For several weeks now, more by accident than design, I’ve been indulging that guiltiest of pleasures, peeking into other people’s diaries and journals.
I started with Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “Against The Wind,” a new sampling of her journal and letters, and then a copy of the diary and letters of American diplomat Elihu Washburne arrived at my desk. An unexpected newspaper assignment to write about James Boswell meant that I had to take his 18th-century journal from the shelf, too. And then a newly reissued edition of “I to Myself,” editor Jeffery S. Cramer’s marvelously annotated selection from the journals of Henry David Thoreau, somehow dropped in my lap and begged me to look inside.
Dipping into Lindbergh or Washburne, Boswell or Thoreau, I’m reminded of author David McCullough’s wise observation that when we read history, we’re not really studying the past. We are, instead, studying the present — someone else’s present. The people we meet in period writings don’t yet know how things will turn out.
How I wish I could tell Lindbergh, as I read about a physical and emotional crisis that visits her after World War II, that she’ll prevail in the end. But it’s no use; she’s worried sick on Jan. 5, 1947, and all I can do is watch helplessly as she tries to sort herself out. “One wrestles with one’s dragons until the end of one’s life — it is a constant and eternal process,” she confides, her sigh almost audible. “The crises in one’s life only show up in intensity what is going on every day.”
Washburne, who was in Paris as the American ambassador to France when the Franco-Prussian War started in 1870, began his diary after hostilities commenced. Isolated by their military adversaries, Parisians spent a bitter winter eating rats, dogs, cats and zoo animals in a desperate struggle to stay alive. Washburne’s diary crackles like front-page news.
Boswell, though, wasn’t primarily writing his journal to explain himself to others; he was attempting, like many a diarist, to explain himself to himself.
“It will give me a habit of application and improve me in expression,” Boswell writes at the start of his personal record, “and knowing that I am to record my transactions will make me more careful to do well.”
Thoreau, too, gained a sense from keeping a journal that he was dramatizing his existence, like the protagonist of a reality show.
Absolutely everything interests Thoreau, and he has a sublime gift for making us care, too. On July 25, 1853, for example, he has trouble keeping his shoes tied, which makes him think of the best kind of knot to hold them tight, which prompts him to ask why children aren’t given better lessons in knot-tying as part of their general education.
I keep reading Thoreau’s journals for the same reason I read any writer’s journal or diary — for the simple pleasure of turning the page, and wondering what will happen next.