American Mnemonic

Racial Identity in Women's Life Writing of the Civil War

Elizabeth Keckley, The Granger Collection

From Hospital Sketches (1863)

Emilie Davis's Diary, courtesy of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

My dissertation, American Mnemonic: Racial Identity in Women’s Life Writing of the Civil War, investigates women's autobiographies as a site of racial identity formation during the Civil War. Trends in historical and literary scholarship on the Civil War have begun to consider how time and memory frame narratives about the nation. Recent works by historians such as Caroline Janney’s Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (2013) explore how the nineteenth-century memorialization of the war impacts how we remember it today. In the realm of literary criticism, Randall Fuller’s From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature (2011) exposes the war’s impact on literary experimentation. My work enlivens this discussion of collective memory and the Civil War by bringing underrepresented women's voices into the conversation. Autobiography is especially fertile soil for work on collective memory because it provides an intimate view of the process of identity formation. In addition to responding to work on cultural memory and the war, my research also brings race and time to the forefront by focusing on the way these women writers processed their racial identities through narratives of temporality.


In my dissertation I analyze three American women's autobiographies: Emilie Davis’s pocket diaries (1863-65), Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four in the White House (1868), and Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches (1863). Chapter one, "'a memorable day': Selfhood and Belonging in Emilie Davis's Pocket Diaries," explores the everyday record of Emilie Davis in the context of Philadelphia’s free black community during the war. Davis’s position as a working-class free woman offers a fresh perspective on the much-discussed “elite” black community in which she participated. Chapter two, “'The Past is Dear': Nostalgia and Geotemporal Distance in Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes,” explores Keckley’s memories of the South as she narrates them from her position as an upwardly mobile free black woman in Washington, D.C. My analysis illuminates the effect of shifting subject positions (e.g., from slave to free) on the process of self-narration, a process that I argue ultimately recasts Keckley in a more abolitionist light. Finally, chapter three, “'A Forward Movement': Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches and the Racialized Temporality of Progress,” argues that Alcott uses the geotemporal conditions of the war hospital to gain social mobility. This forward movement for Alcott leads her to cast black characters in a regressive light, revealing the racial hierarchy of progress. All of these authors express their experiences of time in unique ways, but in each case, the temporal cultural shifts catalyzed by the Civil War impact how they process their racial identities, and the genre of autobiography offers an intimate view of that process.


In all of these primary texts, the authors position themselves in temporal relationships with progress-narratives, which helps us understand the interrelationship between their experiences of time and of their racial identities. Ultimately, my dissertation demonstrates that for these women writers, identity is formed through a dialectical process––throughout their autobiographies, the authors negotiate their individual experiences with their sense of racial belonging. Narratives of temporality both anchor subjects to their cultural moment and occasionally unmoor them, allowing for the fluid process of identity formation to ebb and flow in these texts. My work offers a perspective on women's autobiography that draws together the temporality inherent to memory, while tethering these abstract concepts to lived experience of racial difference.