One gloomy afternoon in Bellingham, Washington, I was walking through my college library when I stumbled upon a guy playing guitar. Guys playing guitar on campus were a dime a dozen. But I’d never seen anyone playing guitar in the library. Out of curiosity, I found myself taking a seat amongst a very sparse crowd. I was drawn in immediately. It struck me that this was not a typical performance, and that I very well might be in the presence of greatness.
The musician turned out to be the celebrated songwriter Michael Peter Smith, best known for the song “The Dutchman” and for writing the music and lyrics for a Broadway production of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. At the time I saw him in my college library, he had most recently put to music the diary of a young girl named Opal Whiteley. The lyrics he sang were hers, apparently written when she was all of five years old. After playing a few songs, Smith set aside his guitar and told her story.
Opal Whiteley was born in 1897 and grew up in Oregon logging camps. As a child, she kept a diary that she wrote in crayon with block-print letters and childish, phonetic spelling. When she was in her early 20s, this diary was published serially in the Atlantic Monthly and then came out as a book, “The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart.” This book became an instant sensation, catapulting Opal to the national spotlight as one of the most brilliant authors of her day.
But then her story turns dark. People cast doubt on the book’s origin story, wondering: how could a five-year-old girl possibly have written this? Overnight, Opal went from being a sensational author to a scandalous figure. Shortly after this, she developed schizophrenia and moved to England to research her supposed lineage to Henri, Prince of Orléans. After being discovered living in a basement in incredibly poor health — she apparently was spending her money on books rather than food — she was placed in a mental institution, where she spent the rest of her life and died in 1992, at the age of 94.
Michael Smith played a few more songs, and I enjoyed every moment, but really I was itching to get my hands on this infamous book by Opal Whiteley. As soon as the show ended, I hurried to the literature section of the library. Sure enough, there was a copy. Sitting down to read her book, again and immediately, I was struck by the sensation that I was in the presence of greatness. This was not an ordinary young girl’s diary.
It wasn’t lost on me that Michael Smith had made a career out of putting celebrated literature to music, from John Steinbeck to Opal Whiteley. I wondered, however: if Opal Whiteley was great literature — at least in this one sense sitting on par with Steinbeck — then why had I never heard of her?
If you look up Opal Whiteley today, you will find endless resources detailing her childhood, her rise to fame, her fall into disgrace, and her mental illness. But you’ll find comparatively little about her actual writing. In other words, commentary about Opal is all biographical mystery — no literary legacy.
When people do comment upon the text of her work, it’s generally to determine whether or not her diary could have been written by a five-year-old. She mentions Shakespeare in her diary. What kind of five-year-old writes about Shakespeare? Does this indicate that she wrote the journal when she was — perhaps — a teenager? Or did she truly write it at the age of five but then edited it substantially prior to publication when she was in her twenties?
I’m happy to participate in these discussions. It’s an interesting question — particularly since there remain good reasons to believe that she did in fact write the journal when she was very young. However, these discussions shouldn’t overshadow her literary contributions. Why are we discussing this girl at all if not for the fact that she was a genius writer? If she was just a girl from the Oregon logging camps who developed schizophrenia and died in a mental institution — surely that’s tragic, but that wouldn’t explain why there’s a giant mural of her in her hometown.
And the mural of Opal is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the art that her work has inspired. She also inspired an Off-Broadway musical by Robert Lindsey-Nassif, a narrative feature film directed by Dina Ciraulo, the novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock, the novel “The Covered Bridge Murders” by Jerry Rust, and, of course, the folk album “Beauty Attends: The Heartsongs of Opal Whiteley” by Michael Smith, sung by Anne Hills.
Despite her influence on many authors and artists, you’ll never find her name listed alongside prominent writers of the 20th century. This, I believe, is the toll that her legacy as a mystery figure, rather than a literary figure, has taken. It is past time to fix this.
What makes a book a classic, worthy to be canonized? Italo Calivo helps answer this question with his book, “Why Read the Classics?” which lists 14 criteria for what makes a classic. In this list, he notes: “The Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them.”
Out of all works of literature I’ve encountered, I can’t think of a work that “constitutes a treasured experience” to the same degree as Opal’s journal. Michael Smith’s tribute album to Opal is a case in point. The moment you read her, you want to sing her words and carry them with you. For what it’s worth, I’ve personally written a song inspired by her journal. What other works of literature have been such a “treasured experience” to prompt me to sing about them? Dickens? Tolstoy? Didion? I’ve loved and been touched by so many great writers, but not in the same way as by Opal.
Still, is she worthy of making the canon of Western literature? At the very least, does she deserve to be listed among the best women authors of the 20th century in the genre of memoir? I would argue yes. But, at this moment, I have no one to argue against. When discussing Opal Whiteley, her literary legacy, up to this moment, is not even part of the conversation. This, I believe, should change. And there are plenty of contemporary playwrights, novelists, and musicians who would doubtlessly agree.
Notably, Opal wrote other texts beyond her childhood diary. Her book “The Fairyland Around Us” is available to read online. But in my opinion, her later works are not very good. They feel like she’s trying to tap into the magic she captured in her diary…and she just can’t. Her words feel comparatively flat and forced. And I would love to see more discussion about this — about the literary merits of her work, entirely removed from the mystery of her life.
In my view, it’s time to canonize Opal Whiteley. Disagree? I would be curious to hear the reasons why. Whether the merits of her literary work are underappreciated or overhyped, let’s talk about it.
© Peter Clarke 2019