‘Dear Diary’: The Power of The Unique Literary Genre

Most of us at some point in our lives have probably kept a diary or journal of some sort, either from a young age detailing school days or later into adolescence and present day. I recently discovered my old diaries from when I was ages 10-13, whilst amusing reliving moments from my younger self, (mainly what I ate and who my current best friend was!), it made me question the power of the written journal. As the historian, David Ransel discusses, that in the end, the diary has not been used for “facts”, but for the “reconstruction of the social meaning of recorded daily routines, and, through, them, for a glimpse into the social and emotional world inhabited by the diarist.”[1] So, just as the significance of your own personal diary can be used to reflect on your own self-growth, by reading other people’s intimate papers it provides potential historical as well as literary value.  

The word ‘diary’ derives from the Latin meaning ‘day’ and it first came to the scene in the Medieval era, when they were used by mystics to record spiritual interpretations of daily events.[2] Fast forward to the Renaissance, where people began keeping diaries as a way to express opinions without any intentions of one day publishing their writings. As literacy rates rose, and the cost of paper dropped, and people became more aware of the self, diarising quickly became more popular at the beginning of the 18th Century. This progression in diarising, and therefore its growing prestige in becoming a genre, means that there is a distinctive narrative form that writers and readers alike associate with the word “diary”. From the English “diary,” or “journal,” German “Tagebuch,” French “journal”, and Russian “dnevnik” they all share similar characteristics and scholars have read, and used, diaries as historical authentication, evidence into social life or as an autobiographical document. Focusing on what the diarist relates about his daily life, possessions bought and gifted, visits paid and received, births, illness and deaths it allows scholars, historians and ordinary observers, the chance to follow patterns of social advancement, social and emotional interaction and class systems. 

Whilst the diary can provide information concerning the bigger picture, in a way the diary is with us all, as an idea, project or stream of consciousness, which is instantly attainable. It is arguably one of the most flexible and elastic literary genres; yet we are all so familiar with it that we hardly even include in our assessment of important literary forms. Unconsciously, the diary is “easy”, “informal”, something we take for granted, something that “sheds light” on a famous writer, painter or philosopher after their death – but more often than not, there is much to learn from seemingly simple personal accounts. We might be tempted as Bruce Merry explains, to believe that, “all other literary forms are bound to the age and habits of the period which produced them, but the diary stands outside these constraints”, as it is a “personal dialogue between the writer and his private persona”. By lying outside these “constraints”[3], it gives the diarist the chance to discuss anything outside of the push and pull of editorial fashion. A raw, unedited view of history instead of the selective teachings of many history books. 

One of the earliest examples is the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor who lived in 2nd Century AD. Without any intention of publication, these diaries offer a remarkable series of challenging spiritual reflections and exercises which have been consulted and admired by statesmen, thinkers and readers throughout the centuries. There are many important lessons to be learnt, most of which are still relevant today. Such as “the universe is change, life is an opinion”, and “you have the power over your mind, not outside events. Realise this and you find strength.” Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts, just like any diarist, deals with the past whilst simultaneously interacting with the present. The diary also prepares for a space for the unknown future, one which allows you to reflect, build and dream of plans and inevitable change. It improves self-awareness, relieves anxiety, aids your memory and builds your writing skills; effects that even the most famous diarists, such as Anne Frank, Samuel Pepys, Marie Curie and Captain Scott most likely will have felt. 

The power of the diary means that even exceptional circumstances can be understood, in May 1941, Lena Mukhina’s writings[4] recount exactly that – an ordinary teenage girl, living in Leningrad, worrying about her homework, when on the 22nd June 1941, Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and declared war on the Soviet Union. All too soon, Lena’s life was turned upside down, and her diaries provide historians with an invaluable look into the realities and horrors of war. By viewing the diary as an empty vessel, the writer invests meaning onto the blank pages – a generic medium that gives distinctive shape to the experience it records. Just as Lena’s world is brought to life as she recounts her journey, her diary is bound by basic epistemological categories applied to human experience: subjectivity and temporality. Simply, we should take all diary entries with a pinch of salt. Perhaps the best way to learn from the diary, is as Irina Paperno from the Russian Review comments, “the diary is best read not as a book with a beginning and end, but as a process.”[5] Through learning we can begin our own journey, and the diary gives us the flexibility to just write – enjoy the process, and who knows maybe one day it will provide invaluable insight into life in the 21st century. 

Mukhina has been called a ‘Russian Anne Frank’

Pan MacMillan. ‘History’s Greatest Diaries’, April 2016. https://www.panmacmillan.com/blogs/history/historical-diaries-war-history-journal.

Merry, Bruce. ‘The Literary Diary as a Genre’. Faculty of Arts, Celtic Studies & Philosophy NUIM, The Maynooth Review, Vol.5, no. No.1 (May 1979): 3–9.

Paperno, Irina. ‘The Russian Review’. Wiley Vol.63, no. No.4 (October 2004): 13.

Welsch, Colleen. ‘The History of the Diary, the Original Blog’. The Old Timey, 5 July 2017. https://theoldtimey.com/history-of-the-diary/.

[1] Paperno, ‘The Russian Review’.

[2] Welsch, ‘The History of the Diary, the Original Blog’.

[3] Merry, ‘The Literary Diary as a Genre’.

[4] ‘History’s Greatest Diaries’.

[5] Paperno, ‘The Russian Review’.

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