Yesteryear's diaries

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PERHAPS one reason early America had a good share of fine writers was that keeping a diary was a way of life. Writing each and every day in a diary required not only discipline, but concern for quality, on the grounds that one day the work might be read by others. Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) was a New Englander whose spare style had all the emotion of a legal notice, but he could be moved to a higher state of expression: ``Monday, April 29, 1695. The morning is very warm and Sunshiny; in the Afternoon there is Thunder and Lightening, and about 2 P.M. a very extraordinary Storm of Hail, so that the ground was made white with it, as with the blossoms when fallen.''

James K. Polk (1795-1849) was one of the nation's most diligent Presidents, yet he found time to record his activities in a diary that was as serious and clear as his personality:

``Wednesday, 1st April, 1846 -- Mrs. Polk and myself paid a visit this evening at seven o'clock to Mr. Johnson, the Postmaster-General, and sat an hour with the family. It is the first visit of the kind which I have made since I have been President. . . . My time has been wholly occupied in my office, in the discharge of my public duties.''

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The undisputed dean of diary-writing was Charles Francis Adams (1807-86), who filled some 11,000 pages. As his son said, ``he took to diary writing early and he took to it bad.'' At 16, Adams had a facility for mastering words, as illustrated by his description of crowded accommodations on a trip that tested his courtesy and Americanism: ``. . . when a lady wished to come in she forced one of us to give up his seat. Who that one should be was for a time doubtful. No one would go until a man who appeare d French or Spanish volunteered which immediately brought to mind the truth of the proverbs concerning nations. I was about to offer myself, God knows how unwillingly, and felt glad to be anticipated in spite of the reflection on our nation.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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