Saturday, October 31, 2009

A diary not for burning

‘I will tell you what kind of a diary you will never wish to burn. Get a good sized, substantially bound blank-book and record in it simply facts of your every-day life . . .’ Such was the advice given by Jacob Abbott - a 19th century teacher and writer who died 130 years ago this day - to his pupils and other teachers. George F Root, a colleague of Abbott’s who had previously burnt all his diaries, followed this advice, and kept his new diary for 25 years, only to have it be burnt any way - in the great Chicago fire of 1871.

Abbott was born at Hallowell, Maine, in 1803, and graduated from Bowdoin College in 1820. Thereafter, he studied at Andover Theological Seminary, and was a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Amherst College. He founded the Mount Vernon School for Young Ladies in Boston in 1829 and the Eliot Congregational Church at Roxbury, Massachusetts, in the mid 1830s. With his brothers, in the 1840s, he set up Abbott’s Institute; and was also a principle at the Mount Vernon School for Boys, in New York City.

Abbott was also a prolific author, writing fiction, history, science and religious books. According to Wikipedia, his Rollo Books - such as Rollo at Work and Rollo at Play - are the best known of his writings. Original copies of some of these books, over a century old, can be bought on Abebooks for under a tenner. He died on 31 October 1879, 130 years ago today.

Although Abbott himself does not appear to have left behind any journals, there is an intriguing account of how he advised the young ladies at his school, and other teachers, to keep a diary. This account is found in The Story of a Musical Life: An Autobiography by George F Root published by The John Church Co, Cincinnati, in 1891. It is freely available at Internet Archive, but original copies can also be bought from Abebooks for a little over £30.

Here is that account (preceded by some description of Abbott’s school and the teaching methods - as found on Deidre Johnson’s website which has lots of information about fiction series aimed at 19th century girls).

‘Abbott’s school for young ladies at that time was in one of the fine houses in the white marble row in Lafayette Place, New York, spacious and convenient beyond anything I had before seen. I found the work delightful. Our methods were new, as Mr Abbott had said they would be, and no one having made class teaching and singing tedious and unpopular in the school it was not difficult to arouse and keep up an interest in the lessons. We had frequent visitors - parents and friends of the young ladies, and other persons interested in seeing the new work, and later on in hearing the pleasant part-singing. This singing in parts came along astonishingly soon, for three-quarters of an hour every school day with those bright, interested girls was very different from the two half hours a week that I had been accustomed to in the Public Schools of Boston. . .

. . . I ought to say something more here of that remarkable family with whom it was my good fortune to be connected during my ten years in New York. The published works of Jacob Abbott and of John S C Abbott are known. In the legal profession the works of Benjamin Vaughan Abbott and of Austin Abbott are, I am told, regarded as standards, and in the theological and editorial world Lyman Abbott is one of the most eminent men of the present time. These three last mentioned are sons of Jacob Abbott, and were boys at the time of which I write. That, however, which is not ‘known and read of all’ is the home and school-life of these admirable men. In their homes and in their school-rooms, with each other and with all who were connected with them, either as pupils or teachers, their intercourse was characterized by a sincerity and a gentle friendliness so steady and so constant that breaking over it into roughness of any kind or into disobedience seemed impossible. I saw no outbreak or case of ‘discipline’ in all the years that I was with them. That their excellent methods and great skill and attainments as teachers had something to do with the result will of course be understood. . .

As larger buildings were needed the school was moved, first to Houston street, then to Bleecker, both near Broadway. I can not remember just when the brothers decided to have two schools, and now I miss my diary again. In fact, as I go on, I miss it more and more. That book, by the way, and the circumstances that caused it, are worth speaking of.

Early in my New York life Mr Jacob said to me one day:
‘Did you ever keep a diary?’
‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘I have begun a half dozen at least.’
‘You haven’t any of them now?’
‘You burned each one after writing a few weeks or a few months in it.’
‘Was it because you had been so sentimental that you gradually grew tired of what you had written, and at last ashamed to have any one see it?’
I laughed and said it was exactly so.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘that is a very common experience. I will tell you what kind of a diary you will never wish to burn. Get a good sized, substantially bound blank-book and record in it simply facts of your every-day life; first, every event of your past life, with its date, that you think you would like to remember years hence, then begin where you are now and do the same thing every day. Speak of pupils, letters, people you see, concerts, classes, journeys - in short, every occurrence of any prominence that is connected with your work or home. Do not give an opinion or admit a word of sentiment in regard to any of the records you make, but let them be stated in the briefest and most concise manner possible. They may look dry to you now, but years hence they will be full of associations of the successful and pleasant life you are now living, and instead of growing tiresome as you read them, they will become more and more interesting and valuable.’

I saw at once how good this advice was, and went right off to Mr Ivison (who was then a member of Mercer Street choir) and had the book made. It was as large as a good-sized ledger, was bound in strong leather, and so arranged that it could be locked. As soon as it was done I asked Mr Jacob to come and see it. He came, and when he had looked and approved I asked him to begin it for me. He did, and this is about what he wrote:

Mr George has brought me in here to see his new book. This is his music room. It is octagonal in shape, two corners being cut off for closets and two for doors of entrance. The wood-work is oak. All octagonal table occupies the center, and book-cases with glass doors are on the side between the doors. There is a piano and a lounge here, and several easy chairs in convenient places. Twenty years hence, Mr George, when you read this in some totally different scene let it remind you of your New York music room and ‘Mr Jacob.’

I did as he advised - began with my early life, and found I could recall almost everything of importance before going to Boston, and while there, then started from that time (early in 1845) to make short daily records. This went through my New York life, my first stay in Europe, and my early convention work to 1871, when we were in full tide of successful business in Chicago - more than twenty-five years of brief, close record. The book was but little more than half full, and how true were Mr Jacob’s ideas about the memories and associations it recalled. ‘Closing exercises at Rutgers to-day’ was not merely the record of a musical exercise twenty years before. About that commonplace event were now summer flowers, bright skies and dear friends - and the flowers grew sweeter, the skies brighter, and the friends dearer as the years rolled on. But a memorable day came when my big journal shared the fate of its little predecessors. It was burned! But not by my hand. It went up, with many other mementos of my former life, in the flames of the great Chicago fire.

Somebody may be as much obliged to me as I was to Mr Jacob for this suggestion about the way to keep a diary.’

No comments: