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Anyone interested in the lives of early-nineteenth century women will rejoice at the publication of this important edition of Sarah Haynsworth Gayle’s engaging journal. Married at fifteen in near-frontier Alabama to John Gayle, a young lawyer who would quickly rise as a jurist and politician to serve as the state’s seventh governor, Sarah Gayle filled the days and weeks of her husband’s absences by recording in a free-flowing journal her daily concerns, memories of her own childhood, her hopes and fears for her children, and her struggles to manage the slaves who served her. Sarah writes with a lively intelligence and a clear eye, giving us a rare extended look at a woman’s world. She recounts jokes and joys, but hers is a world punctuated by childbearing, illness, and death; one by one her girlhood friends suffer loss, sicken and die. Only twenty-three when she begins the journal, Sarah has already borne several children, and mourns her youth and her beauty (she fears that the loss of her teeth will lessen her husband’s love for her). Her death from tetanus at the age of thirty-one left six young children—and a matchless legacy in this journal. Thanks to skillful application of recent technologies, editors Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins and Ruth Smith Truss have been able to restore many passages hitherto unreadable. We are in their debt.
—Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, author of Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography
We have in Sarah Gayle’s Journal the captivating story of a remarkable life. Its sharp focus on a variety of issues in Alabama during a specified period is unique. Gayle’s story finds its center not in over-arching political power of the day, masterful triumps in business, or the insatiable lust for land, although she is a keen observer of those things, especially in her husband, or her friends’ lives. Gayle’s contribution to Alabama, to scholarship, and to the generation then unborn—to us—is her human story. Her life resonates because we can hear the vibrant heartbeat of her community, and sense the fear and excitement of the time when she still lived so remarkably close to an American frontier that she and others worked so feverishly to transform.
—Jimmie Lewis Franklin, author of Back To Birmingham: Richard Arrington, Jr. and His Times
“Now we have a full edition of one of the most-quoted journals in Southern history, that of Sarah Haynsworth Gayle. The editors have discovered new material and restored censored passages in the original, bringing to light many features of nineteenth-century life—gender expectations, family life, race relations, drug abuse, and early death. Gayle is more fascinating, and more tragic, than ever. This book is a gift to historians and a boon to the general reader.”
—Joan E. Cashin, author of First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War and A Family Venture: Men and Women on the Southern Frontier
In the first modern edition of the Journal of Sarah Haynsworth Gayle, 1827-1835: A Substitute for Social Intercourse, co-editors Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins and Ruth Smith Truss brilliantly animate the words and the life of a little-studied nineteenth-century southern woman diarist. Gayle’s writerly eloquence, psychological acuity, and emotional accessibility earn her book a proper place among the works of Frances Kemble, Phoebe Yates Levy Pember, and Mary Boykin Chesnut, all of whom brought to bear extraordinary intelligence and imagination to their vocations. Writing from what was, at the turn of the 19th century, the Alabama frontier, Gayle suffered existential anxieties also depicted by northern midwife Martha Ballard in her forty year long journal, illuminated by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her Pulitzer Prize-winning study, A Midwife’s Tale. With enormous patience and care, the editors have crafted a model edition, the lucid apparatus of which never intrudes on the journal’s power as a page-turner. Scholars and aficionados of American women’s life writing will find a sympathetic, compelling, and fully human figure aware of her flaws and missteps, sensitive to the vicissitudes of friendship across a desolate landscape, avidly attentive to both the companionate and abusive marriages in her purview, and afflicted by despair-inducing loneliness in the face of her husband’s habitual absences. Wiggins’s and Truss’s edition is a must-read for lovers of American literature and history, scholars and aficionados alike.
—Julia Stern, author of Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Epic
It is a rare privilege to be able to read the journal of a young woman from almost two hundred years ago, especially a woman as enchanting and articulate as Sarah Gayle. The editors have lovingly reconstructed this remarkable and compelling journal, taking extraordinary pains to deliver as full and accurate a rendering as possible from the many extant typescript copies and to restore through modern technology and infinite patience the pages of script that the passage of time had destroyed. Sarah Gayle reaches out to us across the centuries reminding us of the universality of the female condition, with its demands for care-giving, sociability, and endurance. The editors are to be commended for the dedicated labor that has preserved this remarkable life for all of our uplift and edification.—Elizabeth Jacoway, author of Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation
Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins and Ruth Smith Truss have performed an invaluable service in editing Sarah Haynsworth Gayle’s insightful, perceptive journal she kept between 1827 and 1835. This diary had been in various stages of disrepair, with incomplete, defaced sections and scattered, unreadable pages. Through the use of modern technology, including computer scanning, the editors have saved and restored many of these defaced pages and created a nearly complete and valuable edition of the diary. Gayle’s journal is unique in revealing a young woman’s world in early frontier Alabama. She begins writing her journal as a young mother during her husband’s rising political career. His frequent and lengthy absences mean she often finds herself alone, a “sort of widowhood,” as she characterized her situation. In her journal, Sarah describes her daily experiences, often in intimate detail, and pours out her heart until dying of lockjaw in 1835, not yet thirty-one years old. Interestingly, Sarah shares few details about slaves who eased her daily life, though she often expresses frustration in trying to control them. Sarah’s thoughts on courtship and marriage, her descriptions of daily activities with family and friends, her church-going and strong reactions to various ministers, and her several health problems due to bad teeth and an opium addiction are fascinating to read. Like so many other women in similar circumstances, it was female friendships that sustained her. Scholars as well as those fascinated by antebellum southern women will find this an important addition to the growing number of published volumes of southern women’s personal writings.
—Sally G. McMillen, author of Motherhood in the Old South: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infant Rearing and Southern Women: Black and White in the Old South
Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins and Ruth Smith Truss have made this challenging manuscript available to a much wider audience in a superbly edited edition. Sarah Gayle offers a fascinating look into the world of antebellum marriage and motherhood in a journal filled with valuable information on social life, religion, slaveholding, mental anguish, drug use, and a host of other important topics. Invaluable.
—George C. Rable, author of God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War
“This lively and engaging journal is a much needed addition to the literature. It offers an insight into the world of women in the Old South and the struggles of a wife of a relatively absent husband immersed in Alabama politics. Her words bring into high relief the joys and sorrows of raising children, caring for kin, and maintaining social ties. Gayle’s journal, moreover, provides important digressions of her memories growing up and past encounters with those who came in and out of her life. In that vein, her detailed descriptions of her relationships with other women add to the historiography on the creation of a female culture distinct from the world of men.”
— Victoria E. Ott, author of Confederate Daughters: Coming of Age during the Civil War