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The Most Ambitious Diary in History

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tags: LGBTQ history, literary history, primary sources, Claude Fredericks



Benjamin Anastas teaches literature and writing at Bennington College. His books include the novel An Underachiever’s Diary and the memoir Too Good to Be True.

The most prophetic literary criticism that I’ve read in recent years is a twenty-four-page chapbook published by an obscure private foundation in Vermont. The author is Claude Fredericks, a printer, playwright, amateur poet, and classics professor, who died in 2013. He is largely unknown outside a small circle of former students and colleagues at Bennington College—unknown, at least, by his own name. But readers of Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel, “The Secret History,” will have a sense of Fredericks through his fictionalized alter ego, Julian Morrow, a magnetic classics professor whose tutelage in ancient Dionysiac rites so enthralls his students that they commit—or are complicit in—two murders. I learned about the real Fredericks only after joining Bennington’s faculty, in 2012. His chapbook is titled “How to Read a Journal,” and the main text is adapted from a talk that he delivered on campus in 1988. By that time, he had taught at Bennington for twenty-seven years, and was the longest-standing member of its Literature and Languages faculty, which over the decades had included Bernard Malamud, Howard Nemerov, and Camille Paglia.

The talk was held in the communal living room of one of the white clapboard student houses built in 1932, when the college was founded. It was in such living rooms, which often had working fireplaces, that Fredericks liked to hold his classes: on Pindar and Aeschylus, on Japanese literature of the Heian period, on Augustine’s “Confessions” and other religious texts. (The narrator of “The Secret History” notes Julian’s belief that “pupils learned better in a pleasant, non-scholastic atmosphere.”) In the lecture, Fredericks extolls the journal as a special form. Because its author can reflect solely on what’s already happened, the narrative is perpetually in medias res—a “peculiar quality” in a literary work. Moreover, because the author doesn’t know while writing how his dilemmas will be resolved, the resulting narrative captures better than a novel “how complex experience actually is.” Fredericks goes on, “What I’d like to propose is that . . . we now are no longer content with the conventions of fiction, that the whole idea of character and plot . . . no longer seems to be true.” Three decades before the rise of autofiction—novels that appear to hew to an author’s lived experience, largely dispensing with the artifices of fiction—Fredericks is calling for something similar.

Fredericks’s lecture, in fact, proposes dropping the illusions of fiction altogether. He makes a case for immersing readers in a subjective record of an individual’s experience, in “real time,” complete with all the errors, vagueness, lies, and mystifications that we engage in when we try to justify ourselves to ourselves. A journal is a “living thing,” he says; a novel is a “taxidermist’s replica.”

Fredericks, as he points out in his lecture, was uniquely qualified to explore the formal virtues of the journal. Beginning at the age of eight, in 1932, and lasting until a few weeks before his death, at eighty-nine, Fredericks was producing what he liked to call “one of the longest books about a single hero ever written.” All told, his journal stretches past sixty-five thousand pages. (This is an estimate made by the Claude Fredericks Foundation, a not-for-profit entity that Fredericks incorporated, in 1978, to preserve and eventually publish his journal in its entirety.) In 1990, when this epic narrative experiment was still under way, the Getty Research Institute acquired Fredericks’s papers, for an undisclosed sum. The purchase included the first part of the journal, documenting the years from 1932 to 1988.

Fredericks might seem an unlikely candidate to have his archive preserved at an institution as prominent as the Getty, which is best known for collecting the papers of such avant-garde artists as Man Ray and Robert Mapplethorpe. Fredericks had published almost none of his writing when the Getty made its acquisition: six poems, in 1944; one play, in a “New American Plays” anthology from 1965; two pieces in the Times Book Review; a small excerpt of his notebooks in Parenthèse, a literary journal, in 1979. “Is there not achievement in remaining so completely unpublished?” he wrote, with a touch of self-loathing, as he was nearing forty. Small theatre companies in New York produced his plays—among them a pacifist political allegory called “The Idiot King”—but they received poor reviews and had brief runs. More significant is Fredericks’s work for the Banyan Press, a small letterpress publisher that he operated, with interruptions, from 1946 until the late seventies. Banyan published writing by Gertrude SteinAndré GideStephen SpenderJames Merrill, and others, in limited-run editions that were made with an almost spiritual sense of precision and care. Fredericks, who dropped out of Harvard in his sophomore year, wasn’t a scholar in any professional sense; he published no academic papers on the Greek, Italian, and Japanese literature that he taught for thirty years. He dedicated himself instead to a life of self-directed study, and to a relentless pursuit of love and beauty—an ambition that he connected to ideas espoused in Plato’s Symposium, which, Fredericks wrote in the early eighties, was “the only holy book I truly know.”

The Getty catalogue estimates that the portion of the journal ending in 1988 runs to fifty thousand pages. This manuscript and Fredericks’s personal letters—some twenty thousand pages—fill twenty-seven archival boxes. The rest of the journal, covering 1989 to 2012, was acquired by the Getty in 2018, and has yet to be processed. On an inventory sheet, this section of the manuscript is described as being “many 1000s of pages.” If and when Fredericks’s journal is precisely catalogued, it may well prove to be the longest continuous record of an American life on paper—in any case, it’s certainly among the longest. Other hypertrophied diaries exist, but those have generally gained renown as works of outsider art. Robert Shields, a minister, a high-school teacher, and a hobby poet in Dayton, Washington, documented his every activity, at five-minute intervals, for twenty-five years, leaving behind a diary estimated to contain some thirty-seven million words. Another Sunday poet, Arthur Crew Inman—a wealthy eccentric who lived as a shut-in in Boston’s Back Bay, and hired working-class “talkers” to sit for interviews in his bedroom, so that he could subject them to analysis—compiled a diary of seventeen million words.

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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