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Points of Entry: The Diaries of John Baxter Black

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On October 17, 1993, John Baxter Black wrote his 21,110th diary entry, where he noted:

"[T]he head of the New York Public Library's "Humanities Collection" is very interested in getting my diaries after my death…. Am very happy about this. It will mean a real berth for them with someone professional and important who cares about them and will not be shocked. Which is what, I think, they deserve."

Black was the son of a wealthy Ohio family; a writer (published once);

Photograph of John Baxter Black looking dapper in his army uniform.
Portrait of John Baxter Black,The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.

a soldier for the duration; a student of English history, family history, and genealogy; a sometimes-teacher; a man of leisure who moved in New York and London's literary circles; and a born diarist. He wrote a diary entry for every day of his life from January 1, 1936 (when he was 11) until shortly before his death at 90. Some entries were not written the day-of, due to extenuating circumstances, but he kept a record of every day he lived until October 2014.

In 2016, the diaries finally found their way to NYPL's Manuscripts and Archives Division. As one of the archivists in the library's Archives Unit, I was assigned to prepare them for researchers.

Part of my job is to write descriptions that will help researchers locate archival materials that they may find useful. Each keyword, concept, and name is a potential access point for users, whether they approach through our catalog, our archives search portal, or the wider web. It's sort of like creating an online dating profile for the collection—I want to attract interested researchers, and not to waste anyone's time with false advertising. 

But collections can be hard to summarize; 78+ years of diary entries contain multitudes. The preoccupations of a 13 year-old at boarding school are different from those of a 28 year-old trying to make it as a writer in New York City and struggling with his homosexuality; and even if the John Baxter Black of 1960 is still recognizable in the John Baxter Black of 2000, the world he’s moving through and reacting to has changed a great deal.

When he first started keeping diaries, young John wrote unadorned, straightforward entries. His entry of April 3, 1936 reads, "I wrote on the typewriter and playd soldger. Some books about Englands royal came. Went to school." By July 19, 1940, he's grown a bit more editorial: "Roosevelt 'feels it is his duty to run for a 3rd term.' Stuff and nonsense."

As the diaries evolve to include more of his inner life, it's easier to see why Black would want the diaries to find a home with people who would "not be shocked." On January 2, 1943, Black casually contemplates suicide to avoid going into the army; in a morbid sort of bookend, his 2014 diary shows him, weeks before his death, considering suicide again. After moving to New York in 1950, diary entries find Black attending sessions with a Jungian psychoanalyst and weaving plans to marry various women of his acquaintance. Black describes his sex life without coyness. He criticizes his friends and acquaintances frankly and frequently throughout. In short, he writes like a man who was writing for himself, in the moment, and not for friends, family, or posterity.

John Baxter Black diary entry for July 31, 1952. Describes a visit from Frank O'Hara.
July 31, 1952: Gin and tonics with Frank O'Hara. The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.

The numbers of directions a diary can take you—as a researcher or just as a curious reader— are past counting. Sometimes I scanned the diaries for concrete biographical information, sometimes for Black's reaction to contemporary events, sometimes to trace the course of his relationships. Of course, when you're skimming documents, it's often the names that catch your eye. I'm only human, and I like a good celebrity sighting. I noticed that the "landscape architect, Miss Coffin of New York," was in Mansfield, Ohio on April 27, 1938; that on September 7, 1966, Black sat near "two of the Rolling Stones" at the Hungry Horse, "a supposedly queer restaurant somewhere along the Fulham Road" in London; and that on December 3, 1967, Black spent an apparently tiresome evening at Jimmy Baldwin's place.

But a name is just a drop in the ocean of 28,780 (or so) diary entries. When I'm writing a description of a sprawling collection, I sometimes ask myself, "What is this collection about?" What's the overarching theme, the major threads? But a long- and well-kept diary can easily defy synthesis.

Black's gayness or queerness will make these diaries of interest to some researchers; the Ivy League schools he attended, places he lived, or the events he witnessed may do it for others. The famous writers and artists he spent his time with in New York in the 1950s will be an attraction for certain researchers. Perhaps his and his brother's efforts to take care of his ailing and aging parents will be a data point in some monograph on how we care for the elderly in America.

There are so many variables: who Black was, where he was and when, what he was doing with whom when he was there, and—most of all— what he had to say about it. I can only make educated guesses as to what aspects of the diaries might be a draw for researchers and use Black's own writing as my guide to what he thought should be emphasized. The diaries took over 78 years to create—their second life will hopefully be longer and even more fruitful.

As a bonus, the collection contains diaries of Black's uncle, who served in France in the First World War, as well as letters and whatever other items Black happened to have wedged into his diaries.

The John Baxter Black diaries and family papers are open for research. You can also find decades of diaries from NYPL's research divisions by searching NYPL's archives portal or the catalog.

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This is fabulous. Thank you

This is fabulous. Thank you for sharing.

Great post!

It's fascinating to consider how many directions diary entries can take you, and to hear about how archivists approach these types of collections. This post is a great read, thanks!

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