A look at the life and prolific writings of Stonewall Jackson's sister-in-law
Margaret Junkin Preston (1820–1897) was once deemed by the Washington Post to be "one of the really famous American authors of the day." A prolific author of poetry and fiction, she came to popular acceptance despite masculine disapproval of female writers, especially in the South. In this comprehensive literary biography Stacey Jean Klein maps the progress by which this Pennsylvania native became a celebrated poet of the Confederacy and eventually an established author of national prominence.
Margaret's father, Presbyterian minister Rev. Dr. George Junkin, served in turn as president of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania; Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; and Washington College in Lexington, Virginia—a career path that exposed Margaret and her sister, Eleanor, to a superior education by faculty tutors and to the cultural values of the East, Midwest, and South. While in Virginia, Eleanor married a math professor from the Virginia Military Institute, Major Thomas J. Jackson—later Confederate general "Stonewall" Jackson—in 1853 and died tragically soon after, following childbirth. In 1857 Margaret married Major John T. L. Preston, a Latin professor at VMI and widower with seven children.
Though her poetry and short stories had appeared in several national magazines prior to her marriage, Preston gave up her writing career in exchange for household duties. But with the onset of war, Preston again took to wielding her pen, this time to espouse the Southern cause through a series of Confederate nationalist verses. The death of Stonewall Jackson and of her stepson, her husband's dangerous military service, and the invasion of her home by Union troops all solidified for Preston the high personal cost of war and compounded her belief in the Confederate cause as just. Her most notable piece from this period is a long narrative poem, Beechenbrook: A Rhyme of the War, published in 1865.
After the war Preston saw in her writings an opportunity to validate the lost cause ethos of the former Confederacy and to propose expanded roles for women in reshaping Southern society. It is during this period, Klein notes, that Preston's works advanced in sophistication and captured a wide readership. Preston's poems were often anthologized, and her essays and reviews were published in periodicals in both the North and South.
Klein offers here a point of entrance into understanding the stages of her subject's life and literary career—before, during, and after the Civil War—to illustrate how Preston's progressive and impassioned verses sought to give voice to loyalty, family, and femininity in a drastically and violently changing Southern cultural landscape.
A graduate of Duke University and the University of South Carolina, Stacey Jean Klein holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"Concentrating on Margaret Junkin Preston's place in American literature, Klein has shed new glow on one of the premier female writers in the nineteenth-century South."—James I. Robertson, Jr., Alumni Distinguished Professor of History, Virginia Tech