The desire to record details of our lives is as old as handwriting itself. Early diaries were mostly kept as public records. The modern diary has its origins in fifteenth-century Italy where diaries were used for accounting. Gradually, the focus of diaries shifted from that of recording public life to reflecting on the private one. Leonardo da Vinci filled 5,000 pages of journals with ideas for inventions and clever observations.
Diary as autobiography, the truly modern diary, began with Samuel Pepys in England in 1660. He records details of his life in London, including grand scenes from historic events like the Great Fire of 1666 and more intimate scenes such as quarrels with his wife.
The travel journal has been around since the early Christian pilgrims began traveling to the Holy Land in the first century after Christ. By the late eighteenth century, explorers were traversing the earth and recording their discoveries – explorers such as Captain Cook, Lewis and Clark, and Darwin. In 1845 Henry David Thoreau began recording what would become the classic, Walden, the account of his two-year experiment of “living deliberately” at Walden Pond.
Since the late eighteenth century, writers, artists, and other creatives have used the diary as an integral part of the creative process – writers such as Tolstoy, Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Anais Nin, and Sylvia Plath. Many of these journals were published and are widely read, even to this day. Interestingly, many of these best-sellers were by women writers, for example, poet May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude (1973), a beautiful book about the life of a solitary writer.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have also seen the rise of the war journal, including what is perhaps the most famous diary of all, that of Anne Frank. She and her contemporary, Etty Hillesum, chronicled their lives during WWII. Poet soldiers Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen wrote about their experiences of WWI. Mary Chestnut wrote about the American Civil War.
And now we have the digital diarist: the blogger, the Facebook user, the Twitter user. We have software programs for keeping a diary in cyberspace. In the twenty-first century, the desire to record the intimate details of our lives has become a public affair. There’s an urge to reveal, rather than conceal in a hidden journal. And yet journal keeping has always had this dichotomy: the desire to express and make visible, the urge to keep secret and hidden.
No matter what their form or type, diaries are the living embodiment of E.M. Forster’s famous dare: only connect. For over a millennium, diaries have allowed individuals to connect first within themselves and then with the larger world. – Alexandra Johnson
For a fascinating overview of the history of journaling, check out Alexandra Johnson’s book, A Brief History of Diaries: From Pepys to Blogs.