Special Collections Department
DIARIES, SCRAPBOOKS, AND OTHER AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EFFORTS
Professionally Inevitable -
Writers on Themselves
that in your book?" and I said, "Sure, why not, what have I got to lose, the Truth
will set me free, my life's a closed book I'm trying to open..."
Aspiring writers are often told, "write what you know, write about yourself." The advice hardly needs to be given, and the self emerges as the writer's inevitable subject. In addition to keeping personal journals and writing autobiographies, many writers use the diary genre as a literary device for fiction.
Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, 1875-1935.
The Confessions of a Lazy Woman, November 14, 1903
Typescript with holograph corrections (107 pp.)
Notebook, Alice M. Dunbar, 1906
- January 26 As usual, I am some weeks late. In a rash moment last year, I decided
to keep a diary beginning with the new year. It was the only resolution that I
made, and I have broken it, and [so far] I am twenty-five days behind time. Well,
what is the use of being a professional procrastinator if one is to begin keeping a
diary right away in the beginning of the new year? A diary is a serious thing, not
to be undertaken lightly or to be spoken of in anything but a whisper. If kept in
the right spirit, it means a record of things both seen and unseen, all recorded in
a strictly conscientious fashion. It means, too, that one must crystallize one's
secret thoughts and longings and desires into written words, thereby giving
speech to hitherto inarticulate voices. Is it not pernicious then, to keep a diary?
For if evil thoughts come to one and are quickly dismissed as unworthy, they are
gone and the only memory of them is as a disagreeable wind from an arid plain,
while if put on paper, they are always there to stare one boldly in the face.
This is too labyrinthine a matter for me to attempt to think out. I shall be losing my reputation as the Lazy One if I go further into it.
Alice Dunbar-Nelson used the diary form for the telling of her short story "The Confessions of a Lazy Woman," portraying the all-too common experience of procrastination with humorous effect. She also used a similar device in a 1906 notebook to outline "A Summer Idyll," the story of a romance. These works are ripe for autobiographical examination, as both stories suggest similar characteristics and activities from her relationship with her first husband, Paul Laurence Dunbar. The 1906 notebook contains other personal notes reflecting Dunbar-Nelson's creative efforts. She expressed goals for self-improvement ("resolved: to get out of debt; to stay out & to save money") and self-education ("The following books and authors are those with whom I am not as familiar as I should be"). She listed "Places I have Fished" and begins an outline of separate love stories to be based on fishing. She also kept a list of short stories sent out to various magazines, with the unhappy fate that they were all "Ret."
Harris has also written three autobiographies: Mark the Glove Boy, or the Last Days of Richard Nixon (1964), a Life magazine assignment to cover Nixon's California gubernatorial campaign which metamorphosed into associative memories of Harris' own life; Twentyone Twice: A Journal (1966), about Harris' experiences in Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps evaluator; and finally, Best Father Ever Invented (1976), subtitled "An Autobiography of Mark Harris," in which he profoundly explores himself and his self as a writer.
from Best Father Ever Invented:
- My Diary, begun when I was eleven years old, and maintained thereafter every
day of my life, was all I could claim for continuity during my fifteen months of
army life. I was sent from place to place. I met and lost friends. In an uncertain
period of motion and disconnection it was the single action carried through,
framing and enclosing the chaos of my homelessness.
It served me ultimately as the true record of who I was and what I experienced, precipitating memory, preserving states of feeling, and correcting the disguises of my fiction, which might otherwise, by supersedure, have become more real to me than the reality from which they sprang.
Blue books, red books, black books, fifty or a hundred words a day at bedtime, forty volumes in ink -- out of what childhood instinct for self-preservation could they have begun? ... Here and there I have omitted a detail all the more memorable to me for its omission -- things stolen, things lost, girls fondled, windows and keyholes peeped into, illness feigned, illness concealed -- but I never falsified a name, a date, a place, thereby balancing all the disguises of my fiction against the absolute memory of my Diary. Prone to lie, I sought a place to keep the truth.
Harris' fiction is heavily autobiographical, with characters and events drawn from throughout his life. Harris' 1962 play, Friedman & Son, was published in 1963 with the following introductory note, "a political topical patriotical musical historical comedy in three acts, adapted by Mark Harris from the private papers of his late lamented father, and commemorating the election of Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, with an extended author's preface describing autobiographical revelations." Writing clarified moments in his life, as "when I had completed Something about a Soldier and come forth into myself, and knew myself, when I had settled my account with my boyhood and asserted my intention for my manhood." It is not surprising that he was caught up in the journals of Boswell who, in pursuit of Johnson, came to know himself. Harris, the writer, became increasingly conscious of his own diaries, joked about "a man consumed by his own Journal," and in 1964 became a slave to his autobiography until on October 20, 1964, he made a memorandum to himself at the bottom of page 389, "This just keeps going. I don't think I'm ready yet to know how to write the end." Nine years later he completed Best Father Ever Invented. His diary writing continues.
W.D. (William De Witt) Snodgrass, 1926- .
IV. The House of Snodgrass, (chapter from autobiography in progress) [n.d.]
Typescript with holograph corrections (167 pp.)
from W.D. Snodgrass papers
Student of Robert Lowell, teacher of Sylvia Plath, W.D. Snodgrass and his deeply personal writing is often viewed in the continuum of American confessional poetry. His Heart's Needle, about separation from his daughter through divorce from her mother, won the 1960 Pulitzer prize. In "Finding a Poem" (Partisan Review, Spring 1959), Snodgrass explained his consideration of sincerity in a poem, "For I believe that the only reality which a man can ever surely know is that self he cannot help being, though he will only know that self through its interactions with the world around it." Since his retirement from the English Department at the University of Delaware in 1994, one of Snodgrass' writing projects has been an autobiography.
Elizabeth Jennings, 1926- .
The Return [n.d.]
- I am afraid
Of coming back to what we christen life.
I have been ill, they say, but now am safe
To be loosed in the loud
Cities and trains and roads.
I do not know
If I am really cured;
I only know I love some people more,
Some people less,
That I have learned of cruelty,
And of kindness.
My work is making verse;
At times it comes
Into these packed but lonely rooms,
Sometimes I'm sure I'm worse,
That I have not traced back the real sickness.
Yet I (I think) no longer wish to die:
Strange that desires to love now make me cry.
The simple, meditative lyrics of Elizabeth Jennings initially linked her to Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin, and John Wain, an unofficial group of poets who were writing in England during the 1940s and '50s and referred to as The Movement. In the early 1960s, Jennings suffered a breakdown and was confined to a hospital. Poems she wrote after her release are collected in Recoveries (1964) and The Mind has Mountains (1966). The effort to understand her mental illness was further explored in the four volumes of her unpublished autobiography. She wrote about her poetry in the autobiography, "I was searching for some way of getting behind the truths that underlay ordinary experience."
Robert Underwood Johnson, 1853-1937.
Remembered Yesterdays, Anecdotes, notes, and proof [n.d.]
Typescript with holograph corrections (5 pp.)
from Robert Underwood Johnson papers
|Considering self works||Creating self works||Living & learning||Domestic diaries|
|Business & adventure||War diaries||Keepsakes||Word & deed|
|Inner journeys||Travel diaries||Professional writers||Avocational efforts|
Back to the UD Special Collections Home Page
from our extensive holdings related to printing and the books arts.
This is Gasen.