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Un Journal n'est pas une Vie

Calamity's picture

What has most captured my interest in House of Wits has been the question of representation and re-presentation as I have learned about the James family. Each of my papers has dealt with this topic of representation. A few months ago I mapped Alice’s diary with charts to see if the diary was a thorough and accurate representation of her life, and I learned that she wrote less than 15% of the time she kept the diary. This surprised me, for as a genre the reader assumes a diary gives a complete and moment-by-moment description of its author’s life, that a diary is as close to actually knowing what happened as the reader could ever get. Alice’s diary proved this assumption false.  A diary is not a life. 

The Diary of Alice James:

AJ diary key

Aj diary 90

Aj diary 91

Aj diary 92
























































































For the final project I wanted to see if this was true for other diaries, and I immediately wondered if Louisa May Alcott kept a diary. Louisa May Alcott sprang to mind because I knew she and Alice were contemporaries (Louisa May was 16 years Alice’s senior), and I thought initially they were antithetical. Alcott had all sisters for siblings, while James had brothers; Alcott was active, and James bed-ridden; Alcott wrote and published prolifically, and James published only one letter in the Nation during her lifetime. I have since learned they were more similar than I anticipated. Both were teachers, had strong paternal figures, they kept diaries (though Louisa May Alcott began diarizing at the age of 11,) and wrote letters, they were ill in their last years, and both had no formal education. 

                  x Louisa May Alcott













 Alice James

For the purposes of comparison, I have taken the last 1,009 days of Louisa May Alcott’s diary, a time when she suffered a series of illnesses and doctors prohibited her from writing. In my previous essay I wrote Alice kept her diary for 1,029 days, which was inaccurate—she kept it for 1,009 days. However, the percentage of entries to days kept remains the same with either number: 15%.  

Louisa May Alcott had a different method of journaling than Alice. Alcott would go back through her diaries and condense them into monthly summaries of important events, and she would often destroy the original entries. Thankfully, Alcott summarized only two months of her last three years (May and June of 1886).  I decided to count those months as gaps, and have only used actual dated entries in my calculations and charts. She would also rip out pages from her diaries, a practice seen in her 1885 diary. The ripped pages are represented by grey, and amount to 58% of the June-December 1885 entries. 

Louisa May Alcott’s diary is more consistently kept than Alice’s, yet of the 1,009 days I have mapped she wrote only 599 entries—chronicling 59% of her life during those years. Her diary, too, only provides a partial picture of her life.  

The Diary of Louisa May Alcott:





























































































In the second part of my analysis I wanted to see if Alice and Louisa May’s individual correspondence filled some of the gaps in their diaries. Unfortunately, the books I found had only a selection of their letters; however, I elected to use them, as they are both selections. A second reason I had for using them is they are in the same proportion as the diary entries; for every one diary entry Alice wrote, Louisa May wrote four, and for every letter Alice wrote Louisa May wrote four. During the three years of their diaries, Alice wrote eleven letters and Louisa May forty-four. I mapped the letters on top of the diary entries, and found that in Alice’s case, the letters do fill in some of the gaps, as all of her letters were written on gap days. To me this suggests Alice devoted her whole attention to either her diary or her letters, and never both—this could have been the result of her weakness or pain, or some other factor, and many of her letters were dictated. Therefore, the letters partially answer the question “what was Alice up to when she didn’t write a diary entry?"—some of those days, she wrote letters. 

Alcott’s letters also sometimes fall on gap days, however since she had more entries than Alice, many of her letters were written on days she wrote diary entries. Louisa’s right hand was partially paralyzed from writing, yet she continued to write both letters and her entries, and eventually finished her last few tales before she died. She was more active than Alice, and while she was ill and weak her last three years, she refused to let illness keep her immobile.

Alice's Letters:

AJ letter 1889

aj letters 1890

Louisa May Alcott's Letters

LMA letters 1885





































































































































































































James, Alice. The Diary of Alice James. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999.

Myerson, Joel, Daniel Shealy, and Madeline B. Stern. The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987.

Myerson, Joel, Daniel Shealy, and Madeline B. Stern.  The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1997.  

Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. The Death and Letters of Alice James. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.