This is a guest post by Kaila Brugger, a 2022 Archives History and Heritage Advanced Internship Program (AHHA) intern in the Manuscript Division.
As an intern in the Manuscript Reading Room, one of my favorite tasks was answering reference questions. In doing so, I found myself moseying through many historical diaries, which frequently evoke elementary school memories.
In fifth grade, my class learned about the American Civil War. For a project, we were told to make an artifact that looked as if it came from the height of the war. My teacher gave us flexibility and let our creative minds fly. Inspired by the journal entries we had read earlier for class, I decided my artifact would be a mock diary. I wrote this diary from the perspective of a 10-year-old mixed race girl in 1863 because I wanted this diary to represent the history I felt I hadn’t heard at the time. I wanted it to be from someone like me.
Diaries are often the best true representation of a person in history. They illustrate the mundane acts of day-to-day life, which speak to our shared humanity. But they also highlight the unusual and awesome moments a person may encounter in life. Diaries shed light on the diversity of a time period and provide stories beyond what may initially be learned in a classroom.
As an intern, I had the opportunity to explore real diaries of people from many walks of life. Let me share some of my favorite examples found in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
In the spirit of my introductory story, I will begin our diary journey on April 7, 1863. The author is not unfamiliar, but the heroic Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross and, among other distinctions, a nurse during the Civil War. The Manuscript Division holds many of her diaries, most just like the one I have chosen: pocket-sized. This one came with a matching, and darling, pocket-sized pencil; I am inspired to buy one for myself.
I have chosen Barton for her legendary status and kind heart, but also for her amazing first-person perspectives of the Civil War. On April 7, 1863, the First Battle of Charleston Harbor commenced just as Barton’s ship landed. Her diary entry begins with her disbelief and an assessment of warnings she had received:
“I am confounded: literally speechless with amazement! When I left Washington, everyone said it boded no peace, it was a bad omen for me to start. I had never missed of finding the trouble I went to find, and was never late – I thought little of it.”
She describes the explosions that followed their docking:
“I felt as if I should sink through the deck. I am no fatalist, but it is so singular.”
And in the end, she records conversations with friends once she safely exited the ship.
Barton’s diaries contain innumerable accounts of influential events beyond the First Battle of Charleston Harbor and convey the incredible emotions accompanying these important historical moments and yet, she often took the time to describe the weather that day, making the mundane feel as profound as the extraordinary.
“Monday, April 20th, 1863
A pretty warm day varying according to opinion from 80o to 100o.”
My next diarist is author Countee Cullen, a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. My own eagerness to explore and my interest in his diary led me to venture bravely into the world of microfilm, microphotographs of items on film – the predecessor to digitization. This was a world I had not known existed before my time with the Library and thus I was quite excited to explore it. Cullen’s fragmented diary gives us a peek into the year 1928.
Cullen was an eloquent and prolific poet and novelist. One opens his diary and expects beautifully written and woven stories of life and its consequences. This is not the case. Cullen often wrote matter-of-factly about his day. On January 15, 1928, for example, he accompanies his fiancée, Nina Yolande DuBois, to Baltimore for a tea where she will meet with her prospective bridesmaids. He explains this and not much more. For he says there are:
“Legions of them – but very pretty.”
A couple of days later, on January 17, he writes, of seeing the revival of a play:
“A dull evening.”
Maybe Cullen saved all of his creativity for poems and novels, or maybe he was just too busy. But I am grateful he graces us with a hint to the rhythms of his days in early 1928. It is interesting, nonetheless, and shows that he was so very human.
Frederick Douglass provides our final diary for discussion. An esteemed abolitionist with a talent for public speaking, Douglass also wrote multiple autobiographies. However, diaries offer us insight into important, but specific moments in a lifetime, while in contrast, autobiographies and memoirs provide a broader, more general, and sometimes censored reflection of a life. Douglass’s diary was written in the years 1886-1894. During some of these years, he traveled and toured Europe and Africa.
After a day of rest, Douglass visits Pompeii on January 4, 1887. There are two sentences that struck me in this particular entry. While these diaries are not ancient, what Douglass has written about Pompeii, I believe, best describes why I am so interested in history, why I enjoyed my time at the Library of Congress, and maybe even why I love reading the diaries themselves. While I have read history books and heard history lessons, nothing quite matches having the primary sources at your fingertips:
“All that has been said and written of this buried city is exceeded by the city itself. It speaks to us of the age and body of ancient times with a power and vividness which holds us in breathless and thoughtful attention.”
If you are interested in discovering more information on Clara Barton and the succeeding events after April 7, 1863, you can find digitized versions of her diaries with crowdsourced transcriptions on the Library’s website. Also check out this article from the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum: Smallpox in the Sea Islands: Clara Barton in South Carolina – Clara Barton Museum.
While the Library of Congress holds the microfilm of the Countee Cullen Papers, the physical collection can be found at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University: Countee Cullen papers, 1900-1947 | Amistad Research Center.
If you are interested in reading more of Frederick Douglass’s diary, the pages have been digitized and uploaded to the Library’s website: Frederick Douglass Papers: Diary, 1886-1894.
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Thank you for this fascinating and touching post, Kaila!