This may sound strange, but I love reading the diaries of dead people. My first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, told the story of one of early America’s most prolific diarists.
While reading The Guardian last night, Amelia’s Tait’s article on “diary hunter” Sally MacNamara caught my eye.
Here is a taste:
Sally MacNamara has long told her four children that if there’s a fire in her Seattle home, they should rescue Olga first. Olga isn’t the youngest family member or a beloved pet – in fact, MacNamara has never met Olga in person. The “Olga” that is so precious to the 63-year-old online seller is a 118-year-old diary written by a woman of the same name. Beginning in 1902, the diary chronicles the experiences of a young immigrant who was raised in a strict religious environment in America. “She did not care what she wrote, which I love about her,” MacNamara says. She purchased the diary online in 2005 – it is now one of her most prized possessions.
Over the past 35 years, MacNamara has read more than 8,000 strangers’ diaries. As a child, her mother would take her “dump diving” to salvage objects – when she discovered an old, handwritten piece of paper in the trash one day, she was immediately intrigued. MacNamara’s father killed himself when she was 13 and he left behind a locked trunk of papers that has now been lost. “I didn’t want that to happen to other people, so I started collecting and keeping people’s diaries and letters,” she says. “I fall in love with people I haven’t even seen.”
At first, MacNamara bought diaries in antique shops, but when a friend introduced her to eBay in 1998, she began using the auction site to buy and sell. She has the enviously simple username “diaries”, and 8,062 pieces of feedback on her profile prove her claims about the number of personal papers she’s collected. Yet while MacNamara has more than two decades’ experience trading strangers’ secrets, her hobby has recently become more widespread. On YouTube, videos entitled “I bought a stranger’s diary” are incredibly popular – an October 2019 video racked up 300,000 views, while the video that started the trend in December 2017 has been watched by over 6.4 million people.
A couple weeks ago I encouraged everyone to keep a coronavirus diary. Read that post here.
Over at The New York Times, Amelia Nierenberg reports on the diaries and journals that “tell the story of an anxious, claustrophobic world on pause.” Here is a taste:
When future historians look to write the story of life during coronavirus, these first-person accounts may prove useful.
“Diaries and correspondences are a gold standard,” said Jane Kamensky, a professor of American History at Harvard University and the faculty director of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute. “They’re among the best evidence we have of people’s inner worlds.”
History isn’t usually told by the bigwigs of the era, even if they are some of its main characters. Instead, it is often reconstructed from snapshots of ordinary lives. A handwritten recipe. A letter written by a soldier at the front. A drawing of a kitchen sink. One of the most famous works of academic history — “A Midwife’s Tale,” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich — came from the diary kept by a woman living in Maine from 1785 to 1812. It won a Pulitzer Prize.
Today’s journals convey the shared experience of life in isolation.
Some diarists record statistics: the number of infections, the number of deaths. Others keep diaries that are part shopping list, part doodle pad. Unidentified phone numbers are scratched out in the margins of punctuation-less pages filled with the frustration of being separated from family and friends. Among these accounts, anxiety is the constant.
White diary can be read at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston
Over at The Beehive, the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Erin Weinman introduces us to the diary of Elizabeth Craft White. From December 27, 1770 to January 23, 1771 White wrote about her spiritual life in the wake of her husband’s death. This looks like a wonderful source for those working in 18th-century lived religion.
The diary is heartbreaking, but Elizabeth White’s thoughts were not uncommon during a period in which mourning became intertwined with religious culture. In early Massachusetts, it wasn’t uncommon for people to use the death of a loved one as a time to reflect upon their own souls and ask God to forgive their sins, faced with the reality that their own end could be near. Ministers often encouraged their parishioners to keep diaries to embellish their faith in Heaven, viewing this as another way to become closer to God and to understand what death meant. Sermons often revolved around the topic of dying, such as Timothy Edwards’ All the living must surely die, and go to judgement.
Man is born to trouble as the Sparks fly upward tears sorrow & Death is the Portion of every person that is Born into the world. I have been born, most certainly & it is as certain that I must die & I know not how soon. Die I must! & die I shall! (Elizabeth White, January 18, 1771).