Story type: Essay
Many people regard the keeping of a diary as a meritorious occupation. The young are urged to take up this cross; it is supposed to benefit girls especially. Whether women should do it is to some minds not an open question, although there is on record the case of the Frenchman who tried to shoot himself when he heard that his wife was keeping a diary. This intention of suicide may have arisen from the fear that his wife was keeping a record of his own peccadilloes rather than of her own thoughts and emotions. Or it may have been from the fear that she was putting down those little conjugal remarks which the husband always dislikes to have thrown up to him, and which a woman can usually quote accurately, it may be for years, it may be forever, without the help of a diary. So we can appreciate without approving the terror of the Frenchman at living on and on in the same house with a growing diary. For it is not simply that this little book of judgment is there in black and white, but that the maker of it is increasing her power of minute observation and analytic expression. In discussing the question whether a woman should keep a diary it is understood that it is not a mere memorandum of events and engagements, such as both men and women of business and affairs necessarily keep, but the daily record which sets down feelings, emotions, and impressions, and criticises people and records opinions. But this is a question that applies to men as well as to women.
It has been assumed that the diary serves two good purposes: it is a disciplinary exercise for the keeper of it, and perhaps a moral guide; and it has great historical value. As to the first, it may be helpful to order, method, discipline, and it may be an indulgence of spleen, whims, and unwholesome criticism and conceit. The habit of saying right out what you think of everybody is not a good one, and the record of such opinions and impressions, while it is not so mischievous to the public as talking may be, is harmful to the recorder. And when we come to the historical value of the diary, we confess to a growing suspicion of it. It is such a deadly weapon when it comes to light after the passage of years. It has an authority which the spoken words of its keeper never had. It is ‘ex parte’, and it cannot be cross-examined. The supposition is that being contemporaneous with the events spoken of, it must be true, and that it is an honest record. Now, as a matter of fact, we doubt if people are any more honest as to themselves or others in a diary than out of it; and rumors, reported facts, and impressions set down daily in the heat and haste of the prejudicial hour are about as likely to be wrong as right. Two diaries of the same events rarely agree. And in turning over an old diary we never know what to allow for the personal equation. The diary is greatly relied on by the writers of history, but it is doubtful if there is any such liar in the world, even when the keeper of it is honest. It is certain to be partisan, and more liable to be misinformed than a newspaper, which exercises some care in view of immediate publicity. The writer happens to know of two diaries which record, on the testimony of eye-witnesses, the circumstances of the last hours of Garfield, and they differ utterly in essential particulars. One of these may turn up fifty years from now, and be accepted as true. An infinite amount of gossip goes into diaries about men and women that would not stand the test of a moment’s contemporary publication. But by-and-by it may all be used to smirch or brighten unjustly some one’s character. Suppose a man in the Army of the Potomac had recorded daily all his opinions of men and events. Reading it over now, with more light and a juster knowledge of character and of measures, is it not probable that he would find it a tissue of misconceptions? Few things are actually what they seem today; they are colored both by misapprehensions and by moods. If a man writes a letter or makes report of an occurrence for immediate publication, subject to universal criticism, there is some restraint on him. In his private letter, or diary especially, he is apt to set down what comes into his head at the moment, often without much effort at verification.
We have been led to this disquisition into the fundamental nature of this private record by the question put to us, whether it is a good plan for a woman to keep a diary. Speaking generally, the diary has become a sort of fetich, the authority of which ought to be overthrown. It is fearful to think how our characters are probably being lied away by innumerable pen scratches in secret repositories, which may some day come to light as unimpeachable witnesses. The reader knows that he is not the sort of man which the diarist jotted him down to be in a single interview. The diary may be a good thing for self-education, if the keeper could insure its destruction. The mental habit of diarizing may have some value, even when it sets undue importance upon trifles. We confess that, never having seen a woman’s private diary (except those that have been published), we do not share the popular impression as to their tenuity implied in the question put to us. Taking it for granted that they are full of noble thoughts and beautiful imaginings, we doubt whether the time spent on them could not be better employed in acquiring knowledge or taking exercise. For the diary forgotten and left to the next generation may be as dangerous as dynamite.