“Out of Doors”: Attend a Nature Lecture by Opal Whiteley

By Anna J. Cook, Reader Services

Last week, New Yorker essayist Michelle Dean published a piece on the diaries of mystical nature writer Opal Whiteley, “Opal Whiteley’s Riddles.” Originally appearing in the Atlantic Monthly beginning in March of 1920, Opal’s diaries were both popular and controversial as a piece of literature. Whiteley presented the diaries as a product of her childhood spent in the Oregon wilderness;  skeptics were dubious that a six-year-old child could have developed such an distinctive voice and wide-ranging, fantastical vision.

Though Whiteley was born and raised in Oregon, the story of her diary has deep Boston roots in the patronage of Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick, a wealthy and influential Boston Brahmin, who supported Whiteley during a laborious editing process (the diary had survived only in fragments). Because of the disputed nature of Whiteley’s work, Sedgwick gathered extensive materials related to her life and writing which eventually became part of the Ellery Sedgwick Papers here at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  In addition to the Opal Whiteley materials in the Ellery Sedgwick papers, the Massachusetts Historical Society also holds a copy of the original 1920 edition of The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart (which can also be read full-text online at the Internet Archive) and a poster advertising one of Opal’s nature lectures, given in 1917.

Before traveling to Boston in search of a publisher, Whiteley – as the self-described “Sunshine Fairy” – put herself through the University of Oregon by giving public lectures on the natural world. It was these lectures – developed into a book she titled The Fairyland Around Us – which Whiteley initially approached Sedgwick about publishing in September of 1919, at the encouragement of Henry Chapman from The Youth’s Companion, a popular American children’s magazine. While Sedgwick declined Fairyland, in the course of their conversation he discovered Whiteley had kept a diary during her childhood and expressed interest in seeing this original source material.

Note: Those interested in consulting Ellery Sedgwick’s research material on Opal Whiteley should consult the finding guide and contact the library in advance of their visit, as the collection is in offsite storage.