You as History: Life writings and their place in Historical Research

By August 20, 2009

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.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for the excellent and well-written post, Brittany. There is something about personal life writings that makes you feel connected to someone at a specific point in time. One of the best activities I do with my middle school students is have them analyze some of my own life writings & other primary documents–I select several journal entries, a letter or two, and also display some photographs from my youth. They start to realize that I had a past, and it sparks curiosity like I usually don’t see in budding teens. (Another successful activity involves having the students try to transcribe 1850s & 60s letters and diary entries, usually related to the Civil War–they get frustrated, but can’t stop doing it!)

    I hope that you’ll keep blogging for JI! I certainly enjoyed your perspective.

    Comment by Nate R — August 20, 2009 @ 8:23 am

  2. Reading diaries is, I think, my favorite kind of research for many of the reasons you describe. And I am very much looking forward to your publication of RMF’s. I have note read them entirely, but what I have read have been quite wonderful. I’m quite happy that your research ended out focusing on her.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 20, 2009 @ 9:47 am

  3. Fabulous; thanks for this, Brittany.

    Comment by Ben — August 20, 2009 @ 9:50 am

  4. Good stuff, thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — August 20, 2009 @ 10:10 am

  5. Thanks all! Nate–what a fantastic activity to do with your middle school students! Get ’em hooked while they’re young. J. Stapley–of course I’m thrilled about your exposure to the wonders of RMF! Thanks. 🙂

    Comment by Brittany C. — August 20, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

  6. All this focus on diaries explains why I am so freaked about writing in mine. The thought that future generations will parse and disect every phrase is so scary for me that I feel I can’t write and be authentic. It also reminds of the old critique of reality shows: if you know the camera is recording then does it affect your actions? Then can we really call those affected actions “reality”? I think about all this as I try to write aobut “me” in my journal. If I know that people are going to see this as me does that change what I write and hence the picture of who I am?

    Thanks for the post. It definitely got me thinking while also reinforcing my view about personal history. I guess future family historians will just have to rely on other means to know about me.

    Comment by Morgan Deane — August 20, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

  7. Brittany, I cringe when I think of diaries from my family that no one knows where they are anymore. I’m discovering from what little we have that my ancestors were involved in some pretty amazing things, and I am getting more intrigued with them as time goes on.

    I also feel huge guilt that I haven’t done a better job of documenting my own life for my descendants. I’m a little afraid of putting everything down for my kids to see, but on the other hand, those feelings and personal reflections often are the most interesting to read in others.

    I’m right now reading diaries and journals about the 1873 colonization mission to the Little Colorado that my great grandparents were involved in. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, without knowing all the details. It’s fascinating, and I’m learning all sorts of other things along the way. I could be like J Stapley, and do this full time, and just work occasionally. (Tongue firmly in cheek, Stapley, honest).

    Comment by kevinf — August 20, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

  8. Brittany, great post. I hope it’s only the first of many!

    I keep a journal with full knowledge that it’ll be read and I’m resigned to the fact that perhaps someday someone will take it and analyze is like I do to others. All the more reason to remember that we’re dealing with people–people who lived in a time and context that we get relatively short and incomplete glimpses of.

    You’ll have to keep your eye out for Jon Moyer’s dissertation which he defended in the last few months at the UofU and which was tentatively called, as of a few years ago, “Dancing With the Devil: The Mormon Church and the Republican Party.” I understand he traces the Republican party mainly from the 1890s and on (I’m a bit unclear about the exact parameters). I don’t know how much he has on women’s organizational efforts, but anyway, it’ll be worth being aware of once it becomes available.

    Comment by Jared T — August 20, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  9. I too am looking forward to the publication of Ruth May Fox’s diaries. I’ve read part of her diaries and think it will be a great addition. You note that “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.” Do you think you really get “the real story,” whatever that is? Especially with such a prominent church leader? I know I tend to self-edit in my diaries. That being said, what I wouldn’t give to find multiple diaries of some of the early Utah women I’ve written about/studied.

    Comment by Kate — August 20, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

  10. Excellent post. Thanks, Brittany.

    Comment by Christopher — August 21, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

  11. Such great points! Morgan & Kate I loved your posts–Yes, one of the greatest debates in life writings: just how TRUTHFUL a record are we getting? Will we ever know?? Self-editing is soo easy to do, especially when you have a particular audience in mind (I do it!). I have not found a perfect solution yet, and I don’t think there is one. I have found, however, that as I read as much contextual information as I can find, as well as whatever other writings the person authored, I am able to “read between the lines” a bit better. Luckily, RMF was a poet, so I look at the poems she wrote contemporaneously with certain diary entries and it helps to flesh out what she was feeling/thinking. BUT, I realize that luxury is rare. We have to do our best. Any other suggestions?

    Jared–thanks for the dissertation tip! That is great to know. Kevinf–You are so right–those “juicy bits” of raw emotion are usually what readers/scholars love to get! It’s hard to let ourselves go and be totally honest on paper, for some crazy reason…but what have we got to lose? How cool to have your ancestors diaries! And yeah…if any of you have your ancestors diaries, DONATE THEM to an archives so that other descendants can have access to them too! They will also be much better cared for in an archives!

    Comment by Brittany C. — August 21, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

  12. “The fascinating journey of life…Documenting its ways and means, I believe is one of the most essential things we can do…” I agree.
    But I am not sure the ‘journal’ has kept up. I think it was replaced with the camera[?]
    My small family has thousands of photos taken over a hundred years. I have tried to look at these, and find the historical themes in them, and then make photo history essays. [ Think Ken Burns style].
    For we who have weak writing skills, a few bucks can buy some powerful multimedia sofeware, for either personal or family journals.

    Comment by Bob — August 22, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  13. Sorry to be a bit slow in getting to this fine post, Brittany. I especially appreciate your emphasis on history as human life and experience. By its nature, life writing reminds us that experience can hardly be framed. It is not only written but conceived in media res…that is, the ends of the narrative are not known from the beginning. Sometimes narrative history implies that life was more ordered and one-dimensional that it must have been. Meaning and narrative, for the writer and close reader of diaries, etc, are rich, complex, and shifting.

    Bob has a point in his observation that in our day visual culture has taken some ground from print culture. Still, I hope both I and mine can make a literary effort at self-depiction. Perhaps its just nostalgia, but one of the things that I most regret, actually, is the gradual disappearance of autograph writings and epistolary relationships. But whether handwritten or in print, It seems to me that writing is still the best record of the inner life.

    Comment by Ryan Tobler — August 23, 2009 @ 12:10 am

  14. Beautifully stated Ryan! Amen and amen!

    Bob, what a creative way to document your personal history, and certainly a blessing to you and yours. My largest fear with our incredible digital age is that information can be so quickly and easily lost; media recorded on a DVD will likely be obsolete in thirty years. You have probably already done this, but if there is any way you can print off or publish into book form your precious photo histories, please do! You want all those memories to be accessible to many future generations!

    Comment by Brittany C. — August 24, 2009 @ 7:14 pm

  15. #14: All “Legacy” photos are copied, mass printed, and copies are mailed to all known ‘cousins’ etc.
    Most Family History sofeware comes with a complete off site backup of your work.
    But you are right, you should re-burn your work to whatever replaces CD/DVDs or every ten years due to their age.
    I can’t begin to tell you the thanks I get for the sent photos. Some have never seen their grandparents, themself as a child, or their dead sister.

    Comment by Bob — August 27, 2009 @ 3:20 pm


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