To figure out a diary’s intended audience, start by examining the amount of background information a writer includes. If the diary, especially in its first few entries, appears to introduce itself to a stranger by explaining basic facts that everyone around the writer probably already knows, that creates a different effect from a diary that jumps right in with comments on people, places, and situations assuming a reader who already has familiarity with them.
The history of diaries includes plentiful examples of both. Samuel Pepys begins his diary by summarizing the previous year. He lists the members of his household and shares with the reader the address of his home, the primary assets he owns, the name of his employer, the “condition of the State” and some notes on his own recent health. Other diaries omit such introductions and take the reader in hand with a familiarity that suggests prior acquaintance and no need to explain the life’s context.
People who come along and read the diary can be divided into two groups: those who know the writer personally and those who lack direct acquaintance with the writer. (This useful division between an initial group of intended or unexpected readers and a secondary audience that inherits the diary later was developed by Kaitlyn Goss-Peirce in her 2019 research on Iowa diaries.)
For the first group, whom we’ll call “proximate” readers—including the diarist’s spouse or intimate partner, friends and family, neighbors, acquaintances, co-workers, teachers and others—the diary will never represent the whole person. This book, however revelatory, remains a single item among many sources of knowledge, including their own personal interactions. The diarist may describe events that the two of them attended together, conversations they had—the diary may even comment on their relationship. Proximate readers could have memories of the same events—perspectives that may not match what’s recorded in the diary.
And somewhere in this group of proximate readers—whether or not they ever actually read the diary—may be found individuals who have in real life the close, trusting connection that a diary narrative tends to establish with an implied (or imaginary) reader. For proximate readers, we see that the very existence of the diary begs a question: “If your relationship with me is truly close and trusting, why would you need to keep a diary? Why not simply share your ideas directly with us, your friends and family?”
The existence of a diary may uneasily suggest that the writer has certain thoughts and feelings they aren’t comfortable revealing to friends and relatives. Just knowing that a member of the household keeps a diary can feel odd, even a little threatening.
Some journal-keepers write with proximate readers in mind, thinking of them as the intended audience. These journals may even take the form of a letter addressed to a spouse or family member. A long tradition of the journal-letter—sometimes with entries initially drafted in a bound book, then copied and mailed to the recipient—blurs the line between letter and diary. Or a pair of writers may agree to share and exchange their diaries for each other to read.
In other situations, it’s easy to understand why proximate readers may have their access restricted. Depending on what’s selected to include, the writer may realize that to come across this diary may lead to strife and hurt for proximate readers who don’t understand or agree with what they find on its pages. A proximate reader could challenge the writer’s account, feel shocked to find their own secrets revealed in the diary, or believe that their behavior or words were misrepresented. To avoid such potential confrontation and conflict, the diary may be hidden, locked, or otherwise made off-limits to them.
But even when kept secret, the diary is composed in acute awareness that one of these potential proximate readers, especially living within the household, might come across the diary and read it. (Of course, this particular threat can shrink nearly to zero in the age of the password-protected electronic diary). For proximate readers to find and read the diary could undermine the intimacy, confidence, and trust that the two individuals enjoy in real life.
Such considerations affect the diary by leading to entries that are encoded, elliptically written, self-censored, or phrased in a careful way that partially conceals their meaning. Potential proximate readers, then, have a shaping influence on the diary’s composition even while a writer exerts effort to avoid having them read the diary—and even if, in fact, they never do end up reading it.
All other readers might be called “posterity” readers. They’ve never met the diarist in person, though they may feel that they come to know this person intimately just from having read the diary. Their relationship, their entire acquaintance, is conducted by means of the diary. Posterity readers may fish for supplemental context in other personal documents and historical records, but for them, the totality of the person they know is the voice speaking to them through the diary. They have no comparisons to exercise between a flesh-and-blood human being and the diary’s persona or narrator.
The diary may be encountered by a posterity reader long after the diarist’s death, or as a published book. Either way, when a posterity reader opens the diary, they have no choice but to step in and occupy the space opened for them through the diary’s construction of an implied reader.
If a diarist uses the strategy of addressing a confidant—real or imagined—the posterity reader absorbs the diary material by “standing in” for that addressee. As Goss-Peirce puts it, these later readers have no choice but to take on the role, to “format themselves to the space” created for the diary’s intended audience (11). From the first page, the posterity reader experiences the closeness and trust set up by the diarist—arguably in a more immersive way than a proximate reader, who will inevitably be distracted by their own real-life relationship with the writer of the diary and can’t help but project onto its pages extraneous details, conflicting views of the same events and conversations, and their personal opinions and attitude toward the diarist.
Note that I’m writing about the diary as a literary form—as a genre. Otherwise I’d admit what seems obvious: that the proximate reader doubtless knows the diarist much better than the posterity reader. After all, they’ve met the person in real life, and spent time together. No matter how much a posterity reader tries to fill in with external information, parts of the diary will never make sense to them. As Goss-Peirce writes, “because no amount of research can fully substitute the contemporary knowledge drawn from experience, [posterity readers] must settle some of the gaps as a loss” (12).
But for this very reason, it might be easier for a posterity reader to make the full leap into a special, intimate connection with the diarist. The posterity reader has no personal ties to complicate the reading experience. While a proximate reader may worry about coming across an entry that could disturb, anger, or hurt them, a reader who never even met the diarist can reach out unhesitatingly to trust this connection. This later reader may even feel flattered or privileged to gain access to another person’s most private thoughts, reflections, and feelings—those that the diarist couldn’t or wouldn’t express to their own family and friends at the time—but that they willingly expressed to the diary.
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