Domestic Daybook Evokes A Vanished Rural South

By , Mary Warner Marien, who writes from LaFayette, N.Y., teaches fine arts at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.

AT first, Magnolia Wynn Le Guin seems to be that which she called herself: a home-concealed woman. The mainstay of her husband, her aged parents, and eight young children, this rural Georgia farm wife seldom made it out-of-doors. ``I almost despair sometimes of ever having a chance to leave home, to stay in open air and enjoy outdoor life, birds and sunshine, blue skies and moon and stars, hills and trees, water,'' she lamented.

Indeed, Magnolia Le Guin did not spend a night away from home for 15 years, nor take a meal outside her residence for five. In delicate health and wearied from never-ending chores, she felt chronically behind in responsibilities.

``I never catch up with my work and I work all the time someway,'' she wrote in the journal she kept on and off for 13 years.

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Numerous evenings she was so fatigued that sleep became just another task - something she must do so that she could work even harder. ``I am so tired, so tired but must go on and cook supper and churn, wash dishes, cook pumpkin and go to bed,'' she noted.

Though her life was isolated and severe, Magnolia Le Guin was no passive hostage to circumstance. She managed to take a bit of time for herself, even if it meant delaying her labors.

As she put it: ``I haven't time to write - am leaving sewing undone to scribble now - needed sewing too. I love to write.''

And write she did, with a touching honesty that is poignant yet never sentimental. Records of her children's progress (``Traviss put on pants this week and bid his dresses goodbye'') mingle with murmurs of the heart (``Six dark years - after I became a mother - six dark years in sin in my mother and father's life when I should have been a great blessing to them....''). Her fears (``This is the last Christmas we feel sure that we will ever spend with my father in this life'') are suspended by her pleasures (``October! Glorious month ... casts a spell over me ... ''). Constant physical exhaustion resounds throughout the journal like a long sigh.

The diary begins in earnest almost 10 years after her marriage to Ghu Gilbert Le Guin and their move to her parents' homestead, Wynn's Mill. At 32 years old, she has borne four children, three of whom survive. She greets subsequent pregnancies with a mixture of excitement and foreboding.

In addition to the satisfaction she takes in her family, religion and reading sustain her. When she cannot attend a camp meeting she begins to cry: ``there were nine of us - six babies - I had no chance to go.''

However humdrum, there is nothing folksy or sweet about Magnolia's diary. Momentarily bitter because her family takes her for granted, she writes: ``I am staying with my Parents from a sense of duty.'' Scattered among routine entries on canning, cooking, school work, and visitors are outbursts and candid confidences.

When a relative threatens to move into her packed household, she entrusts her resentment only to her God, her husband, and her diary. Incidentally, contemporary readers will wince at the racial epithets and slurs, deplorably typical of that time, that punctuate her writing.

Although Magnolia Le Guin's prose is unaffected, it has distinctive features. The stories that she tells are restricted to her home. Notwithstanding a strong and affectionate marriage, she charts relatively few of her husband's concerns. Years pass without a direct observation on ``his farm'' and its fortunes.

Interestingly, in spite of her busy schedule, Magnolia frequently penned more than one journal entry per day. Especially in times of great trial, she would take up her journal and make another, analogous entry recounting the moment's events.

Without looking back, she asks herself whether she has recorded a particular fact. It is as if the act of writing helped her interpret occurrences and alleviate anxiety. Consequently, looking back at what she had already written would be pointless. Because the genesis of this journal was so personal, readers may come away with the disquieting feeling of having intruded on an intimacy.

Ironically, in years past, the memoirs of Magnolia Wynn Le Guin would have remained private - ensconced in a family's attic or relegated to an obscure local archive. But today, with the postmodern focus of historical studies tending away from great men and events to reconstructions of everyday life, appreciation for daybooks of this sort has increased. In fact, there are few published diaries of Southern rural women at the turn of the century.

In her foreword, granddaughter-in-law and novelist Ursula Le Guin affirms the importance of reading ``a diary kept by an ordinary woman doing nothing unusual in an unremarkable place during an uneventful time.''

In the small compass of Henry County, Ga., Magnolia Wynn Le Guin enlarged her understanding of herself and her relations. Instead of a home-concealed woman, these pages disclose a home-revealed woman, whose writings chronicle the evolution of emotional intricacies and spiritual values in a now vanished world.

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