessarily been heard before.

Mary Lynne Gasaway Hill

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