Thursday, May 14, 2015

Historic Diaries

Isaac Werner's Journal
When I was a young girl I kept a diary.  Two of my diaries survive, both with faux leather covers and a flap from back cover to front with a metal closure secured by a lock that could probably be picked with a hair pin.  They contain the typical adolescent secrets, and my attempt to read one of them after I was an adult ended in disappointment.  Frankly, it was boring, even to the author.
Reading Isaac B. Werner's journal was another matter entirely.  Each day's entry was fairly mundane, but as one day built on another, I was transported back into another time.  His day-to-day chores and encounters allowed me to experience the era of my great grandparents and other settlers who had claimed homesteads on the prairie.  Isaac was influenced by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, (See "Advice from Henry Ward Beecher, 12-7-2012 in the blog archives) and kept his entries free of most personal opinions and emotions, sticking to the weather and actual events during his days.

Queen Victoria
Isaac was not alone in keeping a diary in the 1800s.  England's Queen Victoria wrote almost daily for sixty-eight years, and her diaries constitute over one hundred volumes.  Isaac wrote daily from 1884 to 1891, filling 480 oversized pages, and the journal was labeled "Vol. 5th."  With the opening pages including entries from 1870-1871 and an unexplained gap of 13 years, it appears that four volumes were kept prior to 1870 when Isaac was in his mid-20s and volume five began.

Isaac's journal provoked a curiosity that led me to read a book title A Brief History of Diaries>>From Pepys to Blogs, written by Alexandra Johnson.  The author acknowledged the ancient keeping of journals and diaries, but it was her history of those kept in the 1800s and 1900s that I found most interesting.

Francis Kilvert
The words of an English country curate named Francis Kilvert writing in the 1870s particularly caught my eye because he was keeping a diary at the same time Isaac was keeping his.  Kilvert wrote:  "Why do I keep this voluminous journal?  I can hardly tell.  Partly because life appears to me such a curious and wonderful thing that it seems a pity that even such a humble and uneventful life as mine should pass altogether away without some such record...and partly too because I think the record may amuse and interest some who come after me."  I can't know whether Isaac shared Kilvert's anticipation that some future reader might enjoy his journal, but I certainly have enjoyed Isaac's record of his day-to-day life.

Charles Darwin

Alexandra Johnson also selected examples from travel and explorer journals and diaries.  One such example was Charles Darwin, whose notebooks and journals filled 2,070 pages and became the sources from which he formulated his theory of evolution and natural selection which led in 1859 to the publication of The Origin of Species.  

Cover art by Sophia Thoreau
Another explorer did not go far from home.  A reader of Darwin throughout his life and a friend of diarist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau's exploration was of Walden Pond, which was only a mile and a half from the center of Concord, Massachusetts where he and his circle of friends lived.  Yet, from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847 he recorded his observations of nature and Indian trails while living in his secluded tiny cottage beside Walden Pond.  Those observations became the material for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854).  Thoreau explained his purpose for devoting himself to exploring and recording observations of Walden Pond and the surrounding environment, saying that he used his journals "to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."  The cover art for Walden was done by his sister Sophia.

Unlike Thoreau, Isaac documented not so much the native plants but rather his meticulously kept records of planting, nurturing, harvesting, and storing the crops he introduced to the prairie's sandy loam soil.  Yet, he too wrote about the weather, the native birds, and nature's spectacles, such as eclipses, mirages, and sun dogs.

Next week's blog will continue sharing other examples of journal and diary keepers described in Alexandra Johnson's History of Diaries.

No comments: