Sunday, November 29, 2015

The father of neurology

‘The floor is made of tile mosaics as are the walls - no seat - only a hole which seems narrow to me at ground level. One has to be agile - but the Arabs certainly are in this respect. They do everything squatting. It is perfect, a paradise for the sense of sight and smell.’ This is Jean-Martin Charcot, born 190 years ago today, the great physician of France’s early Belle Epoque, the so-called ‘father of neurology’ and/or the ‘Napoleon of the neuroses’, writing about a Moroccan toilet in his one and only significant diary.

Charcot was born in Paris on 29 November 1825 into a modest artisan family. He seems to have been a gifted school child, mastering several languages, and was selected by his father as the one child to receive a higher education and enter medical school. He received his M.D. from the University of Paris in 1853 with a dissertation on arthritis. In 1860, he was named associate professor in medicine, and two years later, he was appointed head of a hospital service at Salpêtrière, a complex in the 13th arrondissement near the Seine. Aged 39, he married Augustine-Victoire Durvis, a young widow, with whom he had two children.

Charcot began to publish many books and articles on infectious illnesses, geriatrics, diseases of the internal organs. And, in 1872, he was elected to the Paris Medical Faculty as professor of pathological anatomy. During the 1870s, he turned increasingly to the new discipline of neurology, becoming one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject, publishing on a wide range of neurological conditions, MS, Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s, aphasia etc. He was the first to describe several conditions, including multiple sclerosis and the disintegration of ligaments and joint surfaces (Charcot’s disease, or Charcot’s joint) caused by locomotor ataxia and related diseases or injuries. In particular, he was known for his work on hysteria, and he developed the practice of using hypnosis as a means to study his patients, often using the technique in public demonstrations.

This - the early years of the Belle Epoque - was a heyday for the medical profession in France, as a group  progressive physician-scientists - among whom Charcot was the most famous - sought to modernise medicine more in line with scientific understanding. Apart from his medical discoveries, he also pioneered the art and science of medical photography. Charcot’s second-to-none reputation as a teacher attracted students from all over the world, not least, in 1885, Sigmund Freud.

Meanwhile, in their grand home on the boulevard Saint-Germain, the Charcots would give lavish parties, attracting the cream of Parisian society, politicians, artists, writers and, of course, other physicians. In 1882, Charcot was named Chair for the diseases of the nervous system, the first such professorial post in the world. Financing followed his fame, with the government resourcing a new neuropathological institute at Salpêtrière. Charcot died, relatively young, in 1893. Further information is available at Wikipedia, National Center for Biotechnology Information, Science Museum, and inside Medical Muses: Hysteria in 19th-Century Paris by Asti Hustvedt (some pages of which about Charcot are viewable at Googlebooks).

Charcot was not a diarist, though he did occasionally keep note-books when on holiday or travelling. One such note-book so stood out from the rest for Toby Gelfland (Department of History, University of Ottawa) that he decided to translate, edit and publish it - as Charcot in Morocco (University of Ottawa Press, 2012). In July 1887, Charcot went south to Spain for his annual summer holiday, but, on this occasion, concluded the voyage with a week in Morocco, and while there kept a detailed personal diary, amounting to 14,000 words, 95 manuscript pages, and various sketches, maps and watercolours.

The journal is a unique document, says Gelfand, because of its sheer length and detail but also because of ‘the intimate, relaxed, colorful, at times frankly exuberant quality of a first-person narrative written primarily for oneself, even if it were later to be shared with family and friends’. Furthermore: ‘The journal offers rare access to an otherwise elusive figure who said little of a spontaneous nature in public. [. . .] Historians, following most contemporary accounts, tend to portray Charcot as an authoritarian and rather austere medical leader, a “grand patron” who was at once intimidating and shy, if not secretive. The Moroccan journals reveals a less pretentious figure possessed of a rough and ready sense of humor, someone who did not always take himself or others so seriously.’

10 August 1887
‘Soon we reach the 1st Moroccan doorway, a square house, which sits atop a high hill. Two Moors of the Emperor who are to accompany us emerge; one carries a gun, the other a bag. These 2 do not join in with our group. Sometimes they approach, then at other times they disappear - only to reappear a little afterwards at a turn in the way . . . they are definitely strange; as well they have a rather unhealthy look about them with their caped robes that seem to be soaked with sweat.

We have been walking perhaps 2 hours when suddenly the plain widens out. In the middle we see a castle in ruins covered with ivy - not far off, some stones are piled up in a way that marks off an oval shape of earth. It is a tomb. There are many others. On a few of the tombs, red rags hang from sticks planted in the ground, rags now faded which must have formerly had a beautiful red color. They mark the tomb of a chieftain, more or less canonized and elevated to the level of a saint. It was here that the battle against the Moroccans took place which led to the march on Tetuan. More than 20 years ago, all that. The name Prim returns to mind. We walk on and keep on walking. From time to time I look at my watch. We’re going to get to the Moor’s place soon, no doubt! By this time hunger and thirst have set in. But where is this the devil of a house of the Moor? We don’t see it. Here are a few trees and rocks. We have lost sight of the sea. Anxiously, we walk on for nearly an hour; devil of a house gone astray. We begin to berate the Moors of the Emperor who led us down this wrong path. At last, there it is, a hut scarcely above the ground, hidden among the underbrush and tall cactus. [. . .]

I get up and rejoin the group drinking water, who are sharing a watermelon. On the mound where they are sitting, there is no more space. One of the Moors of the King noticed; he goes up to my son and, tapping him gently on the shoulder, says to him, in Spanish, “Your father is not seated.” My son gets up and I sit down in his place. An example of Arab manners that is in sum very edifying and which demonstrates that, even if we are among the people of Barbary, we are not with barbarians.’

11 August 1887
‘Soon we arrive at one of our “wealthy Moors”. [. . .] The young ladies go into the women’s quarters. Employing a searching gaze, we look into everything open to us. I think they were expecting us; most certainly, they were waiting for us. However a flurry of emotion, doubtless feigned, a pretended surprise, took place when we entered. A lady of mature years, who appeared beautiful to me, quickly fled, but not before showing us her face. That left 4 or 5 negresses, who shamelessly stayed where they were. Moreover, they were very beautiful, their arms and legs nude, their bodies lightly clothed in a clear fabric. They certainly do not belong to the religion whose acolytes cover up. As always, the first floor with balcony is just about the same as the lower floor. But it seems we cannot visit since the private living quarters are there. I look everywhere for a certain spot which interests me from a hygienic perspective. Instinct guides me. Here water flows on the ground - one certainly cannot go in without clogs. The floor is made of tile mosaics as are the walls - no seat - only a hole which seems narrow to me at ground level. One has to be agile - but the Arabs certainly are in this respect. They do everything squatting. It is perfect, a paradise for the sense of sight and smell.’

12 August 1887
‘It is agreed that I will give a few medical consultations; they implored me to do so. A few people have been referred by the consul, or by M. Alvans, the military envoy, who never tires of being helpful.

Here come the patients, 5 or 6 of them, all Jews. They file into the patio. I sketch one who presents a beautiful case of Parkinson’s. Nothing very interesting from the point of view of diagnosis. But all are nervous cases. Yesterday, on the square, they showed me a Jew who remained mute, so they say, during his entire childhood but who eventually began to speak. Was he a case of hysteria?

The consultation is over. I must see the town some more so as to take with me an indelible visual impression. Along the way, on one of the most densely inhabited streets, we hear in the distance a sort of chanting, mixed and monotonous at the same time: the voices of men. They appear in a cortege of about a hundred persons; they are walking quickly, they seem to be in a hurry. “The dead go quickly.” In fact it is a burial. The deceased is carried on a kind of cot, nude in a white shroud which hides him completely, the head too. It seems to me that no one stirs nor extends greetings. We don’t either: that is not the custom here. We let the cortege pass, we will meet it again momentarily, in the cemetery.’

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

We hope for better times

‘Our Co for the first time have the sad duty to perform of burying one of their number. Jane is also quite sick of a Diareah but we hope not dangerous. [. . .] many are complaining & the dust is the greatest hardship to endure we have found on our whole journey. But we hope for better times.’ This is the heartfelt diary writing of Polly Lavinia Crandall Coon - born 1890 years ago today - travelling with others on the long and arduous trail across the continent, from Wisconsin to Oregon, in search of a better life.

Polly Lavinia was born on 24 November 1825 in Alfred, Allegheny, New York, the eldest child of what would become a large family. In 1838, the family moved west to Lima, Rock County, Wisconsin where they settled. Paul became one of the members of the Wisconsin constitutional convention in 1847, and was dubbed a ‘Father of Wisconsin’. But, in 1952, they set off, west again, overland in wagons to Oregon, with most of their children, including Polly and her daughter. Polly’s husband, Thomas, and her brother had already made the journey a year or two earlier.

Once settled in the new land, Thomas died, in early 1854, and two months later Polly gave birth to their second child. Soon after, Polly had her claim of land surveyed. She sold it off in lots to form a new town, called Silverton - on the banks of Silver Creek. She taught at a school in Silverton, and also in Salem and other nearby communities. In 1855, she married Stephen Price, a carpenter and millwright, who built them a new home. They had one son, before moving, in 1856, to Salem; and much later they lived in Hood River, on the south bank of the Columbia River. Both Stephen and Polly died in 1898. Not much is known of Polly, though a little more information can be found at the Liberal University of Oregon website.

A daily diary kept by Polly on her journey was published by A. H. Clark, in 1983, within Covered Wagon Women - Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1852: The Oregon Trail, as edited and compiled by Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway. This was the fifth volume of an eleven-volume series: Covered Wagon Women - Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Some pages of Polly’s diary - Journal of a Journey Over the Rocky Mountains - can be read at Googlebooks. Here are a few extracts (they are as originally published except for a few full stops which I have inserted where they naturally ought to be).

29 March 1852
‘Started from the town of Lima Rock Co. Wis. on our long contemplated journey to seek a home on the Pacific coast, in the territory of Oregon. Passed through Janesville to the town of Plymouth where we struck our camp for the first time, & found that we had truly left all comfort behind at least as far as the weather is concerned. But all are in health & spirits seeming determined to manufacture as much comfort as possible from what material we have.’

8 April 1852
‘All are well & in excellent spirits. We traveled yesterday 16 miles and camped on a vast prairie in Lafayette Co where nothing but land & sky were to be seen save one little log house. But to make up the absence of other interesting matter we found a wedding party assembled in the aforesaid “log house”. The “old Man” came up and gave us all an invite to attend the dance in the evening. We all went down but none of us joined in the exercises but Ray & Stallman. They reported to have had a very fine time and staid till morning the others returned at 9 o’clock. We have tonight a beautiful camping ground near the line between G[r]ant and Lafayette pleasant weather but still wet under foot.’

9 April 1852
‘Rained all day consequently we have laid by - improving the time in doing some baking. At night the ground being very wet we were obliged to take shelter in the house.’

10 April 1852
‘Reached the Mississippi at Eagle Ferry 2 miles above Dubuque found a number of teams in wait to go over.’

11 April 1852
‘After being delayed all day in getting all crossed over we at length reach Dubuque. We made a few purchases & excited not a little curiosity nor a few remarks from the good people of the city by our “Bloomer Dresses.” Left this town about 3 o’clock passing out some 2 miles through the deepest mud & worst roads I ever saw. Camped in a field & got about half enough poor hay for which the Man charges 30 cts per yoke. I record this as a demonstration of the depth of the heartlessness to which the human heart is capable of arriving.’

12 April 1852
‘Our brother Ray left us this morning - It was with deep regret and tearful eyes we left him to plod on alone towards his home. We feel sad that we leave him behind but hope another year will bring him to Oregon. This after noon it is quite pleasant except the chilling winds which sweep furiously across the endless praries of the state of Iowa. All well and judging from the talking and laughing we hear from the adjoining tent all are in good spirits. The roads continue very bad otherwise we get along very finely.’

11 May 1852
‘Traveled near about 16 miles & camped again on a large Prarie near a beautiful spring which we consider a great treat. After getting our tents pitched & supper nearly in readiness a heavy thunder shower struck us & we were nearly drenched but succeeded in keeping our beds tolerable dry.’

28 May 1852
‘We have all felt much distressed today at witnessing a scene truly heartrending. About noon we came by a Camp where yesterday all were well & today one man was buried - another dying & still another sick. The disease was Diareah which which they had not medicine to check & the result from death. The man that was buried left a young wife to either return through a savage country or go on alone and heartbroken. Many of our Company are complaining but none very sick.’

13 August 1852
‘Dr Weber grew worse after stoping, medicine had no effect & about 1 o’clock at night he died. Our Co for the first time have the sad duty to perform of burying one of their number. Jane is also quite sick of a Diareah but we hope not dangerous. Samuel does not not improve much. The weather is so very hot & dusty that very many are complaining & the dust is the greatest hardship to endure we have found on our whole journey. But we hope for better times.’

17 August 1852
‘Our Co commenced crossing - having stretched a rope across the river & coupled two wagon boxes together, towed over the cattle first & then carried our wagons, luggage & people. We got over quite early with the sick ones in order to make them as comfortable as possible.’

Saturday, November 21, 2015

I hope not a ‘what it was’

Robert Charles Benchley - the early 20th century American columnist and comic actor - died 70 years ago today. He seemed to find his métier early on, while at Harvard through writing for its literary and comic magazines. But, after university, it took him some years to settle into what became a successful career as both a drama critic/humorist in New York, and a comic actor/monologuist in Hollywood. He did, at times, keep diaries, and although these have not been published, as far as I know, Benchley’s son Nathaniel drew on them extensively for his 1955 biography, as did Wes D. Gehring almost 40 years later.

Benchley was born in 1889 in Worcester, Massachusetts. His elder brother, Edmund, died in the Spanish-American war when Robert was but 9, and subsequently Edmund’s rich fiancee, helped Robert attend Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, and later, from 1908, Harvard. At Harvard, Benchley became involved with theatrical productions and the Harvard Advocate and the Harvard Lampoon, being elected, in his third year, to the board of the latter. In 1914, her married Gertrude Darling, who he’d met at high school, and they had two sons, Nathaniel (one of whose children, Peter, would write the famous book, Jaws) and Robert.

After Harvard, Benchley tried a variety of jobs in New York City - copy work, translation, press agent, reporting - but too often found himself not quite at ease with the work or the expectations of others. Having written freelance articles for Vanity Fair since 1916, he was taken on as managing editor in 1919, along side his Harvard Lampoon collaborator, Robert Sherwood, and Dorothy Parker, who had taken over as theatre critic from P. G Wodehouse. Although Vanity Fair suited Benchley well, allowing him to vent his humorous style, he, along with Sherwood and Parker soon fell out with the managers. When Parker was fired, Benchley resigned in sympathy, and returned to freelancing. The three friends had been meeting for lunches at the Algonquin Hotel, and, as this continued, so they became known as the Algonquin Round Table.

In 1920, Benchley joined the staff of Life magazine as the drama critic, eventually managing the whole drama section, and remained until 1929. During this time, the Round Table put on a one-night review, but Benchley’s contribution - The Treasurer’s Report - was so popular that he was asked to reprise it often. Irving Berlin, in fact, hired him for $500 a week to perform it nightly during Berlin’s Music Box Revue which ran for a year in 1921-1922. This led to work writing work for film screenplays and Broadway musicals, including, in 1928, a film version of The Treasurer’s Report. Benchley then wrote and/or starred in many more short films. On leaving Life, he was invited to be the theatre critic for the newly-established magazine The New Yorker, which would publish an average of nearly 50 Benchley pieces a year during the early 1930s.

The 1930s and early 1940s saw Benchley often in Hollywood, moving from Paramount to MGM and back again to Paramount, making 40 short films and appearing in minor roles in some 50 feature films. His How to Sleep (1935) won an Academy Award for best live-action short film. Biographers say, however, that though films brought Benchley fame, it is his writing that must be considered his lasting achievement. From 1920s on, and every few years, he published a compendium of his columns and essays, illustrated by Gluyas Williams: Pluck and Luck (1925), for example, My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew (1936), and Inside Benchley (1942). In later years, Benchley’s drinking led to him being diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, and he died, still in his mid-50s, on 21 November 1945. A limited amount of further information can be found at Wikipedia, The Worcester Writers Project, or Encyclopædia Britannica.

In 1955, McGraw-Hill published Nathaniel Benchley’s biography of his father - simply called, Robert Benchley - drawing on diaries Benchley had kept as a young man. More recently, in 1992, Greenwood Press published Wes D. Gehring’s “Mr B” or comforting thoughts about the bison: a critical biography of Robert Benchley, and this too culled significant details from Benchley’s diaries. Indeed, where Nathaniel’s book contains no introduction, and no acknowledgement of sources, Gehring’s book does, at least, provide some background on the diaries.

According to Gehring, Benchley’s diaries are contained in five bound volumes, for the years 1911-1914 and 1916, and these are held by the Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University. There were also, he says, childhood diaries, and possibly adult diaries (the library holds travel diary fragments, from 1922 and 1930), but these were most likely destroyed by his wife. Gehring believes she might have done this to carry out Benchley’s wishes. And, in support of this idea, he quotes Benchley as having said once, ‘no one else is ever going to get a look at these diaries so long as I have a bullet in my rifle.’

Gehring quotes extensively from Benchley’s diaries, but in a very bitty way, weaving phrases and sentences into his own text. (He does, though, scrupulously provide a date for each one.) Here’s an example from Gehring: ‘Besides his wedding, 1914 was also memorable as Benchley received his first check for a story (the amount was forty dollars). The September 28 timing could not have been more opportune, because as Benchley noted in his diaries: “our bank account was nil, it lacking two days of pay-day.” He would later describe their first married New Year’s Eve together, “sitting up in bed going over the bills to be paid tomorrow.” (From the notes: the first quote is dated 28 September 1914, the second 31 December 1914.)

The following, more complete, extracts from Robert Benchley’s diaries can be found in Nicholas Benchley’s 1955 biography.

23 July 1907
‘Then Lucy, Miss Jean, Jessie, Miss Ida and I went on the river in the moonlight in the two canoes. Sang and drifted. Took my mandolin. Slick.’

22 November 1907
‘Played football in the moonlight until nearly 11 o’clock. Came back to the room and fooled around.’

10 December 1907
‘Had a peach of a rough-house up in John’s room trying to put Fat on one bed.’

25 February 1908
‘Fat and I went to the Town Hall and hear Jacob Riis lecture on “The Battle with the Slums.” Illustrated. Very interesting.

1911 [on being elected to the board of Harvard Lampoon - undated in Nathaniel’s book]
‘It will mean a lot of work and a lot of worry and responsibility for it is a responsible position, yet I am very happy to be given it - not least of all because Mother will be so proud - and Gertrude too - and maybe my course will seem a little more worth while to Lillian. I never dreamed when I was a struggling freshman toiling over bum jokes that I would some day be the dreaded censor of the jokes of others - I trust I remember enough of how I felt, to be as nice as Hallowell was to me then. It is the biggest thing so far in my college course, but it doesn’t seem so big now that I’ve got it - I can see lots of bigger things that I ought to do, a “cum laude,” for instance.’

30 July 1914
‘Europe seems tottering on the brink of a general war over the Austria-Servia affair, but I can’t make it seem possible that they really will fall back so far into the middle ages after having come so far.’

31 July 1914
‘The stock markets are closed, and Germany is on the point of declaring war on Russia. Still, I can’t help feeling that things will be straightened out without a general European war.’

3 August 1914
‘A depression seems hanging over everything that is ominous - reflected from Europe where all the progress of 100 years is going to smash. H. G. Wells wrote better than he knew. But if any one is to lose, I hope that it is Germany and Austria, on whose aggressive brutality rests the blame.’

4 August 1914
‘Germany has declared war on England and Turkey on Servia. It is almost ludicrous in its immensity, yet frightful.’

16 August 1914
‘Japan has jumped in now and given Germany till August 20 to get out of Kaeow Chow. It is something of the “kick-him-in-the-teeth-he-ain’t-got-no-friends” attitude, and “come-on-in-and-get-a-piece-while-the-getting-is-good.”

13 November 1915
’12:27 - GAME CALLED. Nurse (a new one) comes in and asks my name. “Benchley.” Well, Miss Erbstadt just telephoned down & said the baby has just arrived and they are both all right. She said she didn’t know whether it was a boy “or what it was.” I hope not a “what it was.” “Both all right” is more to the point.

12:32 - Another nurse says she thinks she said a boy, but not sure. It ought to be fairly easy to ascertain before long.

12:35 - A Boy! and love from the Wife! Yea! Nurse tried to tell me “twins,” but I was a sly dog and didn’t bite.’

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sense and senselessness

Happy 90th birthday, Zygmunt Bauman. Born in Poland, but domiciled in Britain since the early 1970s, Bauman has become one of the world’s most influential sociologists, publishing prolifically across the spectrum of sociology and social theory. Not known as a diarist, he has, however, recently published a work provocatively called, This is Not a Diary, with entries dated as if it were a diary - each one being a mini-essay on whatever sociology-related subject happened to come to mind that day. The first dated entry is titled, On the sense and senselessness of diary-keeping. Another - On the friends you have and the friends you think you have - is about the evolutionary anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, under whom I, personally, studied many years ago.

Bauman was born to Jewish parents in Poznań, Poland, on 19 November 1925. When the Nazis invaded, in 1939, his family fled to the Soviet Union where he enlisted in the Polish division of the Red Army, working as a political education instructor. He was involved in the battles of Kolberg and Berlin, and in May 1945 was awarded the Military Cross of Valour. In the early post-war years, he served as a political officer in the Internal Security Corps (KBW) formed to combat Ukrainian and Polish insurgents, and as an informer for military intelligence. In parallel, he studied philosophy at the University of Warsaw. In 1948, he married Janina Lewinson, and they had three daughters.

Having risen to the rank of major, Bauman was dishonourably discharged from the KBW, in 1953, when his father - a Zionist - sought permission to emigrate to Israel, even though he, himself, held anti-Zionist views. The following year he became a lecturer at the University of Warsaw. A visit to the London School of Economics led to his first major book, in 1959, on the British socialist movement, some years later translated into English. Other books followed, notably the popular Socjologia na co dzień in 1964, later forming the basis for his English-language text-book Thinking Sociologically in 1990.

By the late 1960s, an orchestrated anti-semitic campaign was leading many Poles of Jewish descent, not least the intellectuals, to emigrate. At the same time, 
Bauman’s politics had fallen out of line with that of the communist government; so, in 1968, he gave up his Polish citizenship in order to be allowed to leave the country. He went first to Tel Aviv University, but, by 1972, he had taken up a chair in sociology at Leeds University. He retired in 1990, but since then has published over 40 books, on subjects such as globalisation, modernity and postmodernism, consumerism and morality. His wife, Janina, who also wrote a few books on her wartime memories, died in 2009. The following year, the University of Leeds launched The Bauman Institute in Bauman’s honour. There is further biographical information at Wikipedia, University of Leeds, The Guardian, The Culture Society, and The American Task Force on Palestine. The photo was found at

There is no obvious evidence that Bauman has kept a diary through his long life - although he might have done. However, in 2010 and 2011 he took it into his head to keep a kind of journal, with dated entries, but with all the entries more like mini-essays on current issues of interest or concern to him. Some of these were clearly inspired by things he had read, in the news or elsewhere, and so the dates do have some occasional relevance. The collection of mini-essays were published by Polity Press in 2012, and somewhere along the publishing road acquired the playful title: This is Not a Diary. A few pages can be read at Amazon.

Each dated entry starts with its own title, such as On the quandries of believing, On hurting flies and killing people, On glocalisation coming of age, On immoral axes and moral axemen, etc. Each entry is too long to quote in full, and, unfortunately, given the essay structure, any cutting back reduces, in every sense, Bauman’s little essays. Nevertheless, here are extracts from two sections. I’ve chosen the opening entry, partly because it is the first, and partly because it is, ostensibly, about diary keeping (though more about writing in general). I’ve chosen the second because it’s about a Robin Dunbar theory, and Robin was my tutor, some decades ago (when I was preparing an MSc biological anthropology thesis - on paternal care in primates; see my own diaries - November 1989).

3 September 2010
‘On the sense and senselessness of diary-keeping. I confess: as I am starting to write (it is 5 a.m.), I haven’t the slightest idea what, if anything, will follow, how long it will go on and how long I’ll need, feel the urge and wish to keep it going. And the intention, let alone the purpose, is anything but clear. The question ‘what for’ can hardly be answered. At the moment when I sat down at the computer, there was no new burning issue waiting to be chewed over and digested, no new book to be written or old stuff to be revised, recycled or updated, no new interviewer’s curiosity to be satiated, no new lecture to be sketched out in writing before being spoken - no request, commission or deadline . . . In short, there was neither a frame nailed together waiting to be filled, nor a plateful of podgy work in search of a mould and a form.

I guess the question ‘because of what’ is more in order in this case than the question ‘what for’. Causes to write are abundant, a crowd of volunteers line up to be noted, picked and chosen. The decision to start writing is, so to speak, ‘overdetermined’.

To begin with, I’ve failed to learn any other form of life except writing. A day without scribbling feels like a day wasted or criminally aborted, a duty neglected, a calling betrayed.

To go on, the game of words is for me the most heavenly of pleasures. I enjoy that game enormously - and the enjoyment reaches its peak when, after another reshuffle of the cards, the hand I get happens to be poor and I need to strain my brains and struggle hard to make up for the blanks and bypass the traps. Forget the destination; it is being on the move, and jumping over or kicking away the hurdles, that gives life its flavour. [. . .]

What, after all, is the difference between living and reporting life? We can do worse than take a hint from José Saramago, my lately discovered fount of inspiration. On his own quasi-diary he reflects: ‘I believe that all the words we speak, all the movements and gestures we make . . . can each and every one of them be understood as stray pieces of unintended autobiography, which, however involuntary, perhaps precisely because it is involuntary, is no less sincere or truthful than the most detailed account of life put into writing and onto paper.’ Exactly.’

27 December 2010
On the friends you have and the friends you think you have. Professor Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist in Oxford, insists that ‘our minds are not designed [by evolution] to allow us to have more than a very limited number of people in our social world’. Dunbar has actually calculated that number; he found that ‘most of us can maintain only around 150 meaningful relationships’. Not unexpectedly, he’s called that limit, imposed by (biological) evolution, the ‘Dunbar number’. This hundred and a half is, we may comment, the number reached through biological evolution by our remote ancestors, and where it stopped, leaving the field to its much nimbler, more agile and dexterous, and above all more resourceful and less patient successor - called ‘cultural evolution’ (that is, triggered, shaped and driven by humans themselves, and deploying the teaching and learning process rather than changing the arrangement of genes). [. . .]

Electronic sustained ‘networks of friendship’ promised to break through recalcitrant, intrepid limitations to sociability set by our genetically transmitted equipment. Well, says Dunbar, they didn’t and will not: the promise can’t but be broken. ‘Yes.’ says Dunbar in his opinion piece for the New York Times of 25 December, ‘you can “friend” 500, 1,000, even 5,000 people with your Facebook page, but all save the core 150 are mere voyeurs looking into your daily life.’ Among those thousands of Facebook friends, ‘meaningful relationships’, whether serviced electronically or lived off-line, are confined as before within the impassable limits of the ‘Dunbar number’. [. . .]

Dunbar is right that the electronic substitutes for face-to-face communication have brought the Stone Age inheritance up to date, adapting and adjusting the ways and means of human togetherness to the requirements of our nouvel age. What he seems to neglect, however, is that in the course of that adaptation those ways and means have also been considerably altered, and that as a result ‘meaningful relationships’ have also changed their meaning. And so must the content of the ‘Dunbar number’ concept have done. Unless it is precisely the number, and only the number, that exhausts its content. . .’

NB: As usual in Diary Review articles, trailing dots enclosed by square brackets (i.e. [. . .] ) indicate text I have left out from the source published text. Trailing dots not enclosed by square brackets are as found in the original text.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The 33rd Vice President

‘Hoover is apparently on his way toward becoming a kind of American Himmler.’ This is Henry Agard Wallace, the 33rd Vice President of the United States, who died 50 years ago today. A clever and successful farmer, he played an important political role in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, and was a whisker away from becoming President, but, after the war, he found himself opposing the US’s growing antipathy towards the USSR. Wallace kept a daily diary during the latter years of WW2, and it contains much of interest about his own politics, and about the Roosevelt and Truman administrations.

Wallace was born in 1888 on the family livestock farm near the town of Orient, Iowa. In 1892, the family moved to Ames, where his father, having given up farming, became professor of agriculture at the Iowa State Agricultural College. Soon after, the family took in a student, George Washington Carver, the African-American later to become a well-known botanist and inventor, who took the young Wallace on nature walks. Carver left when Wallace was still only 8, but is said to have left a deep and lasting influence on the boy. While a student at West High School, he attended lectures at Iowa State University given by the vice-dean Perry G. Holden who believed the quality of corn yield could be predicted by how good it looked. Wallace, using five acres of land behind his home, proved there was no relationship between yield and appearance.

Wallace moved on to study at Iowa State Agricultural College, and to write for his family’s successful magazine, Wallaces’ Farmer. He married Llo Brown in 1914, and went to live on a 40 acre farm near Johnson County. They would have three children. He taught himself statistics, and introduced econometrics into the field of agriculture. When his grandfather died, he became joint editor, with his father, of Wallaces’ Farmer, and then, after the end of WWI, he took over as sole editor, offering solutions to the agricultural depression - often at odds with Herbert Hoover, who had been in charge of the Office of Food Administration during the war. In particular, Wallace believed that farm surpluses were the cause of much misery in rural areas, and sought to find ways to limit production.

In 1923, Wallace developed a strain of hybrid corn - disease resistant and with higher yields - so commercially successful that a few years later he was able to launch Hi-Bred Corn Company. Increasingly, Wallace was drawn into politics - not as a Republican like the Wallaces before him - and in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of Agriculture. He soon established and began to administer the Agricultural Adjustment Act, to control production, raise and stabilise farm prices, conserve soil, and store reserves. Widely regarded as a champion of human welfare, detractors saw his approach as too wasteful. In 1940, he was chosen to be Vice President to Roosevelt, a role he expanded beyond its normal remit, travelling to Latin America and the Far East. During WWII, he took on additional duties, especially in national economic affairs, though was stripped of these after publicly feuding with Secretary of Commerce Jesse H. Jones.

In 1944, however, Democratic Party conservatives - especially Southerners - opposed Wallace’s renomination as Vice President, and Harry S. Truman was chosen instead, succeeding to the post in January 1945. So it was Truman that became President less than three months later, when Roosevelt died. A few weeks before then, though, Roosevelt had named Wallace as Secretary of Commerce, a post he was to hold onto for little more than a year - being the last of Roosevelt appointees to be fired by Truman. Subsequently, Wallace became the editor of The New Republic magazine, a platform he used to oppose Truman’s tough cold war foreign policies; and then he set  himself up as a presidential candidate, with a newly-formed Progressive Party, standing in the 1948 presidential election. His stance on closer relations with the USSR, and his soft approach towards communism in the US, were against the political current, and seriously undermined his support.

Wallace resumed his farming interests, and, among things, developed a hugely successful breed of chicken. In 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea, he left the Progressive Party and supported the US effort in the Korean War. In 1952, he published an article Where I Was Wrong trying to explain his once trusting stance toward the Soviet Union, and declaring that he now considered himself an anti-Communist. He died on 18 November 1965. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, US Senate, Spartacus EducationalThe New Yorker, American University, or New Deal Network.

Wallace kept a diary at various times in his life: in 1935 during the controversy within the Department of Agriculture; in 1939-1940, preceding, during and following his nomination for Vice President; and from early 1942 to September 1946. Generally, he dictated his diary daily to a secretary, but also would keep pocket journals when on travels. Some of this diary material was published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1973 in The Price of Vision - The Diary of Henry A. Wallace 1942-1945, as edited by John Morton Blum. Blum notes that ’as his temperament dictated, Wallace was a frank but never an intimate diarist.’ The book does not appear to have been reprinted or reissued since the 1970s, and, indeed, Wallace himself is little remembered these days. One review can be found online in the Annals of Iowa, which concludes: ‘Because he was so often involved in decision-making at the highest levels, Wallace’s diary illuminates one of the most critical periods in American history.’

14 April 1944
‘. . . Major General Leslie Groves [commanding officer of the Manhattan Project, developing the atomic bomb] presented me with a report on a governmental secret project which is the most interesting report I have ever seen. This is a project about which I have talked with Vannevar Bush for the last two years. This is a project which should result in definitely ending the war within another 18 months at the outside . . .’

20 May 1944, Edmonton, Canada
‘Gen. Gaffney, born in Massachusetts, raised in Texas, strong for the North. Prefers it to the tropics. Likes to hunt. Tells of unpreparedness in Alaska. Japs could have taken Seward. We had no cruisers up there. Army high command was convinced Japs would not strike at Alaska. Thinks there are great mineral and agricultural possibilities in northwest territory. Prof. Blackfoot of University of Alberta thinks there are enormous possibilities for dairying and hog possibilities. Soil marvelous, deep, black . . .’

29 August 1944
‘. . . At lunch with the President. The President seemed to be looking quite well, in good spirits and very cordial. He complimented me on the work I had been doing in New England and said they would want me to do a lot of work of this kind during the campaign. He then started to skate over the ice at once as fast as he could, saying that I was four or six years ahead of my time, that what I stood for would inevitably come. I told him I was very happy about what had been demonstrated at the convention and following the convention because I now knew that the people were for me. [. . .] I went on to say that I knew just exactly what happened at the convention but that the reason I had come out for him was because his name was a symbol of liberalism not only in this country but in the whole world. He then hastened to say how much he appreciated that and said if everything went well on November 7 [when President Roosevelt would be elected to a fourth term] I could have anything I wanted in the government with one exception. The exception was the State Department. [. . .]

The President said he thought the election was going to be very close but in case we won, one of the first things we would do would be to sit down with me and make a list of folks we were going to get rid of, said the first on the list would be Jesus H. Jones. I said, “Well, if you are going to get rid of Jesse, why not let me have Secretary of Commerce with RFC and FEA thrown in? There would be poetic justice in that.” The President said, “Yes, that’s right.” ’

19 December 1944
‘I got it on very good authority yesterday that Edgar Hoover continually has Drew Pearson [a journalist and diarist - see Salty and Petulant] shadowed. Hoover specializes on building up a file against the various public figures and especially against the columnists. He has not yet built up much of a file against Walter Winchell. Winchell has so far been too smart for Hoover. Hoover is apparently on his way toward becoming a kind of American Himmler.’

14 January 1945
‘. . . Ernst asked what the President was going to do with Jesse Jones? I said, “Why should he do anything with Jesse Jones?” Ernst replied, “Well if he takes care of Jesse in some way, it will reduce the amount of discord.” I said, “Well, it seems to me it would be better for the President to fight on this issue and get licked than to give Jesse something.” In other words, what I was really saying to Ernst was that I would rather not to be confirmed by the Senate than to have Jesse Jones still in government.’

[This was the last entry Wallace made as Vice President, and he only took up the diary again the following April. In the meantime, his nomination as Secretary of Commerce was almost not confirmed, Blum explains in a footnote, as Jones and others fought to block him in the Senate.]

12 September 1946
‘At the meeting with the President I went over page by page with him my Madison Square Garden speech to be given on September 12. Again and again he said, “That’s right”; “Yes, that is what I believe.” He didn’t have a single change to suggest. He twice said how deeply he appreciated my courtesy in showing him my speech before I gave it.

The President said that Secretary Byrnes’ speech of September 6 had been cleared with him over the telephone and then it had been sent back to Washington for minor checking. He said also that he thought it must be a pretty good speech because neither the British, the French, nor the Russians liked it.

The President apparently saw no inconsistency between my speech and what Byrnes was doing - if he did he didn’t indicate it in any way. He spoke very hopefully about the future, saying that he thought the situation between the United States and Russia was much more peaceful than the newspapers would have us believe. He said the dark cloud on the horizon was the state of Stalin’s heath; that Stalin was now an old man. He said also it was almost impossible to do business with Molotov . . .’

Diary briefs

Gangster diary names crime network - Hindustan Times

Lawrence Ferlinghetti travel journals - Liveright, The Paris Review

Childhood diaries from Maoist cult - The Telegraph

Mid-19th century diaries of Perth bishop - The West Australian

Hillary diaries added to Unesco Memory - Radio New Zealand

Diary of WWII medic uncovered -

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution - National Maritime Museum, The Guardian

Diary entry delays murder trial -

NZ war diaries kept by Leeds university - New Zealand Herald

Baseball reporter’s drinking diary - Daily News

WWI diaries of Irish hero - Irish Mirror

Orville Wright’s diaries online - Library of Congress

Monday, November 16, 2015

Canada’s rebel hero

Louis David Riel - one of the most divisive and controversial figures in Canadian history - was executed 130 years ago today. While many revere him as a heroic rebel who helped the French-speaking peoples across Canada stand up to the Anglophone domination of Canadian territories, others see him as no more than a half-insane religious fanatic. During the last year or so of his life, Riel kept diaries, and these - at least the later entries when he was on death row - reveal his religious zeal.

Riel was born in 1844, within the Métis community, an ethnic group of mixed Native American and European descent, in the Red River Settlement, near what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba. The eldest of 11 children in a respected, religious family, he was educated by Roman Catholic priests at St. Boniface and then at the Séminaire of the Collège de Montréal. However, he left college on hearing of the death of his father, and took work as a law clerk. He became engaged to a young woman, but her family objected to her marrying a Métis. He moved for a while to Chicago, mixing with literary types, before returning, in 1868, to Red River Settlement, then nominally administered by the Hudson Bay Company.

Anxiety among the Métis, about an ongoing influx of Anglophone Protestant settlers, escalated in 1869 during negotiations designed to transfer territorial rights in parts of Western Canada from the Hudson Bay Company to the newly-formed Dominion of Canada - the Métis not having English-style title to their land. Riel assumed leadership to counter these moves. He and his supporters intervened to stop a government survey of the area, and to bar William McDougall, the governor-designate, from entering Red River. They also seized Fort Garry, the headquarters of the Hudson Bay Company. A few weeks later the Métis National Committee declared a provisional government with Riel its president.

While the provisional government established a legislative assembly and published its own newspaper, discussions continued with the Canadian government, leading to a draft agreement, the Manitoba Act. Implementation, however, was stalled by the provisional government executing Thomas Scott, an English-speaking surveyor. He had been imprisoned in Fort Garry, had tried to escape, and was considered an agitator. The act led to outrage across English-speaking Canada. Part of the agreement had been an amnesty for the insurgents, and this was now withdrawn. Forces were sent to the region, and recaptured Fort Garry; Riel fled across the border to St. Joseph’s mission in the Dakota Territory.

Civil government was eventually established in the settlement later that same year (1870), with many of Riel’s former supporters having been elected into power. Riel returned to Manitoba quietly, and was even tacitly accepted by the lieutenant-governor Adams George Archibald in thanks for the supportive role Riel had played in helping repel raids from across the border by Irish revolutionaries (Fenians). Nevertheless, such a de facto amnesty for Riel was not accepted in Ottawa, and he was obliged to go into exile again. He continued to play a part in the politics of the region, even being elected member of parliament several times. He was, though, still fugitive, unable to take his seat because of a large government reward posted for his capture. Instead, he spent time with priests of the Oblate order in Plattsburgh, New York. Eventually the Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie secured a deal from Parliament allowing Riel an amnesty but only after five years of exile.

Riel became rather unstable, started to believe he had been divinely chosen to lead the
 Métis, and ended up in mental asylums for a year or so, possibly suffering from megalomania. He returned home briefly, but moved on west, to Montana Territory, where he became a trader and interpreter. In 1881, he married Marguerite Monet dit Bellehumeur, a young Métis, and they had three children. (Tragically, all were to die before long: his youngest son on the day of his birth, another son in his teens, and, later, his wife and then his other child would both die in their mid-20s.) Riel turned to teaching to support his family, and got involved in Montana politics, campaigning for the Republican Party, and taking on US citizenship. In 1884, the Métis in Saskatchewan appealed to Riel to take up their land claims with the Canadian government. Riel arrived in Batoche in July that year, and set about preparing a manifesto detailing grievances and settlers’ objectives. Although, initially, many found his approach reasonable, Riel began alienating different groups - his megalomania having returned - notably the church with his heretical speeches, and, before long, many of the Métis too.

When the government appeared to prevaricate over its response to the manifesto, and ordered more armed troops to the region, Riel and a band of remaining supporters seized arms, took hostages, cut the telegraph lines and declared, on 19 March 1885, a Provisional Government of Saskatchewan. Confrontation came to a head in May at the Battle of Batoche, the outcome of which was never in doubt. Riel surrendered on the 15th. He was found guilty of treason, and hanged on 16 November, an outcome which led to fierce outbreaks of racialism in Quebec and Ontario, and marked the beginning of the nationalist movement. Indeed, Wikipedia notes that ‘historians have debated the Riel case so often and so passionately that he is the most written-about person in all of Canadian history’. Further information is also available at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, University of Missouri-Kansas’s Famous Trials website, the Manitoba government website, or Library and Archives Canada.

Four diaries kept by Riel in the year before his death have survived. One of these - covering just a week prior to the Battle of Baroche - was lost for a century and only came to light in 1970. Soon after, it became the object of a famous literary sale, and was bought by private investors for $26,500. All four diaries were translated into English and edited by Thomas Flanagan for publication by Hurtig (Edmonton) in 1976 as The Diaries of Louis Riel. The full text is available at Our Roots - Canada’s Local History Online; and the short text of the Batoche diary is also available at the University of Saskatchewan’s Northwest Resistance website.

4 May 1885
‘The Spirit of God made me see two fighting men; they were walking down from Prince Albert. There was something big in front of them. I don’t know what it is. But I can tell you that it’s nothing good. The two men are not together. One is coming behind the other. They are not going very fast. The purpose of their mission is evil. They are trying to cause a great deal of trouble and confusion. But they are not achieving the goal they have in mind.

Evening of May 4
I see the troops coming, they are on foot. I see them in the aspens on the slope this side of Baptiste Vandale’s farm.

I see a pure white horse bearing a rider. The white colour of the horse flashes in the sun. The rider is leaving the road, he wants to get into the open.

I saw a big grass snake striking at the stake.’

5 May 1885
‘My wife encompasses my life. My nation encompasses my way of life. My army, the army which God has given me, encompasses the life I lead. My family has no other life than mine. The Church follows my example and is good to the same extent that I am good.

Be careful, watch out. The white man and the Orangeman want to trick you. The trap is wide open. It is set, do not rush into it.

For from another side, I see something stupendous coming: a great blow. Stay back, keep together. Let us be ready.’

6 May 1885
‘I see the white man with his battle helmet. The white man is tall. He sees far enough, but his steps do not take him very far, they lead him behind. The white man stumbles; his two feet slowly slide to the wrong side. He cannot stand up; he is effaced little by little; he gradually disappears; he vanishes - because his heart only has room for evil. To be more precise, he has no heart. When I speak of white men. I do not mean brown men.

Here I am, squarely arrived at the time God has marked in the order of things to come. With my own eyes, I saw all the signs of the times which were shown us before now. I did not want to believe that they were really signs of the times. But finally I had to recognize what they were. Yes, before me lies the time identified in many ways, the time announced with all the signs that are supposed to accompany it, as we are told in the Scriptures.

Boue-Chaire-Vile, previously such a fine place, is abandoned! The once fair city of Boue-Chaire-Vile now has no one to protect it. I am calling for help. I would like to wake those who sleep in the profound slumber of sin. They do not hear me, they do not listen to me, they do not obey me. The enemy is coming up the river, he is arriving, he is going to bombard the city. How is it going to resist? No one takes its interests to heart. It is going to fall into the hands of the conqueror. For, having first abandoned God, it is now abandoned by God. It is done. Oh, how many times will you come true, O prophecy? Oh, how many times each century! Oh, how many times each generation?

The Spirit of God has made me see that my prayers and obeisances are good, that they are pleasing to Him. But the government is harming me; the government’s army is waging war upon me. And yet, however harmful that obstacle may have been to me, I am surprised at how easily I have removed it from my path. Anyone who wanted to stop me from praying has been put in his place. When you have confidence in God and Jesus Christ, nothing is difficult any more.
The Spirit of God made me realize the extent of the rights which the Indian possesses to the land of the North-West. Yes, the extent of the Indian rights, the importance of the Indian cause are far above all other interests. People say the native stands on the edge of a chasm. It is not he who stands on the edge of a chasm; his claims are not false. They are just. The land question will soon be resolved, as it must, to his complete satisfaction. Every step the Indian takes is based upon a profound sense of fairness.’

20 May 1885
‘Why do we have comfortable houses? Our home is not here. O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us.’

21 May 1885
‘At my table, I will only have what is strictly necessary - water or milk to drink, no dessert, no syrup.

I do not even want to sit comfortably. I want to punish myself, mortify myself in everything.’

23 May 1885
‘Down with beautiful hair and vain hair styles! Pretty heads are full of impure thoughts, they speak them aloud, they commit impure acts in great number.

No more useless words! I want to speak meekly. My thoughts must be charitable.’

[From the beginning of August, Riel wrote at length in his diary, but his entries were mostly prayers and meditations on death.]

22 August 1885
‘Death destroys the trees around me. She takes her victims from among my livestock. Even if I sacrifice one of the animals from my flocks, I become an instrument of death.

The language of death is eloquent. It is a language expressed in facts, not figures of speech. The birds of the air are subject to the laws of mortality. The fish hiding in the fathomless depths of the oceans are not concealed from death.

Man, whom God has placed at the head of creation, will obey death because he has disobeyed his Creator. Death! It is sin which has invited you into the world. You did not keep us waiting; it was not long after the invitation that you made your appearance. You are our guest. You deserve a kind and warm reception, for you only come to us after being summoned. Man has made a deliberate choice between immortality and mortality; and in exercising his freedom, he has consented to be your servant. Death, you have power over him because he has chosen you to be his mistress; it is fair that you should be obeyed. I am getting ready to receive you whenever it pleases God to send you to me. For imperious as you are, Death, you are subject to a power which must be acknowledged and obeyed - the absolute power of the One who, being life itself, has nothing which belongs to you; the sovereign power of the all-loving God without whose permission you cannot approach me.’

Friday, November 6, 2015

Robertson Davies as diarist

A selection of diaries kept by Robertson Davies, one of Canada’s most important literary figures and its leading man of letters in the mid-20th century, has been published for the first time. The diaries, which had been embargoed for 20 years after his death, provide a wealth of detail about his daily life, and for this they are important, and often interesting, but they do not provide evidence for the publisher’s claim that Davies must now be considered ‘one of the great diarists’.

Robertson was born in Thamesville, Ontario, in 1913, third son to William Davies, a Welsh-born Canadian publisher and politician. He was schooled at Upper Canada College and then went to Queen’s University, and Balliol College, Oxford, where he received a BLit in 1938. He wished to make a career in the British theatre world, and joined the staff of the Old Vic, led at that time by Tyrone Guthrie, and worked alongside the likes of Ralph Richardson and Vivien Leigh. In 1940, he married the Australian-born Brenda Mathews, whom he had met at Oxford, but who had also worked at the Old Vic. Shortly after war broke out, Davies was advised to return to Canada. Because of poor eyesight, though, he was unfit for military service. He worked as a literary journalist in Toronto until, in 1942, his father pressed him to take over one of his company’s newspapers, the daily Peterborough Examiner.

Davies, despite his full-time job, and Brenda continued to be involved in the theatre world, with Davies writing (and directing) several plays during the 1940s. He also collected his humorous essays for publication under the pseudonym, Samuel Marchbanks. Frustrated by an inability to get his plays noticed outside of Canada, Davies began writing novels in the 1950s, alongside more plays, publishing what came to be known as the Salterton Trilogy (Tempest-Tost in 1951, Leaven of Malice in 1954, and A Mixture of Frailties in 1958). A major turning point for Davies came in the early 1960s, when he began teaching at Trinity College, University of Toronto, and two years later was appointed Master of the new university graduate Massey College, conceived by one of Canada’s most notable figures, Vincent Massey, and funded by his foundation.

In all Davies’ endeavours, Brenda was a constant companion - stage managing her husband for six decades, according to an obituary in The Globe and Mail. Together, they had three daughters, one of whom, Jennifer (Surridge), would become her father’s literary executor. And Brenda helped organise many of the Master’s functions at Massey College during Davies’ near-20 years tenure - despite being excluded, as were all women, for the early years. In the 1970s, Davies again found form with the novel, publishing Fifth Business in 1970, The Manticore in 1972 and World of Wonders in 1975 - collectively known as The Deptford Trilogy.

Davies retired from academic life in the early 1980s, but continued to write novels, some of his best. What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), which became the middle book of The Cornish Trilogy, was short-listed for the Booker Prize for fiction. He published two books in the 1990s, but failed to finish the third of what would have been The Toronto Trilogy. He died in 1995. There are no dedicated Robertson Davies websites that I can find, and thus surprisingly little detailed information about him on the web, other than at The Canadian Encyclopaedia or Wikipedia (and in a few obituaries - The New York Times or The Independent, for example). The Paris Review has the text of an audience interview with Davies from 1986.

Although a great fan of Robertson Davies, having read most of his novels over the years, I never knew he was a diarist. Indeed, it seems, he dictated that, after his death, the plethora of his diary material - many different volumes and around three million words - should not be published for at least two decades. Now those 20 years have passed, McClelland & Stewart has just published A Celtic Temperament: Robertson Davies as Diarist, as prepared and edited by Jennifer Surridge and Ramsay Derry. From his teens and throughout his life, Davies kept a variety of diaries: a personal daily diary, a ‘big’ diary for more considered entries, a theatre-going diary, travel diaries on trips, and, occasionally, other diaries for a specific topic, such as one kept during production of his play Love and Libel, and another about Massey College. Surridge and Derry say of their book that it covers ‘a particularly busy time in his immensely productive career’ when he was already known as Canada’s leading man of letters.

The editors have eschewed the idea of identifying the exact provenance of the diary entries, interleaving them seemlessly, ‘in order to maintain an easily readable ongoing narrative’ - though I, personally, would have liked to know which entries came from which diary. However, and very interestingly, there is a project, well under way, to create digital editions of all the diaries. The Davies Diaries project, as it is known, is under the guidance of James Neufeld, Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at Trent University, and is being funded by Editing Modernism in Canada and Library and Archives Canada. Ambitiously, the project expects to allow readers to browse and search not only digitised images of all diary pages, but verbatim transcripts, corrected transcripts, and annotated texts. Moreover, the presentation will be enhanced with links to visual, audio and texts from other archives and collections ‘to provide background and colour for the events Davies describes’. Online publication of the theatre diaries in 2017 has been set as a first target.

Surridge and Derry conclude their introduction to A Celtic Temperament by claiming: ‘[T]he diaries are more than social history, as we hope this introductory selection shows. In their variety, intimacy, and honesty, they present an extraordinary rich portrait of the man and his times and an entertaining account of a life as it is being lived.’ All of which I can agree with. However, I don’t buy the publisher’s claim that this first book of Davies’ diaries establishes him ‘as one of the great diarists’. Far from it. Much, if not most, of the diaries are filled with, if not banal then, straightforward records of his daily activities. These records are, as a whole, hugely important, because Davies is one of the greatest of Canadian authors, but in the detail they are fairly dull. Davies was a decent, hard-working, family man - privileged and successful - and the detail of his daily life reflects these realities. Although not yet reviewed in the British press, a review in Canada’s The Globe and Mail calls the diaries ‘delightful’ but complains that there is ‘no dirt, little gossip’ and that, though fun and whimsical, they reveal little more than ‘the banalities of a privileged life in letters’.

Here are a few short extracts from A Celtic Temperament - and many thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy.

9 February 1961
‘Bill Broughall lunched with me at the University Club. He tells me Vincent Massey says “a gentleman never takes soup with luncheon at his club” because Lord Curzon said it. I fear I shall run into many things a gentleman does not do, and which are unknown to me; but I am writer, and therefore a bit of a bounder.’

25 February 1961
‘Nothing in the Globe and Mail about my appointment because I write for the Star: what small behaviour! Write a Star column in the morning and a critique of Saint Joan. In the afternoon, loaf and read Jung; Rosamund comes for the weekend, very lively; in the evening go through Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” with her and read Rabelais.’

27 February 1961
‘Now that the news is out, and the world has received it with exemplary calm, and my Proposals are out of my hands, I feel a deep depression, a regression of the libido, what might be called the Hump. What have I let myself in for? What am I, a mere magpie of leaning and certainly no scholar, doing with a learned appointment in that collection of medieval schoolmen and learned but vulgar thrusters, the University of Toronto? My one desire is to crawl into a hole and work on the novel which has been in my mind since before A Mixture of Frailties.’

20 August 1961
‘Lay late reading Final Curtain by Ngaio Marsh. Dye my beard too dark - must look into this. Loafed all day never stirring from the place and found this very refreshing: my condition of mind asks for inactivity; worked on my speech. I am indeed changing: trying to purge my writing of ornament and mere eccentricity and my thinking of bile, emotionalism, and vulgarity. Oh! that I may make some progress in these things!

13 November 1961
‘Worked on Saturday Night piece “Pleasures of Love.” In the evening looked over old MSS of novels and plays and reread diary of Love and Libel a year since: still painful, and it might have succeeded; useless to repine.’

25 February 1962
‘Bouts of sinus, headache, nausea, and cold sweats have left me unwell for the day. Brenda and I lay on sofas and read. Went for short walk. What a hateful winter! Every winter has its low point and I hope this it: is it age or bodily rot that brings this appalling tedium vitae?’

19 December 1962
‘Minor bothers: car goes crook; parcels get mislaid, etc. Rosamund is out of school at 12. Give a good lecture at 2. We call on the Edinboroughs and have mince pies and rum punch. In the evening to Kind Hearts and Coronets, my favourite film.’