A BOOK OF ONE'S OWN: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon

A BOOK OF ONE'S OWN: People and Their Diaries

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Readers with the grammatologico-narratological blues should enjoy this utterly unpedantic romp through the journal intime. A diarist himself (of course) and a young professor of English at Vassar, Mallon seems surprised ""that books as ruminatingly undisciplined as mine can be published at all in 1984""; but his broad knowledge of the genre and his perky style make this one worthwhile. Mallon divides the host of journal-keepers into seven rough categories: chroniclers (Pepys, the Goncourt brothers, et al.), travelers (Boswell, Lewis and Clark), pilgrims (May Sarton, C. S. Lewis), creators (Degas, Edward Weston), apologists (Trotsky, Charles Lindbergh), confessors (Stendhal, Roger Casement), and prisoners (Alfred Dreyfus, Anne Frank). Mallon warns us in advance that he will leave out a lot of big names, and he certainly does (Saint-Simon, Baudelaire, Tolstoy, Gide); on the other hand, he comes up with all sorts of curious out-of-the-way items like the diaries of Thomas Dangerfield, a late 17th-century counterfeiter and con man or of James Winston, the acting manager of the Drury Lane Theatre in the 1820s. And he democratically accepts such commonplace material as Go Ask Alice, the diary of Arthur Bremer, and even the flight-recorder conversation for Air Florida's doomed Flight 90 on 1/13/82. Most of Mallon's commentary is anecdotal or descriptive or wise-cracking--as in his judgment of placid Parson James Woodforde (1740-1802) that, ""He lived the sort of life one would like to live for about five minutes each morning before getting out of bed and turning on the radio for the overnight homicide count and the outlook on the Long Island Expressway."" On a more theoretical plane, Mallon examines briefly the various motives for diary-keeping (to preserve the past, save one's soul, gain immortality, speak to posterity, etc.) and notes their often contradictory logic. A vivid, informative popular survey--in a season of much felicitous attention to autobiographical writings. (See A. O. J. Cockshut's The Art of Autobiography in 19th-and 20th-Century England, p. 838, and Richard N. Coe's When the Grass Was Greener, p. 839.)

Pub Date: Nov. 7th, 1984
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin