Opal S. Whiteley and her diary fragments
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This photograph, taken around 1919 by Bachrach, depicts Opal Whiteley in the process of reassembling her diary that had been ripped into thousands of pieces by a "jealous foster sister." This diary would later be published as The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart.
A Strangely Interesting Story
In writing about one of the most "strangely interesting stories" he encountered in his long career as the editor and publisher of The Atlantic Monthly, Ellery Sedgwick observed that "to an editor open-mindedness is of the first importance. [But] there is a point just below credulity and very far above skepticism where his mind should stick and open not one jot further." Ignoring his own advice, in 1919 Sedgwick fell under the spell of a mysterious young woman from the West—or did she have a more exotic origin?
Opal Whiteley arrived at the Boston office of the Atlantic in September 1919 with a book that she had printed, but wanted to have published in a regular fashion, The Fairyland around Us, which was, according to Sedgwick, "the fairyland of beasts and blossoms, butterflies and birds." Whiteley showed Sedgwick the copy of her book that she had embellished with her own drawings and which "bore a hundred marks of special loving care." While Sedgwick did not believe that it was a promising publication project, about Whiteley herself there was "something very young and eager and fluttering, like a bird in a thicket."
The Story of Opal
When Sedgwick found out that Whiteley claimed to have grown up as an orphan in at least nineteen lumber camps in the Pacific Northwest and remembered the surroundings of her childhood in great detail, he thought his next question to her was natural: had she kept a diary —and, if so, that was what he wanted to publish. Her answer was that she had, but it had been destroyed, torn to pieces by a jealous foster sister. "Miraculously," she had preserved the shredded pages, and Sedgwick quickly installed her and her hatbox crammed full of thousands of fragments in the home of his mother-in-law in Brookline, just outside of Boston, where Opal embarked on the complex and laborious task of reassembling the diary. What arose, months later, phoenix-like from the fragments was the fairy tale/natural history that Opal supposedly had written between the ages of six and twelve.
Working closely with Opal Whiteley, between March and August 1920, Ellery Sedgwick published extracts from Whiteley’s reconstructed journal in serial form in the Atlantic, and then published an extended version of it the same year as The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart. The publication of Opal’s story was a sensation. The story appealed to readers who became enamored with the tale of an exceptionally precocious six year old who had kept a diary filled with classical allusions and keen observations of the natural world around her—a "fairy" child who conversed with animals and trees—and the little people of the forest. It also provoked a very large number of queries regarding the diary's authenticity.
The "Real" Opal Whiteley
Even as Opal Stanley Whiteley became an international celebrity, her tenuous connection to reality deteriorated. She claimed that the "angel parents" whom she had lost when she was very young were an Orléanist pretender to the French throne and an Indian princess—not a Native American but the daughter of the ruling family of a princely state in the Indian subcontinent. After travelling widely amidst a furor of publicity about the veracity of her story and her claims that her natural history writings dated from early childhood, Whiteley settled in England. Her "story" ended on a sad note; she spent the last forty years before her death in 1992 in mental hospitals. Sedgwick continued to contribute to her care until his own death in 1960.
The Ellery Sedgwick Papers
The Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection of Ellery Sedgwick Papers includes correspondence, photographs, and other materials relating to the publication of Whiteley's book, The Story of Opal. Ellery Sedgwick continued to correspond with Whiteley until 1929, although he found that the "dew of the morning" had vanished from the journal that she continued to keep. He kept track of her life and the continued interest in her story for much longer, spending years corresponding with people who had known her in Oregon, or met her in the years since. Sedgwick's papers also include correspondence about how he later helped to establish a fund to care for her. The finding aid to the Ellery Sedgwick Papers is available at our website. The photograph of Opal Whiteley reconstructing her diary displayed here is from the Ellery Sedgwick Photographs.
For Further Reading
Bede, Elbert. Fabulous Opal Whiteley: From Oregon Logging Camp to Princess in India. Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, 1954.
Elbert Bede, the editor of the Cottage Grove Sentinel (the Oregon town where Opal Whiteley actually grew up), became a principal source of information about her early life for Ellery Sedgwick.
Halverson, Cathryn. "Opal Whiteley’s ‘Explores’: The Disappearing Region." Western American Literature. Special Issue: Western Autobiography & Memoir. Summer 2002, 197-221.
Cathryn Halverson makes clear the large role that Ellery Sedgwick played in shaping The Story of Opal and removing her narrative from the real places that she lived and placing it in an invented landscape.
Whiteley is one of the writers whom Ellery Sedgwick cultivated that Halverson discusses in Faraway Women and the "Atlantic Monthly" to be published by the University of Massachusetts Press on November 2019.
Hulbert, Ann. Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies. New York: Knopf, 2018.
Although Opal Whiteley only makes a cameo appearance in Hulbert’s study, she places Whiteley in the context of a "renaissance" in works by young woman authors who were not child prodigies "in the usual sense of eliciting awe primarily with their mature technical mastery," but authors whose literary gifts lay in their "intuitive wisdom."
Sedgwick, Ellery. "An Opalescent Chapter" in The Happy Profession. Boston: "Atlantic Monthly Press Book," Little, Brown and Company, 1946, 252-266.
Whiteley, Opal S. Out of Doors. Do You Want to Know More of the Life of the Woods and Fields? … Hear This Nature Lecture by Miss Opal Whiteley. Broadside, ca. 1917.
Ellery Sedgwick did not claim that he "discovered" Opal Whiteley, but only brought her to the attention of a wide audience. As a self-educated teenage naturalist she had begun to lecture to support herself while she attended the University of Oregon. This illustrated broadside advertisement for a 1917 lecture by Whiteley is displayed at the MHS website.
A 2012 MHS blog post by Reference Librarian Anna Clutterbuck-Cook explains more about Whiteley’s early life and nature writing before she met Ellery Sedgwick.
The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow: the Rediscovered Nature Diary of Opal Whiteley, presented by Benjamin Hoff. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1986.
Hoff provides biographical information and analysis to accompany this republication of the text of The Story of Opal.
The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920. Online at the Internet Archive.