Writing it Down
Diaries and journals of early Americans are considered an honest, unembellished form -- a key to our understanding of the past. The words, often written by ordinary men and women, provide valuable clues as to how people lived. Although the style and the form of diary writing has changed, the content continues to reflect the forces -- economic, political, social and technological -- that have affected the lives of Americans throughout our history.
In early America, most diaries were kept by men. In 1635, during his Atlantic crossing from England to the new land, Richard Mather wrote about his faith during a deadly storm. In the 1700s, minister Jonathan Edwards kept detailed records of his duties and castigated himself for his spiritual failures. And, for 55 years, the pious Samuel Sewall chronicled Colonial life from his vantage point as husband, father, businessman, and judge. Many Colonial diaries took the form of almanacs and logs covering men's experience in public life. In many cases, historians say, they were written to be read.
Although far more men than women knew how to write in Colonial America, some female diarists made their mark. Their words, like Martha Ballard's, provide a rare and different view of American society. In the 1700s, Abigail Bailey of New Hampshire wrote of her "wicked" husband's "vile intentions" toward their daughter; Mary Holyoke of Massachusetts recorded giving birth to twelve children, and burying nine of them; Elizabeth Fuller wrote of household work. "I spun three skeins," was all she wrote one day. At first glance some of the entries may seem trivial, but studied together they are brimming with important information and provide a view missing from the accounts penned by men of the era.
In the early nineteenth century, with the publication of various European diaries, journal writing gained popularity in America. Among male diarists, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark chronicled their adventures in mapping the Northwest Passage; Henry David Thoreau wrote some two million words of meditation on his life in the woods; and New Yorker George Templeton Strong kept a diary that wended its way from the author's student days at Columbia University through his marriage, career on Wall Street, and the Civil War.
In the 1830s, as the centers of production moved from farm to factory, the spheres of men and women became even more divided. Males were deemed responsible for the public realm outside the home, and females, for the intimate, private, family domain, within it. Now, according to modern historian Margo Culley, the diaries of women became more introspective, a record of an inner life. As more women were educated, they increasingly chronicled their thoughts.
Rebecca Cox Jackson, a free African American woman who would become known as a religious visionary, described her spiritual transformation, in the 1830s. At mid-century, more than 800 women kept diaries of their wagon train journeys West and countless other immigrants and pioneers kept notes on their travels in the new land. In 1865, Eliza Andrews of Georgia wrote about recovering from the measles and of the devastation left by the Civil War. Also surviving from this time are diaries of early women doctors, nurses, and lawyers, as well as numerous journals in which schoolgirls confided their intimate thoughts.
In the twentieth century, diaries have remained a popular form. In A Book of His Own : People and Their Diaries, author Thomas Mallon divides chroniclers into travelers, pilgrims, creators, apologists, confessors and prisoners. Some write to keep track of their memories, Mallon suggests; others write for spiritual development; or to spark or explore their art. There are those diarists who wish to confess or celebrate sins committed in life or of the flesh; still others, trapped in jails imposed by others or by their own limitations, use diaries to create imaginary lives. Well-known American diarists this century have included the aviator Charles Lindbergh; convicted assassins Arthur Bremer and Lee Harvey Oswald; politician Richard Nixon; actress Shirley Temple; dancer Martha Graham; and writers Joan Didion, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Allen Ginsburg, Katherine Mansfield, Truman Capote, and the prolific European expatriate, Anais Nin.
Today, as in the past, most diarists are not well-known. They may be students of history, literature, languages and the like; scientists and naturalists who note their discoveries and ideas; and a multitude of others who write for their own spiritual or intellectual growth. Psychologist Ira Progoff offers journal writing workshops as a tool for changing lives. Writer Julia Cameron's three daily "morning pages" free the spirit, she says, for creative life. Others keep journals to discover what they think and feel, or to maintain some sense of order in a rapidly changing world.
Americans have been chronicling their lives since before the time of Martha Ballard. Even though technology has expanded our ability to record information -- diaries can be found on paper, computer, video, film, or audio tape -- the intrinsic value of diary writing remains the same. The records we leave behind will serve future historians as they attempt to understand the time we live in. What they will deduce about our lives and our society remains to be seen.