Dear Diary: The Art of Confiding On Paper Is as Popular as Ever

New York exhibition displays journals from four centuries

John Steinbeck berates himself for writer's block, Charlotte Bront struggles with homesickness, and Victor Hugo's daughter, Adle, is driven by a romantic obsession. Alongside them, a young American woman delights in a French dinner party, a sailor writes poetry on a whaling voyage, and a 12-year-old laments, "All this eventful day I have got to write in about the space of a half an hour."

Wandering through the cases of journals from the last four centuries on display at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, one is reminded that there is nothing new about the idea of keeping a diary.

"It's wonderful to see that people 200 years ago were worrying about the same things," one visitor writes in the exhibition's comment book.

More and more people are recording their lives. Some are reflective because of the end of the millennium. Others are drawn in by the raging popularity of published memoirs, the ease of writing on a computer, or even the excitement of broadcasting their life story over the Internet.

Featured in the Morgan exhibition are 70 journals from both famous figures, such as Albert Einstein, Sir Walter Scott, and Henry David Thoreau, and unfamiliar citizens, such as an American woman who agonizes over her brother's death, an Englishman obsessed with a Spanish woman he met at a masked ball, and an Iraqi artist who describes her house filled with relatives and friends during the Gulf War.

Curator Christine Nelson wants to show another side of history. "We read about public events," she says, "but the real stuff of history is about cooking and marriages and personal events."

Part of the pleasure of the exhibits is the sense of intimacy the reader has from seeing the original handwriting and physical books, often tattered from use and age. Some passages are written in code, like the backward "mirror writing" used by a Norwegian immigrant sailor when he wrote about his future wife.

Mr. Steinbeck kept two journals while he was working on "East of Eden." While he wrote brief, banal entries in his life diary - "Got new shorts and socks. Went to dinner. Good split pea soup" - he struggled with writer's block in the work journal: "I must have the determination to proceed. If I do not there is no hope for me. I think I can do this book.... The question arises as to whether or not I can still write. That of course remains to be seen."

Over the centuries, people have tended to write in journals more at certain times in their lives, such as during adolescence, crisis periods, old age, or when they feel isolated - while at war or in prison, for example.

Journal writing today

These days, participants in the Outward Bound program of personal discovery through survival in the wilderness are required to keep a journal, and many schools now use the exercise as a way to interest students in writing.

Other evidence of the current popularity of journals is on the shelves of bookstores and stationary shops, which are packed with an assortment of blank books - from simple notebooks to expensive leather tomes. Curzon, a New York-based publisher that supplies blank books to stores, has seen sales triple in the last six years.

In January, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., started giving a blank book to every seminar participant. "The journal works like a seed bed," says Chip Scanlan, director of writing programs at Poynter.

"It's a place you can put snatches of dialogue you overhear, ideas for stories," he says, "and these things can begin to grow."

One of the most popular writing classes at the New School for Social Research in New York is "Diaries and Notebooks: Keeping One, Reading Others," taught by Carla Stevens, author of "A Book of Your Own," a children's guide to keeping a diary.

"I think it's crucial to keep a diary," Ms. Stevens says. "It's not just getting in touch with your inner self, but giving yourself a record of who you are, or were at a particular time."

For some diarists, it is the thought of leaving behind a tangible record that makes their journal significant.

In one of the most poignant displays at the Morgan, Dutch American voyager Robert Livingston wrote as he was lost at sea in 1694: "There is hardly a week's supply of water left.... I do not expect to see my dear wife and children again in this life, but wish that she might have this my journal."

Unless a journal is destroyed, it will be read. "An audience will turn up," writes Thomas Mallon in "A Book of One's Own." "Someone will be reading and you'll be talking. And if you're talking, it means you're alive."

*'Private Histories: Four Centuries of Journal Keeping' is on display at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York through Aug. 31.Concurrently on view is 'An Eye for Beauty: The Alice Tully Collection,' including 70 drawings and watercolors by Raphael, Giambattista Tiepolo, William Turner, and others.

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