We all have different stories. And we all have different stories that led us here, reading the same blog post on Juvenile Instructor! Some of you have chosen to jot these stories down in one form or another and, thankfully, so did many of your nineteenth-century ancestors.
Life writings—autobiographies, biographies, diaries, and correspondence—captured the Victorian imagination and came to the foreground of public and private life as never before. Published autobiographies and biographies were among the best sellers of the nineteenth century. In reaction to this popular force many looked with renewed interest at their own lives, realizing that they too were creating a story worthy of interest and preservation, even if it was valuable to no other person than themselves.
Hence, the nineteenth century left us with a comparative abundance of life writings including my personal favorite—diaries. The beauty of this medium is in its candor and sheer humanity; diaries begin in media res—in the middle of things—where the end of the story is a blank page. Almost entirely incognizant of it, the diarist daily weaves the story of their life, unconscious of which details are important or otherwise, and with each entry inches closer to an ending which is unknown. The writer is as ignorant of what will happen tomorrow as in the next few minutes; they are as unaware as we of future achievements, tragedies, and joys, death and life. In the moment of their recording, they simply are. They become living and breathing persons filled, as we are, with interests and passions, insecurities and unanswered questions. They become someone we can relate to.
As a reader of the diary, one expects to find the unceremonious details of an individual’s daily life: the personal thoughts, emotions, or daily activities which unite the human experience. Often written only for an audience of one (the self), a more intimate perception of the individual is expected and often received by reading a diary as opposed to an auto/biography. In them, we can see the hand of God and patterns of choice and consequence.
As historical records, life-writings are unparalleled. History is about people—the individual lives wrapped up in time, place and exterior events. Life writings give an informal, contemporaneous perspective of social movements, politics, and prominent persons unavailable via textbook. This is especially valuable in Mormon Studies as we research the past and try to make sense of things. Life writings allow one to go straight to the source and get the facts about how people truly felt about such issues as plural marriage, woman suffrage, and the frequent uprooting of Mormon communities. Thankfully, there is no shortage of this raw material in Mormon Studies and it is a resource we can drink deeply from while chasing the past.
You never know what invaluable records you could find in your parent’s basement or in some unknown archive. Before beginning graduate school, I was aware of diaries kept by my great-great grandmother Ruth May Fox, but was only vaguely familiar with their contents. In a class I took on Victorian life-writings, I made a presentation about the life of my g-g-grandmother as recorded in her autobiography and made mention of diaries she had kept. My professor remarked, “I could see this becoming a great thesis topic.” Incredibly, this was not a suggestion I embraced right away. Like the proverbial diamond in the backyard, I looked elsewhere before turning at last to the diaries of my own ancestor, which I found at the Church History Library. In her life writings, I found invaluable insight into the early religious and civic culture of Mormon women, details about significant historical events and prominent Mormon leaders, as well as and a treasure trove of religious and moral conviction. For example, from her diary:
“July Sun 14 1895 nothing of importance has happened excepting that the Republican women are forming Leagues. I have been made Treasurer of the State ^Ter[ritorial]^ Organization. I do hope they will not engender bad feelings in their division on party lines. For my part I care nothing for politics. It is Mormonism or nothing for me.”
This short entry with “nothing of importance” touches on some serious social and political issues that were dramatically in flux as Utah battled for statehood. It highlights not only Republican women’s efforts in suffrage, but you also get a taste of the newness of a political community blind to religious ties. In this diary entry, they are directly associated. These are only bare skimmings, but they introduce fascinating stuff that one can dig deeply into!
After couching Ruth May Fox’s diary entries in historical context, all of a sudden history became much more than simple FACTS to me. It became a living and breathing phenomenon, full of life and vigor. Conversely, Ruth also became more real; pieces of her world became more visible and interconnected. It’s a win-win situation.
Life writings are a priceless historical treasure that we can and should take definite advantage of. Primary resources don’t get much better. And, in the next 100 years, your life writings will be a historical treasure too! The fascinating journey of life, as way leads on to way, never ceases to amaze me. Documenting its ways and means, I believe is one of the most essential things we can do on our earthly sojourn both for ourselves, our posterity, and for the future of Mormon history.