I think people long ago were more likely to keep journals not only as a record of day-to-day activities, but also as a way of preserving their own histories. With no way to upload a Tweet about what you had for breakfast, the keeper of a journal was faced with a more serious task – to create, on paper, one’s life, privately and with dignity, as the journal may be the only record of this person’s existence remaining after his/her death. The journal was not so much a public dissemination, but a private reflection. Truth was not required; the journal was a construction based on reality, but not reality itself. The journalist was free to write selectively, emphasizing some events over others, not including miserable times one did not wish to remember, and exaggerating one’s superior qualities as deemed necessary. Then, as now, the mantra “it’s all about me” was operational.
Recently I had the opportunity to examine a journal written by Percival Lowell during the summer of 1904; it’s in Harvard’s Houghton Library and must rest on a thick pad of foam rubber while being read. I’d heard about it from Lowell biographer David Strauss.
More so than most journals, this one by Lowell is indeed a construction, not only written but also illustrated by photos taken as he made his way through Europe, most often in the company of an attractive young woman; he was one of the most eligible bachelors of his day – rich, handsome, intelligent and charming.
What struck me as I read and looked was that the logistics of taking a photograph in 1904, then getting it processed and printed before it could be pasted into the journal pretty much negates the idea that this is an actual journal, as in written over time on the same day the events being described actually happened. He’d have needed some time, days and maybe even weeks, to get the photographs done, so how’d he know which ones would turn out well, which ones he’d want to paste into his journal, and how much room to leave for them?
And yet there they are: the woman de jour, sometimes posing provocatively; Lowell himself, once posing on a tall pedestal – making a monument of himself! In the most intimate photos, he’s even cut out a neat square where his companion’s head would be to protect her identity (which surely means he never intended to keep this journal private).
This is not a journal written on the fly; it’s more of a careful construction after the fact. I formed a new notion of how the journal came to be and ran it by Strauss, who finds it plausible. I think Lowell kept a more informal journal during the summer and later on, recopied the journal entries and added the photos.
The journal has a narrative shape, beginning with his meeting of a woman on the gangplank of the ship as he was sailing for Europe – he wasted no time – and ending as he boards the ship returning to the US – and tells us of two letters he’d just received, one of them from his assistant Wrexie Leonard – the woman to whom he was returning. The story contained within the ocean liner bookends is one of passion, retreat from passion, loss of passion, and eventual recognition of the journal keeper’s true passion – his astronomical work.
I started writing my novel a full year before taking a look at Percy’s journal, but realize I am doing the exact same thing: I’m constructing a journal and pasting its entries throughout my story. Although based on actual events in Wrexie Leonard’s life, I’ve fictionalized her journal (her actual journal, the one shown above, was written before she met Percival Lowell and was much more frivolous and superficial than the one I’m writing for her). Truth is not required, I keep telling myself, but so much more is necessary – using someone else’s voice requires exact knowledge of who this person was, skill in interpreting events in her life as she herself might have, and constructing from them a grander narrative revealing more than one woman, and a Victorian one at that, might choose to tell us about herself.
Percy’s journal construction, I think, frees me in my thinking about how to construct Wrexie’s.