Diane Miller Sommerville, an associate professor of history at Binghamton University, has written millions of words on America’s bloodiest war. But this time around, her book, “Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War–Era South,” made her one of the five authors nominated for the 2019 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize.
Sommerville began thinking about writing the book, which focuses on mental health in the 19th century American South, after she tried and failed to find scholarly information about mental illness during the era.
“I found that almost nothing had been written about the topic,” Sommerville wrote in an email. “So I had actually found something interesting and new to say about the Civil War — not an easy thing to do.”
The Lincoln Prize is awarded annually for the best historical, nonfiction work on the Civil War. Throughout her book, Sommerville examines the ways class and race influence mental health issues by examining how they coincided with a period of collective suffering. She argues that in the period following the Civil War, suicide within white communities in the South started to be seen as a valorous act, while black communities saw an opposite effect, with African Americans being labeled manic and dangerous when they struggled with mental health. According to Sommerville, these ideas can be seen in “The Birth of a Nation,” a film set in the Civil War period.
“Culturally, white suicide was embraced as heroic and patriotic, as in the famous suicide scene in ‘Birth of a Nation,’ in which a young white girl throws herself off a cliff rather than succumb to the sexual advances of a black soldier,” Sommerville wrote. “When an African-American showed signs of depression or exhibited suicidal impulses, he [or] she was typically diagnosed as manic, consistent with white stereotypes that blacks were animalistic in nature.”
Sommerville searched through obituaries, coronary reports and family documents to find cases of suicide. She wrote that she had the most luck when examining old periodicals as well as records from insane asylums.
“Newspapers published more accounts of suicide than our newspapers do today, which was helpful,” she wrote. “But I also looked at patient records in insane asylums where I found case histories that indicated past suicide attempts or suicidal ideation.”
Although Sommerville ultimately didn’t win the award, she wrote in an email that the nomination was a satisfying acknowledgment of over a decade’s worth of work.
“It’s really, really gratifying,” Sommerville wrote. “I spent about 15 years working on this project, so the honor validates what I’ve accomplished. I tried to convey the magnitude of the award to my adult children by explaining that the Lincoln Prize is like the Academy Awards of Civil War books.”
Leigh Ann Wheeler, a professor of history, wrote in an email that she was not surprised when Sommerville was nominated for the award, and highlighted the significance of her achievement.
“The Lincoln Prize has been awarded 35 times since 1991; only four awards have gone to women,” Wheeler wrote. “This is no reflection on the quality of women’s scholarship, but quite a statement on how these things still work.”
Sommerville said she hopes her book brings attention to the importance of mental health and proves useful to researchers studying a variety of periods in history.
“These problems are universal,” she wrote. “It’s important to consider the personal cost of war, as it continues for decades after the guns have been silenced.”