The Great Diarist


I REMEMBER to have read somewhere in the pages of Mark Twain the account of a youthful attempt to keep a diary, the result of which was the endless repetition of the simple sentence, ‘Got up, washed; went to bed.’ I forget what the anecdote was meant to illustrate — the fact that there was nothing in a boy’s life worth recording, or the fact that the diarist’s art is a difficult one. In either case, I submit modestly but firmly that Mark Twain was wrong. A true diarist will be interesting about anything and about everything; whether the dog has ruined the carpet or a king been seated on his ancestral throne, the true journalist is never dull. The Creator has dispensed him from boring his audience.

Take, for instance, the three incidents of the day recited above: one gets up, one washes, and one goes to bed, all processes sufficiently common — even washing — to seem useless to the literary artist; yet who would spare them from the pages of Samuel Pepys? ‘Up and to my office’ . . . ‘Up betimes, and to St. James’s’ . . . ‘Lay in bed, it being Lord’s Day, all the morning, talking with my wife; then up.’ I find that I resent the entries in his Diary that lack this familiar beginning, as though something essential had been omitted. As for the companion phrase, consecrated to the close of day, it has in our own time achieved such popularity that it bids fair to be permanently enshrined in the daily speech of men, and cease to be recognized as a quotation: ‘And so to bed. . . .’ Sentiment will ultimately make an epitaph of it, like ‘Say not good-night,’ or ‘Good-bye, proud world.’

As for bathing, that may be the most exciting of events, as the poets know: ‘the cool silver shock of the plunge,’ whether it be into the ‘pool’s living water’ or into the chilly waters of the domestic tub. ‘One clear, nice, cool squirt of water o’er your bust.’

Up, and to the office . . . where busy till noon, and then my wife being busy in going with her woman to a hot-house to bathe herself, after her long being within doors in the dirt, so that she now pretends to a resolution of being hereafter very clean. How long it will hold I can guess.

22nd. Lay last night alone, my wife after her bathinge lying alone in another bed. So cold all night.

25th. Thence home to the office, where dispatched much business; at night, late home, and to clean myself with warm water; my wife will have me, because she do herself, and so to bed.

Verily, nothing that is human is alien to the diarist. For him life contains nothing that is common or dull. Let him tell us what he ate for dinner, or how cold he was in bed, or how a duchess smiled on him, or what is his balance at the bank, or how he has lost his faith in God, or regained it, or been snubbed by a rival, or cursed his enemy in his heart, or cast eyes of desire upon the parlor maid — all is grist to his mill. How near is grandeur to our dust! How easily does this mortal put on immortality!

But immortality is bought at a price, even by the diarist. It is a razor edge, as the Mohammedan tells us, across which the aspirant to Heaven must make his way. And the diarist, like the rest of us, is in perpetual danger of damnation for his sins. He may make much of them in his journals, and even delight us by his own delight in them; but he must not take pride in displaying them. He would do well to set down naught in the hope of admiration or in the fear of derision. Thus, if a genuine diarist records that he was cold in bed, he does so with a childlike simplicity, as a grievance, as a count against his wife, or as a humble, human fact; but the gods forbid him to enjoy the sensation of being clever at his work. As soon as he becomes clever, attending to his style and aspiring to smart phrase and graceful posture, he is a self-conscious artist, a skillful operative. He may, with luck, become Shaw or Mencken, but he will never be a Samuel Pepys. The artist seeks, properly enough, success and applause; but the diarist is not concerned with such matters. He is not permitted to anticipate or even to desire them. When once his record is complete, he may realize, I suppose, in some dim fashion that he has prevailed over oblivion, so that he cannot destroy his work, even though he may, so far as the outward and surface part of him is concerned, be unwilling that any eye save his own should ever see what he has written.


This setting down of events and emotions precisely as one has known them, and almost immediately after their occurrence, simply, and because one must — this is the sine qua non of a true diarist. But why the compulsion? What is the goad that drives him on?

He must, I imagine (for I am myself no diarist), set down an abstract and brief chronicle of life because he loves it so. He cannot bear to let it all perish without leaving a trace behind. I do not mean that he will record only his delights. Sin, pain, and woe have their place in the great diaries of the world, and must always have, since they are of the very fabric of existence. Indeed, a journal may be almost exclusively a recital of these, so as to become painful or even tragic reading; but throughout it all there must be a conviction on the part of the diarist that, in spite of it all, life was worth having. It would not be easy to discover a diarist who was also a sincere and heartbroken pessimist, one who really felt that life was not worth living. If life be not worth living, obviously a journal is not worth writing.

Consider a diary as unlike that of Pepys as could be found: La Doulou, by Alphonse Daudet — Suffering, or, as I prefer to render the Provencal word, Anguish. It is the intimate and personal account of the daily life of a man suffering from locomotor ataxia. He watches the approach of his enemy day by day and inch by inch, and studies his own physical, nervous, and mental symptoms with the most anxious attention, like a prisoner condemned to the scaffold who watches the moments and days lapsing from him. He knows that he is conquered, but he will not surrender. Like the hero in the old ballad, when he can no longer stand upon his feet, he fights upon his knees; he struggles not so much for himself as for his wife and family, in the hope of concealing from them as long as he can the horrible trap into which he has fallen. Thus La Doulou has the intimate, secret note which marks this type of writing; but at no point does Daudet curse life and lie down to die. Black as are the colors of this book, and dire as is its story, there is something invigorating in the account of the victim’s prolonged agony, for it is the triumph of a human soul. The book is a vivid contrast to the diary and letters of Obermann, which, even when they have something cheerful to recall, exude a lethal atmosphere which makes the reader, like the author, long to have done, not only with the book, but with the whole futile affair of living.

Perhaps the most recent diary published is that of the Yorkshire parson, the Reverend Benjamin Newton, a typical sporting clergyman of the early nineteenth century, who was interested in everything about him, except perhaps the souls of his flock. Like Pepys, he was acutely susceptible to the charms of the other sex, and listed handsome women in numerical order, according to their beauty of (a) face and (b) figure. He is perpetually entertaining because of his unfailing vivacity. This is the quality which endears Pepys to his readers: —

I home to set my journall for these four days in order, they being four days of as great content and honour and pleasure to me as ever I hope to live or desire, or think any body else can live. For methinks if a man would but reflect upon this, and think that all these things are ordered by God Almighty to make me contented ... in my life and matter of mirth, methinks it should make one mightily more satisfied in the world than he is.

Neither syntax nor theology here is beyond criticism, but what vitality it reveals, what sincerity, what contentment! I like to think that the gratitude of young Mr. Pepys was acceptable to his Creator.

So dispatched all my business, having assurance of . . . all hearty love from Sir W. Coventry, and so we staid and saw the King and Queene set out toward Salisbury, and after them the Duke and Duchesse, whose hands I did kiss. And it was the first time I did ever, or did see any body else, kiss her hand, and it was a most fine white and fat hand. But it was pretty to see the young pretty ladies dressed like men, in velvet coats, caps with ribbands and with laced bands, just like men. Only the Duchesse herself it did not become. They gone, we with great content took coach again, and hungry come to Clapham about one o’clock, and Creed there too before us, where a good dinner . . . and so to walk up and down in the gardens, mighty pleasant. By and by comes by promise to me Sir G. Carteret, and viewed the house above and below, and sat and drank there, and I had a little opportunity to kiss and spend some time with the ladies above, his daughter, a buxom lass, and his sister Fissant, a serious lady, and a little daughter of hers that begins to sing prettily. Thence with mighty pleasure, with Sir G. Carteret by coach, with great discourse of kindnesse, with him to my Lord Sandwich, and to me also; and I every day see more good by the alliance. Almost at Deptford I ’light and walked over to Half-way House, and so home, in my way being shown my cozen Patience’s house, which seems, at distance, a pretty house. At home met the weekly Bill, where above 1,000 encreased in the Bill, and of them in all about 1,700 of the plague, which hath made the officers this day resolve of sitting at Deptford, which puts me to some consideration what to do. Therefore home to think and consider of every thing about it, and without determining anything, eat a little supper, and to bed, full of the pleasure of these 6 or 7 last days.

All this mighty pleasure in the midst of a plague-stricken city! Terror hangs over the world like an ever-blackening cloud, but the diarist’s appetite for existence endures undiminished. And so it remains to the end of the journal, when, with the dread of blindness descending upon him and faced with the necessity of closing his Diary, he can still record: —

Dined at home, and in the afternoon by water to White Hall, calling by the way at Michell’s where I have not been many a day till just the other day, and now I met her mother there, and knew her husband to be out of town. And here je did baiser elle, but had not opportunity para hazer some with her as I would have offered if je had had it. And thence had another meeting with the Duke of York, at White Hall, on yesterday’s work, and made a good advance: and so, being called by my wife, we to the Park, Mary Batelier and a Dutch gentleman, a friend of hers being with me. Thence to ‘The World’s End,’ a drinkinghouse by the Park; and there merry, and so home late.

No trace is here of gloom or apprehension; yet the sentences speed forward to the most pathetic utterances of the great Diary. Even as he prays for mercy in the blindness which he believes to be coming on him. he does not forget his ‘amours to Deb’ and all ‘other pleasures’ which his eyesight now compels him to resign.


This very quality in which Pepys excels was well described by another great writer of journals: —

The minds of some men are like a dark cellar — their knowledge lies concealed; while the minds of others are all sunshine and mirror, and reflect all that they read or hear in a lively manner.

These are the words of James Boswell, a man who, quantitatively at least, rivals Pepys as a diarist. Pepys covers but nine years; Boswell, who had no trouble with his visual organs, remained an inveterate journalist to the end, and, no doubt, presented himself at the gate of Heaven notebook in hand. Now Boswell was a vastly less healthy person than Pepys; he suffered through life from a recurrent melancholia which introduces the strangest lights and shadows into his journals; but in his happier hours he had to a very high degree indeed the passion of which I have been speaking. Johnson himself described Boswell’s fondness for the metropolis as a ‘gust for London.’ And there are other powers which Pepys and Boswell share.

Both, for instance, were collectors. Both belong to that hungry set who save things, who gather relics and preserve souvenirs, who love long rows of well-filled shelves and all the paraphernalia of a library. These men leave treasures to posterity.

There is an intimate connection between this mania and the relish of existence which both men display so noticeably. It is because of his gusto that the diarist attempts to preserve some memorial of it, however inadequate. He cannot bear to think that experiences so rich should perish without leaving a rack behind, and he therefore enters into mortal combat with oblivion. The closer his record to the event itself, the more nearly satisfied he will be. Boswell provides many amusing examples of this desire for verisimilitude. Once when he sent his friend Temple as a sort of ambassador to the young lady with whom he was, or thought he was, in love, he provided him with a long series of detailed directions, the most pointed of which is the command, ‘Take notes.’ By taking notes, you see, the ambassador may hope to preserve not only the ipsissima verba of the interview, but even the very atmosphere and tone of it. The incident will be preserved, as book collectors say, ‘in the original condition.’ As long as the scenes of one’s past are dear to the heart, so long wall a man try to prepare for his future nostalgia by the writing of diaries and the preservation of relics. A true diarist is like a great portrait painter who takes his own likeness. The Diary of Mr. Pepys is, in a way, the greatest Selbstbildnis ever painted. ‘A man loves to review his own mind,’ said Johnson to Mrs. Thrale; ‘that is the use of a diary or journal.’ To whom Lord Trimlestown, who was present, said, ‘True, Sir. As the ladies love to see themselves in a glass, so a man likes to see himself in his journal.’

All the reader’s interest in the mirror of a mind arises from a conviction of the writer’s truthfulness. Any suspicion of insincerity, any hint that the diarist is looking over his shoulder to see whether he is being admired or marveled at, any betrayal of a hope that it will all one day get into good black print — this will at once, in some degree, vitiate the reader’s pleasure. For the reader of diaries is an eavesdropper. He has his ear to the keyhole, seeking to pry into intimacies. If he suspects that the conversation to which he listens is intended for his ear, and that the speaker wants to be overheard, all the fun ends at once. Neither the Soliloquies of Saint Augustine nor the Confessions of J. J. Rousseau (different as they are in every way) is a true diary, for both men are too much interested in the reader’s response to what has been set down. Miss Burney, too, is aware of her audience, and indulges her love of fine writing — a sin of which Pepys was as ignorant as the babe unborn. She sometimes carries her art to the point at which one begins to wonder how much of the original fact is left. She was an inaccurate person, the sort of woman who dates a letter ‘Wednesday.’ How far does her indifference to such detail extend? To the words alone? Or to whole conversations? Are the speeches she writes down like those of the generals in Thucydides?

But there is no carelessness or inaccuracy, or rhetoric, no heightening and coloring, in Pepys or Boswell. Both men were professionally concerned with recording facts: Pepys was engaged in filing records for the Naval Office — lists of battleships, with their tonnage and personnel, their movements and their whereabouts, and thousands upon thousands of similar details of no special interest to posterity. Boswell, as a Scotch lawyer, had to present his cases to the court in written form. Such work begets in a man a sense of fact, and a respect for the moving finger of time. He is not likely to date an important letter ‘Wednesday.’

Much of our pleasure in reading Pepys springs from our conviction of its authenticity. It is this that sweeps us along, page after page, over the names of persons of whom we know nothing. But we do know that they are real, like the persons whom we pass in the street, even though we can tell nothing whatever about them. Some of them are acquainted with Pepys, and we are acquainted with him — that is sufficient. With a few of them we, too, become better acquainted as we read on, so that, if we persevere, we find our pleasure constantly mounting, since our knowledge of what is going on is gradually clarified. We shall never come to a perfect vision of it all, — even the most painstaking research will never attain to that, — but life as it was three hundred years ago, and Samuel Pepys in his habit as he lived, these we may come to know.


Let us not mistake. Pepys is not great merely because he brings us into contact with the exciting events of his time. True, he lived through the annus mirabilis of 1666, and so had intimate personal knowledge of the defeat of the Dutch fleet, the great plague that swept over the city, and the Great Fire which swept over it in a more literal sense. These are important events, as are a thousand others with which Pepys brings us in contact, and so the Diary is an invaluable source book for historians. But this is not the reason that Pepys has the devotion of his readers.

The fact is that the man had the fine art of making his record sparkle with vitality. I cannot analyze that gift. I have never met anybody who could. Most essays on Pepys — and there are many delightful ones — rely for their charm on liberal quotations from the Diary. The more quotations, the more charm. The essayist usually contents himself, as in the present instance, with a characterization of the man, not with a critical analysis of his style. How shall one show the component parts of anything so artless?

Yet Pepys was an artist, and I believe that he knew it. It would be more accurate to say that he came in time to know it. It seems to me preposterous to try to believe that a man who has produced a vast work of genius should be unaware of what he has done. He may very well have been ignorant of its largest relations and of its permanent value to mankind; but that he should have had no intimation of its pictorial and panoramic quality, no realization of the fact that it plumbs the depths of human nature — this is to me beyond belief. I should as soon expect the builder of the pyramids to be unaware of the shape which he had erected.

And I believe, furthermore, that it was this knowledge of what he had done that prevented Pepys from destroying or ordering the destruction of the Diary. He could not do it, nor do I think that another man who had created such a thing (if we may tolerate such an assumption) could bring himself to destroy it. For Pepys it would have been a kind of suicide.

He was aware, of course, that it could be readily decoded, — was not the same code used in his office? — and, indeed, a cipher that cannot be decoded, if such there be, would be simply a form of oblivion. And yet there was a certain protection in it. A cipher does furnish a screen against casual observation; a long diary, like that of Pepys, might hope to survive many years unread. After a lapse of a couple of generations, secrecy was no longer of consequence. This was perhaps, consciously or subconsciously, what Pepys wished. He wanted privacy — protection, that is, from the inquisitiveness and derision of his neighbors; and this the cipher afforded, and would probably continue to afford as long as any of his contemporaries remained alive. To most of us posterity hardly matters. The genial soul of Pepys may very well have been content to meet it, and entrust his reputation to it. I cannot see why any man should shrink from that. It is one’s neighbors and relatives whom one wishes to elude. In the masquerade of life a man does not care to give himself away. It is a world in which we are all making a plucky pretense. One takes conscious pride in ‘getting away’ with one’s pose, and none more so than Pepys in public life. But there is solid comfort in making a clean breast of it, whether one is purging the stuffed bosom of the perilous stuff that weighs upon the heart or merely setting down the various devices by which he has succeeded in snatching the pleasures of existence as they fly. But it is so hard to get a hearing and to utter all that one would like to say! Confessors, I have been told, find some difficulty in persuading their penitents to abridge the tale of their sins. ‘No excuses, please; no details,’ they must be always hinting. But the diarist feels no such restraint, and hears no such monitor. He may go on forever.

And as for being read by posterity, is there not a certain pleasure in that, even though everything has to come out? It is certainly no worse than dying and meeting the Recording Angel, which is the experience that awaits us all. But, thanks be to God, it is an angel, and not our neighbors, our wives, or our professors whom we have to meet. Perhaps it will not be so bad after all. Who knows but there may be a solid satisfaction in it, upon getting a hearing at last? The angel will probably do the best he can for us. It is the way of angels.

Posterity has been friendly to Pepys. Not even an angel, I imagine, could have been more indulgently kind. Where is there an author more beloved by his readers? Boswell is still despised by multitudes, Walpole is disliked, Cowper pitied, and Rousseau distrusted. But Pepys is like Lamb, loved by everybody. I have encountered but one sneer at Pepys, and that was from the pen of a Communist, writing for the New Masses, one Michael Gold: —

Samuel Pepys is esteemed by bourgeois readers because he did the things they do, or want to do: he accepted bribes, he dodged his taxes, he was unfaithful . . . to his wife, he beat his servants.

In the new world of Communism there will, I suppose, be none of these dreadful things, for sin and the knowledge of it will have been abolished (by law), and nobody will care whether he is loved by posterity or not.