On Jan. 21, 2011, the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City opened a fascinating exhibit, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.” Introducing the exhibit were these thoughts:
“For centuries, people have turned to private journals to document their days, sort out creative problems, help them through crises, comfort them in solitude or pain, or preserve their stories for the future. As more and more diarists turn away from the traditional notebook and seek a broader audience through web journals, blogs, and social media, this exhibition explores how and why we document our everyday lives. With over seventy items on view, the exhibition raises questions about this pervasive practice: what is a diary? Must it be a private document? Who is the audience for the unfolding stories of our lives — ourselves alone, our families, or a wider group?”
Timeless questions … certainly legitimate ones for 21st century bloggers and tweeters. The exhibit, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to visit before its conclusion on May 21, featured work from the brightest stars of the literary galaxy. As quoted in the introductory essay, Henry David Thoreau aspired for his diary “to meet the facts of life — the vital facts — face to face.” Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife co-authored their diary to celebrate their new married life together. “I do verily believe there is no sunshine in this world, except what beams from my wife’s eyes,” he wrote. “I feel new as the earth which is just born again,” his wife later wrote in response.
St. Augustine and Anais Nin … Walter Scott and Tennessee Williams … William S. Burroughs and Charlotte Brontë … A prisoner from World War II and a police rescue worker from the 2001 World Trade Center attack — the range of work and creativity and purpose is just as astounding as the authors and the beautiful words this exhibit so elegantly celebrated.
The exhibit lives on online. In addition to the introductory essay, the website offers images of diary pages, diary excerpts, and essays on the authors.
Also included are audio readings of selected diaries by actors Paul Hecht and Barbara Feldon. Reading the diaries is, for me, a joy, but hearing them read to me is a special — and often quite romantic — experience.
This special series begins with Charlotte Brontë: “The haughty sadness of grandeur beamed out of her intent fixed hazel eye, & though so young, I always felt as if I dared not have spoken to her for my life, how lovely were the lines of her small & rosy mouth, but how very proud her white brow, spacious & wreathed with ringlets, & her neck, which, though so slender, had the superb curve of a queen’s about the snowy throat.”
Entries in this series:
Part 1: Introduction to the exhibit and Charlotte Brontë
Part 2: Frances Eliza Grenfell
Part 3: Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Part 4: Paul Horgan
Part 5: John Newton
Part 6: Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet
Part 7: Walter Scott
Part 8: Bartholomew Sharpe
Part 9: Tennessee Williams
Part 10: John Ruskin