Archive for the ‘published diaries’ Category

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

February 28, 2014

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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Nella Last’s War – Review of Published Diary

February 24, 2012

Nella Last’s War – Book Review of Published Diary

In 1937, Britain initiated an exceptional project: The “Mass-Observation.”  It was created by Charles Madge, poet and journalist, and Tom Harrisson, anthropologist.   The purpose was to “record the voice of the people.”  Volunteers were asked to keep a Mass-Observation Diary.  Nella Last became one of the 500 people who chose to participate.  Her diary was outstanding for its quality of writing and depth.

This archive at the University of Sussex Library is proof of the value of journals written by ordinary people — exactly the archive I have envisioned for the US.  Furthermore, they are sponsoring an ambitious  project that has been going on since 1981 where hundreds of  volunteers write in diaries and produce autobiographical material that will be included in this archive for research and teaching.

Nella Last’s War gives an intimate look at what it was like for a middle-aged woman and mother of two sons in the war to live through World War II.  The writing is exceptionally good.  Like most diaries, it is an “interweaving of her day-to-day life, inner thoughts, general observation and descriptions of contemporary life…”   I admired her spunk and real inner strength in spite of her admission that she did not always feel inside what people saw on the exterior.  I saw the beginnings of feminist thinking in her reactions to men.  She was quite harsh on her husband.  It appears she was the backbone of her marriage.  I doubt he could have survived the war without her.  Rightfully so, Nella railed against put-downs of women as silly and weak.

The supporting role of the citizens of England in the war is an extraordinary sub-plot of World War II.   Nella Last’s ability to survive deprivations and tragedies, get by on less, and cling ferociously to what is good in life, was inspiring.  Her dedication to doing something for the war effort and rallying others to do the same kept her from the depression that destroyed some.

Yet do not think she was an ardent supporter of the war.    Her occasional political remarks revealed much criticism.  Her expressions of feeling about the devastation of War, human and otherwise, the unfathomable waste of it all, were poignant in the face of the endlessness of War that we can see from the perspective of the future.  How many wars have been fought since World War II.

I encourage all of you serious diarists to read published diaries from time to time.  Although you should not compare your journals to an edited one that has been published it will still give you much food for thought.  What is it about the diary you are reading that gives it meaning?  What are the details that you find fascinating and what comes across as a bore?  (Or do you suspect the editor removed all of those repetitions and silly and obsessive little details that most of us feel compelled to write…like the weather or when we got up or went to bed or what flowers are in bloom, etc. )    Does the diarist record great insights?  (Yes, usually.)  What seems to be missing?  And how does all of this compare to your own journals?  Are you motivated to change the style of your writing?

Reading someone else’s work inevitably leads me to reflect on the dual nature of our personalities – our public face and our private one.  There is so much more going on inside each of us than we are ever able to reveal and yet remain socially viable.   I think about this whenever I record an event in my journal and know that if I were to write an article about that same event for publication in a newspaper how much obfuscation of the truth would be necessary.  That’s why I love writing in my journal.  I can tell the whole truth…as I see it.

I have already ordered the second volume of Nella Last’s diary.  Copies  of Nella Last’s diaries may be ordered on Bookfinder.com

Anais Nin: A Legend of Journal Writing

September 6, 2011

Passionate, intense, emotional, deep, lyrical, magical,  intuitive, highly perceptive of the subtleties of human behavior, deceptive, sensuous, exotic, erotic…these are all adjectives I would use to describe the writings of Anais Nin, queen of the diary.  There are so many complexities to her life that Anais Nin will remain forever a tantalizing mystery to her biographers, as I suspect she was during her life to her friends and lovers.  One of her favorite words was “labyrinth.”  Nin was a labyrinth! I have read that no one is lukewarm about Nin or her writings.  You either love her or hate her.  Put me on the side of love.

In 1971, in a dusty used bookstore in Point Reyes Station, California, I reached for a slim volume of prose: Under a Glass Bell.  In that moment I connected with the woman who was to become a major influence in the way I thought about women writers and the diary.   At the time, I scarcely knew there were women writers, and I had been keeping my own diary only eight years.

Under A Glass Bell (published in 1944) was an astonishing discovery for me.  Even in 1971, women writers were rarely acknowledged and their work and their way of seeing the world was dismissed as frivolous, rarely admitted as serious literature.  I know because I was an English lit major and we read only male writers.  In a college course in 1968, my textbook of 100 poets had only one woman poet, and that was, of course, Emily Dickinson.

As for keeping a diary, such writing was considered of little merit, particularly if you were a woman, were not a famous artist or writer, and were not involved in a historic event.  Until the early seventies, and the dawn of the Women’s Movement and the promotion of women’s writing, I don’t believe diaries were  even considered a “genre” of writing.

It is still a struggle to find acceptance for this style of writing.  Keeping a diary is frequently believed to be more of a self-indulgence than a serious attempt to deepen life and expand the boundaries of experience.    Just try saying, if you are among a group of writers and are asked what you write,   “I am a diarist,” without being met with a dismissive indifference or superiority.

Anais Nin liberated my thinking.  I soon found her diaries and began devouring them.  I was in my early twenties and I wanted to be Nin. (My own diaries began changing – deeper, more explicit. )  I was most impressed with her analysis of people and relationships and the way she described the nuances of interaction and the layers of meaning in experiences.    Next I read her continuous novel: Cities of the Interior.  In my 40s I returned to Nin and read her pornography, and then Henry and June, the unexpurgated version, (made into a very erotic movie  with look-alike Maria de Medeiros.) Last of all, I read her thought-provoking essays and lectures (she was a popular speaker on college campuses).

I deeply regret that I was never able to meet her.  (I do have an inscribed copy of Cities of the Interior.)  Recently I listened to a tape of an interview she did in 1971 with Studs Terkel.  What a beautiful voice.  There are many interviews available on the internet.

For those already familiar with Nin, I have found A Cafe in Space: The Anais Nin Literary Journal, online.  I think most of her books are available as ebooks as well as real books.

There are websites devoted to Anais Nin quotes.  As a collector of quotes over many years, here are some favorites:

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”

“There is not one big cosmic meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.”

“…Beware…love never dies of a natural death.  It dies because we do not know how to replenish its source, it dies of blindness and errors and betrayals.  It dies of illness and wounds, it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings, but never a natural death.  Every lover could be brought to trial as the murderer of his own love.”

“War is the great pleasure of people whose love is atrophied, who need war to feel alive, who find in violence and clash a semblance of relationship.  Relationship by hatred.”

So, here is my second favorite published diarist, and if you have never experienced her writings before then you are missing a truly unique writer who can transport you to the “cities of the interior.”

More About: A Diary of the Century by Edward Robb Ellis

February 15, 2011

I suppose I am drawn to the diary of Edward Robb Ellis because of his insatiable curiosity about everything and his desire to learn more about whatever came into his life.  He certainly had a reporter’s eye for news and what makes an interesting story.  Yet he went beyond the average reporter with “behind-the-curtain” observations on “the real story.”  I enjoyed his descriptive vignettes of the people, famous and not, that he met in his life.  I, too, study human behavior and find how people act endlessly fascinating.

He was fond of saying that an intellectual is a person excited by ideas, a concept he attributes to his wife, Ruth.  This 556 page edited diary is a page-turner for the intellectual reader.  I think the best diaries not only tell what happened, but how the diarist felt and what the diarist thought about his/her life and the world they lived in.

Ellis and I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson who said “There are not words enough in all Shakespeare to express the merest fraction of a man’s experience in an hour.”  The best diaries, like the best writing, know what to leave out.  But I am always stunned when someone tells me “I can’t keep a diary because I just don’t know what to write about.” Now that would be a person who is dead long before their death.   Ellis seemed to know what to leave out and what to bring in focus.  Some of the entries are long descriptive passages and others are short reflections only a few sentences long.  The impact can be the same.

I know that taking nearly 70 years of someone’s journal and reducing it to one book would show you only the cream of the writing.  What I suspect was left out was what I desired to read more of – the personal.  I could have been satisfied with less of the famous people and more sketches of the average.  What was kept in, that leapt from the pages, was his love of his wife Ruth and the extreme sense of loss he suffered for the 33 years without her.   Overall, this is a big, beautiful book and I highly recommend it to those who are attempting to record the story of their life.

Here are some samples of the reflections of Edward Robb Ellis:  “I define knowledge as a body of facts, and wisdom as knowledge of oneself.”  “The only thing that is really shocking is cruelty.”   “The most beautiful sound in the world is the laughter of children.”   “Occasional solitude is as necessary as food and drink.”   “As one ages time flows faster.”   “A single detail may reveal the universal in the particular.” “Years ago I made heroes of men and women with brilliant minds.  Now I admire people who are compassionate.” “Tragedy is unfulfilled potential.”  “I give you my all when I give you my attention.” “The only evil is hurting another or yourself.” Ellis believed “the invisible more significant than the visible.  For example – love.”  “Never in my life have I had an original thought.  The artist creates nothing; all he does is rearrange the pieces of reality that were born when the universe was born.  Truth slumbers within everyone.”

In 1976 Ellis published a plea for setting up an “American Diary Repository,” long before I had the same idea.  A Diary of the Century was published in 1995.  I read it in early 2001 and immediately wanted to fly to New York and meet him.  I was a few years too late.

Favorite Published Diary: A Diary of the Century by Edward Robb Ellis

February 10, 2011

I would like to begin talking about a few of my favorite published diaries.  I think my absolute top choice would have to be A Diary of the Century by Edward Robb Ellis, which contains selections from the diary he wrote for over 70 years.  Ellis was born in 1911 and died in 1998.  He was a newspaper reporter, diarist, and author of several books, most notably on New York and on the Great Depression.  His diaries are now archived in the Fales Library/Special Collections  in New York City.  The published diary is available through Bookfinder.com

A Diary of the Century opens with an introduction by Pete Hamill, whose first paragraph is a simple and  extraordinarily beautiful description of why we write:

“The diarist has one essential goal: to freeze time.  With each entry, he or she says that on this day, a day that will never again occur in the history of the world, I lived.  I lived in this city or that town, upon which the sun shone warmly or the rain fell steadily.  I ate breakfast, walked city streets or country roads, drove a car or entered a subway.  I worked.  I dreamed.  Other human beings said witty things to me, or stupid things, or brutal things;  or I the same to them.  I laughed.  I wept.  The newspapers told me about the fevers of politics, distant wars, and who won the ballgames.  I experienced a work of art or read a novel or heard music that would not leave my mind.  I was bored.  I was afraid.  I was brave.  I was cowardly.  I endured a headache.  I broke my leg.  I loved someone who did not love me back.  I suffered the death of a loved one.  This day will never come again, but here, in this diary, I will have it forever.  Casual reader, listen:  I, too, have lived.”

Pete Hamill has been a novelist, essayist and journalist for over 40 years.  He is also a New Yorker.  (www.petehamill.com)

Although Edward Robb Ellis does not fall in the category of the “common” man and his diary has many entries about the rich and famous, I am drawn to the style of his diary,  perhaps because that is the type of diary I write.  Ellis writes like the reporter that he was – a record of the events of his life, with a background of the history taking place around him.  Unlike a reporter, he reveals his true feelings and emotions about those events, and says things about famous people that could not be printed in any paper.   I am especially intrigued with the deep insights that come to him through the discipline of writing for so many years.

In May of 1932, his elder sister tried to talk him out of keeping his journal. He wrote: “As usual, I’m going to ignore her advice.  What must be kept in mind is the fact that someone should have the courage and integrity to put down on paper all his life’s happenings precisely as they occurred.  It is my belief that the historian of the future will thank me.  In these pages he will not find a record of world deeds, mighty achievements, conquest.  What he will discover is the drama of the unfolding life of one individual, day after day after day.”


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