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The Hidden Writer:

Doubleday, 275 pp, $22.95

It has become increasingly clear in our information age that the personal document no longer exists. Desktop publishing, home pages, faxes, and e-mail guarantee the mass manufacture of once handcrafted texts. We inhabit a ruthlessly public world, where readers always feel the right to know (though most could not explain what or why). Is it any wonder that our appetite for intimate details has grown insatiable? And nowhere are intimate details found in greater abundance than in the diary, that quaint relic of private life. As Alexandra Johnson notes in her inspired feminist study, The Hidden Writer: Diaries and the Creative Life, this is a dodgy commendation. “Once the literature of the outsider, by the 1980s the diary was becoming mainstream,” she writes, adding later that, “As the planet spins toward the millennium, diaries will probably be a constant….[A]s long as there are diaries, there will be people reading them, searching for clues from narrated lives.”

The bulk of Johnson’s book consists of engrossing “narrative portraits,” biographical gems cut from seven women’s diaries. Her writer-subjects range from the relatively obscure to the canonical, from Marjory Fleming, Sonya Tolstoy, and Alice James to Anaïs Nin and May Sarton to Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. They give the work impressive chronologic breadth, with Fleming beginning her diary in 1809 at age 7 and Sarton keeping hers until her belated death this decade. And the women all navigated vastly different circumstances and careers. Nin made no secret of her copious sexual exploits, while Sarton stayed mum on her lesbianism. The child prodigy of the lot, Fleming, became a sentimental favorite of the 19th century, but Tolstoy and James did not emerge from the shadow of their famous relatives (Leo, and Henry and William, respectively) until well after their deaths.

Still, it seems a bit disingenuous to call many of these writers “hidden,” given that all of them have been published, though most posthumously. Johnson notes that Sarton and Nin both wrote their diaries for publication, which suggests a certain strain of exhibitionism—though not necessarily a distasteful one. And Woolf and Mansfield were quite visible among their Modernist peers, though their diaries were private; the women used them as training grounds for what they considered to be their significant work. In her review of Mansfield’s published journal (titled “The Private Papers of the Dead”), Dorothy Parker expressed a mix of awe and unease at reading the black-market material. “Please forgive me,” she asked Mansfield. Like Parker, I am not one for public apologies, but that was my feeling on finishing Woolf’s Moments of Being, so obviously was it a personal document.

The prying eyes of readers, however kindly disposed they may be, are prying nonetheless; honest readers of diaries will admit that their pleasure is at least partly guilty. Johnson is one such reader. She synthesizes her raw material with real sensitivity for its context, and her prologue and epilogue are suffused with insight. Diaries are understandably precious to literary critics and historians, aspiring writers, and lovesick fans. But Johnson also posits that they interest anyone trying to lead a “creative life,” whatever that may be. (An awful lot of people are creative these days, almost as many as are spiritual.) A professor of memoir at Harvard, Johnson recognizes with some misgiving “the mania for self-expression.”

“Creative writing classes, journal classes, essay and composition classes, seminars in how to write memoir or publish books, crowd catalogs,” the author notes. “It is the passion of the first person singular—to have its say, leave a mark, not lose itself in a world wired into global plurality, a world at once connected and alienating.” She believes that “the diary has entered its newest phase, the vehicle of choice in the culture of self-discovery,” and the theory is grounded in fact. “Ten million blank hard-spined journals are sold annually in America,” Johnson reports, and “Books in Print lists two and a half single-spaced pages under the subject heading ‘Diaries.’” People can use diaries for any number of serviceable ends, but for many writers they serve (imaginatively, perhaps) as precursors to memoir. “Material that just ten years ago would have stayed hidden in a diary is now shaped into memoir,” Johnson argues. And diaries tucked away a century ago are now available at the local Borders.

The phenomenon of the published diary is a byproduct of celebrity. Admittedly, Johnson’s work would have been less intriguing if she had focused on the diaries of women like her grandmother, though she declares that “those who never got out of the diary, whose creativity was somehow stymied, interest…[her] as much as those who’d broken through to larger creative works.” While the best diaries are true to life, it is usually celebrity life. Alice James may have considered her invalid life a disappointment, but she had some of the bluest blood in America. Sonya Tolstoy had offered readers an insider’s literary gossip, as did Nin, who slept with Henry Miller and countless others. The drama of their tales derives from serendipity and misfortune alike.

Discussing the most celebrated diarist of this century, Johnson attests, “However powerful Anne Frank’s diary, it will remind me that her powers went untested….No matter how poignantly vital [her] writing legacy, secretly we say to ourselves, ‘It’s a shame she left only a diary.’” But really, it’s a tragedy she died in Bergen-Belsen. The awful truth is that her diary might never have been published without its sad postscript. Few prospects are more horrifying than the prospect of a “new” Anne Frank, however magnificent a document she might produce.

“While few writers have faced Anne Frank’s brutal restrictions—and certainly all lived longer—in the end, many an early writer’s reputation rests on a single legacy: the diary,” Johnson writes. Not coincidentally, many of these “early” writers are female. With more than a dozen children and a grandiose husband, Sonya Tolstoy never had the chance to craft anything other than a diary. For years, she loaned it to her husband, who borrowed extensively from it for his novels—so it was communiqué as much as meditation. This was not unprecedented behavior; in the same century, Fleming and Dorothy Wordsworth also shared their diaries with relatives. Johnson aptly characterizes these women as “shadow writers.” But the world is ripe with raw material, and it seems a mite generous to assume that all who mine it could finish it.

While Johnson finds in Frank’s revision of her diary proof positive of a blossoming literary talent, she views the editorial work Nin did on her expurgated volumes as a betrayal. “Like a spider spinning its thread out of its own belly, a diary is a lifeline to an innermost self. Often it is the only place someone can be honest,” Johnson maintains. “In violating the truth forum of the diary, Nin was guilty of a kind of psychic incest, violating the taboo of lying to oneself.” Yet Nin lied to her readers, not to herself. She kept the truth quite literally locked away, in a bank vault containing stacks and stacks of her complete diaries. Most writers lie. Honesty and sincerity are interesting only to a point; that was the point Nin proved in her ruse.

Of course, Nin wrote fantasy (and dull fantasy, at that). Let the New Critics blather on about Life with a capital L—books are supposed to be better than Life. Diarists who write for publication suspect this as much as the next person. “Is what we read in a diary always true?” Johnson asks. In a word: no. The lesson Nin teaches, Johnson believes, is to “question truth in autobiographical writing.” And to question what we really want when we clamor for it.

Autobiography takes the self public. Why wouldn’t that self wear its Sunday best? “Unlike a novel, the published diary forces the reader to judge the writer’s life as well as the work—ironically, the very fate that has kept many stuck in the safety of a diary in the first place,” Johnson notes. Lately, the diary has become a fictional form. It allows writers to cast themselves as characters, but it also creates another world where people can encounter themselves without social or psychological riot gear. Our workaday world is not that safe, certainly not that private. Diaries suggest it could be. “At night, all across the nation, satellites probably pick up the lonely click of keyboards,” Johnson writes. “Beamed into space, the sound is the same—like someone buried alive, furiously tapping their way out.” Like the best of her diarists, Johnson arranges all that tapping and scribbling into a more musical form, an inspiring air, so that it sounds like life, only better.CP