Children from the past have not left autobiographies in the strict sense of the word. Most writers working in the genre tend to come to it around the age of fifty. That, at least, was the age at which JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU wrote his Confessions, a work that was to be an influential example over the following two centuries. As the writers of diaries, children under the age of fifteen have left more traces, although even these were initially quite rare. There are only seven known children's diaries from England and the United States written prior to 1800. In the Netherlands, systematic research yielded six surviving diaries by children written before 1814. Among them was that by Otto van Eck, who filled over 1500 pages in seven years, starting in 1791 when he was ten. He wrote his diary at the behest of his parents, in keeping with an educational strategy recommended by pedagogues since the late eighteenth century. The writing of a diary was meant to increase the child's self-knowledge. Parents were to read their children's diaries in order to closely follow their development. In the nineteenth century, the writing of diaries became especially popular with young women, as Philippe Lejeune established. The best-known diary from this period is by the Russian-born Marie Bashkirtseff, who started writing when she was fifteen years old. Her diary was published in 1887, following her early death. The book caused a sensation, first in France, and after being translated also in England and even more so in America. Never before had a young woman openly claimed to have ambitions as an artist, been so hungry for fame and so egotistical. But in another respect it conformed to a more common pattern–it was published by her father who had edited the text. Many children's diaries survived only to serve as a memorial because of an early death; this was also the case with Otto van Eck, who died at seventeen. The Diary of Anne Frank, the most famous diary written by a young person, also fits this pattern. ANNE FRANK kept her diary while hiding in Amsterdam during World War II. She and her family were discovered and deported, and only her father survived. The first edition of Anne's diary was published in 1947 through the initiative of her father.
In the twentieth century, the writing of diaries was still being encouraged by educators. Moreover, such texts were now used as sources for their studies. In Germany, for instance, this was done by CHARLOTTE BÜHLER. Educators now saw writing as an aid to the development of self-consciousness, not as a means of control. The diary developed into the ultimate form of private writing, and even parents had to respect this privacy. Teachers encouraged the writing of diaries to promote writing skills. The writing of a fictional diary often became part of language lessons. Later, some children would keep diaries on the Internet, which again stimulated debate about the private or public character of children's diaries.
Beginning with Rousseau autobiographies written in adulthood began to focus on childhood as a formative stage in the writers' lives. The way in which autobiographers recalled their memories also changed. Associative memories became important, and details once seen as trivial were now regarded as meaningful. In the nineteenth century a specific genre of childhood memories developed. A new literary genre was the Bildungsroman, a narrative of the development of a child into adulthood. This genre in turn influenced the lives of its young readers. One of the first examples was published by the German novelist Heinrich Jung-Stilling in 1777. According to Richard N. Coe, poets and novelists were especially able to conjure up their childhood in creative ways. Outside Europe, childhood memories as a genre developed in the twentieth century; with the Japanese writer Ju'ichro Tanizaki as an early example. Thus, the western view of childhood was exported to the rest of the world in literary form. As a literary form, childhood memories are today written in every part of the world, but content and form can vary in different cultures. Psychological research has made clear that there are significant differences in the working of what is called long-term autobiographical memory. Scholars and scientists still have many questions to answer about the act of recalling childhood years and transforming memories into literature.
See also: Children's Literature.
Baggerman, Arianne. 1997. "The Cultural Universe of a Dutch Child, Otto van Eck and his Literature." Eighteenth Century Studies 31: 129-134.
Bashkirtseff, Marie. 1980. The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff. Trans. Mathilde Blind. London: Virago.
Coe, Richard N. 1984. When the Grass Was Taller: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Dekker, Rudolf. 2000. Childhood, Memory and Autobiography in Holland from the Golden Age to Romanticism. New York: St. Martin's.
Wang, Qi, and Michelle D. Leichman. 2000. "Same Beginnings, Different Stories: A Comparison of American and Chinese Children's Narratives." Child Development 71: 13-29.
RUDOLF M. DEKKER