Note: If you are landing on this page for the first time, don’t miss the menu directly above ^, with links to the diary itself (as it is being transcribed) and to our periodic updates.
This project—funded by a 2016 CUNY Provost’s Digital Innovation Grant—aims to digitize and make freely available the first five years of the unpublished diaries of Philip C. Van Buskirk, which historian B. R. Burg suggests represent the “the most extensive record of introspection ever kept by an American.” The resulting archive will be free and publicly available for research, reading, and searching and will eventually also be available to interested scholars to annotate, index, and tag in XML. Housed today in the Special Collections of the University of Washington Libraries, the journals are available at present only on site or on microfilm via interlibrary loan.
The project is in its initial stage, meaning that we are at present engaged in transcribing, editing, and building out an e-text of the first five years of the diary. Eventually we envision a community of scholars working collaboratively. We aim for a multimedia site, hosting also the color illustrations that are part of the original diaries, images of Van Buskirk, anything pertinent to Van Buskirk’s life, and links to other relevant projects.
Van Buskirk’s journals provide a unique window into diverse social worlds that have proven difficult for scholars to access because they were almost never written down. Born into the upper class, educated and literate—the son of a Maryland Secretary of State—Van Buskirk “fell” into the working-class, largely illiterate, maritime culture of the U.S. Marines and Navy after his father’s suicide. While his journals present his perspective, they also allow access to voices he discovered in working-class spaces, perspectives that would never have been allowed in any kind of written discourse of the time.
For example, Van Buskirk’s desire to alter his life based on the anti-onanist literature he voraciously consumed has been of special interest to history of sexuality scholars because it was difficult to determine the degree to which prescriptive literature influenced readers’ behaviors and how they understood their bodies. The diaries provide, according to historian Lynne Adrian, “clear traces of these processes; in his continuing quest for self- improvement, Van Buskirk read the medical and moral literature of his day and recorded his responses and attempts to conform to medical prescription.” He also recorded the responses to this literature of his fellow working-class sailors. Because the resulting record crosses class boundaries, his writing “sheds light on how sexual behavior and understanding of the morality and physiology of sex varied across social and economic classes.” The diaries grant access to class-inflected anxieties and to an unwritten, orally transmitted sexual culture that history has obscured. This is evidence that is hard to obtain, in part because the diaries have not been easily, freely, and publicly available. This project will rectify that situation.
My own interest in Van Buskirk lies in how his writing informs scholarly debates about sexuality, masculinity, and identity; the effect of upper-class medical/prescriptive literature on the working-class body; the relationship between sex and privacy across various geographical spaces; the gap between officially-sanctioned and actual modes of intimacy and behavior. Mapping the sexual fluidity of a time before the emergence of modern sexuality, the journals startlingly detail a sociosexual culture that existed before modern sexuality interpolated subjects into identities that coalesce around object choice.
Van Buskirk has the capability to powerfully reshape assumptions at the heart of history, art, literary, and cultural criticism—for instance (and perhaps most radically, at least in my field) Robert K. Martin’s assertion that Herman Melville’s locating of human harmony in a group of men masturbating together reflects Melville’s “extraordinary imaginative and visionary power.” To read Van Buskirk is to encounter that historic fraternity, both social and erotic, which Melville would have known intimately, regardless of the degree to which he himself participated in it. The journals reveal a publicly-available sexual culture of homosocial desire that existed before sexual identities emerged, before sex became the captive property of subjectivity, where nineteenth-century romantic friendship and sexual behavior (widely assumed to have been incompatible) coexisted.
Van Buskirk’s journals possess an inherent interest well beyond these topics, however, for anyone interested in the history of the navy, the Perry expedition to Japan, service in the Confederate Army in the Civil War, middle and working-class sociality, or the nineteenth century in general. As ESQ editor Karen L. Kilcup wrote to me, Van Buskirk’s diary “possesses inherent interest, it also generates a new interpretive model (and, I might add, not simply for Melville).” Begun in 1851, the journals grew, over the course of fifty years, to more than three dozen volumes.
Matthew Knip, project manager
Anne Jenner, Pacific Northwest Curator at University of Washington Libraries, project partner
Margaret Galvan, Matthew K. Gold, and Daren Ivan Hodson, web and digital advisors
Transcription and editing team: Austin Bailey, Claire Balani, Rebecca Breech, Olivia Brown, Megan Cahill, Ben Frischer, Erica Galluscio, Allyson Gonzalez, Marie Mazzeo, Erika Panzarino, Hugo Reyes, and Benjamin Ung.
A note on our editorial practice
Our aim is to reproduce the text of the diaries as accurately as possible. We retain original typos, spelling and grammatical errors.
Our scans of the original diaries are included on the front page for research and comparison.