Answer 4 (Part VII) Questionnaire for Long-Time Diarists: Barry

Introductory comments from Cynthia Manuel:  As a long-time book dealer, I have rather liked the fanciful notion  that the books on the shelves of my bookstore are actually “minds on shelves.”  “So many minds to explore, so little time,” to paraphrase a modern aphorism.  Non-fiction is my favorite, biographies especially, but nothing holds the fascination like a published diary if you truly want a glimpse into the mind of the writer as he or she  experiences “life’s ordinary hours.”    Barry writes “it opened up history and literature in ways I hadn’t experienced before.”  Exactly so.

In this installment, Barry answers the question: DO YOU ENJOY READING PUBLISHED DIARIES OF OTHERS?

I was an undergraduate reading from the Norton Book of American Literature when I first learned about published diaries. Until that time I thought a diary was a book that girls kept under lock and key to confide their crushes on neighborhood boys. I would love to read such diaries today, but when I was a young man I thought literature should be serious and boring. Filled with grand thoughts and abstruse reflections.

 

That is until I came upon the diaries of the puritan Samuel Sewell. He was a puritan merchant who kept account of his days and years during the colonial period in Massachusetts. Sewell’s diary was hardly exciting but it did capture something I hadn’t yet found in literature – the texture of daily life written by a person for himself.  It opened up history and literature in ways I hadn’t experienced before. It was refreshingly down to earth after pages of overwrought sermons and pious poetry. Here was a man who just lived his way into literature. In the same anthology I ran across the Quaker diary of John Woolman and was very touched by his gentle childhood reminiscences, especially the passages where he thoughtlessly killed a robin and the pangs of remorse he felt. Why did these excerpts speak so forcefully to me, instead of the great literature that often left me cold?

 

After I graduated college and began my own education I found the books of Edwin Teale, a Connecticut nature writer who kept tracks of the seasons in two wonderfully vivid diaries of every day observations. The writer Hal Borland did the same thing with his journal entries on nature published in the NYTimes. They were both older writers when I first discovered them but I had immediate affinity with their work. I’ve gone on to explore the nature writers who use the diary form to organize their observations. Right now I am reading Sue Hubbell,s “A Country Year” another little gem in diary form.

 

As a young teacher I was assigned to teach The Diary of Anne Frank. I had never read it before so I set out to work. It left a lasting and profound impression on me — this young girl in a garret hiding from the Nazi bullies. She was so filled with life, even in her closed space of innocence and terror. Although I have never reread it, her diary haunts my imagination and sense of life. She is the shadow of time and cruelty that motivate my own words. Her great courage is my small courage. There have been countless books written about WW2 but none have the poignance of her little book. Diaries often capture the human and the humane as well as any great literature can.

 

One of my favorite diaries is Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, a record of his visits to Civil War hospitals, and of his later days enjoying the woods in his Camden neighborhood. Actually he wrote them as notes which he put in journal form, but there is really no difference to the reader. Whitman also coined one of my mantras when he wrote that so few of life’s ordinary hours are recorded in literature and he hoped to do just that.

 

I also discovered that many of our greatest writers kept great journals. You will never read anything richer than Nathaniel Hawthorne’s diary entries about his young marriage to Sophie Peabody and his “Mosses from an Old Manse” is really a diary disguised as an essay. Joyce Carol Oates published a diary. Not very revealing except of her extraordinary intelligence and amazing work habits. A poet named Howard Nemerov published one of the strangest diaries I ever read and called it a novel. Thornton Wilder has an intriguing and brilliant diary. When you get inside some of the great minds in our culture it is a shock and a privilege to enter the sanctuary of genius.

 

But I take as much pleasure in less high flying literary performances.

 


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