New Year in Cuba: Mary Garner Lowell's Travel Diary, 1831-1832.
From Beacon Hill to the Crystal Palace: The 1851 Travel Diary of a Working-Class Woman by Lorenza Stevens Berbineau. Edited by Karen L. Kilcup. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002. 127 pp. $27.95.
The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray's Diary. By Jennifer Sinor. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002. 223 pp. $19.95 paper.
Not very long ago, a nineteenth-century woman's diary was published only if she were married to an important man or if she participated in an event judged to be historically significant. Happily, the field has expanded to include many published diaries, including those by "ordinary women." The editorial framework that supports each diary with scholarly annotation and reflection has also evolved along a continuum. Some diaries bear traditional minimal footnotes that aim at illuminating places or persons mentioned in the text, while others are introduced and analyzed with more editorial range in order to place them within the context of contemporary scholarship. In the following three books, each diarist and her editor create a collaborative text.
Boston Brahmin Mary Gardner Lowell's diary about her six-month trip through the southern United States and into rural Cuba is a wonderful read because there is always something new to record: life aboard a ship, first encounters with slavery, interesting customs of wealthy Cubans. Editor Karen Robert's introduction provides a dynamic look at the historical context--international slave revolts and the North's trade interests in products produced by Latin American slaves--that underlies the silences within Lowell's journal. (As diary lovers from Arthur Ponsonby on have noted, the writer's ego usually overshadows external historical events.) Robert also points out poignant ironies within the diary--Mary's description of meager slave rations, followed five days later with details of her own lavish breakfast with no indication of self-consciousness--and argues that Lowell's social class and the strict gender norms in Cuba circumscribed her viewpoint. We are forewarned about Lowell's limits, yet invited into her text by Robert and occasionally rewarded by the diarist's insights. For example, Lowell moves beyond her fears to describe the tragic cost of sugar for her tea: "The blacks on the sugar estate are the most ferocious looking set of beings I ever saw & it would not surprise me at any moment if they were roused to vengeance, they are worked unmercifully and most cruelly treated.... Within a very short time one has hung & another scalded himself to death" (89). Lowell ultimately cannot shed the baggage of her class privilege, however. She writes of the servant who accompanies her, "Lorenza was so much occupied in packing that I could not have her assistance in dressing and was obliged to remain in my berth until the ship had passed the Moro, a circumstance I regretted as it is a scene well worth witnessing" (38).
It is a miracle that the short diary written by the very same Lorenza in 1851, when she served the next generation of Lowells during their tour of Europe, now reaches us as From Beacon Hill to the Crystal Palace: The 1851 Travel Diary of a Working-class Woman by Lorenza Stevens Berbineau. The manuscript was preserved amidst this wealthy family's archives and presents a rare Upstairs/Downstairs version of travel. Karen Kilcup, in my opinion, is far more than the editor of this text, for her substantial introductory essay places Berbineau within the context of recent scholarship on class, gender, and the particularly American style of travel writing. In a wonderful comparison with the travel narrative of contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe, Kilcup demonstrates, for example, how sentimentalist Stowe focuses on Mount Blanc as a famous icon of the aesthetic landscape, whereas Berbineau notices the poverty of the people who live in the stone houses that foreground the scene. Lorenza barely mentions the lofty object and instead turns to the field: "The women were at work as hard as the men their skin was a perfect brown I don't think the women of America could work so ..." (79). However, Kilcup resists making Lorenza Berbineau into a poster child for her social class; she neither idealizes Lorenza nor apologizes for her sometimes-contradictory views of other workers. Kilcup shows that this servant, who had no children of her own and was clearly beloved by the Lowell children, inhabited a complex and moveable site wherein she was sometimes treated like family and at others relegated to servitude. The actual diary takes up only sixty-three pages and demonstrates the negotiations of a woman probably writing for the edification of the other Downstairs servants back in Boston about travel among the Upstairs set that was supposed to be so edifying, even as she is overwhelmed by the childcare duties of a domestic working woman.
The obverse of travel is confinement, a daily experience of Annie Ray, the great great-aunt of Jennifer Sinor, author of The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray's Diary. The small cast of characters that inhabit Annie's diary is heartbreaking in comparison to those in the Lowell women's diaries, as is Sinor's story about how the vast majority of Annie's daily journals were burned. Sinor forewarns us of what ordinary writing is not--narrative, reflexive, inviting--and has chosen the strategy of enclosing Annie's diary as two years of unannotated intertext that occur between Sinor's scholarly reflections. She argues, "The only way to truly get a sense of the diurnal rhythm, the measuredness of things, is to read an untold number of daily entries in a row" (21). To those tolerant of ordinary women's prose, Annie Ray's daily concerns ring true: her health, her often-absent husband, the weather. She writes, "Very warm and pleasant. But cloudy this evening Had to make bread today, as we were out.... My life seems so strange and lonesome. There are two things I crave above all things, a home and perfect rest, where I will not have to work so hard to earn my daily bread I am so tired" (68). To Sinor's credit, she does not try to make a story out of her pioneer ancestor's life; in fact, she resists storytelling or foreshadowing the few occasions in the journal in which Annie's heartfelt anguish regarding her physically constricted and emotionally unsettled life overflow. Reflecting the rhythm of diary prose, Sinor lets small stories emerge from the spare text in their own good time and illuminates tensions within crossed-out diary lines only after we have had a chance to read them. Sinor's essays that enclose Annie's diary explore the limits and promise of current diary scholarship and the changing concept of time that occurred in the seventeenth century and opened up diary-writing as a way to record "time in the days rather than of the days" (95). Sinor is both modest in stating her limits in trying to understanding Annie Ray, and bold in the case she makes that attention must be paid to the ordinary in order to add depth to our understanding of life writing. Ironically, this book about ordinary writing may intimidate ordinary readers despite Sinor's own compelling personal stories. Scholars of life writing and rhetoric, however, will find this a stimulating, decidedly superordinary work of recovery and risk.
These three books suggest that the most accessible diaries require less supportive scaffolding, while seemingly ordinary diaries require extraordinary work to bring them to readers. This diversity clearly reflects the healthy state of diary publishing and scholarship today.
Reviewed by Judy Nolte Temple, University of Arizona
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|Author:||Temple, Judy Nolte|
|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2004|
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