Before Facebook and Twitter, There Were Diaries

As a teenager, I churned through numerous diaries, chronicling my day-to-day adventures no matter how boring. My favorite book was pink with a ballerina on the cover and a gold lock on the side. I was careful to safeguard my thoughts from the prying eyes of parents and siblings, turning the lock and hiding the key in the back of a desk drawer.

Blogs, Facebook, and Twitter have replaced paper, and what was once considered private is now put out there for public consumption. Against this social media backdrop, we cannot help but be intrigued with The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives, an exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum, that brings to light the intimate thoughts of Henry Walden Thoreau, Samuel Pepys, Albert Einstein, and Bob Dylan, among others.

“The museum is noted for its holdings of manuscripts, sketches, letters, drawings, and other items that speak to the creative mind at work,” according to William M. Griswold, director of the Morgan. “Diaries are particularly useful and revealing. They offer a real-time glimpse of the ways individuals of various eras and backgrounds have chosen to document their lives, thoughts, and personal struggles.”

Since the books are displayed in glass cases, we are able to glimpse only a few pages of each diary. But even that limited view can be illuminating. In addition to an audio guide, the museum provides a handbook to decipher some of the entries, helpful when trying to read the tiny letters penned by Charlotte Brontë, for example (above). We learn through Brontë’s words that her diary was an escape, a respite from her tedious work as a schoolteacher.

Because the diaries span three centuries, taking in the entire exhibit—there are over 70 items on view— proves to be a fascinating history lesson. Walt Whitman writes about visiting an army hospital during the Civil War where he comforted soldiers, while Fanny Twemlow, a British woman kept an illustrated diary of her time in a civilian internment camp during World War II (above). Lieutenant Steven Monda recounted his experience leading a police rescue and recovery team after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Within the pages of many marble-paper covered diaries, Henry David Thoreau recorded his thoughts as he sought “to meet the facts of life—the vital facts—face to face.” For some like Thoreau, diary writing was a solitary pursuit, while others shared the task. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia, alternated their entries. Nathaniel’s comment: “I do verily believe there is no sunshine in this world, except what beams from my wife’s eyes,” leads Sophia to respond: “I feel new as the earth which is just born again.”

Some employed various means to prevent others from reading their words. Charles Barrett, wrote in code so that he could hide his love for Clara from his friend, identified with the nickname, “Cow.” Thorvold Thollefsen wrote in mirrored images. Adele Hugo, Victor Hugo’s daughter, rearranged her words (“mia” for “ami,” for example), to confuse others. (On April 15, the museum will screen Francois Truffaut’s film, The Story of Adele H., based on her real life diaries.).

Other writers, beside Charlotte Brontë, are represented in the exhibit. In February, 1955, Tennessee Williams, suffered bouts of depression. “A black day to begin a blue journal,” he wrote. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was in rehearsal and a new production of A Streetcar Named Desire was about to open in New York. “Nothing to say except I’m still hanging on,” he wrote.

Don’t miss the diary of Albert Einstein (above), with his many mathematical calculations, or the sketches of Bob Dylan, who kept a journal during a concert tour.

After leaving the exhibit, I couldn’t help but wonder how present-day diaries would be represented in the future. Would the walls be covered with screens scrolling people’s Twitter entries? The Library of Congress has set out to archive every Tweet since 2006, so anything is possible.

Illustrations, from top:

Diaries of Henry David Thoreau (1817–
1862), 1837–61, with pencils made by J.
Thoreau & Co., the Thoreau family pencil
factory. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909.

Manuscript diary entry by Charlotte Brontë
(1816–1855), in a minuscule hand, 1836.
Bequest of Helen Safford Bonnell, 1969.

Illustrated memoir by Fanny
Twemlow (1881–1989), a British
woman in a World War II
internment camp in France, 1940–
41. Gift of Julia P. Wightman,

Manuscript diary of Albert Einstein (1879–
1955), 1922–23. Gift of The Heineman
Foundation to The Dannie & Hettie
Heineman Collection, 1981.



Living the Wired Life
Gordon Bell
What if a diary could capture and store everything an individual experiences in his or her lifetime? Tech luminary Gordon Bell, principal researcher at Microsoft, has spent over a decade working on the MyLifeBits project, an exploration of various aspects of digitizing life, also known as lifelogging. Co-author of Total Recall (recently republished as Your Life, Uploaded: The Digital Way to Better Memory, Health, and Productivity),
Bell will speak about the history of MyLifeBits and the impact technology has had on the enduring drive to document our lives.
Wednesday, February 2, 6:30 p.m.*

Dear Diary: Dramatic Readings from The Diary
Join us for an evening of dramatic readings inspired by the compelling personal stories found in the manuscripts featured in the exhibition The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives. Actors Paul Hecht (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 1776) and Barbara Feldon (Get Smart, Smile), will perform selections from the diaries of Charlotte Brontë, Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sir Walter Scott, Henry David Thoreau, and Tennessee Williams. Commentary will be provided by Christine Nelson, Drue Heinz Curator, Department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts, The Morgan Library & Museum.
Thursday, April 21, 7 p.m.*
*The exhibition The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives will be open at 6 p.m. especially for program attendees.

The Diary on Screen
To coincide with the exhibition The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives, the Morgan is screening two films adapted from the diaries of famous historical figures.

MASTERPIECE Classic’s The Diary of Anne Frank
(2010, 100 minutes)
Director: Jon Jones
Join us for a screening of one of the most poignant and well-known diary stories. This recent MASTERPIECE Classic production draws on Anne Frank’s own words in the most accurate-ever adaptation of the revered memoir. The film stars newcomer Ellie Kendrick as Anne, with Iain Glen and Tamsin Greig as Anne’s father and mother, Otto and Edith Frank. Presented in partnership with MASTERPIECE Classic, WGBH Boston.
Friday, February 11, 7 p.m.

The Story of Adele H.
(1975, 98 minutes)
Director: François Truffaut
Adapted from the real-life diaries of Victor Hugo’s daughter (which are on view in the exhibition The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives), this film tells the story of Adele H., whose pursuit of a handsome and womanizing British lieutenant takes her across an ocean and eventually sparks her spiral into madness. Isabelle Adjani received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the title character in this haunting portrait of obsession and desire. Bruce Robinson, Sylvia Marriott, and Joseph Blatchley also star. Distributed by MGM Home Entertainment Inc.
Friday, April 15, 7 p.m.

Family Program
Bound to Write: Build Your Own Journal

Join book artist and educator Stephanie Krause and learn basic bookbinding techniques to create, decorate, and begin to fill your own journal. Following a brief tour of the exhibition The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives, families will explore beautiful art materials while binding a double signature pamphlet book with a tied wraparound cover. Appropriate for ages 6-12. This workshop is limited to families with children. There is a limit of two adult tickets per family.
Saturday, February 26, 2–4 p.m.

Gallery Talk
The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives

Christine Nelson, Drue Heinz Curator, Department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts, The Morgan Library & Museum
Friday, February 18, 7 p.m.

General Information
The Morgan Library & Museum

225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street, New York, NY 10016-3405

Tuesday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; extended Friday hours, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Mondays, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. The Morgan closes at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

$15 for adults; $10 for students, seniors (65 and over), and children (under 16); free to Members and children, 12 and under accompanied by an adult. Admission is free on Fridays from 7 to 9 p.m. Admission is not required to visit the Morgan Shop.

About Charlene Giannetti (815 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 12 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.

2 Comments on Before Facebook and Twitter, There Were Diaries

  1. Charlene – great piece – i still keep a diary/journal and my 2011 resolution is not to miss a single day recording thoughts, ideas, plans and pursuits. Thanks for this piece – I’ve marked my calendar for April 21.

  2. Great blog, Charlene! I mourn the demise of handwritten notes, letters and diaries that captured the spirit of a person and an era, as exquisitely illustrated by Ken Burns. I tell my Korean high school students to impress their girl/boyfriends with a handwritten love letter. What’s more, when they break up, throwing letters into a fire and watching them burn is more satisfying than just pushing the delete button. Seriously though, the written record of our time will be poor, if not totally nonexistent.

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