12 February 2021

John Black Journals - A Weekend With the Dirlams Part 1 of 2

I’ve written extensively about my cousin, John Baxter Black, who was a good friend and who influenced my interest in researching my family history. John was born in Mansfield, OH in 1924 and he died there in 2014 at the age of 90. From 1936, at the age of 12, to the week he died, John wrote a journal chronicling his daily activities and thoughts. 

John Black circa 1954
John left his journals to the New York Public Library, where I’ve reviewed a very small sampling. The collection is extensive and the process of transcribing pages from photos taken with my phone (the only method allowed) is daunting, but rewarding. I’m glad to have access to them. His diaries are dense, crowded with his tight, unique handwriting. I can read most of John’s entries quickly and easily, but it could be a challenge for others. He and I carried on written correspondence for 18 years, many of his letters being handwritten, so I have evolved into an expert at interpreting his scrawl! He wrote to me using a fountain pen in black ink, which matches these entries. 

John comes alive for me in these entries. I read his words and I can hear him speak. I picture him as he chronicles his observations and personality studies, along with his own insecurities and worries. 

Peter Black circa 1954
This short three-day excerpt from John’s diaries describes a weekend visit that John and his brother Peter made to my grandparents’ house in North Stonington, Connecticut. Over the weekend he encounters my mother, age 12, and her younger sisters, but they are not named in the entry other than collectively. They were “all good.” 

In 1954, at the time of these entries, John was 30 years old and lived in an apartment at on East 67th Street in New York City, just a few steps from Central Park. He was in the process of editing his one and only novel, The Night the Americans Came, which was published eight years later in London. 

At this moment in time, he was reading two books that he had purchased earlier in the month: The Diaries of Virginia Woolf and Gwen Raverat’s memoir, Period Piece (Raverat, a wood engraver in England who died a few years later, was Charles Darwin’s granddaughter). 

One note: when John reached the end of a page, he would continue at the top of the same page and sometimes on to other pages in the diary. With this bit of context, the entries for those three days: