University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department


Professionally Inevitable -
Writers on Themselves

"Do you mean to say," said the man from the security agency, "you're putting all
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..."
- Mark Harris, Twentyone Twice: A Journal (1966)

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.

Confessions of a Lazy Woman 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
1 volume (62 pp.)
from Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers

The Confessions of a Lazy Woman

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."

Emily Holmes Coleman, 1899-1974.
Shutter of Snow [n.d.]
Typescript with holograph corrections (153 pp.)

Emily Coleman to Loyd Ring Coleman, St. Tropez, April 20, 1929.
Typed letter (6 pp.)

The Story of My Childhood, January 3, 1963.
Typescript with holograph corrections (43 pp.)
from Emily Holmes Coleman papers

Story of My Life American Emily Coleman's only published novel, The Shutter of Snow (1930), was based on her own institutionalization for postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son John. Some of Coleman's poetry was also published, but her other prodigious writings include another novel, short stories, religious meditations, extensive personal diaries, and voluminous correspondence with a wide circle of friends she met during her expatriate years in Paris in the 1920s, and in England from the 1940s through the 60s. Writing was a vital part of Coleman's life, and she was never able to resolve her passion for it against the demands of motherhood. In 1929, she wrote her husband, Loyd Coleman, "...your son is horrible he is the sweetest and most original but honestly dearest I cannot go through with it. ... No use, these last few months have finished me for motherhood -- I might as well let the sentimental and rosy dreams go by the board and face the fact that the deeper my writing goes the farther behind I leave what is behind." John's upbringing was shared by other family members, and Coleman continued her deeply personal self studies through poetry, diaries, and correspondence. "The Story of My Childhood" was written when Coleman was sixty-four years old.

Mark Harris, 1922- .
Mark Harris' Friedman & Son [program]. University of California at Davis, January 6, 1962.
Production of the San Francisco Actor's Workshop Guild, directed by Jules Irving.

Notes, pages from journals, 1966, 1969, 1972

A Journal of November, Month of Birthdays, 1983
Typescript (carbon) with holograph manuscript, pp. 2,218 - 2,383 (165 pp.)

An Accidental Mini Journal, begun October 8, 1986
Typescript (copy) signed, pp. 2,384 - 2,434 (50 pp.)

Best Father Ever Invented
Diary Outline from June 1969 - August 6, 1974 for the purpose of Journal begun August 6, 1974, (miscellaneous extra pages, autobio.) inserted into 1975 revision
Typescript with holograph manuscript (107 pp.)
from Mark Harris papers

Mark Harris
After nearly a decade in journalism and publication of his first novel in 1946, Mark Harris enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Denver. By the time he obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1957, Harris had authored three more novels, including the first two volumes of his successful baseball trilogy, The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly. He has written in a variety of genres, editing the poems of Vachel Lindsay and the journals of James Boswell, authoring biographies of Lindsay and Saul Bellow, and adapting plays and screenplays from his own works.

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:

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.

Nothing but a Fine Tooth Comb David T. Bazelon, 1923- .
Nothing but a Fine Tooth Comb [1969]
Galley proof.

The Preface.
Typescript with holograph corrections (66 pp.)

The Introduction.
Manuscript and typescript with holograph corrections (59 pp.)

Essay on Being an American Intellectual (outline notes).
Holograph manuscript (1 p.)
from David T. Bazelon papers

Upon his 1943 arrival in New York, aspiring writer David Bazelon was taken under the wing of a fellow Chicago emigre Isaac Rosenfeld, then an editor at the New Republic. Bazelon was soon contributing book reviews, criticism, and essays to that magazine as well as Partisan Review, Politics, Commentary, Nation, Harper's, and a host of other publications. He found his voice as a critic of power, popular culture, and "the new class" in a group of writers that included Saul Bellow, Oscar Tarcov, Mary McCarthy, and Dwight Macdonald. For the anthology of his essays Nothing but a Fine Tooth Comb, Bazelon wrote an autobiographical preface and introduction, explaining the collection was representative of his self, a "quarter-century example of a particular intellectual and literary effort, in the time and manner in which it occurred. ... So, short of writing a real autobiography, I have attempted here and there in this book to indicate the character of my career, as a setting for the presentation of my work." Bazelon's career use of the essay has been a lifelong effort of expressing his self, his personal point of view.

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.

Jennings autobiography Elizabeth Jennings, 1926- .
Autobiography [n.d.]
4 volumes

The Return [n.d.]
holograph poem (1 p.)
from Elizabeth Jennings papers

The Return

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

Robert Underwood Johnson
Even in 1923 a reviewer of Remembered Yesterdays remarked on the popularity of "...Memoirs (and who isn't writing his, or hers?)". But, because of his forty-year connection with Century Magazine as its associate editor and editor-in-chief, Robert Underwood Johnson's autobiographical memoir was widely read in literary circles and by the public upon its publication. His digressive associations, especially about politicians, literary figures, and other contemporary celebrities he had known in his long career, were commended by the reviewer for "thoroughness," "geniality," and "leisureliness that is lacking in most of the literature of the present time."

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

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