A few weeks ago, I ran a writing workshop at the James Merrill House with novelist and current Merrill writer-in-residence Jedidiah Berry (The Manual of Detection) and my husband Bill, a boat builder well-known for restoring old wooden boats. The topic was “New England and the Sea”, which I thought would be just the thing for a workshop with 180 degree views of the Atlantic from the third floor of Merrill’s apartment in the village of Stonington, CT. Jed offered to do a close read of the first pages of Moby-Dick, Bill gathered together some beautiful drawings of boats such as the Amistad and Nathaniel Herreshoff’s personal yacht.
I thought my part would be easy: I’d find a few poems by Merrill about the harbor, sailing races and fishing fleet, maybe a poem mentioning New England’s enduring and sometimes tragic reliance on the sea. I paged through Merrill’s Collected Poems, but found scant mention of the water, boats, even swimming. I did find a wonderful description of the dining room of his home in Stonington, with its cupola painted a brazen tangerine, and the white marble dining room table where he and David Jackson sat hunched over their Ouija board, speaking with spirits.
So I found a stack of Mystic Seaport’s monthly newsletter, The Log of Mystic Seaport, circa the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and thumbed through them. In the third issue I looked through, there was a long scholarly article about the logs kept by the wives of sea captains, who often went with their husbands on whaling vessels in the mid-1800’s. Since these ventures typically lasted years, the captain’s wife would go along to keep her husband company and cook for him. Often, these were quickly pressed into service, keeping the ship’s logs, recording the weather conditions, the ship’s coordinates, and any news of illness among the crew.
But these logs were not the only writing the captains’ wives did during their months at sea. They often kept diaries—multiple diaries with different purposes and for different audiences. “Four general categories of diary have been identified among nineteenth-century women’s journals. These types are 1. travel diary, 2. public journal, 3. journal of conscience and 4. daily record. The first two were written to be read by others, and the content and tone were influenced by the expectations of the eventual recipients…” The journal of conscience is described as a “spiritual diary” in which proper Victorian ladies kept a check on their emotions. The daily record was the most private, never meant to be read by others.
I read the article struck by the complex levels of privacy in these women’s writings. The term “weblog” was joined in 1998, its etymology tracing back to the 1670’s and ships’ logs. And yet the contemporary blog, as we’ve come to call them, reflects our compression of the various levels of private versus public writing. I make no judgment about this, just note the shift.
I started to think about James Merrill’s Changing Light at Sandover, published in its entirety in 1982, nearly thirty years ago. It predates the Internet, but seems to me to be part of that shift toward making what had once been private a bit more public.