Privy to the Unedited Life

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:


Diary of a Provincial Lady
by E.M. Delafield 

A wonderful series. If only I could write like Delafield!


Go Ask Alice
by Beatrice Sparks

Scared me to death. Scared me for life.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, #1) 
by Jeff Kinney

If you have a child that hates reading, you might want to try the Wimpy Kid series

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky 

Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes 

Summer Reading…


by William Shakespeare 


The Woman in White
by Wilkie Collins


by Bram Stoker 


by Toni Morrison

by Chuck Palahniuk 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
by Anne Brontë 


by Charlotte Brontë


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:


The Diary of a Young Girl

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?


Go Ask Alice,


Stacey Goldring




Too Much Fun for My Pyloric Valve!

I gotta say, I've been working with WJCT's Melissa Ross and Sean Birch for almost four years now. I've seen a lot of interesting individuals walk into the studio and sit for a chat. 

However, last week was an absolute doozy and almost blew my pyloric valve back to Moorish times. 

It was rip-roaring fun to have Miss Trixie of Levy Pants right there in the studio, complete with her bag of rags and strings. The real Miss Trixie, who was coaxed from her retirement to appear on First Coast Connect hosted by Melissa Ross. Miss Trixie, who is an integral character from the pages of John Kennedy Toole's masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces, spent my segment falling asleep on the mic, calling our for Gloria and handing her socks in various places en studio.  If you think brilliantly like me and enjoyed CofD, then you would have appreciated this public display of National Public Radio indignity! I

I am incredibly fortunate that Lucy Cortese, my mentor, former head hauncho and my fearless leader at Tree Hill Nature Center and now member of my book group, agreed to channel Miss Trixie and take it to the search of her ham. 

It takes a certain sensibility to love CodD. Not only did Lucy, a published author, adore Ignatius rumpus and appreciate the brilliance of the message, she Lee Strassberged Miss Trixie to the max, a performance worthy of a Paradise vendor hot dog. 

Thank you to TV Jax for filming this truly literary moment during the First Coast Connect Book Club.



Radio Days

Discussing literature every month on the radio is an incredible privilege. For over three years, Melissa Ross, host of First Coast Connect, has invited me into the 89.9 FM WJCT's studio to talk about everything from Allende to Zora. 

This month, both great authors were mentioned on the segment, which was televised.


Lesson learned: One must be always ready for their close up. Even on the radio.