Reblogged from Samuel Pepys by The Morgan: What happened to the diary?

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The diary of Sophia Hawthorne. (Via themorgan.org.)
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Is a diary supposed to be read by anyone other than its writer?

We're used to studying excerpts from famous journals in school; the diary of the young 17th Century British naval administrator Samuel Pepys, published over a hundred years after his death, is still read today for its value as a primary source document on Restoration England. His detail on extramarital affairs suggests he didn't imagine his audience with perfect foresight. Then there are those who publish their own diaries, like the authors William Burroughs and Anaïs Nin, and those whose diaries were published posthumously, like Virginia Woolf and Tennessee Williams, illuminating their writing processes as well as their creative and personal turmoil.

Excerpts from all of these diaries, plus more from John Steinbeck, Charlotte Brontë, Sir Walter Scott and others are on display just a little longer (through Sunday) at the Morgan Library & Museum as part of the exhibit "The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives."

The exhibit itself is confined to a single room and is nothing more than a collection of books and scraps of paper confined to glass boxes with brief paragraphs providing context on small placards just below each piece of the collection. The placards were actually necessary, as in this exhibit, like many other library exhibits of private papers, one can only view the pages of the diaries that have been chosen for display; here, seemingly, at random. The formulas and notes in Albert Einstein's notebook make little sense without a nudge from the installation materials, and the handwriting of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the members of his family (who were all prolific diarists) is not really decipherable if you took the time to look.

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But what is fascinating to me is the physicality of the diaries.

I made several attempts at keeping a diary as a teenager. Somewhere in a secret place in my mother's house there might still be a spiral-bound, college-ruled notebook—or perhaps a black marble composition book—that contains about a week's worth of my life. The major reason I could not follow through with writing about my innermost thoughts (which I'm sure were quite deep and introspective at 13) was that I couldn't imagine the point of writing something that no one would eventually read. Wasn't that the point of writing in the first place?

I knew early on that I wanted to be a writer of some kind when I grew up, and in the back of my mind I knew that the fame and fortune I fantasized for myself could result in the eventual publishing of my adolescent journals. The problem, however, is that nothing of particular interest ever happened to me, and my sad attempts to punch-up the stories of my childhood with blatant lies were as boring as the truth.

I bet lots of visitors to the Morgan will sympathize with and admire these self-chroniclers for their discipline.

More widely, the Morgan exhibit exemplifies how much personal and specific style is broadcast in the presentation of a physical book of handwritten text. It's difficult not to make the quick analogy between these diaries and the blogs and pages—personal, repertorial, journalistic, academic—that people keep on the web. Because diaries are not revealed here to be a much more specific category. There are calendars here, in which a single page is devoted to the specific events that occurred on a single date. There are also the works in progress—notebooks that chronicle the thoughts of an author and the evolution of a creative project. And there are the examples of what is commonly associated with a "diary": a private collection of thoughts and ideas, such as those in Tennessee Williams'. His, bound in a volume covered in blue with white polka dots, is open to an entry written at 2 a.m. (according to the heading at the top of the page); in the entry Williams ruminates on a period of emotional anguish, one which was temporarily broken with a satisfying sexual encounter ("man love," as he describes it). It is an extremely personal piece of writing, one that would be considered an "overshare" if it were to be posted in the early-morning hours on Tumblr. (It would also likely be deleted by morning).

There was no such thing as oversharing before blogging, was there? The pages of a private diary offered an illusion of secrecy, and so in reading them under glass, there is a feeling of candor. If Tennessee Williams had a blog, would he publish his thoughts immediately for his internet audience to read? Would he allow for commenting on his blog? Would he remember, days or weeks later, a post he typed in a drunken state that exposed a certain vulnerable side of himself? One can't help but imagine how he might feel about strangers examining snippets of those thoughts as they sit under the low wattage of museum lighting.

That feeling of candor, protected by privacy (which, time has taught us, for the famous, does not exist even for one's personal papers) also underpins the integrity of the diary. The certainty of a memoir is always in question precisely because it's being presented to the public by the writer. Diaries, presumably written solely for the author, tend to have an air of absolute honesty.

Blogs are not quite memoirs or diaries. There's a sense of performance in this new version of the diary: no longer is the act of keeping a journal purely solitary. Their confessions are all built to be consumed instantly.

There is something romantic about writing things down. And of course there's a nostalgia for all sorts of old forms these days, sometimes justified by one utility or another. Trend pieces about the return of the cassette tape, the prevalence of vintage typewriters for sale at the Brooklyn Flea, the crowd that gathers in used record stores looking for reasonably-priced vinyl that could be downloaded from the Internet in an instant for free, are all familiar enough to us. What I wonder is whether anyone in my generation continues to keep a personal diary. Can a password-protected blog mean the same as a diary that includes a built-in lock?

One thing's for certain: These diaries have a sincerity to them that a public blog, with its automatic filtering for a readership, don't quite achieve. What passes for introspection in personal blogs is often just narcissism.

On the other hand, can a form that is meant to be shared and distributed from the start possibly be as narcissistic as a handwritten diary, written for one's favorite and most treasured audience, oneself?

I’m afraid, like everyone else, that as we have progressed technologically, cultural examination has become too ephemeral. We may never know if many of those whose diaries are featured at the Morgan ever intended for their private writings to be exposed to the public, or if, like my teenage self, they just really wanted an audience, and substituted themselves when no other one readily presented itself.