University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department


SELF WORKS
Diaries, Scrapbooks, and Other Autobiographical Efforts

Remarks for the Exhibition Opening Reception

Morris Library, University of Delaware
October 8, 1997

by L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin, exhibition curator

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Thank you all for coming and supporting our Library programs. The program today is an exhibition opening, one of the ways we publicize our holdings and promote the research value of some of the unique primary sources we are privileged to collect and preserve. What I'd like to do in my remarks, is to give you some idea of how this exhibition came together, and to describe some of the items featured in "Self Works: Diaries, Scrapbooks, and other Autobiographical Efforts."

The seed for this exhibition was planted by Timothy Murray, head of Special Collections, who suggested an exhibition which would feature original items from our manuscript collection of Diaries, Journals, and Ships' Logs. This collection group is made up of numerous discrete items which have been individually acquired over the years, but really grew in the 1950s when the Library began to focus on collecting these types of historical sources. I would like to credit the foresight of William Ditto Lewis, former University Librarian, who began the Diaries, Journals, and Ships' logs collection, and Nathaniel Puffer, the former Assistant Director who continued to build the collection into the '80s.

The collection includes great small treasures, such as the single volume of Milton Fisher's notes of an 1834 journey south, from the Northeast to Virginia. He took his trip partly for health, but also as a canvassing trip for the American Anti-Slavery Society. In addition to road conditions, lodgings, sites and businesses, local politics, sermons, and conversations, the social commentary and observations Fisher records include the position of an African-American preacher who had just refused to go to Liberia, and impressions of Henry Clay and other debaters on the floor of the United States Senate. Milton Fisher's detailed travel diary is typical of the rich historical evidence to be found in the Diaries, Journals, Ships' Logs collection. I readily agreed with Tim that we could pull an exhibition from that collection.

As coordinator of the manuscripts unit in Special Collections, I was given curatorial responsibility for this exhibition. Any exhibition is really just an interpretation, "a concept of a work as expressed by the character and style of its representation or performance." In a nod to Tim's astute reading of research trends, I'd like to note that this material which he proposed to our exhibition schedule nearly two years ago is the subject of several recent interpretations. The Morgan Library in New York showed the very well-received "Private Histories: Four Centuries of Journal Keeping" this past summer; and in September the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill exhibited "The Invisible Process: Ingenuity and Cooperation in Finding Women's Lives," which, following the historical trend of inclusiveness, drew on diaries of unknown, ordinary women. Alexandra Johnson's recent critical survey, The Hidden Writer: Diaries and the Creative Life, received substantial notice in a wide variety of reviews and journals, indicative of the broad appeal this material has.

But what follows is my thinking in interpreting this material, what you might find if we decline the somewhat unwieldy title.

Self Works: Before I even began reviewing the collections of Diaries, Journals, and Ships' Logs, I knew that I would also find a vast number of these sources in our other manuscript collections of personal papers and family archives. You will notice, if you read the exhibition labels, that works are cited either as coming from the Diaries, Journals, Ships' Logs collection, or as part of other named manuscript collections. For example, Coach Dave Nelson's scrapbook of his athletic career at the University of Michigan is but one item from the entire 42 linear feet of personal papers which document his scholarship of the game of football, his reputation as an authority on the rules of the game, and his contributions to the athletic and physical education programs at the University of Delaware.

I selected diaries or scrapbooks or autobiographical pieces from similar collections of personal papers, added them to what was available for review from the Diaries, Journals, Ships' Logs, and began thinking about presentation for the exhibit. The Irish poet Brian Coffey was the inspiration for my interpretation.

Some of you who are Library Associates may recall an article in our newsletter which announced the 1992 acquisition of the Brian Coffey papers. Avant-garde poet, artist, teacher, and publisher, Coffey has an enduring reputation grounded in his 1930s collaborations and relationships with Thomas MacGreevy, Denis Devlin, Samuel Beckett, and Jacques Maritain in Paris. Coffey's papers document his various literary and creative activities and relationships. The papers include the standard components of correspondence and manuscript drafts, but also an extraordinary self-titled genre, Brian Coffey's "self books." These big-fat, red volumes which you will see upstairs are sketch books, correspondence files, poetry workbooks, draft books, and scrapbooks for newspaper clippings, postcards, photographs, feathers, and family memorabilia. In addition to blank books, he used old phone directories and scrapbooks to collect his thoughts and whatever caught his fancy or sparked his creative mind. I have to admit that they are a preservationist's nightmare: collage-like in assembly, of poor quality paper, bulging with bits and pieces of things -- items laid in or adhered with scotch tape, glue, or pins. And yet they are the reflection of a vitally creative, expressive self.

So, "self books." I borrowed Coffey's term and began to see "Self Works" as the comprehensive category for the material I was beginning to select for the exhibition. In a way, these pieces were all "self-ish" -- the creators were writing, or in some cases assembling, information about themselves and their lives; they were self-focused even when they were not aware it.

Diaries, Scrapbooks, and Other, -- the next part of the title -- or in other words, Genre: Brian Coffey's self books/scrapbooks also reminded me to take note of what genre, or what form of expression, the self work took. There is a Library of Congress subject heading for the "self in literature" and there is a widely accepted term, "life writing," for works found in and around such a subject search. Beyond the genre of the diary, these works include journals, travel narratives, autobiographies, memoirs, reminiscences, confessions, testimonies, daybooks, commonplace books, and scrapbooks. As you approach the Special Collections Gallery on the second floor, you will notice that the front display case contains several representative notebooks, volumes, and binders of the kinds of diaries, journals, and scrapbooks that have been commercially available since the mid-19th century when journal keeping became really popular and a common activity. The artifactual identification of these items has immediate and strong appeal.

Outstanding among the self works which fall into a hybrid scrapbook genre are the journals of Jessie Southard Parker. She was an upper middle-class housewife of Belmont, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Between 1899 and 1916, she created nine beautiful, uniquely illustrated volumes which record experiences of daily life and reflections on national and international events. Her journals are both snapshots of developing 20th century suburban life in America and time-markers for events in world history. Her journals include colorful ephemera of the period such as placecards from ladies' luncheons, and programs from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, the P.T. Barnum Circus, and band concerts conducted by John Philip Sousa. But the journals also articulate Parker's thoughts on whatever she observed: her interest in Christian Science was a "modern" effort to grow in self awareness and self-improvement. About D.W. Griffith's 1915 The Birth of a Nation, she wrote "as a moving picture it is most marvelous, but it is unbalanced historically"; and she thought Henry Ford's 1916 peace mission would bring "upon himself the ridicule of nations." We have used Jessie Parker's multi-faceted journals in two previous exhibitions at the Library: "America on Vacation" and "An American Feast: Food, Dining, and Entertaining in the United States from Simmons to Rombauer."

Autobiographical: -- the next part of the title -- To me, not one other of the sixty-one individuals whose sixty-nine works are shown in this exhibition is more closely associated with the deliberate, involved sense of the word "autobiographical" than the American author Mark Harris. Harris's scrapbooks are included in the exhibition, but he is more strongly featured in a section titled "Professionally inevitable--writers on themselves." The advice to "write what you know, write about yourself" hardly needs to be given to any individual whose true vocation is writing. Some writers use self works such as diaries for exercise and the discipline of putting pen to paper, or, in this day and age, fingertips to keyboard. Some, such as Harold Brayman, the former DuPont public relations director and before that the nationally syndicated Washington correspondent, use scrapbooks to capture the professional record of their words and deeds. Others use fictional plots to exorcize life stories -- as was the case for Emily Coleman, an American ex-patriate of the Twenties whose modernistic novel, The Shutter of Snow, was based on her own institutionalization for postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son John. And other writers, such as the English poet Elizabeth Jennings, use the straightforward autobiography to try to discover meaning in their life or some meaningful purpose to some aspect of themselves. Jennings' unpublished autobiography, as shown in the exhibit, explores the life events which shaped her poetic sensitivities, her search "for some way of getting behind the truths that underlay ordinary experience."

Mark Harris has done that, all of it and more, as a writer and experimenter with self works. He was and is a compulsive diary keeper. The Library continues to acquire Harris's papers, and each installment arrives with diary pages numbering in the thousands. For example, a part of his "Accidental Mini Journal" kept during October 1986 which is shown upstairs, numbers from page 2,384 to page 2,434. Harris is probably best known for his baseball trilogy, which includes Bang the Drum Slowly, all of which draws fiction from episodes and characters in his life. Harris worked as a journalist, taught writing, authored biographies of Vachel Lindsay and Saul Bellow, edited the journals of James Boswell, and contrived three autobiographies. Two of these were diversions from writing assignments which ended up focusing on Harris's own experiences and memories; the third, titled Best Father Ever Invented, was honestly sub-titled "An Autobiography of Mark Harris" and describes the evolution of his consciousness of writing about himself. Harris describes some of his writing as self-preservation, some as self-creation. The Mark Harris papers, housed in Special Collections, is a corpus of self works.

Efforts -- the final word in the title -- really was brought to mind in the sense of the French word l'essai: the attempt, the trial, the endeavor. Assaier is to balance or weigh out, as is done with ideas in compositions presenting personal viewpoints of the author. The essay was the career-long genre chosen by David T. Bazelon to engage in literary and intellectual dialog with a group of post-World War II American writers that included Saul Bellow, Oscar Tarcov, Mary McCarthy, and Dwight Macdonald. As shown upstairs, Bazelon's papers include Nothing But a Fine Tooth Comb, an anthology of his reviews and essays as a critic of power, popular culture, and "the new class."

Bazelon's essays caused me to think about the deliberate efforts that individuals make in creating self works. These are presented throughout the exhibition, but I especially enjoy those found in a section titled "Avocational Efforts -- Amateur Memories." I have been cautioned about the possible negative connotation of these words, but I choose to present them with their positive meanings. The avocational efforts are above and beyond the professional writings we have already considered. These are works created by amators, the Latin for "lovers," from amare. I choose to recognize the heartfelt effort that goes into these works of self expression. Two authors of these works are our guests today.

Wanda Blazejowska Larsen, and I know she will not mind me telling you this, received her B.S. in elementary education from the University of Delaware several years ago at age sixty-three. She began writing about her life experiences for class assignments at the University, and when she received encouragement to write more because her stories were so interesting, she undertook the project of a 515-page manuscript titled "Dear and Not So Dear Memories." She was born in a fourth-floor apartment on East 8th Street in lower East Side Manhattan. Her immigrant parents gave her the Polish cultural heritage of which she would be so proud throughout her life, but they also gave her a strong work ethic and a desire for self improvement. "Dear and Not So Dear Memories" tells of leaving school at sixteen to help support her family, of factory work as a young woman, and improved work opportunities during the years of World War II. Her home-building in the 1950s took a dramatic turn in the '60s when her husband's business transferred them to South America. Her story of life progress toward the goal of education includes the love story of her marriage to Lou Larsen and his support for her "continuing education," with the entire narrative set against vivid details of the century's progress.

Charlotte Kraus Shedd, a local celebrity known to many of you from her radio career on WDEL and her involvement with the Blue Danube Balls in Wilmington, is looking forward to publication later this month of her autobiography, Thank you, America. After the 1938 Nazi occupation of Austria, Charlotte Kraus left her native country and immigrated to America to pursue the singing career that she -- as the daughter of a Misch Ehe, or mixed marriage -- was prevented from even attempting under the Nuremberg Race Laws. Four months after arriving in America, Charlotte Kraus had performed at Hyde Park and already was embraced in a friendship with the First Lady which lasted until Mrs. Roosevelt's death in 1962. After her marriage, Charlotte Shedd's singing career segued into radio where she found success with hosting classical music programs, interviewing local, national, and international personalities, and providing editorial commentaries. Mrs. Shedd often spoke about the liberties of America, editorializing with conviction from having lost personal freedoms in Nazi-occupied Austria. Thank you, America is Shedd's autobiographical appreciation of overcoming immigrant hardships and finding opportunities in her adopted country.

I can hardly do justice to the rich personal stories that are shared in the various self works featured in this exhibition. So, I invite you upstairs to visit the likes of Charles Herbert, the Revolutionary sailor who kept a diary from 1777-1780 while he was held prisoner by the British after capture of the American Brig Dolton. Also Athaliah Voorhies, who kept a "Journal of Mind" between 1838-1844, in which you can almost hear the spiritual fear and trembling as she writes "to day John eldredg has buried his wife, how loud the call to prepair to meet our god." Also, Dudley Swift, the New England farmer whose succinct diary entries from 1815 are like a poetic almanac: "January 31 Snowed. February 5 Snowed a foot deep. February 25 Snowed over shoes. March 6 A Thaw Blackbirds come. March 11 ducks Come. March 12 Ice broke up." Also Teresa Viele a prominent member of 1870s New York Society, who -- if you can imagine -- kept a scrapbook documenting her scandalous divorce from General Viele. Also M.C.L. Worrell, who reminisced her life in a block-by-block account of the city of Wilmington around the time of the 1820s.

These are authentic voices expressed across time, place, gender, situation, and genre. The serendipity and spontaneity of contemporary life records, inclusion of historically marginal players, confession of personal indiscretions, the naivete of youthful impressions, tedium of the ordinary, suspense of unfolding dramas, the realistic suffering in face of life's hardships, passion of romance, the fervor of prayer -- all of these are engaging characteristics of life writing which give rich personal texture to the fabric of history. These self works -- diaries, journals, scrapbooks, and other autobiographical efforts -- yield literary merit, psychological insight, and aesthetic qualities as well as historical evidence.

Thank you to the Library Associates for publication support of a catalog which will also promote the research value of these primary sources. I'd like to acknowledge and thank Anita Wellner, who assisted with the installation of the exhibit, other members of the Special Collections department -- Shiela Pardee, Susan MaGuire, Rhonda Hennrich, and librarians Iris Snyder and Priscilla Thomas -- who, all, inevitably become involved in some aspect of each exhibition, and especially Judy Hamm for administrative support.

In addition to the second floor Exhibition Gallery, and the forthcoming catalog, an online version of the exhibition is available with the growing number of electronic sources available from the Library's web page. Staff members are here to assist anyone who would like to use the computers in the front of the room, here, or in the back of the room, over there.

Return to index for this exhibition.


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