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Private Voices in a Public Place: Diaries at the Morgan Library

Bloggers? Tweeters? My Space? Facebook? Fahgedabodit. Hundreds of years before everyone got on a digital soapbox, diarists used this intimate form to confide their loves, longings, and keen observations about the world around them.

A fascinating selection of diaries make up the exhibition “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Life,” now on view at the Morgan Library and Museum. Like the museum itself, which boasts an airy new wing, the exhibition combines past and present and provides glimpses of well-known lives, along with more obscure ones from a 16th-century pirate to a 20th-century Abstract Expressionist.

Although we generally associate diaries with the hermetic nature of the bound book, once opened, they prove to be powerful conveyors of vivid, individual voices. Some of those voices were given life — sometimes robust, sometimes tender — in readings by Paul Hecht and Barbara Feldon at the Morgan on April 21. 

The program’s simple staging placed the actors opposite one another, separated by a large, hanging video screen on which was projected an image of each diarist.  The entries were introduced by the exhibition’s curator Christine Nelson, and ranged from musings about the restorative powers of the natural world (Henry David Thoreau, of course) to the restorative powers of Jane Austen and a little whiskey (Sir Walter Scott). We heard from the pirate on his plundering techniques; Walt Whitman’s touching reports of Civil War casualties; Tennessee Williams’ creative dilemmas; and several happy marriages were celebrated. While each entry was very much of its period (with the Victorians coming off as surprisingly ardent and open minded), they all seemed to reach across the barriers of time.

“Whom do I tell when I tell a blank page?” mused diarist extraordinaire Virginia Woolf. The answer, in all these cases, is “us.”

Bon mots:

Sophia Hawthorne on love and marriage: "My heart is full, it rises to so high a mark, it overflows so bountifully, that were there not another heart to receive my boundless love I should feel sad and aimless."

Henry David Thoreau on sadness: "There is a certain fertile sadness, which I would not avoid but rather earnestly seek. It is positively joyful to me. It saves my life from being trivial."

Charles Seliger on his wedding to Leonore Klebanow: "We left two houses this morning, as two people. We met with our friends, and before their eyes we became one."

Tennessee Williams on beating the odds: "Though I am not sure "Cat" is a truly good play, still, it’s a bit uncanny that I was able to make it as good as it is."

The excerpt from Tennessee Williams' diary is presented here by kind permission of The University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. © 2006 The University of the South. "The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives" will be on view at the Morgan through May 22.