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Presidents’ Day: Celebrating Washington and Lincoln in the ’30s and ’40s

Today is Presidents’ Day.  You can follow a slideshow about all the presidents here.

When I was a kid, we celebrated George Washington’s Birthday (February 22nd) and Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday (February 12th) separately.  They also did in the 1930s and 1940s when Joan was a girl.

D. W. Griffith produced a film telling the biography of Lincoln in 1930.  It was written by Stephen Vincent Benet--a Pulitzer Prize winning author much beloved by Joan. Here is the movie in its entirety.

Joan writes about both presidents Washington and Lincoln when she is sixteen years old.

Sunday February 12, 1939

            Well, here is Lincoln’s birthday again—and surprise—I haven’t written a poem about it.  Usually, you know, I write a poem regularly about every holiday we get out of school for—and even some we don’t.  Oh well.  I always liked Lincoln better then Washington…

She does seem more interested in Lincoln. He shows up a lot in her diary.  After the war is well underway in Europe and North Africa, Joan reflects on the passing of life.  This passage she wrote when she was 18 years old.

Thursday January 26, 1941

            Beauty is unbelievable, isn’t it—all things superb, all tears for loveliness, all sweets, and all colour is in her…Oh beauty, nothing is as real, yet as unbelievable as beauty! —I’ve been standing at the kitchen window while the Tales of Hoffman played on the radio, watching the large snowflakes drift over the roofs…the church tower dim and grey and the sky like the grey-white sea…Oh beauty. 

You can listen to the Tales of Hoffman just like Joan as you read on.

            Perhaps the world is changing and we shall never get it back the same…But I think the things to be remembered will be different from what we think now.  I don’t think so much I’ll remember Dik, Larry, meteors I made so much noise over—but rather the sweet friendly face of Clyde Johnson, laughing with me in Harpers [Library]—Or Bud, singing “Auld Lang Syne” with his Bear’s grin.  The funny unsophisticated people.  The dependable ones we laughed warmly at.  Calvin—running his fingers through his hair…Oh friendly, lovely world…Every quiet day is equal to every day of comet glow…Sweetness of world…I’ve been to church today too:  “Whosoever drinketh of the water which I give shall never thirst.” Twice this afternoon they played “La Golondrina” on the radio and I recaptured from its notes Joe picking it out on his mandolin that first mad day on the station wagon, later in quiet night….Unbelievable quiet…oh world!  (This was life, this was living).

You can hear La Golondrina here and read a translation of the lyrics here.

            …British have captured Derma. All the faery-tale cities of the world—are real…Derma, Tobruk.  Oh world. 

…P.S. They reenacted the play they gave the night Lincoln was killed.  I was weeping for all the people dead.

The Assassination of President Lincoln *from left to right: Major Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth

The Assassination of President Lincoln
*from left to right: Major Henry Rathbone,
Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth

A short while later, Lincoln’s Birthday arrives.

Wednesday February 12, 1941

            Hello!…Well, Lincoln’s birthday.  Stayed home alone and read “Das Abenteuer der Neujahrsnacht” for German…. Heard Wilkie[1] on radio tonight…Wants lots of aid to Britain….

Wendell Willkie

Wendell Willkie

Gabriel Heatter.  He always has that way of making you think “Tonight’s the night: –“These are the days”.  Anyhow, Franco has just met Mussolini…is to meet Marshall Petain tomorrow.  Rumours of peace between Italy and Britain.  Italy badly needs it—or so we’re told…’Nuff of Europe….

[1] Wilkie an unsuccessfully as a Republican for President in 1940.  Gabriel Heatter was a famous radio announcer.

Gabriel Heatter.

Gabriel Heatter. “There’s good news tonight” was a catchphrase of his.

You can listen to him announcing WWII news at this site where he talks about the “Latest Nazi Claims.”

All is not gloom and doom.  Joan manages to retain her sense of humor.  Weeks after Pearl Harbor,

Photograph from a Japanese plane of Battleship Row at the beginning of the attack. The explosion in the center is a torpedo strike on the USS Oklahoma. Two attacking Japanese planes can be seen: one over the USS Neosho and one over the Naval Yard.

Photograph from a Japanese plane of Battleship Row at the beginning of the attack of Pearl Harbor.

Joan writes about running into a beau, Bill Knisely.

3:15 AM Sunday Morning Dec. 21, 1941, Age 19

            After teaching today went to bookstore to get stamps.  Bill was quite flustered and gave me $1.25 change for a dollar.  I gave it back.  Me and Lincoln.  Later he called up and asked me out for tonite, but I had a date already.

The “he” asking her out for a date was Bill, not Lincoln!  Joan’s sarcastic reference mocks herself, while referring to Lincoln’s extreme honesty–“Honest Abe.”

Her jokes continue despite the oppression of the war.

Thursday February 12, 1942

            School even today.  Lincoln’s birthday, of course, but it’s not supposed to be patriotic to have holidays now.  Wartime, you know…Tomorrow Mr. Ashford is going to set off an incendiary bomb in Phy Sci [Physical Science]. If I don’t reappear, you’ll know why.

In February 1939, Joan had commented on how she had not written a poem in commemoration of Lincoln’s Birthday. But she did compose one a couple of weeks later–  an impassioned poem that seems to sense the coming war.

Feb 24, 1939 written when Joan was 16.                                                                                                 

They say that Arthur shall return again

And Joan of Arc to lead the troops of France,

But who shall come once more to us?

Dead is Lincoln and the white mold creeps

Upon the tomb of Washington asleep forever.

Arthur could not drive Caesar out

He was not yet come when Romans ruled.

Nor could young Joan rid Hun from Frankland,

She had not yet been born in Donremy.

Hear me!  Our dead are not yet entered life

A young man shall rise up to lead us yet.

Wait till the time shall come and we shall find

A burning youth with blood-red banner leading us.

Joan of Arc, Joan's namesake and much beloved heroine

Joan of Arc, Joan’s namesake and much beloved heroine

“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.

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