​Washington Post Dismisses 500-Page Civil War Nonfiction Book As Girly

Last month, New York Times bestselling author Karen Abbott published a nonfiction book called Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, with its subject four fascinating women who became spies during the Civil War—Belle Boyd, teenage rebel and “Secesh Cleopatra”; Emma Edmonds, dressed as a soldier, her nom de guerre “Frank”; Rose O’Neal Greenhow, seducer with an espionage ring; Elizabeth Van Lew, wealthy and quietly radical abolitionist.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy was reviewed at the Washington Post by Jonathan Yardley, a Pulitzer-winning critic known for utter decisiveness; he’s as glowing on Edward P. Jones’s short stories as he is absolutely dismissive of Salinger in Catcher in the Rye. (“Me, I damn near puked,” he wrote in that last one.) This is to say, the fact that Yardley would be sharp in his criticism of a new work of narrative nonfiction is not at all unexpected, or even unwelcome.

But he leverages his criticism at a very interesting (or, sorry: the opposite!) angle. After a long and engaged summary treatment of Abbott’s subject, Yardley notes that Abbott “obviously has a strong interest in women who decline the roles society tries to force them into. At its best her prose is vivid, especially when she writes about battles and the terrible costs they exact, while at its less-than-best seems (dare I say it?) to have been borrowed from the pages of a woman’s magazine.”

The bias seems more explicit than implicit, doesn’t it? She’s really good at battles. She’s bad with that stuff that’s like a woman’s magazine.

But I wasn’t even sure what Yardley meant. Abbott wrote a 500-page nonfiction book about the Civil War. There is a certain overly-babying breezy-girlfriend style that persists in some female-centric glossies (see Sarah Miller for the slam dunk on this one)—but I can’t imagine how one would even go about shoehorning that style into dense, narrative, historical nonfiction. And anyway, because this always seems to need saying: the “women’s magazine style” is no more frivolous than the clubby rich-bro tone of the men’s publication, which enjoys a zone of perceived gender neutrality and continues to receive more respect (and funding) than its counterpart.

Back to the review. Yardley adds that Abbott “leaves unanswered the question of sources for her descriptive passages,” and then quotes one, which we might infer carries some of what he’s identified as womanly, “less-than-best” prose:

One January morning Belle donned her green riding dress, accessorized with a lieutenant colonel’s pair of shoulder straps and a wool felt hat, a feather pinned to its crown. She saddled Fleeter and, riding astride, began galloping through the streets, defying both social convention and Martinsburg’s law against traveling faster than at a canter. Confederate soldiers, currently in control of the town, were busy building earthworks fortifications along its perimeter, stabbing at the frozen earth with shovels and picks and piling woven bundles of brush. Waving, she continued, crossing the arched stone bridge over Opequon Creek and plunging into the valley.

I’m putting on my most cynical search-goggles for ladymag cadence; except for the word “donned,” there’s nothing in there that gives off any hint of the over-styled, which is my best and most charitable guess for what Yardley meant. Critics, please: no more sexist asides without explaining them, at least! We’re listening, because we have to, and now we have to guess.

In an email to me, Abbott wrote, “My guess is that he objected to my describing the spy’s clothing—which, as I point out in my letter, was relevant, since women’s clothing was a key component of their espionage work (in fact, one Lincoln official posed the question of what to do with ‘fashionable women spies’). And I think he particularly objected to the fact that it was women’s clothing. Later in that same chapter, I spend twice as much time and space describing General Stonewall Jackson’s appearance—passages I assume he didn’t find objectionable?”

In the Post review, Yardley goes even farther, bluntly questioning Abbott’s credibility. If she only has endnotes for “Martinburg’s law against traveling faster than at a canter” and “building earthwork fortifications along its perimeter,” then where did the rest of that passage come from? I would say “research” and “standard practice for narrative nonfiction,” but Yardley throws down a fairly damning statement for a historian’s new book: that, in Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, “the line between fact and invention is exceedingly difficult to discern.”

(He then points out a minor factual error about F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s father’s first name, which Abbott answers to in an interview with Alexis Coe at the Toast: “Two Civil War scholars and a retired CIA codebreaker were kind enough to vet my manuscript. If there are any minor errors, they’re on me, and come down to the fact that I’m human.” By email she added, “I wonder if it needed mentioning [primarily] as a way of undermining credibility. Sure, it’s a mistake, but it’s utterly irrelevant to the book.”)

Anyway, Abbott recently wrote a letter to the editor, which Washington Post put up in an abridged version on their site last Friday. About the quoted passage, she points out “the 24 endnotes I provide that support every detail of that scene,” and adds that Yardley “overlooked a combined 60 pages of endnotes and bibliography that draw from more than 200 sources and that far exceed the guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style.” She points out also that in one of Yardley’s own nonfiction books, endnotes are totally absent; dismissed, by Yardley, as “clutter.” The unedited version of Abbott’s letter is reprinted below:

I was enjoying Jonathan Yardley’s plot summary of my book until I came to the following line:
“At its best her prose is vivid, especially when she writes about battles and the terrible costs they exact, while at its less-than-best it seems(dare I say it?) to have been borrowed from the pages of a woman’s magazine.” (emphasis my own)
At first I was perplexed; I had, after all, written a 500-page nonfiction book about the Civil War. Did I accidentally include a list of 10 ways to drive your man wild? Tips for cellulite reduction and shiny hair? A quick flip-through reassured me I had not. In the passage Yardley chooses to quote, I describe a female spy’s ride into enemy territory and detail her appearance; this spy’s attire, as I demonstrate throughout the book, was pertinent to both her persona and her espionage work. Apparently this paragraph, in Yardley’s view, also demonstrates my inferior research skills; he cites it as “one among many” of my “descriptive passages” that leaves “unanswered the question of sources.”
Yardley somehow missed the two dozen endnotes I provide that support every detail of that scene. Indeed, he overlooked the breadth of my citations as a whole, a combined 60 pages of endnotes and bibliography that draw from more than 200 sources, and that far exceed the guidelines set forth for narrative nonfiction by the Chicago Manual of Style: “authors [should] identify the sources of direct quotations or paraphrases and any facts which are not generally known or easily checked.”
I notice Yardley’s tone is different in his recent review of a similarly themed book, Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters, which also (necessarily) describes women’s clothing: “They attended once a week,” author Philip Eade writes, “dressed in their best party frocks and sashes, brown silk stockings and bronze shoes.” Yardley neither mocks Eade nor asks how he might know such an (unsourced) detail, and he shouldn’t; it is an absurd question, the kind of question a child—or anyone wholly ignorant of the narrative nonfiction genre—would ask about how writers know things.
If the Washington Post applies different (read: lower) standards for male-written nonfiction, I can hardly blame Yardley for the disparity. Serious works of nonfiction—at least those given due respect and attention—are predominantly by men, so he must have been flummoxed when faced with one by a woman. Obviously we can’t deploy actual research methods: as literary award panels, publishers, and critics keep reminding us, the female brain isn’t equipped for such work.
Still, thinking I might have something to learn about proper nonfiction scholarship, I picked up Yardley’s biography of the writer Frederick Exley—and was shocked to discover that because he wanted to write “a story instead of a study” (emphasis his), he provided not one endnote, which he dismissed as “clutter.” Descriptive passages about Exley’s mother’s weight, dieting habits, laundry schedule, and dinner menus (with “at least five kinds of potatoes”) are all presented as fact, without any documentation whatsoever.
For himself—dare I say—Yardley sets the lowest standards of all.
— Karen Abbott, author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

I shall just order myself a copy of this book and engage in some ceremonial Kermit.

Photos courtesy Karen Abbott.

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