“This is a splendid diary of a man and physician during the late antebellum years, sure to interest not only historians of medicine but also historians of gender, the South, and antebellum politics. . . . An exceptionally useful historical document as well as a good read.” —Steven M. Stowe, Indiana University
Elijah Millington Walker began to keep a diary midway through his medical apprenticeship in Oxford, Mississippi. He composed a lengthy preface to the diary, in which he remembered his life from the time of his family’s arrival in north Mississippi in 1834, when he was ten years old, until late 1848, when the University of Mississippi opened and Walker’s diary begins.
On one level, the diary records the life of a bachelor, chronicling the difficulties of an ambitious young physician who would like to marry but is hampered by poverty and his professional aspirations. Walker details the qualities he desires in a wife and criticizes women who do not measure up; a loyal wife, in Walker’s highly romanticized image, remains a true helpmeet even to the most debased drunkard. On another level, Walker describes various medical cases, giving readers an idea of the kinds of diseases prevalent in the lower South at mid-century, as well as their treatment by orthodox physicians. In this vivid chronicle of everyday life in antebellum Mississippi, Walker also finds space to comment on a wide range of topics that affected the state and the region, including pioneer life in north Mississippi, evangelical Protestantism, the new state university at Oxford, the threat of secession in 1849–50, Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850, foreign affairs, and local railroad development. A strong defender of the Union at mid-century, Walker nonetheless defended slavery and distinctively Southern institutions.
A Bachelor’s Life in Antebellum Mississippi brings to the public one of the few diaries of a very intelligent yet “ordinary” man, a non-elite member of a society dominated by a planter aristocracy. The author’s frankness and flair for writing reflect a way of life not often seen; this volume will thus prove a valuable addition to the body of primary documents from the early republic.
Lynette Boney Wrenn has taught history at Memphis State University and Southwestern College. She is the author of Crisis and Commission Government in Memphis: Elite Rule in a Gilded Age City and Cinderella of the New South: A History of the Cottonseed Industry, 1855–1955. Wrenn lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.