If she had lived today, Sarah Kemble Knight would have made a great travel blogger. Or maybe a cultural anthropologist. Smart, intrepid, and sharply observant, her account of a five-month journey from Boston to New York would no doubt have made prime entertainment, the kind that gets quoted and shared on social media. She probably would have even loved Twitter, with its ability to give pithy, real-time updates on daily experiences and encounters.
Even without this technology, though, Knight’s 1704 diary gives us a colorful account of her travel from Boston to New York, with frank, honest, and spot-on descriptions of the strange people she meets, the (gross) food she encounters, and the unruly and dangerous wilderness that surrounds her. She has an eye for detail, for characterization, from the seventy-year-old woman with the intellect of a seventeen year old, to the rude lady whose jewelry can’t mask her lack of manners, to the young man who prays for his aunt to die so he can pay his debts. Knight captures them all with sharp wit and humor – and no small amount of bias. Without censoring her judgments, she reports on the fashions poor and rich people wear, the food they eat, the quarrels they have. She describes sights and sounds of the city, the architecture of buildings, the popular pasttimes of city-dwellers, and the diversity she (sometimes reluctantly) encounters in New York and Connecticut, from slaves to Native Americans to the Dutch.
Even for this contemporary reader, her observations made me laugh and cringe and nod, which raises one burning question for me: was her audience really an audience of one? And what does the answer tell us about Sarah Kemble Knight and women’s diary writing of this era?
On the one hand, putting one’s thoughts in writing creates the risk that those thoughts will be read and seen by someone other than the author. Writing itself carries the possibility of being a public act, and the public nature of writing was often and for centuries at odds with expectations of women, who were generally confined to domesticity and service to husband and family. Knight’s diary wasn’t published until 1825, nearly 100 years after her death, but it’s clear that she didn’t live a private life, for Knight was a shrewd and profit-minded businesswoman. She owned an inn and a tavern and dealt in land speculation (DeLuca). Her diary itself reveals a woman highly independent and self-sufficient, capable of securing safe passage for a five-month, round trip journey from Boston to New York.
Details of her life, then, and the simple fact that she wrote, would suggest that she might well have imagined her words reaching the public. This idea is supported by the fact that much of her diary reads as informative, with rich details catalogued, rather than as purely narrative or even reflective. It is telling that Knight writes very little that is self-reflective or personal: with small exceptions that reveal her personality, biases, and judgments, her diary is simply a frank account of her travels, in which Knight is primarily an observer of events.
So to what extent is this diary a public or private document? And how does that impact the written self preserved (or presented) in its pages? We know that audience, whether singular or plural, public or private, impacts how and what we write. Knight, though she doesn’t acknowledge an audience explicitly, displays an awareness of public expectations for female writers. Upon coming to a story about Native Americans in New Haven, Knight refrains from talking of “trivial matters, of which some have been told me, but are not proper to be Related by a Female pen” (Knight, para. 37). Clearly, Knight has at least considered the possibility that her words are not simply for herself.
And finally, of course, there’s her poetry. The only early American female poet I’m familiar with (so far!) is Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan who was careful to apologize profusely for her own verses, assuring the reader that she did not neglect her duties as a Puritan wife and mother in order to write, and explaining that her female pen is not worthy of lofty subjects such as history. Knight makes no such apologies, basing her poems on her own frustrations, fears, and encounters, and not confining her subject matter to domesticity. She mines her own life, with its rich variety of experiences, for raw material – but because she writes in her own diary, she need not make excuses for her work.
It is curious that Knight would write so publicly in a personal diary. In a strange way, the diary form might have been a safe place for an ambitious woman writer like Knight to exercise her skills, free from the baggage of societal scrutiny or retribution.
Last semester, I was lucky enough to hear a talk by Pulitzer Prize-winning historical fiction author Geraldine Brooks, whose work often features women and minorities of early America. She said that the number one complaint she receives from readers is that her characters are anachronistically frustrated with the status quo, with the boundaries of their roles as women, slaves, or Native Americans. Her response was that she has done the research, and the reality she finds in personal diaries and letters is that women and minorities were no less frustrated, vocal, diverse, or opinionated than they are today – they simply lacked the education and power to make their voices heard. Sarah Kemble Knight, whose voice is so strong and tangible in her diary, seems like a perfect example of this phenomenon: yet another example of the undercurrent of voices in early America that we are just beginning to rediscover.