I’m talking about notebooks at McNally Jackson on Wednesday, 4 November, at 7pm

I’m talking about notebooks on Wednesday, 4 November 2015, at the McNally Jackson bookstore located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY. My fellow panelists are Alice Gregory, Hermione Hoby, Heidi Julavits, and Ariel Schrag, and our segment is just one part of a 2-hour variety show, starting at 7pm.

UPDATE (11/23): You can now watch a video of the event.

The first volume of Leander’s diary, now safely archived

In the first chapter of American Sympathy, my 2001 study of the literary representation of affection between men in the antebellum United States, I wrote about two genteel Quakers in late-18th-century Philadelphia who kept diaries recording their romantic friendship. Their names were John Fishbourne Mifflin and James Gibson, and they went by the cognomens of Leander and Lorenzo, respectively. Gibson’s diary and the second volume of Mifflin’s were, and still are, in the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. (Here’s a link to the catalog entry for the physical diaries, and one page of Leander/Mifflin’s diary has been digitized and is available online here. Rather cleverly, the page that the archivists chose to digitize is the one where Leander/Mifflin begins to describe a rather erotic dream that he had about Lorenzo/Gibson.)

I also had access to the first volume of Leander/Mifflin’s diary, through a photocopy that was loaned to me. This photocopy had been made by a bookseller decades earlier, while appraising a private individual’s collection. For safety’s sake, before returning this photocopy, I made a photocopy for myself. This turned out to be prudent, because the first-generation photocopy that I returned was later lost, and although the person who was thought to be the owner of the original manuscript graciously granted me permission to publish, he later told me that he had never been able to locate the original in his collection. Perhaps the bookseller had been mistaken in his memory of who owned the original. In any case, the second-generation photocopy that I had made became the only copy available to scholars.

Over the years, I sent reproductions of the photocopy to any scholar who asked, including Richard Godbeer, who wrote about the diarists in The Overflowing of Friendship (2013), and Sarah Knott, who wrote about them in Sensibility and the American Revolution (2009), but it made me nervous that I hadn’t made any provision about putting the photocopy into an archive somewhere. When my father-in-law passed away this January, I was reminded of the propriety of taking care of these things sooner rather than later, and at last I emailed the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to ask them if they would take custody of the photocopy. I’m happy to report that they said yes, I sent it, and it arrived safely. It doesn’t seem to be in their online catalog yet, but it’s there, if any scholar wants to consult it.

Of course I made a third-generation photocopy for myself, before I put the second-generation one in the mail.

Both sides then

I just stumbled onto the 1957–58 diary of Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, the lover identified as "H" in Reborn, Susan Sontag's diary of the same period. If you, like me, have read Sontag's diary and were swept up in its heady melodrama, you will probably not be able to resist peeking at Zwerling's version. Among other revelations: Sontag herself was unable to resist peeking at it ("Susan read yesterday’s diary entry and now it’s embarrassing to be in bed with her as I write . . ."). Perhaps most surprising is how much the two agree about the nature of their miserable affair. Here, for example, is Zwerling's diagnosis:

I’ve never before lived with someone I neither desired sexually nor felt strongly about. It’s so decadent! I feel terrible about it all, brooding depression— (5 February 1958)

And here's Sontag's echo-response:

H thinks she is decadent because she has entered into a relation which neither physically nor emotionally interests her. How decadent then am I, who know how she really feels, and still want her? (8 February 1958)

I imagine that if one were to read the two diaries against one another, many small details would fall into place. I happened to noticed one. In one of her unhappy rhapsodies, Sontag writes:

H, whom I love—is beautiful, beautiful. Can she? Will she want to be a little happy with me here? . . . the Negro has a date with [blank] for Tuesday (23 February 1958)

Zwerling's diary fills in the blank. It was Zwerling herself who had the date:

Today I had a date at the Flore with a Negro man who stood me up. Susan insisted on coming with me in the Metro; she’s going to the Deux Magots. I guess it serves me right that he didn’t show, but I had really been looking forward to getting fucked! (25 February 1958)

Upon which Sontag seems to comment in her entry of the following day:

Your insatiability, dear H, that's just the consoling way in which your talent for satiety appears to you. Never to get what one wants is never to want (for long) what one gets—unless, sometimes, when it is taken away. (26 February 1958)


In Bookforum, Craig Seligman, author of the brilliant Sontag and Kael, wonders what to make of the sexual revelations in the first volume of Susan Sontag's journals, which he likens to an explosion and which, like me, he finds "riveting":

So, surprise—she was human. The inverse parabola that Reborn traces—the high of her sexual initiation, the low of her marriage, and her eventual reawakening (her real rebirth)—constitutes a gay-liberation paradigm so obvious it borders on the banal. Except that, as we all know, the story didn’t end so crisply. Sontag came no further out of the closet before the wider public until she was forced to by a pair of hostile biographers in 2000. There’s been endless speculation as to why she remained so tight-lipped. A lot of people have called her a coward.

I don’t think there was anything cowardly about her, though. It was more complicated than that. Her sexuality wasn’t what she wanted the conversation to be about—and she always thought she could control the conversation.

Leander visits Columbia, 1786

Columbia University is celebrating its 250th anniversary, in honor of which, here’s how the college looked to a visitor on Wednesday, 16 August 1786, when it was just thirty-two. (The visitor was a graduate of Nassau Hall, today known as Princeton, and the comparisons of Columbia to his alma mater are a little invidious.)

. . . Went to view the bathing-houses — like them exceedingly & propose to go in tomorrow if the day is suitable —— from thence took a direction for the college & after passing thro some stragling [sic] ill-built streets came to it — It stands on a very elevated situation & makes a good appearance — I wished to see the inside but having no acquaintance with any of the professors I was somewhat at a loss — at length concluded to enquire for Mr Schuyler (son to the General) upon the strength of my acquaintance with his brother John — The building has four doors & (I think) sixteen windows in width — I enter’d the first door which lead [sic] to one of the professor’s appartments [sic] & was directed to the second to enquire for Mr Scuyler’s [sic] room — I found the College was like many New York houses, more in appearance than reality — it was very ill-contrived & but one room & two studies deep — very narrow passages & shabby staircases — & upon the whole nothing to compare to Nassau Hall either in airiness or convenience — when I entered the second door some blowsy headed man who was very much like the picture of Peter the Wild Boy, an usher I supposed, came out into the entry — he pointed for me to go up stairs & dodged in again — I went up, & a desolate castle it appeared to be for I peep’d into the third story without seeing or hearing a creature — In the third story I rattled at a study door which was locked when a sudden voice bawl’d out “who’s there” — I answerd [sic] “a friend” & rattled again before it was opened, when a trio of blades were discovered who seemd [sic] to drop their ears all at once on seeing a sort of person whom they so little expected — They were however very civil chums & showed me into the next room for Mr Schuyler’s while one of them went down to call him — he was not to be found but his room-mate (I took him to be) appeared — an awkward gangling young man about twenty — I told him I wanted to see the college & had called on Mr Schuyler for that purpose — Whether it was thro’ indolence or confusion or that things really were as he described them I cannot tell, but he gave such a woeful account of things that my curiosity was quite satisfied — that their apparatus was broken, their library destroyed, that there were no good rooms, & in short that there was nothing in it worth a stranger’s notice — How different thought I is this from the emulation of Nassau, & gave him a hint of it which did not seem to touch his pride much, so after enquiring the number of students (of whom he said there were thirty) & a few more questions I left my compliments for Mr. S & bid him good morning — the chums at the door (of whom a party had gathered in the mean time) all making their obeisance to me as I passed —I returned by the Oswego market & made a bargain with a fruit woman for some temptingly fine large plums . . .

The description is from pages 97 to 99 of the first volume of the diary of Leander, a.k.a. John Fishbourne Mifflin, discussed in chapter 1 of my book, American Sympathy.