Too Grand a Scope: Diane Sommerville’s Aberration of Mind

Sommerville, Diane Miller. Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Whenever I get too entrenched in my own historical preferences, I know I can count on Heather to get me out with something new and totally different than I’ve ever read before. Christmas 2018 brought me not one but three new books from Heather, all of which will find their way onto Concerning History (hopefully before Christmas 2019!). The first covers an era that I am thoroughly familiar with, but focuses on an utterly alien subject. Diane Sommerville’s Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South studies the occurrence, rationale, and cultural interpretation of self-destruction during and after the Civil War in the Confederacy, and I was intrigued by what insights such a study might offer into the minds of Victorian soldiers, civilians, and slaves. While Sommerville certainly expanded my knowledge of the South in the period she covers, ultimately her ambitions prove too grand for a single volume.

Sommerville begins her study with the astute observation that the actual act of suicide is the least historically valuable element of self-destruction; the ideation, motivation, and societal pressures that result in one’s decision to end their own life say much more interesting things. Suicide, too, often manifests as a symptom of certain mental illnesses. Thus, before the introduction is over, Sommerville’s book has gone from an examination of suicide to an examination of gender norms, societal expectations, race relations, and mental illness for white and black men and women during and after the Civil War…in only 250 pages. As a result, while each chapter’s individual information is fascinating, the reader feels like they’re careening from anecdote to anecdote, which are all framed by summaries that become mind-numbing in their reiteration. Some transitions are even absent in Sommerville’s rush to include all her material, leading to confusion whether she is still discussing the same case or has moved on to the next.

The framework for those anecdotes, too, leaves something to be desired. Aberration of Mind begins with one of the most admirable methodological approaches I have ever encountered. I was actively nodding along through Sommerville’s introduction as she related her own approach to studying her topic in the time period she was concerned with. Sommerville readily admits that sources for suicide, mental illness, and gender norms are at best oblique and at worst nonexistent during the nineteenth century. Because of this, it is impossible to diagnose historical actors with modern psychological typologies (including and especially the too-commonly-thrown-around PTSD). Sommerville goes further, stating that such limitation either leads to careful speculation or the death of this sub-field; obviously, she prefers the former. I was initially on board with this assessment, but as I advanced through Aberration of Mind, I realized that this reliance on speculation resulted in a book that said nothing of much import on a larger historical level. When any given scenario cannot be proven to adhere to your argument, and indeed you yourself must admit that someone might have fit all, some, or none of you criteria based on the sources we have, your arguments quickly become too vague to be of any analytical depth.

When I had finished reading Aberration of Mind, I found myself in an unenviable position: deeply appreciating the information I had learned while also identifying deep flaws in the work of history I had just read. For those who are interested in Victorian America, and particularly the American Civil War, I recommend Aberration of Mind; if you can navigate the small, dense academic text, you will find a fascinating tableau of ordinary life often ignored by the grander history and propaganda of the period. That said, don’t expect to have your conception of the period revolutionized. Instead, you will leave with a more fleshed-out vision of how war and Reconstruction were experienced by the vanquished and their former slaves as their worlds collapsed around them.

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