I started following the Doris Diaries (@TheDorisDiaries) on Twitter about a year ago. It’s a fun feed in which Julia Park Tracey quotes 140-character excerpts from the diary kept by her great-aunt, Doris Bailey Murphy, as a teenager in the 1920s. I enjoy these random glimpses of a whole different place and time, especially because they’re mixed in with my usual Twitter fare of politics, higher education, and word-nerdery.
Reading the diary a sentence or two at a time is one thing — it’s even more intriguing reading the whole thing. The first volume of the Doris Diaries in book form has just been published: I’ve Got Some Lovin’ to Do: The Diaries of a Roaring Twenties Teen 1925-1926 (iUniverse, Bloomington, Ind.). (Want to read it yourself? See the end of this post for how you can win a copy!)
Doris is a lively, boy-crazy teen from a well-to-do family in Portland, Oregon. She grumbles about school, but her main preoccupation is her social life, like her friendships and spats with other girls. More important, of course, is which boy she’s obsessing on and which she’s “making love” (or, as we’d say, “making out”) with; these two categories do not necessarily overlap.
What makes this diary — like any diary — so much fun to read is the sense of immediacy. If you ask someone about her adolescence, even if she attempts to answer honestly, what she says is filtered through her imperfect memory, as well as shaded by the more mature perspective provided by hindsight. With Doris, what we get instead is the reality of her day-to-day life. This can make for an uneven read — I’m not going to pretend every page was fascinating — but the cumulative effect is to provide a glimpse into a world that is otherwise unavailable to us.
Doris’s great-niece, Julia, is on a virtual book tour this week to promote the book, and she was kind enough to schedule this blog for one stop on the tour. (Full disclosure: I received two copies of the book, one to read and one to give away, for hosting this stop.)
I asked Julia two questions:
- What surprised you the most about the lives of teens in the ’20s?
I had forgotten, or hadn’t thought about, what teens did before TV and radio. I assumed it was like Little House on the Prairie, where Pa rosined up his bow and played the fiddle and they knitted after supper. When I started reading about Doris and her friends making candy, I had a light-bulb moment — like, “Aha, I never thought of that!” But it’s not like they all had pocket money and could go to 7-Eleven and get a Slurpee. Making candy is a great way to pass time. There’s something for everyone to do (beat the eggs, measure the ingredients, stir it) and then you get to eat it at the end. (There’s also a big mess, but I assume she left it for the maids.) I just never gave it much thought, so that was surprising.
I also loved that there seems to be a lot of singing of “romantic songs” and of dancing in the home. Like, push back the furniture and have a foxtrot in the living room. That doesn’t happen much anymore, does it?
I’m also surprised at how often Doris was left on her own, when her parents went out. Of course, there were servants, so I suppose she wasn’t really alone, but she seemed to end up with a lot of unsupervised time — during which she skates past lots of scary situations. I wonder if she lied more than she tells us, or if her parents were just clueless, or what? It’s hard to tell.
- What surprised you the most about your great-aunt’s girlhood, having known her as an adult?
I was surprised by the freshness of the voice. I knew her for almost 50 years, and heard her say some pretty shocking or at least unexpected things. She didn’t hesitate to ask an “embarrassing” question if she was curious — like, in front of the whole family when I was just 16, if I was enjoying sex with my boyfriend. But there is a tone or quality of vivacity, or excitement, of energy in her youthful voice that is just a more vibrant version of the Doris I knew. I recognize her, but also wish I had known she existed when Doris was alive. It’s hard to explain, but I guess I wish I knew her when she was young, and didn’t miss out on that part of her life. I consider it a real gift to be allowed to “meet” her in this way. I don’t miss her as much as I would, I’m sure, without the diaries.
True story: As I have been reading along in the diaries and have this burning desire to call Doris and tell her about this great thing I’m reading, as if she didn’t already live it. “I’ll bet Doris would laugh about this — oh, I forgot…” That has happened to me on more than one occasion. She’s so alive in these diaries that it’s easy to forget she’s not still here.
Win a copy of I’ve Got Some Lovin’ to Do — just post a comment, using some ’20s slang in Doris’s honor. (Not up on your ’20s slang? Don’t be a killjoy — you can find a list here that will surprise you with how much of our current slang dates back that far.) Now you’re on the trolley!
I’ll pick a winner at random on November 30.