Saturday, January 22, 2011

Journals, diaries...sometimes better left unread

"Tales of Lives Richly Lived, but True?"


Edward Rothstein

January 21st, 2011

The New York Times

“I have tried to keep diaries before,” John Steinbeck writes in a giant ledger book filled with his methodical script, “but they didn’t work out because of the necessity to be honest.”

This particular journal, on display at the Morgan Library & Museum in a compelling exhibition that opened on Friday, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives,” has such a modest goal — chronicling Steinbeck’s work on “The Grapes of Wrath” — that it probably does not bend the truth too much. But spend some time with these diaries, intelligently culled from the Morgan’s archives by Christine Nelson, the museum’s curator of literary and historical manuscripts, and you see how fervently the keepers of journals labor to shape accounts of themselves.

These diaries span more than the three centuries of the exhibition’s subtitle. They are the chronicles of the famous (Nathaniel Hawthorne) and obscure (Adèle Hugo, Victor’s daughter); royalty (Queen Victoria recounting her journeys in the Highlands) and pirates (Bartholomew Sharpe, who preyed on the Spanish in the 17th century); and child writers (J. P. Morgan as a 9-year-old) and writers for children (E. B. White, who used his own diaries as a sometime source). Bob Dylan’s 1973-74 travel journal of his tour with the Band is opened to his sketch of a view from a Memphis hotel room; Einstein’s 1922 travel diary is open to calculations related to electromagnetism and general relativity, written on the page’s flip side.

The variety is dizzying. The diaries are written in bound volumes (like Sir Walter Scott’s) or relegated to a scratch pad (like an account of the 9/11 attacks by Steven Mona, a New York City police lieutenant). They are energetically scribbled (like Henry David Thoreau’s, written with pencils made by his family’s own company — a packet is on display) or crazily compressed into nearly microscopic print (like the fantastical reaction to a dark and stormy night by a young Charlotte Brontë). All of these are astonishing presentations, confessions, performances — often self-conscious and, perhaps, occasionally honest.

Our own era, of course, has turned spontaneous journalizing into something of a fetish, as 140-character tweets supposedly spring spontaneously from the thumbs of celebrities; scores of electronic walls sprout on which “friends” post tirelessly about their socially networked activities; and blogs are tossed into the electronic ether like rolled-up notes floating in virtual bottles. And though far less distinguished, the contemporary mix of self-invention, self-promotion and self-revelation is probably not that different from what is on display here.

The pioneers of the well-shaped self are represented by the first printed edition of St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” from the 15th century, and by the first printed edition of that book’s 18th-century secular heir, Rousseau’s “Confessions” — narratives that are meticulously shaped to make certain points and stake certain claims. More valuable for straightforward reportage is Samuel Pepys’ 17th-century account of the Great Fire of London, seen here in the corrected proofs of the first edition of his diaries, along with a single sheet showing the shorthand that he used to encode 3,000 handwritten pages; they were deciphered only after more than a century.

But how are personal secrets, shames and private sensations treated in these works? Some incorporate secret writing: hieroglyphs in one, mirror writing in another. Adèle Hugo expresses her passionate love using scrambled words in a diary that inspired Truffaut’s film “The Story of Adèle H.,” which will be screened at the Morgan in April in conjunction with this exhibition.

Sometimes the diaries simply avoid anything explicitly self-revelatory. The overwritten, aphoristic first volume of Thoreau’s journals from 1837 may reflect not just his youth (he was born in 1817), but also his avoidance of the personal, with plush Romantic-era language (describing, for example, the shore’s changing scenery as “far reaching and sublime, but ever calm and gently undulating”).

And we probably should accept White’s judgment of his own early journals, which in a transcript of his 1969 interview with The Paris Review, he says are stored in “two-thirds of a whisky carton.”

“They are,” he says, “callow, sententious, moralistic, and full of rubbish.”

But other diarists edit their supposedly spontaneous texts, excising undesirable allusions, cultivating a desired image. A typescript of a volume of Anaïs Nin’s diary, which the author describes as the “uncut version,” is far from it, Ms. Nelson points out: “Nin — like all diarists —crafted the story of her life, choosing the identity she wished to present to her friends, the public and herself.” And a journal that was jointly kept by Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia, is shown with passages blacked out by Sophia to keep them from posterity’s glance.

Nevertheless, many diaries on display are almost painful in their confrontations with the recalcitrant reality of their authors’ lives and characters. An enormous volume by the British slaveholder John Newton recounts his spiritual conversion (which led to the composition of the hymn “Amazing Grace” and to his later opposition to slavery), but also his “repeated backslidings”: “I have been reading what I have recorded of my experience in the last year — a strange vanity. I find myself condemnd in every page.”

And a bit playfully, a volume of John Ruskin’s diaries from 1878 shows the heading “February to April, the Dream” above blank pages. They are a deliberate gap this critic left to mark the period of his mental breakdown — a nightmare. Later Ruskin went back over the early parts of his diary, trying to discern his latent symptoms.

Unexpectedly touching is a hastily written series of entries by Tennessee Williams from the 1950s; he was being hailed for his genius even as he languished in loneliness and anxiety, dependent on drugs and alcohol.

“A black day to begin a blue journal,” he writes at the opening of the notebook on display; then an evening’s sexual encounters suggest that a “benign Providence” had “suddenly taken cognizance and pity of my long misery this summer and given me this night as a token of forgiveness.”

Throughout the show, examples of powerful emotions and experience erupt from staid pages. There are also some extraordinary historical documents, including a leather portfolio and diary carried by Napoleon’s surgeon in chief, Dominique Jean Larrey, through the disastrous French campaign in Russia in 1812-13. Napoleon said Larrey was “the finest man I’ve known,” and Tolstoy has him assessing Prince Andrew’s critical injuries in “War and Peace.”

Here Larrey recounts the horrors of battle, describing mothers drowning themselves while embracing their children amid 30,000 dead: “A greater disaster than this has never been seen.”

The diligent visitor will take advantage of the exhibition’s booklet of transcriptions of some of the more cryptic entries, as well as of the tender, insightful audio guide prepared by Ms. Nelson. Over all, more about the sociology of diaries and the fashion for sharing them could perhaps have been explored. And there are things I wish it were possible to see more of, including sections of Sir Walter Scott’s journal that show his gradual loss of language after a series of strokes.

“I am not the man that I was,” he writes. “The plough is coming to the end of the furrow.”

But the exhibition is so rich that it dissatisfies only by being limited. And it has one object that few can have ever seen: a rare pocket-size calendar from 1609 with blank pages treated with coatings of gesso and glue. Using a stylus (no ink required), the owner could keep a diary without worrying about either honesty or secrecy. Instructions are given for treatment after writing: “Take a little peece of Spunge, or a Linnencloath, being cleane without any soyle: wet it in water” and “wipe that you have written very lightly, and it will out, and within one quarter of a hower you may write in the same place againe.” It is the first erasable diary, a Renaissance iPad.

“The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives” runs through May 22 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street....

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