Daughter of Boston: The Extraordinary Diary of a Nineteenth-century Woman, Caroline Healey Dall

I came across this collection when I was trying to flesh out the realities of living in 19th century Boston, necessary wallpaper for a project I’m considering. But to call this backdrop would be doing Caroline Dall a grand disservice. I had no idea that the Massachusetts Historical Society had possession of this treasure– seventy-five years worth of diaries, letters, and papers. She was an intellectual heavyweight trapped in a bad marriage to a weak preacher who escaped to India (the “Boston divorce” to contrast with the “Boston marriage”), abandoning her and their two children. Born in Boston in 1822, Dall grew up under the strict eye of a father (Mark Healey) who encouraged her to speak her opinions and learn as much as possible. His fortunes changed and Dall became a teacher in Washington DC to earn money to send her siblings to school, something they did not appreciate and gave up without her knowing. Her Boston circle included Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Thoreau, and Theodore Parker. She began keeping a journal at age nine and kept up the habit for the rest of her life. “This Journal is my safety valve–and it is well, that I can thus rid myself of my superfluous steam.” At age twenty, she was already thinking of how to pass along her ruminations to the next generation:

I have been arranging and writing a list of my Mss. and other private papers. As I have glanced over my Journal, I have felt mortification and reproach. If the weak tears of which this index of my life bears record–have not yet washed out every impress of truth–they soon must–
Who will care for these many papers–who will ever read–or at my request, take pains to preserve that I have written? No one–Shall I then regret so to have spent my time? Oh no–. I have strengthened my own spiritual nature by the exercise–I have purged my heart of whatever is impure on my page–to write out has frequently been with me, to cast off. If I were likely to die wealthy and could pay an institution for taking care of papers so precious to me–I would do it–for to a psychologist, this journal would be worth the pains–but as it is, as it is like to be, I must trust the common chance.

Helen Deese does a wonderful job wading through boxes of journals and miles of microfilm to produce a well-edited condensed version that gives a complete picture of her life. Each chapter begins with a summary of what is to follow, so you are prepared for the major plot points that pop up. As she notes in the editorial note, she has taken care to “preserve the thread of Caroline Healey Dall’s life story… that the selected entries be not simply a series of vignettes of Dall’s encounters with the great and famous, but that they reflect as accurately as possible the fabric of her life and as fairly as possible the complexity of her personality.”