Death and the Diary, or Tragedies in the Archive

Article excerpt

The privately held diary of Myrtle Gamble Knister, wife of modernist author Raymond Knister, stands as a touchstone document, used as evidence to substantiate her husband's drowning as accidental and to contradict Dorothy Livesay's claim that it was a suicide. Exploring the controversy around his death, and using Myrtle Knister's diary as an example, this essay seeks to evaluate in a more general way the diary's currency in the economy of the archive, especially the currency of those diaries that face evidentiary demands when called upon to function as eyewitness reports. The essay assesses the similarities and differences between diaries of tragedies and autothanatography, a term developed by Nancy K. Miller in 1994 to describe a genre of life writing that explicitly confronts death.

Le journal personnel de Myrtle Gamble Knister, épouse de l'auteur moderniste Raymond Knister, est un document important utilisé pour prouver la noyade accidentelle de son époux et contredire la déclaration de Dorothy Livesay qui affirme qu'il s'agissait d'un suicide. En étudiant la controverse soulevée par cette mort et en utilisant le journal personnel de Myrtle Knister comme exemple, cet article essaie d'évaluer de façon plus générale l'importance du journal personnel dans l'économie de l'archive, spécialement les journaux personnels qui doivent être prouvés lorsqu'ils servent de témoins. L'article évalue les ressemblances et les différences entre les journaux personnels de tragédies et d'autothanatographies-un terme formulé par Nancy K. Miller en 1994 pour décrire un genre d'écriture sur la vie qui confronte expressément la mort.

The privately held diary of Myrtle Gamble Knister, wife of modernist Canadian writer Raymond Knister, has been used as evidence to substantiate her husband's drowning as accidental and to contradict Dorothy Livesay's claim that it was a suicide. Using Myrtle Knister's diary as an example, this essay seeks to assess in a more general way the diary's currency in the economy of the archive, especially the currency of those diaries that face evidentiary demands when called upon to function as eyewitness reports. Knister's publicly oriented diary, as distinct from a public diary, carefully constructs in writing a death mask for her husband. I read her diary as a variation on the genre of autothanatography, a term developed by Nancy K. Miller (1994) to describe a kind of life writing that explicitly confronts death, whose shadow hovers over many acts of life writing and of archiving. The point of the investigation is to understand what happens when death confronts the diary.

In his final hours, Raymond Knister was swimming alone a long way out from a reedy shore at Stoney Point on Lake St. Clair. He and his young family had been enjoying a vacation at a cottage just before he was to take up a new posting as editor for the Ryerson Press. His wife, Myrtle, could not join him because their young daughter was still napping, but when little Imogen woke up, they went to the beach. Myrtle saw her husband out where there was a sudden drop off; it was a spot she had worried about earlier in the week, but she turned away to intervene as her daughter and another toddler struggled over an umbrella. Then she opened her sketch book. When she looked up, he was gone. In the following hours, she summoned boats to go and look for him, but it eventually took divers three days to recover the body held in place by an undertow. When he died at the end of August 1932, Knister was 33, the critically acclaimed author of a novel entitled White Narcissus, a successful poet and short-story writer, and an award-winning biographer of Keats. He planned a new novel, Via Faust, and looked forward to his new editorial position. In their last conversation, he told his wife, "I feel just like Keats did when he was just coming into his powers. I feel as though I am just coming into mine. The world is before us, Myrtle. We have everything we want and we are happy" (Givens 1980, 11). …