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

• 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)


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.

Mass Murderers and their Diaries

I admit I have an irrational idea that only good people keep diaries.

Diary writing is, to me, associated with self-reflection and self-expression, both of which I tend to think of as constitutive of good character. To know yourself is a necessary step in developing the ability to empathize with others. To express your thoughts to yourself is also a way of learning how to sort through positive and negative impulses, and to write a new narrative for yourself that is empowering and affirmative.

I know, I know this is a rather naïve view — and one that has been put to the test this week, as the diary of a mass murderer has been in the news: James Holmes, perpetuator of the Aurora CO mass shooting in 2012.

I don’t have much to more to say about this — I don’t really want to know that he kept an elaborate diary of his plan to commit mass murder — but here’s a round up of relevant links, if you have the stomach for it:

Peter Holey, “What James Holmes’s Diary Says about the Aurora Theater Shooter’s Sanity” in the Washington Post

Jack Healey, “Diary’s Pages May Help Jurors Decide if Colorado Gunman Was Methodical or Mad” in the New York Times

Mark Follman, “5 Chilling Pages From the Aurora Mass Shooter’s Diary Debunk a Favorite NRA Talking Point” in Mother Jones

Mass Observation Diary Day

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 8.49.28 AMDid you miss Mass Observation Diary Day on May 12?

Here’s the history: In 1937, on the day of George VI’s Coronation, a Mass Observation Day was held across the UK, with citizens invited to record their daily experiences. The result was the Mass Observation Archive, which ran an annual observation day on May 12 until the 1950s. It was revived in the 1980s by the University of Sussex.

This year’s Mass Observation Diary Day was enhanced by social media: an invitation to submit diaries via email or to upload digital photographs, the Twitter hashtag #12May15, a Facebook page, and a resulting Storify page.

The archive collected over these many years is open to scholars, and I can think of so many ways that it will enhance our understanding of the everyday lives of ordinary people. Bravo!

Secret Political Diaries Do Not Stay Secret

This week in diary news teaches us an important fact, crucial for any aspiring politicians: secret diaries disclosing your private opinions about your fellow politicians have an amazing way of not staying secret.

I’ve written before about Dale Bumpers’ diary, which displayed his critical assessment of then political allies, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

This week, Richard C. Holbrooke is in the news thanks to a forthcoming documentary that reveals that the diplomat kept a “secret audio diary” about his frustrations with the Obama administration.

But it’s not only a bad week for secret political diaries in the United States. Canadian Senator Mike Duffy’s daily journal reveals his close ties to corporate lobbying, possibly illegal. It doesn’t help Duffy’s case that his diary writing style also opens him up to ridicule: writing of himself in the 3rd person and puffing himself up with self-praising admonitions like “TS up & at ’em!” Oh dear.

So, open message to politicians: If you are going to keep a diary, and you probably are because you undoubtedly aspire to write a biography soon after you leave office, just be aware that secrecy is an unstable, unreliable concept and it’s very likely that your scathing opinions and petty self-promotions will be discovered and put on full display in the press.

Dale Bumpers Diary Hullabaloo

On Tuesday March 17, Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy published an essay recounting details from the diary kept by former Senator Dale Bumpers, relaying Sen. Bumpers’ none-too-flattering comments about Bill and Hillary Clinton, dated from the 1980s. According to Murphy, the diary is held within a collection of Sen. Bumpers’ private papers at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville, a collection that was opened to the public last year. It would appear to be a case in which the diarist out-lived the embargo on his private papers (Bumpers is now 89 years old), because in a curious turn of events, Sen. Bumpers’ son had denied that the diary was authored by his father and the library has withdrawn the diary from public circulation. But Murphy’s original reporting included images of the diary and he attests that no one but Sen. Bumpers could have authored the diary that he read. The University of Arkansas Fayetteville Special Collections has apparently caved to political pressure, as perhaps Sen. Bumpers has too — and over something so minor. Does anyone really care? There have been so many critical things written and said about the Clintons — it’s not a smoking gun to discover that a close friend privately described them “maniacally ambitious.” Obviously the family needs to decide whether or not to acknowledge the diary as authentic, and whether they want to extend the embargo on the papers but all the hullabaloo has drawn attention to the diary as a historical artifact — and that I cannot but find wonderful.

I learned something else: If you Google “Bumpers diary,” you get a handful of news articles but you also get a link to the website Zazzle featuring diary-related bumper stickers. It is the most bizarre assemblage. Check these out:

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 3.42.47 PMScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 3.43.17 PMScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 3.45.18 PMScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 3.45.40 PMScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 3.46.14 PMI am one of the biggest diary geeks ever and even I have to admit, these are terrible. Oh Zazzle, what are you thinking?

Diary Tweets: Trapper Bud’s Diary

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 1.07.07 PM

It’s a pretty common perception that social media platforms like blogs and Facebook are modern iterations of the diary. You’ll see that argument made by academics who study contemporary life writing, by journalists who are interested in the development and use of social media, and by bloggers and Facebook-ers themselves. These different forms of self-expression have some things in common: they are self-disclosing records of life, often daily, usually mundane, and sometimes extremely private. There are obvious differences, of course — differences that have been analyzed closely by literary critics — notably that social media makes the text available to an audience of strangers and that the audience engages with, responds to, and essentially collaborates on the text.

Twitter, however, seems to be of another species altogether. Generally speaking, Twitter is less about individually recorded lives and more about conversation, debate, and sharing. You are much less likely to encounter the argument that Twitter is like, in any way, a diary — and I tend to agree with that distinction. If I were to make analogies, I would be more likely to compare Twitter to a telegram, to newspaper headlines, or to the running scroll at the bottom of the TV screen — short, impersonal announcements about events occurring in the public sphere.

Derryl Murphy is breaking down such distinctions with his @TrapperBud Twitter feed, where he is tweeting his grandfather’s diary. Bud Murphy was a trapper in the Northwest Territories in the 1920s and 30s and kept a daily record of his experiences. Derryl illuminates Bud’s narrative with illustrations and occasional commentary on his grandfather’s life. Here’s a post from Derry’s blog discussing the Twitter project. It is an intriguing use of Twitter: part recovery, part publication, part personal narrative. Plus, Bud lived a really incredible life — the kind of life that seems increasingly impossible in our world, one tied to nature and nature’s rhythms. I would love to know more about why Bud kept the diary in the first place. In the meanwhile, I look forward to seeing Bud’s “voice” intermingling with other tweets in my Twitter feed.