Why in the World Study Diaries:
Tales from the Road Less Traveled

Judy Nolte Temple, University of Arizona

WLA past-presidential address, given October 30, 2003, in Houston, Texas

Judy Nolte Temple’s great-grandmother on the 
Nebraska farm to which she immigrated from Germany.
Judy’s Great-aunt Martha and Uncle Leo, when they still owned horses.
Judy’s mother with her faithful 
work horse team.
Judy with Cousin Rocky, 
living the farm dream.

I hope you will indulge me in this journal-like narrative of how I chose a road—or perhaps it chose me—of intellectual inquiry that seemed reckless twenty-five years ago: the study of women’s diaries, especially those of “ordinary” women, as autobiographical literature. When I was growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, in the 1950s, I longingly dreamt about being a ranch woman. This fantasy appalled my parents, who owned a small business and were proud that they had escaped the drudgery and chores of farm life that had defined their childhoods. But my parents also fed my fantasy by taking us out every summer to spend time on Great-aunt Martha’s farm near Bancroft, Nebraska. There we sat upon saddles slung over wooden saw horses, mere remnants of earlier ranching times. I collected eggs, pestered pet pigs, and, astride that stationary saddle, “rode” the plains I imagined lying beyond the surrounding wheat fields, totally ignorant that an Indian history lay under those plowed fields, that the Omaha Indian reservation was a mile away, and that Aunt Martha was a close friend of John Neihardt.

By the time I was in high school, however, I reluctantly sold the real live horse I’d purchased and gave my energies to things of the mind—and mouth—by joining the debate team. Pioneer life, as depicted by Willa Cather in nostalgia-steeped My Ántonia, seemed boring and remote to us teens who were looking forward to our futures, not backward to our forebears’ pasts. Despite the fact that my great-grandmother was an immigrant like Ántonia, I identified with Jim Burden and his restless desire for the city. Cather had not wanted her novel used in schools, but it was inflicted upon us like an inoculation by teachers who lectured, “Nebraska has its very own author, so start reading!” I confess we dubbed her “Wilma Catheter.”

I suspect a vestige of agrophilia, as well as animal dreams, influenced my career choice onto a road less-traveled by women and not encouraged in the 1960s—to become a veterinarian. Thus, unlike most of my high school peers, I did not enroll in the University of Nebraska, but “went east” to school—to Ames, Iowa. There, I sadly discovered that zoology—the study of life—could also damage life. In my sophomore year, I worked as a laboratory assistant for a scientist studying the speed at which DDT was transported across frog epithelium. This was five years after Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring, so I enthusiastically pithed poor frogs and pricked their fresh skins with micro-pipettes in order to help Mother Nature. But one day I was filing papers for my professor and noticed that his research was funded by the Department of Defense. When I asked him why the military would be interested in saving frogs, he remarked, “You silly girl. Don’t you understand we’re trying to find out how fast we can move chemicals across skin for war use?” Disillusioned by this potential application of science, I returned to the main-traveled road awaiting most college girls: I married after my sophomore year, then followed my husband to New York City, where he started graduate school at Columbia, and I enrolled at Barnard. We rented an apartment in a seedy area just off Times Square and I was immersed in the teeming city, a place much more full of life than any laboratory. The beggars on the subway and the Times Square regulars who propositioned me gave me a jolting tutorial in “real life” that broke my heart with pity, even as it hardened that heart. As Cather observed of her Washington Square locale, “one pays dearly to live near the heart of things.” Although I worked in two other biological research positions at Yale Medical School and the University of Wisconsin, again following my husband, New York City convinced me that I wanted to experience life through literature, not in sterile laboratories.

Thus when my husband and I returned to Iowa in two years, this time Iowa City, I became a literature major. I had only dropped out of college for one year while following my husband, but I feared that this absence would hurt my prospects. My fears were fulfilled when the first novel we were assigned was Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I cried over the disjointed prose, so different from the “easy” books I’d studied in high school. However, my parents were pleased by this choice of literature, for they knew that my training to be a high school English teacher would provide a good career “to fall back on” if something dire were to happen to my husband.  And I found at the University of Iowa a  female role model more encouraging than the ones I’d found in science—Madame Curie and Rachel Carson, both of whom discovered things and then quickly died. I was lucky enough to be one of the first undergraduate students of Gayatri Spivak. Here was a woman both beautiful and smart, although she taught us the “masterpieces” rather than the midwestern literature that I now found interesting. For I had evolved into a “militant midwesterner” during my sojourn in the East, where they ridiculed my speech cadence, my roots, and my vocabulary. I now looked homeward to the work of Willa Cather, then Hamlin Garland, Ruth Suckow, Bess Streeter Aldrich, and Susan Glaspell. My thirst was quenched by the felicitous rise of interest in women authors, although there was a professor who declared with impunity that he did not include them on his syllabus because “no woman has written anything of merit.” I even convinced Wayne Franklin to supervise an independent study of obscure pioneer women’s narratives. The gaps within these apologetic narratives—places where women interrupted their account of a miscarriage and reined themselves in to return to happier themes—stimulated my curiosity about “real” pioneer life.

The main-traveled road next took me to Tucson, Arizona, where I again “followed” my husband in order to support him while he pursued a Ph.D. This road became a dry arroyo in which I trudged and meditated, like Mary Austin’s Walking Woman, while I restlessly pondered my future. I came to the conclusion that although I had been socialized to marry a professor, it might be more expedient to become the professor. I cannot recall any encouragement from my peers to pursue a Ph.D., so my self-confidence was low when I applied to three very different graduate programs: law, literature, and American Studies. Then the unimaginable occurred: I was accepted to all three programs. Like Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar,sitting under the fig tree rich with fruits, yet incapable of choice, I was immobilized by this fork in the road. I sought a counselor, carefully investigated the careers that faced me, gave up the notion of passively waiting for life to choose me, and chose. I decided to return to Iowa City for an American Studies doctorate. In my application, I’d expressed interest in studying pioneer women’s diaries and when the Head of American Studies phoned me in Tucson, he announced, “The admissions committee has unanimously accepted you into the program, but I must say that I don’t understand why in the world you would want to study diaries. But come anyway.” Iowa did not offer me the most generous stipend of my three graduate options, but there were other compensations: I was delighted to find entire graduate seminars now offered on women writers such as Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, to teach my own women authors  survey class, and to eventually design a course I named “Pioneer Women.”

The road that characterizes my career changed the day early in my graduate studies when I walked into the Iowa State Historical Society and asked, “Do you have any pioneer women’s diaries here, any real ones?” They responded, “We have one 30-year long diary that no living person has read.” I was hooked. I was also the beneficiary of the survey Andrea Hinding had sent out to 11,000 archivists in preparation for her huge guide to women’s manuscripts, Women’s History Sources, published in 1979. Her questions perhaps reminded the Iowa archivists of the collection of papers they held that included the diaries that Emily Hawley Gillespie wrote from 1858 to 1888. The papers were donated to the Society in the 1950s by Gillespie’s elderly daughter Sarah, in honor of her pioneer mother’s sacrifices. And in the late 1970s they awaited me, the optimistic scholar who had dreamed of being a pioneer woman in the 1950s as Sarah made her bequest. Was this serendipity—or the result of three women, unknown to each other, crossing the barriers of time to unite the 19th-century diarist with the 20th-century reader?

A brief perusal of the diaries convinced me that they would interest the fanatical students who had signed up for my pioneer women course, so I assigned each an 18-month section of the diary to read and study for material and ideological culture. This class had already taken their measure of me on the first day when I talked about farm women’s hardiness during plucking and killing chickens. Two girls snickered in the back and informed me that on their farms, it was customary to kill the chickens before plucking them. We had also endured a rift between those in the class who had discovered the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder in childhood and those who came to her work as adults. The catalyst of this battle royal was Linda Kerber, who was writing her Wilder essay for the Notable American Women encyclopedia and insinuated that some of what Laura wrote may have been highly manipulated. The highlight of that course occurred on the night in which each student reported on her section of the Gillespie diary, for not only was the new, more sympathetic head of American Studies present, but also a representative from Living History Farms. The chorus “Oh, how she suffered” rose in waves as each student told of Gillespie’s “untold wrongs,” and we wondered over her teasing comment, “But the worst is a secret to be burried when I shall cease to be.”

I discovered another secret to be buried during this period while conducting an oral history interview with my maternal grandmother, undertaking a process I planned to assign my students. During a fairly mundane account of her farm chores, my grandmother, who was technophobic and had never even touched a cassette recorder, deftly hit the pause button and said in a lowered voice , “You know that book you sent me about the farm girl?” “My Ántonia?” I responded. “Yes,” said grandmother. “You know, that girl’s life was like your great-grandmother’s. When she had her first baby, she didn’t have a husband, you know.” I held my breath, for I did not know. As I tried to turn back on the tape recorder, she fought me for the pause button, which has regrettably left a record of this conversation that sounds like an underwater cell phone conversation in a tunnel. “Ya, but your great-grandmother was such a hard worker that your great-grandfather married her despite that little baby and got him a good wife.” Thus, like Ántonia’s flock of children bursting out of the fruit cave, my family’s own secret came out into the light as a result of my insatiable curiosity about pioneer women’s lives.

I now faced an important decision about which intellectual road to pursue as I deliberated about dissertation topics. I was discouraged from working on the autobiography of Mary Austin by my American Studies advisor, who summed up Austin as “female and regional.” I have confessed in an essay I wrote for Melody Graulich and Betsy Klimasmith’s 1999 collection Exploring Lost Bordersthat I was also put off by Earth Horizon because Austin referred to herself in the third person and invented a strange character called I-Mary. Another option was to continue my research on diarist Emily Hawley Gillespie, though my history mentor, Linda Kerber, cautioned me about a career based solely on women’s studies scholarship, a very new field in the 1970s. She likened my academic dossier to a hand of cards and observed, “You’re already holding a wild card called American Studies, so Women’s Studies would mean two wild cards.” I naively replied, “So couldn’t a hand with two wild cards in it be incredibly lucky?”

I decided to try my luck—alone—at the University of Arizona, where I was offered a half-time administrative position in Women’s Studies, at that time only a “committee.” (I’d visited Tucson one summer during a trial separation, exercising a splendid palomino stallion and mucking out stalls, a process I found similar to the endless essays I’d churned out in grad school.) I now traveled my road as a divorced woman, accompanied by the Gillespie diary manuscript on microfilm. After working long days at the university, I came home to long nights “listening” to Emily Gillespie’s laments in my darkened study. I reluctantly realized that behind the martyr mother persona so evocative to my  undergraduate students lay a diarist-autobiographer who was opinionated, querulous, and judgmental. Frankly, I didn’t like her. The confidant who got me over this bump in the road was none other than Chuck Bowden, who in his earlier life as a history graduate student had written a thesis on Victorian women’s health. He observed, “Of course your diarist is a shrew. Any totally alive woman in the 19th century would have been, damn it. Find out what made her that way.” I dropped the road map of feminist theory aimed at compensatory resurrection of “heroines” and adopted a more phenomenological approach to the diary as autobiographical text, as modeled by the work of C. Vann Woodward on Mary Chesnut’s diary and John Faragher’s content analysis of gender in overland trail journals. I completed my dissertation, ‘A Secret to be Burried,’ which then became a book that has remained in print 16 years after its publication. Emily Gillespie, the diarist isolated on a farm who wished to be a published writer, is now featured on at least 40 web sites.1  (I do recall, however, the resistance from a major midwestern press to my book proposal. They responded that unless the woman were “important” or married to an important man, they had no interest in publishing it. Luckily, the University of Iowa Press thought differently.

Lest this address present the image of a linear road-to-success, let me clarify that it took me so long to complete my dissertation that the grant funding my Women’s Studies job expired and I became the director of the Tucson Public Library system’s “Riders of the Purple Sage” program. This NEH-funded project supported two conferences on southwestern literature and culture, which resulted in my edited collections of essays (neither of which is in print) and a National Public Radio program called “The Wilderness Still Lingers.”2 These conferences, which seemed like such a detour at the time, now appear as gifts. Through them, I met writers such as Frank Waters, Ann Zwinger,  Ed Abbey, and Luci Tapahonso. Their ability to make love to the Southwest with language influenced my decision to stay in the desert rather than accept a job offer to teach English in Perth, Australia. I sometimes castigated myself for not being “pioneer woman enough” to go all alone to an area that even some Australians consider remote. However, the job would have required me to teach traditional American literature surveys and I was loathe to return to Henry James once I had read Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve now been in Tucson for twenty-two years and agree with what Mary Austin observed: “None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections. It tricks the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it.”3

Immediately after my Ph.D. was completed, I returned to the University of Arizona as Assistant Director of the brand-new Udall Center for the Study of Public Policy. The riskiest road decision, however, occurred two years later, when at the age of 41 I decided to return to a non-tenured position in what was now the Women’s Studies Program so that I could teach and study the materials I loved. Three years later, I was selected for the program’s first tenure-track job and I requested to have my tenure home in the English Department, where I was encouraged by Larry Evers to teach courses on women authors and seminars on women’s narratives of the West and on women’s journals. (I’ve benefitted in the journal seminars from the capacious and sophisticated viewpoints of our graduate students in the rhetoric program, although I was mortified to discover during a seminar assignment in which we did content analysis of our journals to find out I mentioned food three times a often as my new husband Rob, a man who even helped me in my archival research!) That alliance with the English Department brought me to the Western Literature Association, a choice I’ve never regretted—though hosting last year’s conference in Tucson did occasionally require some all-terrain driving. I relish the freedom to explore texts that would have been unthinkable for the classroom even 20 years ago. But a paper presented at this year’s WLA meeting by Carmen Pearson saddens me, for the roadblocks she very recently encountered when she expressed interest in studying novels by Plains women such as Mildred Walker tell me we are fated to go over the same road again and again, to spin our wheels in deflecting criticisms of women’s literature. One professor urged her to return to “the canon.” (Yes, the old canon fodders are still with us.) Another professor observed of her interest in women’s novels, “Oh, are they still trying to do that?”

In my case, it is fortunate that I did have tenure, for about 10 years after the publication of “A Secret to be Burried,” a remote Gillespie family descendant who read my book  obtained a copy of an earlier journal that Emily Hawley Gillespie mentioned in the manuscript diary I read. I reluctantly undertook a close comparison between the newly available early diary of Emily Hawley and the later one copied by Emily Gillespie upon which I based my book. Alas, I discovered that I was a “scholar to be duped.” The complete story of how unhappy 45-year-old Emily Gillespie used five strategies to revisethe story of her girlhood as she recopied that youthful diary has been published to the delight of readers (and at the expense of my ego) in two journal articles.4 After I recovered from being duped, I realized that Emily Gillespie, trapped in a bad marriage in the 1870s could only imagine a rosier past as she revised her journal, while in the 1970s, circumstances allowed me to imagine a better future as I revised my life. My comparison of wily rural diarist Emily Gillespie and her more privileged contemporary Emily Dickinson argues that out of midwestern soil arose life-writing artistry, cleverly deployed in the seemingly homespun form of the diary.

Over the past decade, I have asked myself on several frustrating occasions during my second large journal research project, “Why in the world did I try to study the dream diaries of ‘Baby Doe’ Tabor?” Again, I had been lured into thousands of pages of Dreams and Visions writings, in the form of fragments, compiled by this extra-ordinary woman from the Colorado mining frontier. Years of mining these writings has humbled my assumptions about the parameters of narrative rationality and about my previously useful content-analysis methodology. I have even tried to combine my early training in scientific method with New Age zen by laying out hundreds of Lizzie Tabor’s writings organized by topic, then “sitting” among these stacks of papers, reading them and re-reading them, trying to make sense of them or hoping some sense would emerge. However, as my tidy typescripts of Dreams and Visions were “burried” by later xeroxes of Lizzie’s frantic handwritten fragments, all appearance of rationality fled. The overwhelming sense of enclosure in the room surrounded by papers, much like Lizzie Tabor must have felt in the Matchless mine cabin where she spent the last 36 years of her life, was the only result of this experiment. I confess that in the case of Baby Doe, I have come to the end of my interpretive road. The last chapter of my book ends with an invitation to others skilled in dream analysis to descend into the mind of Lizzie Tabor, rung by rung—or as I hope, Jung by Jung. In this case, I have merely resuscitated an unconventional diarist’s urgent voice and opened the road for others better equipped to pursue.5

My latest curiosity about the inner lives of women as revealed in their diaries brought me to New Zealand/Aotearoa as a “senior” Fulbright scholar, where for five months I was able to immerse myself in journals. My project was called “Our Natives: Negotiating Difference in Missionary Women’s Diaries in the Western U.S. and New Zealand.” It was quite a shock to turn from the voice of “sinner” Baby Doe to voices of evangelical missionary women. Sometimes I felt as if I had been cornered by a Tammy Faye Baker for an entire day. I give you a revealing sample of the complicated “missionary position” on race, guilt, and death from the journal of American Mary Richardson Walker, who had volunteered to become a missionary herself, but was only allowed to join the Whitman mission in Oregon territory after marrying—and following as a wife. “Poor little son. I hardly know what becomes of him. But he is as busy quiet happy looking child as ever I saw. After playing in the dirt all day & being handled first by one dirty Indian and then by another, he enjoys a fine frolick in the pan being washed. ... I don’t know but I neglect him more than I ought to but I console myself with the idea that if I do not spend all my time almost worshiping him, he will be less likely to die.”6 Despite spending long hours with such missionary women, I loved life in New Zealand, where the air was clear, the food so fresh, the society so fully engaged in its legacy of colonialism and the challenges of  multiculturalism. As I rode the commuter train and gazed out onto the Wellington Harbour, where I spotted on occasion dragon boats, huge ferries and tankers, a traditional Maori waka, and even a curious whiskered seal, I knew indeed “why in the world” I had wanted to study diaries: the world was full of diaries religiously kept by women who cast their serial autobiographies into the future, hoping perhaps for a sympathetic reader.

I conclude this account of my road trip having learned these things: In your personal life, do not follow anyone down their road. Choose your own road and lead—or walk in equal partnership if the road is capacious enough. Do follow the texts you study rather than trying to lead them like reluctant colts, with confining halters woven of ideologies others have taught you. And finally, study what you love rather than what you think will interest some future academic marketplace. Pursuing your passion rather than some notion of what others might value will reward you daily and richly.

I appreciate you being so indulgent of my autobiographical address. As Mo Udall once observed to his family when they complained that he was again retelling one of his favorite stories, “I don’t need new stories. These are great stories. I just need new audiences.” Thank you for being that audience.


1.  Judy Nolte Lensink, “A Secret to be Burried” : The Diary and Life of  Emily Hawley Gillespie 1858-1888 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989).

2.  Judy Nolte Lensink, ed., Old Southwest/New Southwest: Essays on a Region and ItsLiterature, (Tucson Public Library, 1987); Judy Nolte Temple, ed., Open Spaces, City Places: Contemporary Writers on the Changing Southwest (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994).

3.  Mary Austin, The Land of Little Rain (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974 rpt.), p. 11.

4.  Judy Nolte Temple, “‘They Shut Me Up in Prose’: A Cautionary Tale of Two Emilys,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 22.1 (2001): 150-169 and “Emily Dickinson’s Country Kin: Variorium Diarist Emily Hawley Gillespie,” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, 17.1 (Summer 2002): 81-100.

5. My preliminary essay on the Tabor writings, “Fragments as Diary: Theorectical Implications of the Dreams and Visions of ‘Baby Doe’ Tabor,” is in Buners, Suzanne, and Cynthia Huff, eds., Inscribing the Daily: Critical Essays on Women’s Diaries (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996).

6. August 1, 1839 diary entry of Mary Richardson Walker from On to Oregon: The Diaries of Mary Walker and Myra Eells, ed. Clifford Drury (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998 rpt.), 166.


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