"With My Books I am Happy"

by Sarah E. Gardner | | Monday, July 1, 2019 - 10:58

In late summer 1861, Sallie Strickler confessed her befuddlement at recent events. “Wars seem so strange to me,” she recorded in her diary, “although I’ve been reading about them all my life.”[1] Strickler, who lived in Madison County, Virginia, wrote this entry four months shy of her sixteenth birthday and only four weeks after the Confederate victory at Manassas. All of her life she had read of war. All fifteen long years of it. Yet, although she might have stretched a point, it turns out that she had read of war. She was especially fond of Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, but her real love rested with the ancient tragedians, as becomes apparent with the turning of each page of her diary. To read of war was one thing. To live in it, Strickler learned, was another thing altogether.

I came across Strickler’s diary in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collection Library at the University of Virginia while working on a book that examines reading habits and practices during the American Civil War. By the time I encountered Strickler I knew the broad outline of the story I am telling. Romanticism and early Victorianism had informed wartime sensibilities, for example. Yet more than “taste” influenced readers’ engagement with the printed word. My work looks at how wartime realities, status and condition, place and space, and past experiences gave meaning to what people read and, in turn, how reading shaped peoples’ understanding of the war. Strickler is part of that story.         

Throughout the war Strickler continued to read. At home, her access to books seems to have been unlimited. And after her father consented to enroll Sallie at Albemarle Female Institute, where she took courses in Literature, Moral Philosophy, Ancient Languages, and Mathematics, her access increased. She read Aeschylus and Euripides - in Greek. She also read Xenophon’s Anabasis—a seven-book tome of the soldier’s march with “the ten thousand” through Babylon to the Black Sea—Virgil’s Aeneid, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. She had some fondness for Roman authors, especially Livy, Sallust, and Cicero.[3] But her tastes also ran to the more prosaic; she loved Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Victor Hugo, and Charles Dickens. And she dreamed of traveling to Germany, to “read under German skies, in [the] German tongue, the burning words of Schiller + Goethe. Oh! Schiller, Schiller!”[3] 

Admittedly, Sallie Strickler was something of a rarity. Most Civil War-era Americans did not pepper their diaries with passages written in Greek or confess their fond desire to learn foreign languages. And it is safe to say that most did not read Goethe and Schiller, although many did. More read Shakespeare and Milton. More still read Dickens, Hugo, and Bulwer-Lytton. In this sense, then, Sallie was not unique. Indeed, during the Civil War, countless Americans turned to the printed word for any number of reasons, none more important than to remind themselves of their humanity. Faced with unprecedented carnage and destruction, they engaged in what Alberto Manguel, a translator and essayist, has referred to as “the most creative of all human activities.”[4]

Sallie Strickler’s diary and journals bear the heavy imprint of her reading. Any given comment on the political or military news of the day might be punctuated by a line or two from Edmund Burke, Walter Scott, Lord Byron, or Shakespeare. Her dexterity with canonical and popular texts bespeaks the fertile mind of a young woman who lived amidst war.

We’ve come to expect this kind of easy familiarity with the printed word from the likes of Mary Chesnut, whose erudition was consonant with her education and position in South Carolina society. Yet Strickler’s diary reminds us that ordinary people have intellectual lives. For those trained in the history of formal thought, that can be a hard pill to swallow. But it’s worth bearing in mind historian Michael O’Brien’s acknowledgment “that thoughts exist in more than books, that there are more thinkers than those who claim the title.”[5] Sallie Strickler was one of those ordinary people, one who was never recognized by her contemporaries as a “thinker,” nor recovered by later generations of scholars as a thinker. Yet Strickler thought deeply about the past and her own condition.

Strickler did not share Mary Chesnut’s acerbic wit, her sense of irony, or her proto-realist sensibility. Her ruminations are hardly as mature or constructed as those of Chesnut. At times she was petulant. She expressed outrage that a “Dutch” soldier, who was part of an occupying force stationed in her county near the end of the war, could speak German. “Just think, that ignorant […] man can read ‘Schiller’ + I cannot.”[7] And for one who appreciated both the beautiful and the sublime—she was “in ecstasies over” Poe’s “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,”—she did not experiment with style or form.[8] But that is to be expected of a teenager who wrote in real time and did not redact or amplify her diaries decades later. What she did share with the famed South Carolina diarist, however, was ambition.

Strickler’s archives contain no compositions, no attempts at a literary hand, although they do hold her translation of Agamemnon, no mean feat for a teenager. Yet Strickler expressed her longing for reputation. “I wish earnestly that I had Fame, literary fame,” she wrote in late 1860. “I would that I stood on the very pinnacle of the temple. But ah! ‘the way to fame is like the way to Heaven, through much tribulation.’ Yet I am young and perhaps the laurels may yet deck my brow.”[9] (The unattributed quotation comes from Laurence Sterne.)

Midway through the war, she was less confident. Three days after Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, Strickler confessed, “I can’t brook the idea of living and dying like other people without having performed one act that will entitle my name to a place in the lists of the famous. If Nature had made me one of the ‘lords of creation’ instead of the ‘weaker vessel,’” she observed, “I would win me a name that would compare with the highest.” But that was not her fate. “Woman is only loved for her beauty; she is not thought capable of thinking about anything else; but the way to make herself fascinating. Her only weapons are her tears and her tongue, + even if she uses the latter too freely, she is reminded that ‘a voice ever soft. Gentle + low, is an excellent thing in a woman.’”[10] Strickler’s decision to cite King Lear’s Cordelia here seems particularly telling.

Strickler aspired to live the life of the mind but she had few role models. Augusta Evans might have been one, but Strickler did not think highly of her fiction. “Finished reading ‘Beulah’ today,” she noted shortly after Lee’s army surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865. “Miss Evans is too pedantic,” she proclaimed. “I think of her as “Byron” did of Madame De Stael, ‘she is spoiled by a desire to be she knows not what.’”[11] Sallie knew what she wanted. She wished to travel abroad, to visit the places that had inspired the ancients as well as the Romantics. Yet Strickler abandoned her postwar plan of study and, after much agonized contemplation, agreed to marry. Not long after, she abandoned her diary as well.

Privilege had allowed Sallie to cultivate a life of the mind during her teenage years. And her reading allowed her to dream of a life less circumspect than the one she had inhabited. But her sex and her social condition in the wake of Confederate defeat rendered those dreams unattainable. She had earned neither fame nor reputation as an intellectual. But Sallie was a thinker, and her wartime diary encourages us to consider the ways in which ordinary people live intellectual lives.

 Sarah E. Gardner is Distinguished University Professor of History at Mercer University and a recipient of a 2019 Nau Center Library Fellowship.

Images: (1) Cover of Sallie Strickler's Diary, (2 & 3) Excerpts from Strickler's Diary (courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collection Library); (4) Sarah B. Gardner (courtesy author).


This blog's title is from the Diary of Sarah Ann Graves Strickler Fife, c. 1861-1902; September 24, 1863, in the Sarah Ann Graves Strickler Fife Diary MSS 5633, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collection Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.

1. Strickler Fife Diary, August 20, 1861, UVA.

2. Xenophon and Euripides were part of the Institute’s regular curriculum for those students studying ancient languages. Aeschylus was not. Strickler seems to have embarked on her translation as an independent study. See Catalogue of the Albemarle Female Institute, located in Charlottesville, Va., Session 1857-8. (Richmond, Va.: Ellyson’s Steam Presses,1858):16-17.

3. Diary of Sarah Ann Graves Strickler Fife, March 2, 1862, UVA.

4. Alberto Manguel, “Preface,” A Reader on Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010): ix.

5. Michael O’Brien, ed., An Evening When Alone: Four Journals of Single Women in the South, 1827-1867 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993): xv-xvi.

6. Diary of Sarah Ann Graves Strickler Fife, March 6, 1865, UVA.

7. Diary of Sarah Ann Graves Strickler Fife, July 12, 1864, UVA.

8. Diary of Sarah Ann Graves Strickler Fife, December 24, 1860, UVA.

9. Diary of Sarah Ann Graves Strickler Fife, July 7, 1863, UVA.

10. Diary of Sarah Ann Graves Strickler Fife, April 13, 1865, UVA.