What makes a diary compelling?
Why are we drawn to read the personal private observations of another?
Perhaps it is just that: personal, private, unfiltered thoughts offer a truthful, honest reading experience. Everyone wants to be that fly on the wall.
I just finished a diary by Mary Boykin Chestnut,* a book that allowed me to be that bug and fly back in time, perched on the parlor walls, in the highest of Southern societies during the Civil War. The topic of slavery in the American South is painful and incomprehensible to me. Perhaps this explains why I am drawn to the Civil War and its history.
Chestnut’s diary gave me the opportunity to see the Civil War through the lens of a female and that alone was intriguing. Mary Boykin Chestnut was: a slave owner, a wife, a friend, a mother, a secessionist, a racist and a finely-schooled and “well-bred” South Carolinian hostess. Her entries fascinated me because her point-of-view was unalike other accounts I had read of the war. And diaries play out in real time. I knew the outcome of Ft. Sumter, McClellan’s failure to launch, Sherman’s destruction and Gettysburg’s horrendous toll. Mary takes the full impact, page by page.
Published diaries offer us the chance to read intimate observations of known events as they unfold in front of the author. Experiencing, without hindsight or analysis. Mary chronicle’s her royal personal world that begins like a grand tour and collapses almost like a “one hoss shay.”
I’ve just begun another book of recollections. Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember by James Mellon. This book is not one person’s diary but a collection of 29 oral histories of former slaves, recorded as part of the WPA’s Federal Writers Project in the 1930s. The oral histories from this book were selected from over 2,000 interviews. These recollections reflect the same time period but through the opposite end of the human spectrum, the slave.
Diaries and oral histories serve as an excellent reading experience and important historical, educational and cultural primary source of life during an agonizing period in our United States.
Diary as Literary Tool
For the same reasons that true diaries fascinate us, fictional diaries offer that same pull. Below you’ll find a top-rate list of books that employ the diary style.
To explore more about Mary Chestnut:
For an in-depth look at slavery and first-before-you-go-anywhere-else-must-see if you visit Charleston, South Carolina, check out The Old Slave Mart Museum.
To walk in the same footsteps of Mary Chestnut and learn more about plantation life for owners and slaves, visit Eliza Leach’s House at Middleton Place and do not miss the daily explanations of the house given by Middleton Place’s knowledgeable docents. Mary refers to visiting Middletown and socializes with the Middleton families. Magnolia Plantation’s tour of its Slave Quarters offers insight as well as the preserved Drayton Hall.
The Old Slave Mart Museum also has a great wealth of books on this topic for sale in its store.
*The full book title: A Diary from Dixie: the Civil War's most celebrated journal, written 1860-1865 by the wife of James Chesnut, Jr., an aide to President Jefferson Davis and a brigadier-general in the Confederate Army
Here are some fictional diaries and diary-inspired titles for your consideration:
A wonderful series. If only I could write like Delafield!
Scared me to death. Scared me for life.
If you have a child that hates reading, you might want to try the Wimpy Kid series
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
by Mark Twain
Most of the Sherlock Holmes stories
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
“Watson” writes them as entries
And Certainly the Most Influential and Non-Fictional Diary:
by Anne Frank
I’ll be discussing this diary in more detail in an upcoming post.
Join me tomorrow 9:30 a.m. during 89.9 FM WJCT's First Coast Connect Book Club to discuss diaries in literature.
Consider checking out a diary for your next book. You’ll be privy to shared insights and new perspectives. However, before I crack open the first page, I want to know whether the diary is fiction of truth. Why?