- She Left Nothing in Particular: The Autobiographical Legacy of Nineteenth-Century Women's Diaries
Amy L. Wink's compact study of nineteenth-century American women diarists, She Left Nothing in Particular: The Autobiographical Legacy of Nineteenth-Century Women's Diaries, begins by taking issue with scholarship that validates women's diary writing by arguing for its connections to the more respected genre of masculine autobiography. Wink exhorts us to develop reading strategies that fit the contours of diaries themselves and that view the presumably "private" voices of diarists as just one of the many significant ways in which women represented themselves. It is a promising beginning. In the body of the text Wink then focuses on how diary writing supports or fails to support "identity and ... mental equilibrium" for women embroiled in traumatic life experiences (xv). Each of the three main chapters pairs two diarists who shared a similar, seemingly quintessential nineteenth-century experience: migration, spousal abuse, and war.
In Chapter One, Abigail Jane Scott and Jean Rio Baker brave the trials of the Overland Trail. Wink demonstrates that these women used their diaries to maintain a sense of self rooted in place—a place and self that were potentially lost when they migrated West. She focuses on the "interpretive frameworks" revealed in Scott's and Rio's diaries, frameworks that "make the landscapes recognizable consistently" (48). In Wink's sometimes circular reading, encounters with the new landscape are made to reflect what the diarists wished to see—traces of "home" and the supposedly stable self that inhered there.
In Chapter Two, Wink introduces us to the amazing diaries of Henrietta Baker Embree and Tennessee Keys Embree—two women who were married consecutively to the same abusive man. Wink finds that the Embrees' diaries were only partially successful in combating psychological abuse and maintaining a sense of agency. She adapts modern theories of the "battered woman syndrome" to support her observation that while the Embrees used their diaries to tell versions of their own stories, those texts also became ways of reinforcing "emotional discipline" as the women began to take responsibility for their marital troubles (68).
In the final substantive chapter, Wink introduces us to Lizzie Hatcher Simons and Cornelia Noble, who write of their struggles on the southern home front during the Civil War. The richness of the diary material again is the book's greatest strength, but this chapter seems less attuned to the function of diary writing for women during the Civil War, focusing instead on the content of the diaries. Wink makes the [End Page 108] familiar assertion that during the Civil War women worked to give "public" meaning to their supposedly "private" labors while maintaining the privilege of their femininity.
Wink's admiration and affection for the six women she studies is evident. Indeed, she is compelled to craft what she calls a "personal critical approach" to these texts meant to mitigate the "distancing of academic discourse" (xvii). While the book's critical apparatus is derived from just such academic discourse, I do respect Wink's sensitive treatment of her subjects. Perhaps she feels she must offer some personal revelation to justify guiding us into texts we "may not have been explicitly invited into" (xviii). She struggles to articulate how these women's harrowing and yet inspiring lives have touched her, ending by asserting that diaries "stand as evidence of their writers' corporeal existence in their current incarnations as now public documents" (127). She suggests that diaries become material mediums of persistence—a provocative if undeveloped claim.
Given the book's title one might expect an argument for the distinctive nature and legacy of nineteenth-century women's diary writing. However, the argument that emerges is a broader, more psychological exploration of the emotional function of life-writing for women in crisis. Wink begins each chapter with "paradigmatic" passages from outside texts (xi), ranging from a Virginia Woolf short story to the Bible. Each quote resonates with the theme taken up in...