Friday, February 4, 2011

The problem of diaries

Diaries are original sources from an eyewitness. Why aren't they always as illuminating as we would like? Maybe they lack that thing we call "perspective" . . . or context. I was provoked to think about them when I reviewed Lillian's Diaries: Whispers from Galena's Past, which recounts seven years in northwestern Illinois' Jo Daviess County from the point of view of Lillian Trudgian, a young farm woman. The review is just out in the December 2010 issue of Crossroads, the ambitious quarterly of the Utah Genealogical Association. (More on the issue later.)

Then I was provoked to think some more when reading Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory. He called two war diarists to witness the problematic nature of their creations (pages 310-311). Playwright Lillian Hellman hoped to preserve important experiences in her 1944 diary, but later found that they had somehow omitted "what had been most important to me, or what the passing years have made important." And RAF flyer Robert Kee later reflected on his own diary: "From all the quite detailed evidence of these diary entries I can't add up a very coherent picture of how it really was to be on a bomber squadron in those days."

Sometimes up close and personal can be too close -- or it needs to be supplemented with more.

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