Saturday, July 21, 2012

Summer Reading 2012 - I

Hope someone is still out there!

I just finished the first book in my summer reading.  It was Civil War Wives by Carol Berkin.  This looks at the lives of three women who were at the heart of the events surrounding the Civil War.  They were: Angelina Grimke Weld, a noted abolitionist, Varina Howell Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Julia Dent Grant, wife of victorious Civil War General  and U.S. President, Ulysses. S. Grant.

The writing is ok. Berkin's main thread is to examine these women from the standpoint of the established roles for women accepted at that period.  Where Angelina challenged, she ultimately played more of a traditional role once married.  Varina had a task to be  "good wife" that Davis wanted (one who definitely followed her husband's lead) but at times her own intelligence and resourcefulness surfaced.  Julia Grant was certainly a very traditional wife, but even she could challenge things at times and was used to getting her way; she was her father's favorite, and Ulysses was a fairly indulgent husband.

It wasn't quite as compelling a read at times as I'd hoped, but when I did pick it up it did prove interesting. I'd heard of Angelina; a history teaching colleague spoke of her in a talk to our local AAUW group.  But I didn't know much about her or her sister Sarah, and I had never heard of her husband, another noted abolitionist, Theodore Weld.  So it was enlightening to read about them. Also frustrating, as Angelina's adherence to being a traditional wife (Theodore was somewhat "liberated"  but never did get the idea of an equal division of household labor) didn't help her health. 

As to the Davises - I knew next to nothing about Jefferson and had never even heard of Varina!  Turns out her grandfather used to live in MY very county here in NJ and took part in the Greenwich, NJ Tea Party in Revolutionary times (He was also an NJ Governor). Jefferson wasn't a very sympathetic character to me (slaveholder, male chauvinist, too!) and Varina not much more (still supported slavery) sympathetic.  However, it still was sad they lost so many of their children so young.  I also had no idea that they also had many health problems.  So I guess reading this did humanize them to some extent.

Julia was an interesting character - still, I have to take her to task as a one-time slaveholder!  It was quite nice to read how devoted the Grants were to each other.  The story of how Uylsses worked on his memoirs even while afflicted with terminal cancer to ensure provisions for his family was remarkable.  Julia wrote her memoirs later with help from a son.  Turns out they were never published though, until 1975!   It was also interesting to find out Julia and Varina met (later in life) and actually became friendly.

Not a bad read all in all.
Next up:  the novel my Mother wrote!  I will finally be getting around to reading this.

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