Inheriting the Iowa Diary: Little Women and their Audiences on the Prairie

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Diaries are literary sirens, enticing readers to furtively open them and learn all their writers’ secrets to understand them as deeply as the diary does itself. However, despite popular conception, diaries are not meant to be secret and left unread; for if someone has taken the care to save the moments of a life and protect them across time and distance, perhaps they deserve to be read. Diaries exist as a marginal form of literary expression, both limited and freed by the social orders that act upon their writers. All the tensions that are impressed upon the diarist extend onto their diaries; furthermore, diaries are written with a specific intent and readership in mind which increasingly controls the content of a diary. I have added to the conversation about the role of diary readership by emphasizing that the intended audience are not the only readers of the diary: an inheriting readership, separated from the writer through time and often distance, eventually picks up the diary as well. The temporal separation causes a gap of understanding between the inheriting readers and the diarist, a space that these readers must navigate in order to fully contextualize the diary. I located dozens of local diaries before selecting two to demonstrate these gaps, as well as to analyze them through pre-existing diary theory. Lucile Hink’s Great Depression diary and Eliza Ann Bartlett’s pioneer diary share many traits of rural farmsteading and life in Grinnell during economic constraints, creating an ideal set to analyze and to demonstrate the traditions of diary-keeping practices across swaths of history.