19 June 2007

A Long Look at Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Last weekend I attended a history conference on diaries in New England from pre-Revolutionary times to the late twentieth century. At one point historian Lynne Bassett asked for thoughts on why diary-keeping seems to have become a feminine activity.

I piped up with an allusion to the first paragraph of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, now appearing both on the NYTBR bestseller list and on FunBrain.com:

First of all, I want to get something straight: this is a JOURNAL, not a diary. I know what it says on the cover but when Mom went out to buy this thing I SPECIFICALLY said to make sure it didn’t say “diary” on it. So don’t expect me to be all “dear diary this” and “dear diary that.”
This is followed by a cartoon of a bully punching our narrator while yelling, “SISSY!” The gendered implications could hardly be clearer.

How did we get from Samuel Pepys keeping a daily record of his work as Navy secretary, marriage, genteel social life, and sexual dalliances to young Greg Heffley insisting he doesn’t keep a diary, no, not him?

In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, both men and women in America and Britain kept diaries. In fact, because literary rates were higher for males, men wrote more diaries than women.

In the early part of that period, diaries weren’t necessarily private documents. Gentlemen might invite their friends to read their records of important events, or copy out entries to send to relatives. Some men, such as William Byrd of Virginia, kept private diaries for what they wanted to keep confidential and public versions to share.

In addition, those diaries tended to be records of events: the weather, business matters, dining partners, the receipt of news, and so on. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that people commonly made their diaries the repository of their deepest feelings. That turned diaries into private documents for the writers and trusted loved ones, leading eventually to diaries being marketed with locks on them. In general nineteenth-century men expressed their emotions in their diaries as freely as women did.

But then post-Victorian culture started to shoo men away from sentiment, and everything that had come to be associated with it--including diaries. Especially diaries of the “dear diary this” kind. And for American boys in seventh grade, like the fictional Greg Heffley, questions of masculinity and femininity are very important.

So Greg tells us that “I think Mom has this idea that I’m going to write down my ‘feelings’ and all that, but she’s not actually allowed to read it so I figure I’ll just write what I want.” Ironically, the secrecy that once shielded expressions of emotion has become his shield for not expressing his emotions--at least outright. (In fact, it’s mighty clear how Greg feels about things.)

I’m not sure how our current gendered distinction between “diary” and “journal” arose. The terms are synonymous, both going back to the same Latin root as in “diurnal.” But it’s so widespread that Simon & Schuster took care to label their My Name Is America books for boys as “journals” while the older Dear America series for girls remain “diaries.”

1 comment:

MotherReader said...

I love your look at this book. So unique.