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“Dear Diary” on Paper and in the Age of Computers and Social Media

I found my mother’s handwritten diaries after the death, transcribing and editing them into Home Front Girl.  As a professor of English literature, my training made it possible for me to think about what passages I wanted to retain so that the book had a narrative arc.  The published version consists of about 2/5’s of the actual material Joan had written. Joan speculates on the fate of her diary.  On January 20, 1942, Joan hears the Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Stephen Vincent Benét, speak on “Poetry and History” at the University of Chicago.

Monday, April 24, 1939

Monday, April 24, 1939

Stephen Vincent Benét, Yale College B.A., 1919

Stephen Vincent Benét, Yale College B.A., 1919

Joan writes,

Mr. Benét was talking about diaries in history and I believe I have written mine with the intention of having it read someday. As a help, not only to the understanding of my time—but to the understanding of the individual—not as me—but as character development. Things we forget when we grow older—are written here to remind us. A help not only in history but in psychology (I can’t even spell it). If I can do that I believe I shall have done all that I could wish to. I rather like the idea of social archeologist pawing over my relics.

Of course, that is exactly what has happened–only her daughter (me) is the social archeologist.

On Sunday, the New York Times had a piece called “Dear Diary” (scroll down on this link) commenting on how the diary format remains an integral part of the Young Adult and Children’s bestseller lists–with Sherman Alexie‘s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and the Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney).  Diaries appeal since we sense they are the one spot where an authentic self is revealed.

But what happens today in a world where electronic recordings detail our daily lives?  The New York Times article by Parul Sehgal poses that very question, asking “[H]ow many people actually keep diaries anymore?”

Joan at age 17 when she was keeping her diary.

Joan at age 17 when she was keeping her diary.

Michele Filgate in Salon wonders if social media will kill the diary off.

Nick Harkaway suggests that some diaries were written with the ultimate goal of being published, as with Churchill’s.  The author Brian Morton is quoted in Filgate’s article as saying: “I’ve read that Tolstoy used to keep two diaries, one that he left lying around for other people to read, the other a more intimate record for himself alone.”

Filgate wonders what we are losing with the advent of Facebook and Twitter.  While social media allows writers to instantly connect with their readers, a diary fills a key void for a writer. “Perhaps in this day and age, a diary and social media can serve the same purpose: as a place for writers to be themselves. Yet part of me is intimidated by the idea of sharing all of myself with an audience. The privacy of a good old-fashioned diary for my unfiltered thoughts is incredibly appealing — even though I know that for writers in times past, what was private eventually became public.”

Joan only had two-ring binders; no fancy diary with a lock and key.  Her parents could have read them if had chosen to.  While Joan speculates on the future of her diaries, it is clear she doesn’t want anyone but herself to read them now.  As Filgate writes, “It used to be that many writers’ diaries were published posthumously — and often, passages they might not have intended for the public would be shared with readers.”  Joan’s seems like a private diary–especially given her tales of necking with various boys!

Today NPR had a report called “For Biographers, The Past Is An Open (Electronic) Book” by Ilya Marritz.  A problem for biographers in the future who used to rely on hand-written or typed letters and diaries is that the very medium messages or book drafts are preserved or sent on–computers– are ephemeral.  Marritz writes, “A lot of us think electronic communications live forever. But if someone won’t give up his emails, or takes his passwords with him to the grave, or if he used software that’s now outdated, his records may be lost.”  The biographer of David Foster Wallace, D. T. Max, writes that the loss of some of this material is “a new form of defeat for biographers.”  He even recommends that biographers get training in computer forensics!

Max points out that searchability is a plus with electronic records (should they exist and be accessible).  But, as a scholar, this creates its own concerns.  Home Front Girl is available electronically on Nook or Kindle which is great. You can download it this instant should you choose.  As an author, I’m all for that.  And then you can search for topics that interest you, such as “God” or “Churchill” or “German.”

Here Joan writes, makes a little sketch, and pastes in a photo her herself with her injured eye.

Here Joan writes, makes a little sketch, and pastes in a photo of herself with her injured eye.

But (and this is a big but) reading in this way prevents you from seeing the big picture, from experiencing the entire aesthetic impression the book as a whole breathes.  If you only read Shakespeare for words like “blood” or “king” or “wind”–what kind of understanding would you gain of his changing and textured readings of those concepts?  It would be superficial at best.  You need to read a book as a whole before privileging searchability.

Ultimately, for me, as a daughter missing her mother, I found the hand-written diary to be of boundless comfort.  Less impersonal than pixels on a screen, to see her ink blotches from the days of fountain pens and spontaneous drawings was infinitely more intimate than an electronic medium.  In fact, I wrote a piece for This I Believe on the importance of Writing a Diary — on Paper.  As I wrote there, “But nothing can replace the physical presence of the ink trails carefully traced by a human hand. Especially those made by a beloved human hand.”

She even includes her hangman games.

Joan even includes her hangman games.

Diaries and World War II

Diaries allow us to witness history before it is past.  We see what people think while it is taking place.  History books have their place, of course–we can see how an event that seems — in retrospect — to be inevitable given the circumstances came to happen.
But while people are experiencing what later gets to be called “history,” they often don’t know what the result of actions and events will be.  My mom, for instance, in writing about the war at Christmastime in 1940 at age 18 writes, “And all the sudden, in an emotional intensity, I thought, “This may be the last Christmas we shall have” . . . I should be wise and know the world will never end. . . .”  But she didn’t know that at the time.  It seemed, given all the grim war news after the fall of France and so many other countries in the spring of 1940, as though the world was to be utterly conquered by Hitler.  She couldn’t have yet known that the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union would prove to be a fatal strategical move (thank goodness!).

A recent obituary tells of another WWII diarist:  Chester Hansen.  He was an aide to General Omar N. Bradley who commanded ground forces on D-Day.  But Hansen had been with Bradley since the time he trained in Louisiana, to the North Africa campaign, and then the invasion of Sicily.  Hansen’s diary came to number 300,000 words!

Chester Hansen, left, in Sicily in 1943 with Gen. Omar N. Bradley. From the New York Times obituary by Leslie Kaufman, Oct. 29, 2012.

As the Times article quotes from the entry concerning D-Day, June 6, 1944:  “Like others in the Army party, Bradley was up at 3:30. He is on the bridge, a familiar figure in his ODs with Moberly infantry boots and OD shirt, combat jacket, steel helmet. He smiles lightly as though it is good to be nearer the coast of France and get the invasion under way.”

The archive of Hansen’s works is at US Army Heritage and Education Center.  For lots of neat videos about Bradley, check this page out.  Curators using the original documents in the Bradley archive have to wear protective gloves.  I know have my mom’s diaries in protective plastic sheets since the paper is so crumbly.  Original documents need to be protected so future readers can use them.

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