An exhibit of diaries and journals at Pierpont Morgan Library in New York reminds readers that memoirists once wrote about the world, not just themselves.
Americans are nothing if not practical, and this may account for the current wave of memoirs sweeping across best-seller lists. Because in some real sense, many of these memoirs are self-help books in multi.
Readers of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, Mary Karr's Liar's Club and Kathryn Hartison's The Kiss not only are titillated by these horrific tales of dysfunctional families, they also learn how the authors managed to pull through. The books are like parables with lessons that readers can incorporate into their own lives.
Some memoirs, such as My Mother's Keepers: A Daughter's Memoir of Growing Up in the Shadow Schizophrenia by Tara Elisa Helly (with Joe Helly) and Not Exactly What I Had in Mind: An Incurable Love Story by Rosemary Breslin, offer advice on coping with serious illness. Others are thinly disguised how-to-succeed manuals. Rules of Empowerment by Richard Marcinko, for example, purports to reveal "the nature of dynamic, gutsy front-line leadership" based on the author's life experience.
Nor is it surprising that celebrities continue to produce paeans to the self. There's Sinbad's Guide to Life Because I Know Everything (with David Ritz) And Anika Rodman, former wife of basketball's bad boy Dennis Rodman, has contributed Worse Than He Says He Is to American letters.
Just how far we have strayed from the true and beautiful becomes apparent during a visit to a new exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. "Private Histories: Four Centuries of Journal Keeping" (running until Aug. 31) showcases diaries and journals never meant for mass consumption. The authors were recording their lives for themselves -- in some way, a far more difficult task than writing for anonymous readers. "I have tried to keep diaries before" noted John Steinbeck in one journal, "but it didn't work out because of the necessity to be honest."
Not all diarists in the show are as famous as Steinbeck, but their words have an unsettling, even poetic, power. "The Regulars march out of Boston and march to Lexington, where the massacre first began and killed six men, taking our people unawares"' wrote a Massachusetts weaver named Deborah Sylvester about the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, "but they mustered and drove them back to Charleston. They killed 41 whites, one black and some report that over 500 of the enemy are wounded and slain."
The grim aftermath of battle is captured with journalistic immediacy by Walt Whitman, who tended wounded Civil War soldiers. Here is his description of one victim's fate: "Shot by a shell last Sunday -- right leg amputated on the field -- sent up here Monday night, 14th -- seem'd to be doing pretty well till Wednesday noon, 16th, when he took a turn for the a strangely rapid and fatal termination ensued. Though I had much to do, I staid and saw it all. It was a death picture characteristic of these soldiers' hospitals -- the perfect specimen of physique, one of the most magnificent I have ever seen -- the compulsive spasms, the workings of muscles and mouth and then the doctor comes in and gives him a little chloroform."
The curators of the show point out that the origin of the modern English novel owes a great deal to journal writers. Samuel Richardson, Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding all drew inspiration for their fictional works from personal narratives. Probably no better example exists than Defoe's Journal of the Plague Years, based on the 1663 bubonic-plague epidemic. …