Digitized Diaries: New Paths in Diary Studies

I created this blog to host the list of Digitized Diaries (linked above) as a research tool for my own scholarship and for other scholars and students interested in studying diaries in digital form. Initially, I experimented with blogging about diaries — an early stage in my own thinking about the genre — but eventually this slacked off. I may return to the blog occasionally, if I find I have something to say, but this site will primarily be designed to serve as a resource for the study of the diary.

I hope you find the Digitized Diary Index useful!

Round Up: Diary in the News

• Morgan Jerkins, “Black Women Writers and the Secret Space of Diaries” in the New Yorker

• Joe Hagan, “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free: The secret diary of Nina Simone” in The Believer, reprinted on longform.org

• Serge F. Kovaleski, “Tracking an Elusive Diary from Hitler’s Inner Circle” in the New York Times

• Michelle Marchetti Coughlin on the earliest known American woman’s diary on Ben Franklin’s World (podcast)


Teach Reflective Writing Through Reflective Writing

I mean, DUH.

That “duh” is aimed at myself, because I really hadn’t put this together. After all these years of reading and writing about diaries and other forms of reflective writing, I hadn’t realized that the best way to teach the study of the diary is to have students write diaries. This is a lesson I learned from my students. In my Fall 2015 Life Writing graduate seminar, each students was responsible for teaching a text or topic and almost every student began their teaching presentations with some form of in-class writing. They were really good at creating provocative situations with all manner of challenging parameters that produced thoughtful, creative, and sometime hilarious responses. Usually the writing prompts followed the structure of “Given situation A, write B”; for example:

You are being taken to jail and you just have enough power left in your phone to send one message (text, Tweet, or Facebook post): what would it be?


You only have a few more minutes to live; write your final diary entry.

Great, right?

On the last day of class, I asked my students why they had almost all begun their teaching lessons with a writing prompt and we had a wonderful discussion about the fact that the life writing genres we were reading (specifically diaries and letters) were ones they didn’t necessarily feel familiar with, or confident about analyzing as literary texts. So, being given the opportunity to practice writing in the form or voice of a diarist or letter writer helped to bring them into the genre in a new and useful way.

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A page from Thomas Edison’s diary (1885).

In the past, I have hesitated to assign self-reflective writing because I lacked confidence about a) how to teach a self-reflective writing process and b) how to grade self-reflective writing. My training has only prepared me to teach and evaluate analytical student writing; branching out beyond that makes me nervous. But, I am committed to rectifying this, in large part because my students have taught me that if I am going to continue to teach self-reflective writing in my classes (which I am), I need to use self-reflective writing practices to do so.

Next semester I am implementing two new assignments: The first is what I am calling “Friday Morning Reflections.” I have a MWF schedule and I plan that every Friday morning class will start with an in-class writing assignment (ungraded, maybe even not taken up) that asks students to reflect on a question, topic, or problem from the class material. These will (hopefully, if I do my backwards design well) ultimately feed into later writing assignments including my second new assignment: A gender memoir. I’m teaching the Introduction to Women’s & Gender Studies and my students will be asked to use their “Friday Reflections” as the seeds for a gender memoir that they will write at the end of the semester, (hopefully) after having gained new insight into themselves as gendered subjects. We’ll see how these assignments go, but I am interested in reflective writing as a pedagogical tool, not just as a subject matter or literary form worthy of recovery and analysis.

Image source: The Thomas Edison Papers, Rutgers University

The Diary of Anne Frank: New Controversies

Anne Frank’s diary is arguably the best-known, most-widely-read diary in the world. I suspect that for many readers Frank’s diary is an introduction to the form, perhaps an inspiration for writing their own diaries. From Frank’s diary, they would learn about dailiness, about the letter-diary hybrid, and, of course, about the powerful combination of ordinariness and pathos.

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Frank’s Diary has been in the news recently because of two intertwined controversies: the question of whether or not her father, Otto Frank, can legitimately be considered co-author of the Diary; and the question of whether or not the copyright on the Diary has expired, allowing the text to enter the public domain.

That Otto Frank played a significant editorial role in the production of the published Diary has long been understood by both scholars and general readers. My copy of the Diary identifies him as editor on the cover (along with Mirjam Pressler). But Otto’s editorial role has come under further scrutiny around the question of whether “editor,” in this instance, equates with “co-author.”

While the debate may be new to Frank Studies, this is a question commonly confronted by literary critics, particularly around texts in which an editor/amanuensis possessed greater power or social status than the author/subject. In my Life Writing classes last semester, we studied the Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge (1838), which precisely exhibits these conditions: authored by a white woman, Frances H. Whipple, the memoir recounts the life of a mixed race (indigenous, African American) woman, Eldridge, who appears to have been illiterate. The contemporary editor of this recovered text, Joycelyn Moody, makes the provocative claim that Whipple and Eldridge should be considered co-authors, thereby upsetting the expected characterization of the (white, powerful) editor stealing and suppressing the voice of the (non-white, disempowered) subject (which is how texts of this kind have often been interpreted by literary critics). My students and I struggled with this characterization — we had many productive but unresolved conversations about what it would mean to consider these two women co-authors, what the implications were for the definition of authorship, whether or not Eldridge could be considered to be “speaking” through the text, etc. These discussions have been on my mind as I’ve been reading about the Otto Frank issue: What does it mean to view Otto as Anne’s co-author? There are similar issues regarding power and authority: Otto is male, adult, and living; Anne is female, young, and deceased; obviously, she does not have the ability to control or craft her text. To move Otto from editor to co-author appears to reinforce this power dynamic, to further Anne’s marginalization within or through her own life writing. It also calls into question the accuracy and legitimacy of the text itself — a question that always hovers around published diaries, but one that is particularly exacerbated when an editor (or co-author?) has played a role in bringing the text to the public view.

The claim that Otto is co-author is made by the Swiss foundation, Anne Frank Fonds — a fact steeped in irony. You would think that the Fonds would have the strongest stake in affirming the authenticity of Frank’s Diary, which appears to be eroded by the “co-authorship” claim. Yet, the Fonds also has a strong financial interest in extending the copyright of Frank’s book. According to European law, copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author. As a result, Frank’s Diary should enter the pubic domain on January 1, 2016. But, if Otto is a co-author, the copyright would be extended until 2050. Hence the counter-claim, the lawsuits, and the controversy.

As I understand it, the co-authorship claim did not prevent several Dutch editions of Frank’s Diary from being posted on the internet on January 1, 2016. English (and other language) editions remain copyrighted according to the date of their translation and publication.

It’s the interpretive questions that this debate raise that interest me: If a diary is edited after the diarist’s death, under what circumstances can/should the editor be considered a co-author? And, if the diary is considered co-authored, is it still a diary? Does it still possess the status of truthful authenticity that diaries are expected to have? Extending these questions from Frank’s Diary to other published diaries is, I think, a necessary step for those of us interested in the past and future of the diary genre.

For further reading:

“Anne Frank Foundation fights plans to publish diary online” (The Guardian)

Cory Doctorow, “Anne Frank’s diary is in the public domain” (Boing-Boing)

Rich McCormic, “Anne Frank’s diary is now in free to download” (The Verge)

Quill & Quire posted competing op-eds, for and against the co-authorship claim: John Degan FOR and Michael Wolfe AGAINST



Historical Diaries on Twitter

I wrapped up my Life Writing classes in the Fall by asking my students to consider the relationship between historical genres like diaries and letters, and contemporary social media. One group of students, working on Twitter, conveyed their understanding of the links between past and present forms of self-representation by creating a Twitter profile for one of the historical diarists we had studied this semester, Annie Ray (whose diary is reprinted in Jennifer Sinor’s The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing). Ray is an exemplary “ordinary” diarist: recording her experiences in spare, fragmented language. Or, as my students noted: precisely the kind of writing required by Twitter’s 140 character limit:

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What my student’s didn’t know when they undertook this exercise is that there are several other Twitter accounts set up to reproduce historical diaries. I’ve written before about @TrapperBud, which was publishing Bud Murphy’s diary account of his gold rush experiences, and has now moved on to Matt Murphy’s diaries, dated from the 1920s.

Here are some others:

Samuel Pepys: @samuelpepys

Fanny Burney: @francesburney

John Quincy Adams: @jqadams_MHS

Genevieve Spencer: @Genny_Spencer

Andy Warhol: @warhollives

I am sure there are more, but these are the ones I’ve run across.

So, what are we to conclude from these Twitter accounts? Obviously, they do precisely what my students intended @annieraysdiary to do: they show that diaries and Twitter are closely aligned in form and content, essentially that Twitter can be considered a modern incarnation of the diary. Of course, they also show the differences, because more “literary” diaries with long reflective entries are not easily adaptable to Twitter. Rather, we see that one kind of diary (the “ordinary” kind, to use Sinor’s terminology) is being carried into the present through Twitter technology. Also, these Twitter accounts have a particularly playful quality because they invite the reader into the pretense that the historical diarist is tweeting her/his experiences directly. I think this makes the Twitter/historical diary mash-up unique. (There may be Facebook accounts written from the perspective of historical figures? I’m not on Facebook so I cannot verify this, and a little lite googling didn’t lead me anywhere.) As my students noted, there is something wonderful about imagining a historical figure like Annie Ray taking up her smart phone to record her life, just as so many of us do today.

For more:

Sean Munger, “How to be a historical figure on Twitter”


Michael Palin, Diary Ambassador

I have been terribly remiss in posting new stories to this blog. Ironically, my radio silence is due to the fact that I have been busy teaching — and this semester my teaching is strongly centered around diaries. My students have been reading diaries, diary fiction, and diary criticism — and they’ve been using the digitized diary index on this blog to do their own original research on manuscript diaries. So, I’ve been thinking a great deal about diaries and about the teaching of diaries … but that doesn’t leave me much time to write here. I hope to rectify that — I’ve got a list of diary-related stories that have come across my desk the past few weeks that I am eager to post — but, let’s face it, every semester has the habit of chewing me up and spitting me out, and this one is no different.

What brings me out of my temporary blog retirement is this article by the incomparable Michael Palin about his 46-year-long diary writing habit. Palin writes,

That’s the attraction of a diary. It remains in its own time. It reflects only what happened on that particular day. It doesn’t flatter and it isn’t influenced by what happened later. In that way it’s the most truthful record of real life, and that’s why I’m so glad I persevered with it – writing an entry most mornings right up to today.

The article describes one of his idiosyncratic diary-writing habits, which is to write the diary on one side of each page, and then turn the diary upside down and continue the diary on the back side of each page. I love details like that, that demonstrate the crazy inventiveness of diary writers.

I wasn’t aware that Palin was a diarist — or that he has published several volumes of his early diaries already. Now, he’s embarking on the The Thirty Years Tour, a one-man autobiographical performance in which Palin reflects on his famously accomplished career. As a result of the key role that the diaries play in this project, Palin had made himself into a kind of diary ambassador, testifying to the value that diary-writing has added to his life and advocating that everyone else should take up the habit too. Here he is on his blog, in a video about how to start writing a diary. What a sweetheart. If I were not already smitten with Mr. Palin for all the years of Monty Python humor, I would be really sunk now.

The Guardian (which published the article by Palin) invited readers inspired by the story, to upload pictures of their diaries: a crowd-sourced mini-history of the diary. Thank you,The Guardian, for your strange and reckless devotion to covering the diary beat.