Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Diaries at the Morgan

Christine Nelson , Drue Heinz Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at The Morgan Library and Museum, has done a lovely job with the current exhibit, The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives. From the exhibit's companion blog:

"Where does a diary end and, say, a sketchbook or scrapbook begin? And what do we call a string of digital updates in which we reveal a little bit each day (or each hour, or each week) about what's on our minds? Or a public blog that tracks our periodic observations? All these forms of self-documentation have something in common with the traditional diary, with its focus on what I thought, felt, read, ate, spent, observed, or did today (and the next day, and the next)."

I've been wanting to see this exhibit since the day Prof. Michael Leddy mentioned it on his wonderful blog Orange Crate Art. I had the chance to go to the Pierpont Morgan Library with my kids today, and it was everything I'd hoped. The exhibit is housed in one room, sparsely adorned with only selected quotations from a few of the diaries displayed on the walls. The diaries themselves are presented neatly in cases with informative captions highlighting interesting facts about the authors or the writings themselves.

The diaries are presented in groupings such as "war diaries," "spiritual diaries," encrypted diaries, and diaries about works in progress, etc. with each diary open to a page of interest that gives the viewer just enough of a voyeuristic glimpse into the author's mind to be both intriguing and satisfying. John Steinbeck wrote famously on May 31, 1938, "Here is the diary of a book and it will be interesting to see how it all works out." The book was The Grapes of Wrath. We also saw the musings of Hawthorne as he was working out The Scarlet Letter, E.B. White on The Trumpet of the Swan, and diary drafts of Kingsley Amis's poems.

There were also observations of an American teenage actress in London (discussing how the British boys couldn't hold a candle to the ones back home), a chess diary by Ruskin, and diaries by Pepys (of course!), Thoreau, Einstein, Charles Seliger (whose penmanship strains the eye), Tennessee Williams (whose penmanship, by contrast, is large and loopy and a little multidirectional), John Tudor (from the period of the American Revolution), Bob Dylan (from much later!), Arthur Sullivan, and Sir Walter Scott. Charlotte Brontë's need to vent her frustration into a diary became kindling for her fiction writing, and I couldn't help smiling at one acerbic comment about "another who seems a rosy sugarplum but I know her to be colored chalk."

I was especially taken by the very first volumes we encountered when we entered the room: a small notebook dating from the Renaissance with erasable pages coated with gesso, and the 19th-century hand-sewn diaries of Elizabeth Eastman Morgan, who lived in Western Massachusetts and wrote about her household chores (sausage- and candle-making, butter-churning, pickling, spinning wool, etc.) and the signs that marked the change of seasons (the peeping of frogs in April, the appearance of whortleberries in August). Her diary is featured in the companion online exhibit and podcasts, which are captivating in and of themselves and well worth an afternoon of browsing, especially for people who are unable to visit the Morgan before May 22 this year.

A special bonus was the chance to see Pierpont Morgan's restored 1906 library . Walking into the East Room reminded my kids and me of the scene in Disney's Beauty and the Beast when the Beast gives Belle the gift of a library, and she opens her eyes and sees a vast collection of books lining the walls from floor to ceiling. On display in the library's beautifully appointed rooms are some gorgeous illuminated manuscripts, a 15th-century block book, exquisitely detailed Babylonian cylinder seals, and music scores by Chopin, Liszt, and Mozart. The library website also offers, incidentally, a Music Manuscripts Online project, providing access to digitized versions of more than forty music manuscripts from the Morgan's holdings.

This was a wonderful exhibit. We bloggers are diarists of a sort, and collections like these churn up those delicious questions about why we do what we do and how we tell the stories of our lives. It's a lot of fun to see how some illustrious people have done just that over the centuries, setting down fragments of their minds for themselves and readers to see and contemplate again and again.

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