First published in 1864, Macaria; or, Altars of Sacrifice was the third novel of Augusta Jane Evans, one of the leading women writers of nineteenth-century domestic fiction. A wartime best seller, with more than twenty thousand copies in circulation in the print-starved Confederacy before the war’s end, the novel was also extremely well received along the Union front, so much so that some northern officials thought it should be banned. Long out of print and largely unavailable until now, Macaria is a compelling narrative about women and war.
In Macaria, Evans charts the journey of two southern women toward ultimate self-realization through their service in the war-town Confederacy. Irene and Electra struggle to assert their independence and gain for themselves a place in southern society apart from their now-disrupted domestic roles. Discarding the traditional theme or romantic fulfillment, Evans skillfully crafts a vole about women compelled by the departure and death of so many southern men to find meaning in their own “single blessedness,” rather than in marriage. Thus Evans successfully subverts the characteristic form of women’s fiction, that of the romance narrative, to crate a “quest” narrative, more common in men’s fiction. Macaria appealed directly and calculatedly to sentiments prevailing within its potential audience of southern women readers—acknowledging their fears of uselessness and of widowhood or spinsterhood, as well as their attraction to a new language of self-determination.
In her perceptive introduction to this edition, Drew Gilpin Faust places the novel in the context of the concerns of Confederate nationalism and the contributions of women during the Civil war. She shows that Evans, though a staunch supporter of the Confederacy and a wartime hospital volunteer, felt marginal to the war effort and, like many other women, bemoaned this fact in diaries and letters. It is from this aspect, the emergence of the literary woman, that Faust provides an ideological and historical framework within which to interpret the novel and also introduce it to a new generation of readers.
In Macaria, Evans melds the needs of an embattled nation with the agenda of the literary women. Her heroines embrace life fully, as beings in and of themselves, unusual in traditional nineteenth-century fiction. Largely overlooked n the current revival of women’s fiction, Augusta Jane Evans is less known today than she should be. The reissue of this volume will do much to garner this pioneering writer a well-deserved place in the existing body of American literature, and especially southern and women’s literature.
Drew Gilpin Faust is professor of American civilization at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the editor of The Ideology of Slavery: The Proslavery Argument in the Old South, 1830-1860 and author of James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery, which received the Charles S. Syndor Award and the Jules F. Landry Award.
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