Project description and participants

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.

Project description

This project is digitizing and making freely available the first seven years of the unpublished journals of Philip C. Van Buskirk.The resulting archive is free and publicly available for reading and searching and will eventually also be available to interested scholars to annotate, index, and tag in XML. The original journals are housed in the Special Collections of the University of Washington Libraries, available only on site or on microfilm via interlibrary loan.

Our project is in a liminal stage—we have finished the initial transcription and have begun a final editing of the text, which we hope to complete by end of this year. We aim eventually for a multimedia site, hosting also color illustrations that are part of the original journals, images of Van Buskirk, anything pertinent to Van Buskirk’s life, and links to other relevant projects. Our work has been funded—in 2016 and in 2017—by two CUNY Provost’s Digital Innovation Grants.

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. He began writing in 1851, and for fifty years kept an extensive diary of the intimate details of his life and the lives of his fellow sailors. While his journals present his perspective, they also allow access to voices he discovered in working-class spaces, perspectives that were seldom allowed within 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.” Van Buskirk 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.

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; and 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 interpellated 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. Begun in 1851, the journals grew, over the course of fifty years, to more than three dozen volumes.


Matthew Knip, project director

Anne Jenner, Pacific Northwest Curator at University of Washington Libraries, project partner

Hildegard Hoeller, manuscript editing advisor

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, Yana Calou, 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, and a fairly idiosyncratic use of spaces, lines, underscores and dashes of various location and length. Words that are not clearly legible (or not at all legible) in our scans are marked with a ^, to be compared against the original text at a future date. Charts and graphs have been reproduced, but a final edit of those remains a future project.

Our scans of the original diaries are included on the front page for research and comparison. Because they were made for a very specific research project before this site was conceived, charts and tables from the beginning of each year were—unfortunately—not included in the scans. The scans, in other words, are not complete replications of the years of the diary transcribed here. We hope to rectify that oversight in the future.