5 Historic Journals That Will Inspire You

by PAMELA KEMP

What do Charles Darwin, Frida Kahlo, Nelson Mandela, Marie Curie and Queen Liliuokalani have in common? This illustrious cast not only performed amazing feats but each one developed an important habit: journaling. Throughout time historical figures of all walks of life have kept journals, filling pages with scribbles, sketches, maps, and musings. Luckily, many of these journals still exist today. A close look at the journals of these five individuals reveals a deep well of wisdom and inspiration.

 

Charles Darwin

The mother lode of journals may be the collection of English naturalist and author of Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin. As a young man he began keeping a personal journal, continuing almost until his death. He kept journals of books that he read, books to be read, and he often wrote about his children. But it is the incredible span of Darwin’s scientific journals that most distinguishes this collection.

Before Darwin published his theory of evolution, he jotted in a notebook that he had been “frittering away” days working on transmutation. That Darwin could speak in these terms of the work that led to his theory of evolution is reassuring to anyone prone to meandering. The truth is: research, discovery and learning don’t always follow a linear path. Darwin’s journals illustrate the importance of exploration and serendipity.

During Darwin’s five year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, he wrote in journals that he labelled by location: Cape Verde, Buenos Aires, Falkland, and Galapagos, to name a few. Obviously not too self-reverential, Darwin labelled one journal “Old & useless notes about the moral sense & some metaphysical points.” He devoted journals to theoretical concepts and a broad range of disciplines, including philosophy, literature, psychology and paleontology. His notes and drawings of rocks, seas, animals, plants, and insects stand as a stunning monument to the power of scientific observation and reasoning.

Beyond the genius of his work, Darwin’s journals also reveal the childlike joy he took in exploring. Imagine the scene that prompted him to write “Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has been wandering by himself in a Brazilian forest,” where he was struck by “The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage …”

 

Frida Kahlo

While the mystery and intensity of Frida Kahlo’s work continues to electrify new generations the journal she compiled in the last ten years of her life was virtually inaccessible for some forty years after her death in 1954. When the contents was first published in 1995, curiosity about Kahlo’s personal journal induced the art world’s equivalent of Beatle-mania.

Frida Kahlo suffered a stunted leg from childhood polio, and had innumerable surgeries after a horrific trolley accident, ultimately leading to amputation. In her journal, Kahlo displays both her turmoil and a resolute attitude about her physical limitations and reveals the enormous impact of this reality on her life and art. The lush panorama on these pages is reminiscent of her paintings, but more intimate. Diego Rivera mingles with Mao and Lenin, cryptic messages, plaintive laments and beloved pets. The effect is a kaleidoscope of Frida, an extravagant treasure.

Carlos Fuentes writes in his introduction to the journal “In the measure that her hope was her art and her art was her heaven, the Diary is Kahlo's greatest attempt to bridge the pain of their body with the glory, humor, fertility, and outwardness of the world.”

 

Nelson Mandela

When he was sentenced to life in prison in 1964, few people would have predicted that Nelson Mandela would one day be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and be elected as the first Black president of South Africa.

While he was a prisoner at the notorious Robben Island prison, Mandela never stopped writing and went to great lengths to shield his writing from prison officials. He stowed pages of his writing in plastic bags which he buried in the prison vegetable patch. When a landscaping project uncovered his writings, he and other inmates lost privileges for years. Undaunted, Mandela continued to support the African National Committee (ANC) and push for the end of apartheid over the twenty-seven years he remained imprisoned.

Only after F.W. de Klerk became president and legalized the ANC in 1989, was Mandela released from prison. Mandela’s fierce dedication fueled the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. His writing while in prison and throughout his life, guaranteed that the world would forever know what that journey entailed.

 

Marie Curie

Marie Curie was the first woman to be honored with a Nobel prize (which she shared with her husband Pierre), and the first person to be honored with a prize in two categories, physics and chemistry.

The journals Marie and husband Pierre Curie kept rarely include anything but scientific data, calculations and theories. But when the temperature in the shed they used as a lab reached below 44 degrees one February day in Paris, Marie Curie inserted the temperature in her notes [6.25 Celsius], followed by a string of exclamation points.

No doubt it’s difficult to think about particle theory when you can’t feel your extremities.

Marie Curie also carried vials of polonium and radium in her pocket and kept them in her desk. Recalling her work with Pierre, she wrote that “One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles or capsules containing our products. It was really a lovely sight and one always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights.” 

Unfortunately the collaboration between these two minds ended when Pierre Curie was struck by a carriage while crossing the street and died. When the Faculty of Sciences then offered Marie Pierre’s position at the Sorbonne, she reflects poignantly in her journal: “It was an exceptional decision, as up to then no woman had held such a position….The honor that now came to me was deeply painful under the cruel circumstances of its coming.”

Ironically, the same intellectual drive and fascination that impelled her success cut short Marie Curie’s life. Her death in 1934 from aplastic anemia is generally attributed to the near constant exposure to radiation throughout her career. Today, her journals are stored in lead-lined boxes at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Not surprisingly, researchers can only access these journals after donning special clothing and signing a waiver. The pages of these journals, tangible proof of exactly how Marie Curie went about changing the face of science, are undoubtedly well worth the trouble. If Paris is beyond reach, or the prospect of radiation exposure dims your appetite for research, fortunately many of these documents are accessible online.

 

Queen Liliuokalani

When Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last queen, formally abdicated in 1895, the new Republic of Hawaii seized a cache of her diaries and writings. Some of these records were burned on the eve of her arrest for treason and other records did not surface until 1921, four years after Liliuokalani died.

The saga of these records mirrors the controversy and stealth surrounding Hawaii’s loss of sovereign status. The eighth monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Liliuokalani advocated restoring the monarchy’s authority and expanding the rights of native Hawaiians. Obviously she was an impediment to the movement that led to the annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory in 1898.

Almost 100 years later, in 1993, the US Congress issued a formal apology for the government’s role in these events, but collecting Liliuokalani’s diaries and records took quite a bit longer.

David W. Forbes a renowned expert on nineteenth century Hawaii and author of many published works on Hawaii, launched his first foray into the Hawaiian archives as a teenager in 1950. Since then he has spent years poring over boxes of records, newspapers and letters. Only three years ago, he discovered that a family member of Liliuokalani’s, Louis Koch (Gussie) Schubert, had in her possession a different, longer version of L’s 1889 diary than the one in the state archives. With this new resource Forbes compiled her diaries, replete with his commentary based on his many years focused on this remarkable period of Hawaii’s history.

Beyond Liliuokalani’s pivotal role in political events, her diaries offer a view of her daily life, family and many interests. Hers is likely the only journal on the planet that recounts a luau in 1889 with Robert Lewis Stevenson in attendance.



Journal keepers guard history. The riddles of mind-bending science, the dangers of an expedition, how your great-grandmother managed to find a job during the Depression, or what sort of thing she found funny, with time even the most mundane details become almost sacred. It’s exciting to think of how many hidden or forgotten journals have yet to be discovered. Even more tantalizing, what is it that someday, someone will wish you had written about? The time is ripe to open a journal and let the conversation begin.


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