Inside the Actor’s Diary: A Glimpse into the 19th Century

Diaries often provide unprecedented insight into a person’s private thoughts, but for historians, there’s also much to be gleaned about the era in which they were written. Social behaviors, mannerisms, beliefs, and more rise to the surface when a person careful enough to document such characteristics shares those observations on the page.

The 19th century actor Harry Watkins kept a diary for 15 years, faithfully recording his time in the theater, the turbulent period before the Civil War, and pressing issues affecting the country, including slavery and immigration. Professors Amy Hughes (Brooklyn College) and Naomi J. Stubbs (LaGuardia Community College) have culled excerpts from Watkins’ vast writings in the new annotated collection A Player and a Gentleman: The Diary of Harry Watkins, Nineteenth-Century U.S. American Actor.

Watkins’ diary “is a window into life” during the period he recorded, Stubbs told SUM. For example, in one diary excerpt dated March 28, he mentions attending a public hanging. In spite of his “complicated, often odious views” about slavery and other pressing problems impacting the country, Hughes believes “his diary also reveals some of the reasons why he held such views, and why he (and so many others) clung to those views so tightly. I believe this is something from which we can learn.”

Amid documenting his more personal moments, like his travels, his career, and different plays he saw or acted in, Watkins’ diary presents a “fresh perspective on well-known historical facts [and] the revelations of lesser-known details about daily life,” according to Stubbs. She added, “Because of this, topics that seem so dry to many of us take on new life and new immediacy when seen through Watkins’s eyes.”

The resulting collection took six years and the support of nearly a dozen CUNY students and professors to complete. Hughes and Stubbs worked alongside Professor Scott D. Dexter (Brooklyn College, The Graduate Center, CUNY), who designed a workflow tool using Drupal to assist with the significant number of documents they had to parse. “We hope our process will be a helpful model for other digital humanities projects that involve diverse people from multiple colleges [or] organizations,” Hughes told SUM. “We believe that the more perspectives involved in a project, the stronger the outcome.”

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A Player and a Gentleman
University of Michigan Press, 2018

Work By
Amy E. Hughes (Associate Professor, Theater) | Profile 1
Naomi J. Stubbs (Associate Professor, English) | Profile 1
Scott Dexter (Professor, Computer and Information Science) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools
Brooklyn College
LaGuardia Community College

Bonus Content
“Harry Watkins, Nineteenth Century Actor, Brought Back to Life” (University of Michigan Press Blog)

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