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St. Louis in the Civil War - timons [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

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St. Louis in the Civil War [Jun. 16th, 2014|01:36 pm]
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     My latest completed work is a volume of Civil War history: NiNi Harris's A Most Unsettled State. (The link is to an independent St. Louis bookstore. The book is also available from Amazon.) I'm not sure whether Harris should be referred to as the editor or the author, because the book is essentially a selection of primary sources from Missouri (mostly from its main city at the time, St. Louis) regarding the Civil War years. There's a great deal of apparatus, however, to give context and continuity to the sources. First she gives a summary of each year of the War, as seen from St. Louis. Then she gives background for each selection during that year, including connecting material when large chunks of the original are omitted.
     Since I have to teach from such primary source collections, I'm aware that the ratio of apparatus to primary text, and the design of the apparatus, are choices fraught with difficulty. It's easy to provide contextual information that is just as confusing as the text would be alone. (Oh, I see that a lot.) Many editors overwhelm the page with their own recapitulation of the history, and bury the primary text to the point that it's only a footnote. And in both cases the readability of the work goes right out the window.
     I have to say that this volume is a model of how to present primary texts to illuminate a historical event or period. I'm quite impressed. Those annual summaries are just two or three pages in length. The introductory one, "St. Louis on the Eve of the Civil War," is only four pages. She discusses both the personality of the writers, as well as explaining the content, while still giving most of the page to the primary text. This book could easily be a hundred pages longer (I'm sure there was enough material) without cloying; but I also felt that it was the right length. For those who want more, the citations of the sources are all there.
     I was also very impressed by the content of the selections. She favored first-person accounts (diaries, letters, memoirs) over official reports and newspaper accounts; though there's a judicious sample of those, as well. And the book contains many different points of view: German immigrant, slave-holder, slave, abolitionist, Unionist, businessman, tradesman, and nurses. Women are well represented, including General Grant's wife.
Disruption and social friction are two subjects that are focused on, and which give the reader lots to think about. What's it like to be anti-slavery in a town with slave dealerships? What to do when old friends end up on the other side of an ugly divide? How does one cope when the whole purpose for a city's existence (in this case the down-river trade) disappears??
     I should disclose that the author/editor is a relative, but she has a long and distinguished publishing history on the subject of St. Louis. This volume should, I expect, be in print for a very long time. Frankly, the idea should be franchised, since most cities could produce a similar treasure trove of material. St. Louis, though, is one of the most riven during that period, and it's lucky for us that the tale is now so artfully and efficiently displayed.