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”

 

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Book Review: Julavits, The Folded Clock and Manguso, The End of a Diary

Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock: A Diary (Doubleday, 2015)
Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock: A Diary (Doubleday, 2015)

When I first heard about these two books, which were published almost concurrently earlier this year, I thought about those strange cultural moments when disconnected people become preoccupied with the same issue. I’ve seen “zeitgeist” moments like this before. As a very modest example, when I started writing my dissertation on literary representations of death and mourning, no one was writing about death and mourning but by the time I finished there was an entire school of “mourning studies” and a slate of shiny new books on the topic that I had to account for. I don’t credit myself for having tapped into an intellectual movement but rather consider myself to have been carried along by a wave that was passing through a cultural

Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Greywolf Press, 2015)
Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Greywolf Press, 2015)

studies-influenced academic field. Yet, as a result, it’s not an unfamiliar experience for me to witness an uptick in interest in the diary just as I turn to writing about the diary. In fact, when I read about Julavits’ and Manguso’s books, it felt like something of a confirmation: diaries are still relevant! I was very excited to read these books and thought perhaps I would end up assigning one or both in my classes on diaries in the upcoming semester. I read both books early this summer and I suppose it’s evidence of my thinking about them that I have not taken the time to review them until now. Because, I must confess, that my response to both books was disappointment. Granted, I read them as diaries and within the context of the historic diary-keeping tradition that I have been researching and writing about all summer — and perhaps that places an unfair burden on the books. But, as diaries, or as commentary on the diary as a genre, I felt they both fell flat.

Let me discuss each book in turn:

Julavits’ The Folded Clock: A Diary is composed of non-sequential diary entries, each one opening with the phrase “Today I.” Julavits’ writing voice is engaging but often possesses the snarky tone all-too-familiar on social media; in fact, at times, I felt like I was reading a blog post between the cover of a book — and I did not like it. I read books to get away from that quasi-self-deprecating, ironic, critical-observer stance which is so predominant now on social media. I read diaries because they typically employ a more earnest, unironic voice — which is not to say either a more authentic or a more artless voice, because I am well aware that neither term can be easily applied to the diary. But, the diary writing that I prefer, that speaks to me as a reader and a scholar, avoids that brittle separation of the author from the world observed.

That being said, Julavits’ Folded Clock does yield a few interesting points regarding the diary:

• Julavits’ use of the “Today I” phrase to initiate her entries is a practice I’ve seen many diarists use. Not that phrase in particular, but a certain formula that is repeated at the start of every entry. Philippe Lejeune argues that the dated heading is the definitive feature of a diary entry, writing that “setting the date off at the top of the page to indicate the time of writing is a crucial gesture” (80). But, other formulaic prompts play an equally important role, in my observation. Of course, the most common initiating formula I’ve seen across diaries is a summary of the weather, which doesn’t possess much literary interest but clearly does important textual work. I recently read a wonderful nineteenth-century diary in which the author employs a series of prompts, using the same phrase for a while before switching to a new one; hers include “Into …” and “In which ….” One of the most famous diary formulas does not initiate but rather closes a diary entry: Pepy’s “And so to bed.” At any rate, Julavits’ practice places her squarely within the diary tradition. I also found it somewhat infectious; while reading Julavits’ diary, I began writing “Today I” at the start of my own diary entries and I must admit, as far as writing prompts go, it’s a generative one.

• Julavits’ choice to sequence her diary entries in a non-chronological fashion was a smart one. She places an immediate block against the reader’s desire to locate a linear narrative within the diary. This is a problem that many readers of diaries encounter: we long to impose a plot structure on the diary, to identify the “important moments,” to find evidence of foreshadowing, etc. — precisely the kinds of literary techniques that are impossible within the diurnal literary form. Jennifer Sinor writes of the impulse to add order where there is none: “the pull of autobiography to be a whole and interesting story is strong” (54). But Julavits prevents such an organizing imperative by simply removing the linear calendar as a structuring device.

• Despite the fact that the diary does not move from point A to point B in a linear way, Julavits runs up against the problem that many print diaries have: the problem of the ending. To quote Lejeune again, he claims that “the diary is experienced as writing without end” (188). Diaries don’t have an end point — they cannot have a climax + denouement structure unless one is imposed retrospectively (at which point it is not a diary anymore). So, if you are Heidi Julavits and you are transforming your personal diary into an essayistic memoir without a chronological structure, where do you end? There is no end, there is only a choice to conclude the text. And, yes, as a result, the ending of The Folded Clock is flat and unsatisfying. It’s entirely authentic as a point of closure to a diary text but it doesn’t make for a particularly enjoyable read.

It will be clear that while I am not wild for Julavits’ book, it did generate some reflection on the diary. I cannot say the same for Manguso’s Ongoingness.

Manguso’s Ongoingness is built around the premise that Manguso has an obsessive need to record every moment of her life in her diary, a need that becomes burdensome and one she frees herself from by having a baby and being too exhausted to continue her daily diary practice. But, Ongoingness represents both the problem and the solution in ways I found very disappointing. We are told about Manguso’s excessive diary-keeping, which raises expectations (or raised mine) about length, verbiosity, detail, etc. — basically, that the text would be excessive. In the press coverage of the book, the fact that her diary is almost a million words long is repeatedly highlighted. By contrast, Ongoingness is very spare: the book is short, the entries are brief, there is copious white space on each page, she provides little by way of detail about her life or experiences. There is a fundamental gap between the declared character of Manguso’s diary and what readers gain a glimpse of within Ongoingness, and that makes it hard to take seriously the problem she struggles with.

The idea that Manguso is cured of her graphomania by having a baby may be true of her experience but it resonates in unfortunate ways with the critical dismissal of the diary as a genre and women’s diary-writing in particular. Too many view the diary as a trivial occupation and far too many scholars and critics have judged women’s diaries as exemplifying the triviality of the genre because they write about gendered activities and concerns. Manguso doesn’t do this and her (published) diary is replete with gendered activities and concerns but somehow the positioning of diary against baby runs close to suggesting that when she had a baby, she suddenly had something really important to do, as compared to the silly activity of writing her diary.

Here’s what Manguso writes:

Before the baby was born, the diary allowed me to continue existing. It literally constituted me. If I didn’t write it, I wasn’t anything, but then the baby became a little boy who needed me more than I needed to write the diary. He needed me more than I needed to write about him.

So the baby vs. diary battle is won by the baby, which makes perfect sense (of course she takes care of the baby instead of writing her diary!) but works to re-inscribe the diary as a meaningless, self-indulgent activity that distracts one (and particularly women) from truly valuable work. With “truly valuable work” taking only one form: child-rearing. For these reasons, I found Manguso’s text disappointing as a commentary on the diary and troubling as a commentary on women’s labor.

What does it mean that in 2015 two talented female authors produced memoirs that are principally interested in and initiated by the diary? What does it mean that the books received a substantial amount of coverage by critics in the most influential periodicals? One response is to say that these books prove that the diary remains a viable genre, even in the era of social media. Equally, their reception may indicate a nostalgia for the genre as a corrective to the kinds of discourse that thrive on social media. Or simply a lingering curiosity about other people’s diaries, even when we have access to a tsunami of self-disclosing writing on social media; almost every review of the books compares them to social media forms, employing the term “oversharing” in a pejorative way. I am not sure precisely what aspect of the cultural zeitgeist these books and my own current interest in the diary indicates. But, if you are interested in diaries, I think you are better served by reading any number of other diaries, including those listed on the digitized diary page of this blog. As far as published diaries go, two of my favorites are: Elizabeth Drinker’s diary and Rachel Van Dyke’s diary. I would send any reader to these historical texts over the more recent ones, about which I remain dubious.

Round-up of links to some of the (abundant) critical writing about Julavits and Manguoso:

Julavits:

Washington Post review: “In ‘The Folded Clock,’ Heidi Julavits takes you inside her real/fake diary”

New York Times Book Review: ‘The Folded Clock’ by Heidi Julavits

Huffington Post: “These are my confessions: What Diary-Keeping Means in an Age of Oversharing”

Manguso:

The Guardian: “My diary-keeping is a vice”

New York Times Book Review: “Sarah Manguso Offers Crumbs Relating to Her Diary”

The New Yorker: “Dear Diary, I Hate you: Reflections on Journals in the Age of the Overshare”

Slate: “Hall of Mirrors”

The Atlantic: “When Diary-Keeping Gets in the Way of Living”

Sources:

Philippe Lejeune, “On Today’s Date” and “How do diaries end?” in On Diary (U Hawaii P, 2009).

Jennifer Sinor, The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary (UP Iowa, 2002)

The Diary Art Book

Are diaries art? Each of these books treats the material object of the diary as a form of visual art.

Beyond Words: 200 Years of Illustrated Diaries by Susan Snyder (Bancroft Library, 2011)

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Un Journal A Soi: Histoire d’une Pratique, Philippe Lejeune and Catherine Bogaert (Textuel, 2003) 

IMG_1742 IMG_1744 IMG_1746 IMG_1747 IMG_1748 IMG_1751 IMG_1752Sophie du Pont: A Young Lady in America, Sketches, Diaries & Letters, 1823-1833, Betty-Bright Low and Jacqueline Hinsley (Harry N. Abrams Pub, 1987)

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Itsy-Bitsy Adorable Diary-ette

It’s so cute you just want to pinch its cheeks, right?

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I spent the past few weeks doing archival research on (naturally) diaries. This is one of the many different varieties of nineteenth-century diaries I encountered: no bigger than a matchbox, but with an ornate latching mechanism. The author used it to record major life events: a single line on each tiny page commemorating the date of her marriage, birth of her children, etc. It’s the antithesis of the typical diary — though this research has driven home for me the fact that there is no such thing as a “typical” diary, despite the fact that so many of them follow recognizable formulas or are written in pre-formatted notebooks. I have a soft spot in my heart for this one, which is such a beautiful artifact and a testament to the durability of small, precious objects.

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!

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?

Archiving the Modern Diary

What is the best way to preserve a diary for later readers? It’s a question I think about a great deal. As a scholar who works on historic diaries, I am painfully aware that the materials that I study only exist because someone along the way — a family member, an archivist, a librarian — decided that, rather than throw a diary in the trash, it was worth keeping. When I want to make myself crazy, I think about all the diaries (and other paper ephemera) that weren’t preserved but which found their way into middens, garbage heaps, or fireplaces … decaying into compost or flying up the chimney in the form of ash, and the author’s voice lost forever.

This isn’t just a question relevant to historic diaries, but to modern diaries and journals as well. If you are a diarist, what will happen to your diary after you die? Have you made arrangements? If you are in possession of someone else’s diary, what are you going to do with it? I plan to post some guidelines here for diary preservation and donation (I’m working on those now) but in the meanwhile, I want to introduce two really remarkable efforts to collect and preserve modern diaries:

The National Diary Archive Foundation (link to Italian language site) in Prieve Santo Stefano in Tuscany, Italy collects diaries, memoirs, and letters written by ordinary people and is reported to have over 7,000 items in its collection. The Foundation has an open donation policy — diary authors can simply send their diaries to archive — as well as an annual contest; diary authors can submit their work to be reviewed by a panel of readers that selects the Premio Prieve Saverio Tutino winner. From what I can tell, the Foundation appears to primarily collect materials by Italians — though their donation practices suggests the archive could ultimately end up with a large, multinational collection.

The Great Diary Project is a similar effort based in the UK. As the website states, “The work of the Great Diary Project is to rescue diaries like these from skips and bonfires and look after them for the future as important items of everyone’s history.” The collection now contains 2,000 items. The GDP Deposit Form does an excellent job of guiding the submission process: for example, you have the option of embargoing the diary for a few years, in order to assuage concerns about privacy. The GDP is affiliated with Bishopsgate Institute in London, which is a significant detail in my opinion; the GDP’s connection with a institution of higher education with a public library means that the collection has a greater chance for survival — and of remaining an open, accessible archive for scholars and readers.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no equivalent effort underway in the United States to collect and preserve diaries. Needless to say, I think there should be. Local libraries and historical organizations are obvious sites for donating diaries, but they are governed by their own individual concerns about space, subject matter, accessibility, and so forth. In other words, I don’t think you can always count on a local library or historical organization to accept and accurately preserve a diary. Ideally, there would a specialized archive with an open submission policy to guarantee that the voices of ordinary Americans were saved from obscurity. If I had a million dollars, I would found and fund such an organization but, in light of the fact that I don’t, I call upon librarians, scholars, and diary authors to advocate for the creation of such an archive. Imagine it! The Great American Diary Archive. The press release positively writes itself.