20 June 2007

The Age of "Dear Diary"

Yesterday Oz and Ends reader and friend Ruth Berman responded to my remarks on Diary of a Wimpy Kid, whose narrator warns us, “don’t expect me to be all ‘dear diary this’ and ‘dear diary that.’” Ruth wrote:

As regards the girlish habit of writing to "Dear Diary" -- I wonder if any girls ever actually did that. Since it's taken for granted in so many fictional diaries that they do, probably at least a few have done so, after having read the fictional diaries.

It's an odd convention. I'm not sure if it's meant to suggest that the diarist needs the pretense of communication with someone in order to get permission to be so egotistical as to write about self, or that the diarist is so hungry for a friendly correspondent as to cast a few bound pages in the role (or so crazy as to think that the diary actually is a friendly correspondent?), or just what.
So I turned to one of my favorite resources, Google Book, and asked it to search for the phrase “Dear Diary” in its Full Text (i.e., mostly pre-1923) files.

I found that one real American girl who wrote “Dear Diary” was Helen Keller, at least according to how American Anthropologist quoted her 13 Oct 1893 entry. But was that already a literary convention?

Indeed, it was. F. C. Phillips’s novel As in a Looking Glass (1889) takes the form of its heroine’s journal, and as narrator she occasionally addresses the book as “dear diary.”

Furthermore, an actually good American novel, William Dean Howells’s Indian Summer uses the convention even earlier, in 1886. (Howells was a major editor of his time, and I think this novel is the one time he reached the level of Edith Wharton; he’s certainly more fun to read than Henry James.) Of his ingenue Howells said:
This time she wrote to a girl with whom she had been on terms so intimate that when they left school they had agreed to know each other by names expressive of their extremely confidential friendship, and to address each other respectively as Diary and Journal.

They were going to write every day, if only a line or two; and at the end of the year they were to meet and read over together the records of their lives as set down in these letters. They had never met since, though it was now three years since they parted, and they had not written since Imogene came abroad; that is, Imogene had not answered the only letter she had received from her friend in Florence.
Imogene then writes a letter starting, “Dear Diary,” which also addresses the recipient as “Di.” She signs her letter “Journal” and “J.”

So in 1886 Howells depicted these young American women adopting and slightly parodying the “Dear Diary” convention, which means it must have been well established in the US by then. We also see that people understood that convention to signal an “extremely confidential friendship” with the diary, albeit a totally symbolic one.

Pushing further back, I find the phrase “Dear Journal” in E. Prentiss’s novel Stepping Heavenward (1873) and in “Leaves from the Journal of a Poor Musician” in Putnam’s Magazine for 1868. And deeper into the past! Future British schoolmistress Hannah E. Pipe wrote in her journal on 17 Feb 1848: “My dear Diary--I have to apologize for my great neglect of you latterly.”

So young diarists who do write, “Dear Diary,” in their journals, and our fictional Greg Heffley who says he won’t, are playing off a literary trope that’s over a century and a half old.


Erin said...

I've kept a diary since I was 7 years old, and I don't think I've ever begun an entry "dear diary"....

J. L. Bell said...

Well, maybe you're doing it wrong.

(I type with tongue firmly in cheek.)

Erin said...