Jonathan Swift, Susan Sontag, Marilyn Monroe, and Woody Guthrie had big plans for themselves.
'Tis the season for New Year's resolutions, but instead of regurgitating the most common ones—like changing habit loops, exercising more, and being more productive—here is a look at some of history's more unusual resolution lists from the diaries, letters, and personal effects of cultural icons.
Writing in A Tale of a Tub in 1699, at the age of 32, Jonathan Swift best-known as the author of Gulliver's Travels author—compiled a list of 17 aspirations for his far future, titled "When I come to be old." Focusing on wisdom, humility, patience, and justice, the list brings to mind Benjamin Franklin's famous thirteen virtues, penned around the same time.
When I come to be old. 1699.
Not to marry a young Woman.
Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.
Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
Not to be covetous.
Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.
Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.
Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.
Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
Not to talk much, nor of my self.
Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.
Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.
Not to be positive or opiniative.
Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.
(via Lists of Note)
In 1972, 39-year-old Susan Sontag noted in her diary:
Kindness, kindness, kindness.
I want to make a New Year's prayer, not a resolution. I'm praying for courage.
Then, in early 1977, she resolved:
Starting tomorrow—if not today:
I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)
I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. ('No, I don't go out for lunch.' Can break this rule once every two weeks.)
I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg's Waste Books.)
I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.
I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much—as an escape from writing.)I will answer letters once a week. (Friday?—I have to go to the hospital anyway.)
In the winter of 1955, a 29-year-old Marilyn Monroe resolved in her leather-bound address book to do things better. The list comes from Fragments, the fantastic tome that gave us Monroe's moving unpublished poetry.
Must make effort to do
Must have the dicipline to do the following—
z—go to class—my own always—without fail
x—go as often as possible to observe Strassberg's other private classes
g—never miss actor's studio sessions
v—work whenever possible—on class assignments—and always keep working on the acting exercises
u—start attending Clurman lectures—also Lee Strassberg's directors lectures at theater wing—enquire about both
l—keep looking around me—only much more so—observing—but not only myself but others and everything—take things (it) for what they (it's) are worth
y—must make strong effort to work on current problems and phobias that out of my past has arisen—making much much much more more more more more effort in my analisis. And be there always on time—no excuses for being ever late.
w—if possible—take at least one class at university—in literature—
o—follow RCA thing through.
p—try to find someone to take dancing from—body work (creative)t—take care of my instrument—personally & bodily (exercise)
try to enjoy myself when I can—I'll be miserable enough as it is.
In 1942, 30-year-old Woody Guthrie penned a 33-point compendium of "New Years Rulin's." The list, originally featured here in 2011, is equal parts brave and vulnerable, brimming with a kind of heart-warming earnestness we've come to be tragically cynical about.
- Work more and better
- Work by a schedule
- Wash teeth if any
- Take bath
- Eat good—fruit—vegetables—milk
- Drink very scant if any
- Write a song a day
- Wear clean clothes—look good
- Shine shoes
- Change socks
- Change bed cloths often
- Read lots good books
- Listen to radio a lot
- Learn people better
- Keep rancho clean
- Dont get lonesome
- Stay glad
- Keep hoping machine running
- Dream good
- Bank all extra money
- Save dough
- Have company but dont waste time
- Send Mary and kids money
- Play and sing good
- Dance better
- Help win war—beat fascism
- Love mama
- Love papa
- Love Pete
- Love everybody
- Make up your mind
- Wake up and fight
Now, wash these down with this brief history of the to-do list and the psychology of its success and revisit last year's resolution to read more and write better.
This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.