Diaries and Journals: Literary Legacies Analysis

A Survey

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Diaries and journals (the terms are interchangeable, both denoting a daily record) are fundamental reflections of American identity from colonial times to the present. America’s first diary writers often began their accounts on the ships that brought colonists to the New World and continued to record their experiences and reactions once they arrived. The early diaries often reflect the writers’ perceptions of themselves as religious and political pioneers in a land blessed by Providence and destined for greatness. The religious element continues in many diaries that record America’s development through revolution, industrialization, the westward movement, and wars. While for a few the diary becomes a record of spiritual development, for others the diary records the writers’ reactions to momentous experiences, such as a long journey through strange terrain, or participation in a war. Another common motivation for diaries is primarily literary, with writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, H. L. Mencken, and May Sarton recording the daily observations that might later be included in literary works.

Journals motivated to some degree by travel include that of Sarah Kemble Knight, whose round trip in 1704 from Boston to New York reveals the primitive conditions for travel. Washington Irving’s travel diaries provide substance for his literary tales. John Early, a circuit-riding minister in the early 1800’s, wrote an important diary. William Clark and Meriwether Lewis’ journals of an expedition (1804-1806) to the mouth of the Columbia River reveal new flora and fauna, the vast expanses of the continent, and a view of western native people. John C. Frémont, whose explorations and mapping of the American west prepared the way for further westward expansion, also kept a journal. Caroline Seabury, whose travels from Brooklyn, New York, to Columbus, Mississippi, where she taught the daughters of plantation owners prior to and during the Civil War, writes with a Northern bias about Southern social, political, and military conditions.

Numerous diaries record travel to gold fields in the 1850’s and after. The westward migration to Oregon and California, beginning in the 1840’s, inspired many diaries, and Lillian Schlissel has excerpted from over one hundred of them in Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey (1982).

War Diaries

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Diaries record all American wars from the Revolutionary War onward. They reflect their writers’ political sympathies, the sufferings and apprehensions of wartime, and frequently their writers’ dependence on God for safety and victory. During the Revolutionary War, Lewis Beebe, a surgeon, deplored the conditions and sufferings of colonial troops. Sally Wister, a Quaker teenager in Pennsylvania, met many officers of the colonial army and, true to her upbringing, avoided discussing politics with them. She does, however, show romantic interest in some. The Civil War produced many diaries from both sides of the conflict. John Crowe Ransom tells of his imprisonment at Andersonville and his eventual escape to Union lines. A more comprehensive view of the war is Elisha Hunt Rhodes’ All for the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes (1992). Rhodes joined the army in Rhode Island and fought in nineteen major battles. Rhodes rose through the ranks and commanded his regiment by the war’s end. Southern views are well represented in Mary Chesnut’s A Diary from Dixie (1905). Since Chesnut and her husband James were intimate acquaintances of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and his wife Varina, Chesnut’s diary presents an articulate view of those in power in the South. Two diaries from World War II, Guadalcanal Diary (1943) by Richard Tregaskis and Pacific War Diary (1993) by James Fahey, reveal the stresses and carnage of battle. The diary of Charles Kikuchi shows the effects of internment in California on Japanese Americans during World War II. Kikuchi’s diary also emphasizes a continuing loyalty to the United States.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Billington, Ray Allen, ed. The Journal of Charlotte Forten. New York: Dryden Press, 1953.

Hughes, Ted, and Frances McCullough, eds. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. New York: Dial Press, 1982.

Mallon, Thomas. A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1984.

Miller, Randall M., and Linda Patterson Miller, eds. The Book of American Diaries. New York: Avon Books, 1995.

Modell, John, ed. The Kikuchi Diary: Chronicle from an American Concentration Camp—The Tanforan Journals of Charles Kikuchi. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Rhodes, Robert Hunt, ed. All for the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Schlissel, Lillian. Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

Woodward, C. Vann, ed. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.

Wright, Louis B., and Marion Tinling, eds. The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover, 1709-1712. Richmond, Va.: Dietz Press, 1941.