Literary Landings: 'The Diary is Not Dead'

ABINGTON, Pa. -- Linda Patterson Miller, the 2011-12 Penn State laureate and professor of English at Penn State Abington, is sharing her thoughts and observations of her laureate experience as she journeys across the Commonwealth aiming to engage people in the beauty of the humanities; specifically early 20th-century American literature and art. “Literary Landings” is a travelogue scheduled to appear periodically during the fall 2011 and spring 2012 semesters on Penn State Live and in Penn State Newswires. In her entry “The Diary is Not Dead.” Miller reflects on her various encounters with audiences, including one poignant interaction with an audience member who struggled with his own moral dilemma regarding diaries. In video link see Miller discuss how Americans have fanatically attempted to tell their own stories during America’s 400 years of diary keeping. 

Literary Landings with the Penn State Laureate: 'The Diary is Not Dead'
By Linda Patterson Miller, 2011-12 Penn State laureate
Jan. 11, 2012

Contrary to popular opinion, the diary is not dead. Supposedly in a world of twitter, facebook and instant messaging, Americans have given up the reflective for the spontaneous. But going among the people and listening to them and talking with them about diary-keeping, I learned that, in Pennsylvania at least, diary-keeping yet lives. Indeed, some in my audiences have confessed that they turn to their diaries (even pointedly using pen and paper to capture that continuous flow between thoughts and the page) precisely because of the intimacy found lacking in the public self-pronouncements that go viral on the world-wide web. Writing for themselves alone (“Dear Diary”), these diarists continue to look to their diaries with a sense of awe, believing that these diaries will tell them the truth about themselves and capture their thoughts and feelings in real time in a rapidly changing world.

This can be dangerous. To cite one example, a gentleman in one of my audiences admitted that he had been wrestling with a moral dilemma for several months. His wife, on her deathbed, told him that (unbeknownst to him and everyone else apparently) she had been keeping a diary for most of her life. She wanted him to take all her journals and destroy them; furthermore, she instructed him not to read them. The gentleman could not bring himself to destroy these diaries, nor had he read them, even as they tantalized him. “What should I do?” he asked, turning to his fellow participants in hopes that they might resolve this dilemma that had shaken him to the core. His heartfelt question elicited an impassioned discussion regarding the moral imperative of granting her wishes versus the human need to know; and many in the audience acknowledged that destroying her diaries was somehow tantamount to destroying her identity. (Many also confessed that they would be sorely tempted to read her diaries, despite her request.)

That this audience could not resolve this man’s dilemma attests to the integrity of diary-keeping that goes beyond mere record-keeping to embrace self-exploration and self-affirmation. An earlier Pennsylvania diarist, Sidney George Fisher, wondered in his diary in 1859 why he bothered to fill numerous volumes with observations on his world and himself. It was partly a proof of his “idle life,” he concluded. But it was also “partly habit, partly the pleasure of writing, partly for the sake of future satisfaction in reading the history of my daily life, which, however uneventful and obscure, is my life, that is, all I have as a position in this great, busy world, which knows and cares nothing about me.”

When the poet May Sarton was asked why she kept a diary, she described it as an “effort against loss,” cheating death and time by leaving a record. American playwright Clifford Odets recognized this also. “Again and again,” he wrote in his diary on August 11, 1940, “the only verity I can turn to is this journal, thumbing the pages backwards, hoping, wondering, waiting to turn outwards once more. On a day, a night, in some future week or month it will happen. One never dies of this.”

To comment or to ask the laureate a question, contact Linda Miller at [email protected].

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