Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin: 1918-1919. Black cloth over card measuring 6.75 x 4 inches. Comprised of 306 densely covered pages of entries in the hand of the diarist and an additional 4 in multiple hands leaving mailing addresses. Accompanied by a photo of Witwen and a nursing postcard. Born in 1890 in Wisconsin to a middle-class family, Edna Witwen joined the Army Red Cross after a quiet childhood of little travel or adventure. As a nurse, her daily diary reveals a wealth of information about hospitals, the spread of disease, the friendships formed across regional and class boundaries, and the way mobility and war affect relationships. Though Edna never mentions suffrage or the women's rights movement, she is clearly a beneficiary of its progress, as she is an educated, independent, and upwardly mobile young woman excited about the expanding world before her.
Speaking to her "Little Book" in intimate detail, Edna Witwen at times mourns that it can't answer her back or advise her in times of need. Certainly her life takes a more adventurous turn in November of 1918, when she departs her family home for Camp Gordon near Atlanta. Immediately Edna is swept up in the travel, and in meeting people from parts of the country she's never ventured. Once at the Camp, she establishes a tight-knit group of female friends that remain with her through 1919 -- and separation from whom she grieves deeply, as they are increasingly given orders to serve at other bases (as she does that year, traveling to a camp in Louisville). The rear of her book, with mailing addresses from Wisconsin, New York, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Michigan are a testament to this.
These friendships keep Edna afloat as she learns how to navigate the work duties of being a ward nurse with being a single woman surrounded by men who want to socialize. Car rides on the base, walks, picnics, dances and dinners are all regular occurrences as military leadership try to keep medical and military workers busy. Meanwhile, Edna reports on the shifts she works, the drudgery of her own daily caretaking (endless laundry, sewing, and the luxury of washing her hair). At least once she reveals that the Camp is segregated. Following a late night she is cited for truancy and is assigned for time to work in the black soldiers' ward, where she feels isolated and out of place. Her entries trace the spread of disease including mumps and flu. And while there is much to excite her, she regularly gets jolted by the reality of war -- bayonet practice on the yard, or a letter saying her former beau Carl, who had been given a white feather, wound up enlisting and being wounded in Europe.
Perhaps the most notable long arc of the diary is Edna's relationship to an officer named Jim. Their courtship thrills and worries her; while he's continually sweet and flattering, she expresses concern that she can't live up to his ideal. When he presses her for engagement, she bemoans the possible loss of freedom and wonders why she can't keep the life she currently has. Jim's departure from the base and his deployment also cause strain -- in more ways than one. Not only do the two face physical distance, but Edna reads dangerous things into any lapse in Jim's letters or telegrams. She thinks naively he's lost interest and so she does too -- each time only to discover that he was in the sick ward quarantined, or that a batch of his letters got held up as they made their way off ships or bases and to her.
An absolutely fascinating and rich account of women's lives as they served in military medicine, and as their generation entered a more complex, open, and cosmopolitan world.
US Census 1900 and 1910. (Item #3372)