‘Dear Diary’: 400 Years of NYC History, Up Close & Personal

Teresa Carpenter |
Author: Teresa Carpenter
Publisher: Modern Library
Publication Date: Jan. 2012

I’ve been keeping a nightly diary for more than 30 years. It started as one of those line-a-day books in which weepy teenage girls used to opine about crushes and friends — but only to themselves in ballpoint. It occurred to me, as I moved past my teens, that penning this juvenilia may not have left a compelling social record, but it had, at least, developed some mental discipline. And if one aspires to become a writer, then one should write something every day.

That diary, or rather the stack of black and red volumes in the back of my closet, remained a purely personal matter until I married. My husband, who knew better than to peek at those pages, nonetheless recognized my fondness for them; on my birthday in 1987 he gave me “The Faber Book of Diaries,” 400 years of British diary-keeping edited by the mystery writer, Simon Brett. It was a splendid and illuminating work.  I placed the book on my bedside table where it has remained, ever since.

If granite is not eternal, how much more fragile then is human memory? And where is New York’s most intimate memory if not in a diary?

At the time I thought that something very similar could and should be done for New York City. I am a transplant from the Midwest but am fervent about the city. The diary idea started, as so many good ideas do, as a notation slipped into a file slugged unassumingly, “Good Ideas.” That was 25 years ago.

The idea was thrust to the fore after 9/11. My own entries during the days immediately thereafter were spare. Those of us with families had to concentrate on maintaining an almost militant normalcy. But I do recall this: New York City, which had seemed so solid to me, now seemed so fragile. It was almost as if you could press your fingers into a granite building and find it was made of foam. If granite softens, how much more fragile then is human memory? And where is New York’s most intimate memory if not in a diary?

Click the images below to read diary entries from famous visitors to New York:

Teresa Carpenter amassed a large collection of New York diary entries for her book. This photo shows a page from the diary of James Cruikshank, circa 1800, a New York businessman of wide personal interests. Image courtesy of the Rosenbach Library and Museum in Philadelphia.

The slip of paper in the “Good Ideas” file rapidly became a series of archive boxes. And as it did, I realized how ambitious and sprawling this project stood to be.

Some of the most well-known diarists had already been safely immortalized in print or microform, and others were in the process of being digitized. But the myriad citizens who lived their lives out of the public spotlight — their writing was at risk of loss.  And it was their daily routines in particular that said so much about day-to-day life in New York: the carving of coffins, the quality of goods sold at Dutch auctions, the details of a debutante’s gowns and the near defection of New York to The South. In the end I spent seven years in the climate-controlled trenches trying to cull the best from these unknown diarists.

Histories preserve exteriors; diaries, interiors. Since so many burn, drown or are otherwise lost, chasing them is like chasing fog. But whenever I caught one, I was allowed to walk around inside that head and see any day’s events through those eyes.

“New York Diaries” contains 160 pairs of eyes (some longtime city residents, some visitors). I only hope that what Faber did for Britain, I have somehow accomplished for New York City. And for having done that, the sidewalks seem more certain under my feet, the granite under my fingers closer to what it once was.

Teresa Carpenter is the award-winning author and a former senior editor of the Village Voice, where her articles on crime and the law won a Pulitzer Prize. She lives in Greenwich Village.

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