A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 94

Solomon Northrup, author of Twelve Years A Slave.

Monday,  June 15

It’s a somewhat presumptuous thing to write a memoir—or a memoirish blog like this one: You’re presuming that someone will actually want to read it. But as a sometime historian, I know how important such memoirs can be, particularly when they cover very intense periods of history. History is contested terrain, as is attested by current controversies over U.S. military-base names or the presence of Confederate figures’ statues, and that means witnesses need to weigh in.

Who cares about old diaries? Lots of people do. Think about the slave narratives such as Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave. Or there’s Mary Chestnut’s influential portrait of slaveholder society, A Diary from Dixie.

Think of the many accounts of life during the Great Depression, notably Studs Terkel’s Hard Times. Our time is not quite as extraordinary as either of those periods, but no one would deny that we’re living through an astonishing era that people may care to read about in the future. 

I also intended from the beginning that this blog might be read right now by our friends, who are wondering just what we are up to during the lockdown. I, in turn, wonder what they are doing—just how they are filling their potentially empty hours.

I was mulling over all these matters when I recalled that in a recent e-mail, our friend Sonia Jaffe Robbins had noted that she has an Internet-posted memoir of her life and work. 

Sonia is a former law client of Emily’s, a plaintiff in the landmark Tasini v. The New York Times et al. case over the electronic reproduction of freelancers’ work, and the wife of a late, former BusinessWeek colleague of mine, Jack Robbins.

Her memoir covers a much broader swath of time than does my blog—from her birth in 1942 up to the current date. I suspect that she pieced it together over some years, as it details the nine different places she lived as a youth, the several institutions of higher learning that she attended, and eight different places where she would go on to work. Amazing to me is her ability to recall the names of various public-school teachers (I can remember maybe three). 

She also remembers various possibly embarrassing moments, such as how students at her Connecticut elementary school had to recite an unfamiliar litany: “Are father who artin heaven halloween be thy name….” She recalls being afraid of the ducktail-haircut boys at her new high school, her subsequent facility in learning French and the rules of football, and her parents’ early cold-war-era caution about political activism. After college, there were jobs at publishers Bantam Books and Bobbs-Merrill, The Village Voice, New York University, and freelancing here and there. And beginning in the 1990s, Sonia became active in an international women’s organization, the Network of East-West Women, which helps forge links between women in the West and in formerly communist lands.

It would be great if everyone I know could write such a memoir, even a short one: Sonia’s is only 56 handwritten pages. Such efforts are gifts to future generations. Yet memoirs can also evoke ghosts, as W.G. Sebald reminds us in his book The Emigrants. “The memoirs, which at points were truly wonderful, had seemed to him like one of those evil German fairy tales in which, once you are under the spell, you have to carry on to the finish, until your heart breaks….”

Dinner: A simple broiled eggplant, tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese thingy, with a little pasta, and some asparagus.

Entertainment: More of the Polish TV show The Woods.