Picks and Pans Review: A Day at a Time

updated 07/07/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/07/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

edited by Margo Culley

Composed of diary entries by 18th-, 19th-and 20th-century American females, this anthology paints a richly textured portrait of the lives of average women. Culley, a professor of English and women's studies at the University of Massachusetts, has assembled an impressively diverse group of voices. There is a colonial New England wife whose husband harbors incestuous intentions toward their daughter; a Vermont widow who has moved, along with her grown children, into the harsh life of the Dakota frontier; a worker who is toiling at starvation wages in an early 20th-century cannery; a black Barnard student trying to cope with the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Some ordinary lives are more interesting than others of course, and the quality of the selections varies. Also, as Culley explains in her informative introduction, pre-20th-century women diarists wrote primarily as family and community historians, recording only "the births, deaths, illnesses, visits, travel, marriages, work and unusual occurrences that made up the fabric of their lives." Thus the book includes such lifeless series of entries as this example by a Salem, Mass. housewife in 1767: "Jan. 8—Made Mr. Lowell's wedding visit. 9—Went to see Mrs. Jackson. 13—News of Judge Russel's death...." Later entries, as the diary moved closer to its modern function as "a secret record of an inner life," are livelier and more enlightening. When Eslanda Goode Robeson, the wife of black singer-actor Paul Robeson, describes her 1936 journey through Africa with her young son, for example, or when 72-year-old Joyce Mary Horner writes with warmth and wit about her life in a nursing home in the '70s, this historical volume becomes as moving and engrossing as almost any novel. (The Feminist Press, $12.95)

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