'I Wish I Had a Field for My Energies...'

Julia Le Grand, who's made an appearance here before, speaks of watching Confederate men go off to war, while she is forced to man the homefront:

I can't tell you what a life of suppression we lead. I feel it more because I know and feel all that is going on outside. I am like a pent-up  volcano. 

I wish I had a field for my energies. I hate common life, a life of visiting, dressing and tattling, which seems to devolve on women, and now that there is better work to do, real tragedy, real romance and history weaving every day, I suffer, suffer, leading the life I do.

I came across this letter while reading Drew Gilpin Faust's Mothers Of Invention. The book is stellar so far, and having read This Republic Of Suffering, I'm not surprised. Faust, like all of my favorite historians, has a way of focusing on a particular aspect of history without losing sight of the surrounding context. 

So whereas Republic was about how Americans processed unprecedented carnage during the Civil War, the book is also about the literature of the war, the colored troops, Nathan Bedford Forrest, religion, gender, and spiritualism. Likewise, Mothers is ostensibly about the 500,000 white women in the slave-holding families of the South. But it, so far, is also about the very concept of "ladydom," and how it hinges on race and class.

This quote really illustrates the kind of complexity which Faust is so good at teasing out, without excusing anyone. In this case, Le Grand was an avowed white supremacist--her journal is obsessed with the criminality of blacks, and their child-like intellect. But her words here are powerful, and really give voice to the desires of countless of white women, and anyone else not considered to be of "the people."

I think it's important to see people clearly, as they were. But sometimes profound sentiments come from total hypocrites. Le Grand is speaking of Confederate white women, but with the smallest tinkering she could be talking black women supporting the Union, or the early colored troops restricted to fatigue duty. Or Peggy Olson nearly a century later. 

So many of these fights come down to frustrated individuals  wishing for nothing more than the proper field for their energies. 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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