Secret Lives Revealed in Diaries

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Before blogs and social media, the self-recording of thoughts and ideas happened on the page of a journal. Margie Goldsmith takes a look at a new exhibition, where the secret lives of literary and artistic greats are revealed.

01Diaries _Thoreau.jpgOprah keeps a diary. So does Nicole Kidman, Richard Branson, Renee Zellwegger, and Alicia Keys. Charlotte Brontë kept a journal to escape her stifling work as a schoolteacher. Tennessee Williams wrote in his diary to express his loneliness and self-doubt. Now you can see some of the entries in these diaries at the Morgan Library and Museum in an exhibition, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives” running through May 22.

In 1890, financier and collector Pierpont Morgan began collecting rare books and manuscripts. In 1909 he bought one of the most extraordinary group of American literary manuscripts ever assembled in this country– including forty notebooks of Henry David Thoreau and eighteen diaries of Nathaniel Hawthorne–all for $165,000. Although rare literary works were his main passion, he was also interested in archeology and collected everything from Egyptian art and Renaissance paintings to Chinese porcelains. In 1924, eleven years after Pierpont Morgan’s death, his son J.P. Morgan, Jr. (1867-1943), known as Jack, decided that his father’s library was too important to remain in private hands and opened it to the public.

Seventy diaries from The Morgan’s collection are now on display in an exhibition that explores the personal desire to document one’s daily life in writing. “We are living in an era of self-revelation,” says Christine Nelson, Drue Heinz Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at The Morgan Library & Museum and curator of the “Diaries”

exhibition. “We are constantly telling the stories of our world as they unfold in an age of blogs and social media–go on Twitter or Facebook and it’s all about what you are thinking now. This is exactly what the early diarists did.”

15_John Ruskin.jpgBut the exhibit doesn’t just reveal personal histories. Rather, it also provides some insight into the history of art and literature in America. For example, the exhibition includes Tennessee Williams first diary entry composed when Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

was in rehearsal and a new production of A Streetcar Named Desire was about to open on Broadway. Writing in a cheap Italian exercise book with a blue polka dot cover, Williams wrote, “A black day to begin a blue journal.” Or read John Steinbeck’s working journal for The Grapes of Wrath. In a large accounting ledger he wrote, “I tried to keep diaries before, but they didn’t work out because of the necessity to be honest.” An entry in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s diary includes an idea for a story subject which became The Scarlet Letter: “The life of a woman, who, by the old colony law, was condemned always to wear the letter A, sewed on her garment, in token of her having committed adultery.”

Some diarists wrote to record momentous public events, like entries by the witnesses to the Boston Tea Party. Jump forward over two hundred years later and Lieutenant Steven Mona, who led a police rescue and recovery team after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, uses his personal diary as a letter for family and friends, recounting the harrowing scene. “I don’t think I will ever look at anything in life the same way,” he penned. Others wrote in code or in shorthand, such as Samuel Pepys, whose record of life in seventeenth-century London became a nineteenth-century bestseller. (The Morgan has the corrected proofs for the first published edition of Pepys’ diaries).

If you can’t get to The Morgan, tune in for their free weekly podcasts of readings from the diaries as well as an active blog by the curator, exploring diary-keeping issues.

“The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives”

January 21 – May 22
The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street
New York, NY 10016
Tel: (212) 685-0008

Photos courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

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