Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Diaries and Letterbooks: A Personal Look into History

By Nina Kendall

Are you looking for a more intimate glimpse into history? Diaries and Letterbooks are unique entries into the historical record. Diaries are running accounts of individual lives while letterbooks are running accounts of enterprises or businesses. These records, often created for personal not public reasons, reveal the experience of ordinary people in different periods of time. Stories of individuals unfold against the backdrop of state and national events engaging the reader with new, relatable detail. The Diary of Young Girl by Anne Frank is the most famous of these published works. Many other diaries and letterbooks are available to readers of history.

One interesting book to consider is the Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, 1739-1762: Intriguing Letters by One of Colonial America's Most Accomplished Women. Her letters offer interesting insight into the colonial frontier and life on a plantation. The struggles of the new colony of Georgia and the challenges with Native Americans in the region are revealed with engaging detail in her entries.

Another work to consider is Camping with the Sioux: The Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher.  This online of edition of her diary of living with and studying the Sioux is available from the National Museum of Natural History. Her work reveals as much about her life, and 19th century attitudes toward Native Americans. A more extensive version of her work was recently published in Life Among the Indians: First Fieldwork among the Sioux and Omahas.

The Princes of Cotton: Four Diaries of Young Men in the South, 1848-1860 compiled by Stephen Berry provides a separate view of the Antebellum Era. The diaries of four young men of the South reveal more depth and variety in the experience of men. These accounts offer a look into the private thoughts of men who would go on to fight in the Civil War.

Want to read unpublished historical diaries? Check out the online collection available at Women Working, 1800-1930 from Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. These works give you the opportunity to look into the life of working women in the 19th and 20th century. Among the works, you will find the diary of Josephine Sherwood Hull. Hull was an actress who starred in the film Harvey with Jimmy Stewart.  Read Hull’s thoughts and gain insight into the life of women in film in the early 20th century.

Interested in a different era? Look for a diary or letterbook in an era that interests you. These works offer the combination of private thoughts and public events that draw readers and have sparked epistolary fiction. 

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