A School of Posturing

“ — AND melancholy self-deception! ” Thus Stevenson somewhere characterizes the pleasant habit of keeping a journal. Disgruntled, almost middle-aged, the dictum sounds. Had the author of Virginibus Puerisque been lately reading over some journal of his youth — had he forgotten Pepys ? Strange that he had not recalled the too-oft-quoted passage about the young woman in St. Dunstan’s Church, who repelled Mr. Secretary with a pin; or how they “ talked all the way very pleasantly of the pride and ignorance of Mrs. Lowther; ” or how there was “ nothing for dinner but a venison pasty, a leg of mutton and a few fowls.” Surely here was no melancholy self-deception! but the candidest nature that ever “ left a personal seduction behind, and retained after death the art of making friends.”

Nor is it far otherwise with the graver Evelyn, or the author of Evelina, whose frank endearing diary has lately been given to the public. Who could relinquish these old diaries, Hogarthian progresses through the life of their times? Not the historian; not even the amateur antiquary, who only reads them culled and edited by other writers. It is only thus that I know the diary of Judge Sewall of Boston. He is quoted by Mrs. Earle in many a favorite chapter of her charming books about the customs of the olden time. Readers may wonder what put it into the head of an elderly Puritan lawyer to keep a diary. It was not for our pleasure, we suppose, that he noted down how he sent a neighbor a “taste of his dinner; ” or how he came to name his little daughter Sarah.

“ I was struggling whether to call her Mehitable or Sarah; but when I saw Sarah’s standing in the Scriptures: viz., Peter, Galatians, Hebrews, Romans, I resolved on that name.”

Some survival of youthful feeling must have prompted him to record his pleasant uneventful years — to “ count his life thus by lustres.” He would spin out each sensation, and revive it at will, by thus recording it. Alas! better that he had forgotten the day when he read to his little daughter Betty that terrible sermon which “ wounded ” her!

“ It ran in her mind and terrified her greatly. And staying at home, she read out of Mr. Cotton Mather, ‘ Why hath Satan filled thy heart ? ’ which increased her fear.”

There is a very different diary of Puritan days in Boston, kept by a school-girl who might have gone down the street arm in arm with Sarah or Betty Sewall. Little Anna Green Winslow had obvious reasons for keeping a diary! She must immortalize that pyramidal head-dress, the “ yellow coat, and pompedore shoes,” in which she no doubt looked far more charming than she says she did. Indeed, she does not say that she looked charming at all. She had not so much vanity. She merely describes the charming scenery of clothes amid which she moved; much as if her yellow coat had been a yellow sky, and the silver plume a mountain waterfall, which she had seen while out walking. Little Anna! would that thy book had come to the knowledge of R. L. S.!

“ Dear Mamma,” she writes at its close, “ you don’t know what a stir would be made in Sudbury Street, were I to make my appearance there in my red Dominic and black Hatt! ”

A more industrious journal is that of Abigail Foote.

“ Fixed gown for Prude ” (thus runs an average entry), “ mended mother’s Riding-hood — spun short thread, carded tow, worked on cheese-basket; — hetcheled flax with Hannah, we did 51 pounds apiece — read a sermon by Doddridge, spooled a piece, made a broom of Guinea wheat straw, — set a Red dye.”

And again she writes, —

“ I carded two pounds of whole Wool & felt Nationly.”

The most Puritanic of little girls’ diaries was kept by Mary Sumner, who lived not in Boston, but in the South. Her book was divided into Black Leaves, where she recorded her misdemeanors, and White Leaves, where her meritorious actions were set down. Her Black Leaf contains such grave misconduct as this:

“I left Sister Cynthia’s frock on the bed.

“Was not diligent in laming at school.

“Part of this day I did not improve my time well.”

On her White Leaf we find that she

“Went to meeting and paid good attention.

“ Went to the funeral in the afternoon.

“ Was midlin’ diligent; ” and “ endeavoured to behave myself decent.”

I can write thus in praise of the diary-keeping habit, though it was but lately that I perused with considerable disgust a silly diary which I myself kept in the summer of the Spanish War. And yet I have not burned it; no, not when I found it speaking disrespectfully, even patronizingly, of those whom its author could never sufficiently honor. I value its portrait, though unattractive, of myself, as Cromwell required to be painted with all his warts. If such youthful diaries are schools of posturing, they are very ineffective schools. Our real character appears in them as plain as a pipe-stem. Not the limpid long sentences of Pepys himself more honestly portray their author than the affectations of my diary betray my nature. Not only did I not burn that diary, but I continue the one on which I have been intermittently engaged ever since. I do suspect that there is but little difference between them, could they be viewed by a stranger.

“ Changed not in kind, but in degree ” (I will hope). But were it never so debasing a habit, there is that egotism in me which cannot be satisfied without keeping a journal. I put down, as a makeweight, the events of our family and village, with some comments generously thrown in; and note with an affected brevity the very occasional fact that I have sold some verses. But what I really keep a journal for (murder will out) is to record my own opinions. I delight to write down, under the caption “ A busy day,” exploits of housework; but in closing, include, with an affectation of carelessness, some philosophy which I use in my business. It is pleasant to reread old prophecies, hopes, ambitions, and judgments of men and books, and see how public opinion, and the event, turned some to ridicule, and fulfilled others, and laid a great many on the table.

Diaries are photographs, or what in our school-days we called “ memory books.” There is a diary in our town which I hope some day to see. It was kept by the only naval volunteer from this township in the Civil War. He served under Farragut, and was on the Hartford when she passed New Orleans. His diary covers that famous day. But where is it? His wife has searched her wonderfullykept attics in vain. He too has searched, but in a half-hearted way; for he is reluctant about lending it. Another diary of the Civil War is somewhere in the house of friends of mine. It was kept by the father of my old friend Emma W. — that veteran who used to sing his children to sleep with the “ Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But they lost him many summers ago; and his Diary has long been mislaid. It is really the best diary of which I know; for it has enabled more than one invalid comrade to secure his sorely needed pension. Does it look out, from some dusty corner of the garret, upon one veteran in particular ? does it see him rest that ruined limb, which never ceases to ache a little longer each evening, on the way home from the mill ? There are but six veterans left in town now, and only one who came back from the Wilderness.

Alas! my friend Emma is wedded and gone; or she would let me into that garret, and we would search and find that diary; and we would read together to the entry following Fair Oaks, where General Grant shook hands with our home hero.