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Windows to the past

Diaries and journals throughout time

Created date

March 30th, 2017
Samuel Pepys' diary is considered the best first-person record of Restoration London.

Samuel Pepys' diary is considered the best first-person record of Restoration London.


The diary has existed in some form for millennia. From the caveman’s wall drawings of a successful hunt to the Internet blogger's opinions on the recent presidential election, people throughout time have readily indulged their inherent need to spill their guts about everyday occurrences.

In diaries and journals (journals, strictly speaking, are more detailed accounts of events, impressions, and feelings), authors create their own outlet through which they unburden their minds. While such material is often frivolous, there are a number of instances wherein diaries and journals have proven themselves indispensable historical documents—windows to the past.

For nine years (1660–1669), Englishman Samuel Pepys kept a daily record of life in Restoration London. Throughout this period, Pepys, who would go on to become the father of the modern British Navy, kept a meticulous running diary of the city’s social, political, and professional scenes.

A gadfly of sorts, he was perpetually out and about town, a man of boundless curiosity who knew everyone and seemed interested in everything. Indeed, his diary is the closest thing we have to time travel.

On a daily basis, Pepys holds forth about what he eats and drinks, those with whom he socializes, the challenges and problems he encounters in the Royal Admiralty, and his conversations with everyone from commoners to King Charles II.

Small moments and significant events

Even minutiae as subtle as the city’s night watchman calling the time under his bedroom window have a place in some entries, lending an undeniable immediacy to fleeting moments that transpired over 350 years ago. 

Hugely significant events like the great London fire of 1666 also come alive thanks to Pepys’s disciplined, if not compulsive, writing habit. Most historians consider it to be the finest available description of the inferno that destroyed a good portion of the British capital. 

Others continued in this spirit over the next 150 years. 

From 1762 to 1763, renowned biographer James Boswell kept a journal just as painstaking as Pepys’s. Undiscovered until 1920, his London Journal, as it’s known, was a bestseller in its first printing in 1950.

Across the Atlantic, colonists like founding father John Adams kept equally detailed diaries that offer valuable perspective on eighteenth-century colonial living and, more importantly, the birth of an American nation.

Between 1753 and 1804, Adams produced 51 handwritten manuscript volumes containing diary entries, financial records, and copies of personal correspondence. Together, they comprise an intimate account of his involvement in the American Revolution, the creation of a new democratic government, and his service as vice president and president of the United States.

Incredibly, it’s available for free online in its entirety, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Half a century later, another diarist created a highly readable account of the war that threatened to destroy everything Adams had toiled to build. The wife of a high-ranking Confederate official, Mary Chesnut religiously recorded her feelings and observations during the Civil War.

From February 1861 to June 1865, the pages of her journal—collectively entitled A Diary From Dixie—give readers a firsthand look at America’s bloodiest conflict from the Southern female perspective. Like Boswell’s diary, Chesnut’s record remains a staple among general and academic readers alike, with historian C. Vann Woodward’s annotated edition winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.

Anne Frank

But it was the hand of a young girl that gave the world the best example of a good diary’s power as both history and literature. 

From June 12, 1942, to August 1, 1944, teenager Anne Frank used her diary to keep a day-by-day record of life as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. While hiding out in a secret annex behind the office building where her father worked, the teen described in depth how she, her parents, and four others shared the cramped quarters for two years to elude detection by the Gestapo and the death sentence that would surely follow as a result.

She daydreamed on the page about going to college and becoming a writer, meanwhile waxing on her transition to womanhood under horrific conditions. Such entries continued until August 1, 1944, the day Nazi officials arrested Anne and her family, sending them to a concentration camp where she would ultimately die.

To date, her moving personal record, kept in a plaid notebook her father had given her for her 13th birthday, has seen publication in 67 languages, selling some 30 million copies. 

In certain ways, these various diaries are worlds apart, written by very different people under very different circumstances; however, each served as a means by which its respective author made sense of life.

They had the courage to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, defined themselves as individuals and, in doing so, left behind something of value to us all.

Selected list of published diaries

Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660–1669)

James Boswell’s London Journal (1762–1763)

Diary of John Adams 

Diary of John Quincy Adams (1779–1848) 

Mary Chesnut’s A Diary From Dixie (1861–1865)

Diary of Richard Wagner (1865–1882)

The Franz Kafka Diaries (1910–1923)

Virginia Woolf Diaries (1915–1941)

George Patton Diaries (1910–1945) 

Diary of Anne Frank (1942–1944)

The Andy Warhol Diaries (1970s and 1980s)

The Reagan Diaries (1981–1989)

Rescuing the diary of Anne Frank

After more than 50 years in the publishing business, retired Knopf senior editor and vice president Judith Jones has earned a reputation as a master of cookbooks. She’s responsible for ushering into print recipes from some of the best chefs of the twentieth century, including Julia Child, whose Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1960) gave post-war Americans something different from meatloaf and tuna casserole.

Jones confesses that she has always loved cooking, so it’s not surprising that much of her legacy from her years at Knopf fills millions of kitchen shelves around the world. But all of these cookbooks merely overshadow what is arguably her most important contribution to the world of literature—one that she made at the beginning of her career.

“It was around 1950, and I was in Paris working for Doubleday as an assistant to Frank Price, who the company had sent over to scout titles and set up an office to sell rights,” Jones recalls. “Our office was a rather beautiful apartment on the rue de la Faisanderie, and one afternoon, Frank had gone off to a lunch appointment and left me with a pile of rejected manuscripts. He wanted me to write the letters and send them off.”

So Jones began typing the letters for one manuscript after another, when the pile revealed something that caught her eye. A 12-year-old girl with thick, black hair, chestnut eyes, and a bright smile gazed back at her from the cover of a French translation entitled The Diary of a Young Girl.

Even in black and white, the girl’s face radiated a warmth and innocence that Jones could not ignore. Instead of reaching for another sheet of Doubleday letterhead, on which she had written the other rejections, she opened the book and began reading.

A moving personal record

She soon found herself immersed in the world of Annelies Marie Frank, a Jewish girl living with her mother, father, and sister in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. For her thirteenth birthday, Anne’s father Otto had given her a plaid-covered journal in which she began her diary.

From June 12, 1942, to August 1, 1944, Anne provided a day-by-day portrait of life under the Nazi regime. At first, her entries were typical of most girls her age, but gradually their subjects grew more sinister as she related details of the anti-Jewish decrees that deprived people like Anne and her family of the most basic pleasures in life.

She wrote: “Jews were forbidden to ride in cars, even their own; Jews were required to do their shopping between 3 and 5 p.m.; Jews were required to frequent only Jewish-owned barbershops and beauty parlors; Jews were forbidden to be out on the streets between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.; Jews were forbidden to attend theaters, movies, or any other forms of entertainment; Jews were forbidden to use swimming pools, tennis courts, hockey fields, or any other athletic fields; . . . Jews were forbidden to sit in their gardens or those of their friends after 8 p.m.; Jews were forbidden to visit Christians in their homes; Jews were required to attend Jewish schools . . .”

Such was life for thousands since 1940, and by July 1942, the Frank family had gone into hiding to avoid forced placement in Nazi work camps. They took refuge in a secret annex behind the office building where Otto worked, and it was here that they and four others would share the cramped quarters and a single toilet for more than two years, with a few of Otto’s former employees their only link to the outside world.

Comfortably surrounded by the luxury of the Doubleday apartment, Jones sat engrossed in Anne’s story, witnessing a girl coming of age under the most extraordinary circumstances one could imagine. That first kiss in the park or on a playground; the lessons learned in a schoolhouse; the relationships developed at home with loved ones, for Anne, all took place in the small attic where she wrote about them.

Jones read all afternoon and didn’t stop until she reached the last entry, August 1, 1944—the day that Nazi police discovered and arrested the Franks. Anne, who in previous entries wrote at length about her dream of becoming a journalist, would never write again.

“It was beyond me how this remarkable story, which was beautifully written, ended up in the rejection pile,” says Jones. “When my boss came back to the apartment, he asked what I was still doing there, and I just looked at him and said, ‘We have got to send this book to New York. It must be published.’”

Though Jones distinctly remembers her boss’s reluctance over the idea of “a book by a kid,” she still convinced him to let their colleagues in New York look at it. They were 100% behind her the moment they did and gave her the okay to draw up a contract.

Before they could move forward, Otto Frank wanted to meet with Jones and Price to better understand their intentions for his daughter’s work, which he had discovered following his release from a concentration camp after the war.

“We invited him to have lunch with us in the Doubleday apartment office in Paris, where we talked over a wonderful meal,” Jones recalls. “What I remember most about the meeting came at the end. As we were finishing lunch, he looked at me and my boss and said, ‘The one thing that I must keep is the dramatic rights because I could not bear to see anyone playing my Annie.’”

Obviously, someone had persuaded Frank otherwise some years later, but Jones says that the notion clearly seemed inconceivable to him as they sat in the elegant dining room of the Doubleday apartment.

“For me, the meeting was a very moving experience, and Anne’s diary an incredibly important work,” she says. “You have to remember that, particularly at this point in time, no one had talked about the Holocaust all that much, and here we had in our hands a first-person account of what it was like.”

In an entry dated April 5, 1944, Anne thanked God for giving her the gift of writing. “I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met,” she wrote. “I want to go on living even after my death!”

And that’s just what she’s doing through the words of her diary.

—Michael G. Williams