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Mind the Gap[s]

Calamity's picture

When reading The Diary of Alice James I found the gaps between her entries fascinating; these gaps began to interest me more than the entries themselves—my attention caught by what Alice didn’t write, rather than what she did. Professor Dalke suggested creating a visual representation of the diary to see where the gaps fell in the thirty-five months Alice kept her diary. I used a chart system, one chart for each year she wrote, and I chose red to represent the gap days for its contrast to black and white, and to emphasize the gaps more than the entries.

There is, numerically, little change over time in the number of days Alice wrote in her diary. In 1889, her first year of writing, she had forty-six entries, in 1890, fifty-seven, and in 1891 forty-five entries. Alice’s last year, 1892, has only nine entries, for she died in early March. The relative consistency in her writing across the years implies Alice had a similar ratio of good to bad days in a year. Her entries are arrayed in spurts, which suggest Alice felt strong in spurts—some days have two entries. In the 1,009 days Alice kept her diary and could possibly have written in it, she wrote a total of 157 days. 157 days covers only 15% of her time, suggesting she was unable to write (whether incapacitated by weakness, pain or hysteria,) 85% of the time!

The visual representations of Alice’s diary offer a different image of Alice than her caustic, well-informed political and personal commentaries provide; the striking number of red rectangles reveals a woman in unbearable pain nearly all of the time, but one whose will was strong enough to rally her to write and exercise her wit for the small amounts of time she could.

Wits-AJ diary chart.xls27 KB


fabelhaft's picture

Oh Calamity. Your chart has

Oh Calamity. Your chart has such striking colors that it is impossible to ignore the harsh reality of Alice's life: she wrote much less than I thought she did. I don't know if, as you suggest, she didn't write because she had shitty days and no mental energy to spare; or, as Anne suggests, she didn't write because she was out cavorting with Kate Lorring. The implications of either option are interesting. 

The format of a diary is at once straight-forward and manipulative. All the information is laid out, but one must consciously search. While reading Alice's diary, I didn't really keep a mental record of when she wrote and when she didn't. Consequently, the sparsity of her entries was lost on me. Your chart brings all the information into the open.

Calamity's picture


First I'd like to respond to the technical aspect of Anne's comment:  I chose black and white and red for their contrast--those three are a color scheme I'm partial to.  To me, white represented a page in the diary.  Also, the "not possible" option covers days before Alice kept a diary, after she died, and days that do not exist but have a row on the chart--for example, November 31st, September 31st, etc. (months that have 30 days or less).  

Second, I'll discuss the question of my interpretation of Alice's gap days.  Anything is possible on those gap days; Alice could have entertained visitors or even pranced around the house in her negligee (though probably not a combination of the two).  I, however, do not believe Alice was active on a significant number of these gap days.  Since Alice wrote entries on days she went outside, and emphasized her outdoor excursions, I think this suggests those days were special and not the norm. 

Also, I saw a parallel between Alice James and my Aunt, who is a sort of modern invalid.  If some intrepid person made a chart of my Aunt's "good" days to "bad", it would probably be about 15% to 85%. 

I checked out "the microhistorical unknown" and I think in Alice's case, the diary is her microhistorical life, and the gaps are the macrohistorical unknown. 

Anne Dalke's picture

Minding Your Interpretation


I am laughing out loud to find an English paper that takes the form of a chart. What you have done here is pretty astonishing to me: really highlighted the degree to which a diary -- even one as detailed and "BOring" as James's -- is partial, representing only 10% of the days she lived. How much, then, is unrecorded!

First, a couple of technical questions. I like the choice of red: it certainly highlights the gaps! But why black for "no entry possible"? (Why not possible--except for after death?) And why white for the days when a record was made?

The radical unrecordedness of all the "red days" means, of course, that your speculation of what was going on then--your repeated insistence that Alice didn't write when she was in pain--is pure speculation. Why do you assume that the written is to unwritten as good  days are to bad? Maybe on the days Alice didn't write she went outside?  Or talked with others? Maybe on those days, feeling especially well, she had no need to write, and so thereby "create" a life for herself in the absence of outward lived experience?  You say, for example, that "the striking number of red rectangles reveals a woman in unbearable pain nearly all of the time," but of course it "reveals" nothing of the sort: only that, on those many, many, MANY days, she did not write.

Do you want, now, to find out WHY? (How might you do that?)

Also: don't neglect to take a look @ exsoloadsolem's project, which creatively attempts to fill in some of the gaps you highlight...

As well as a posting by Tim Burke, a Swat history prof who's coming to my other class this week to talk about his blogging practice; see  The Microhistorical Unknown.