dr. Sigurður
Gylfi
Magnússon

““I am 479 days younger than Nilli" Diaries and Daily Life of Halldór Jónsson from Miðdalsgröf." (““Jeg er 479 dögum ýngri en Nilli" Dagbækur og daglegt líf Halldórs Jónssonar frá Miðdalsgröf.") Skírnir 169 (fall 1995), bls. 309-347.

Handrit Halldórs Jónssonar í Miðdalsgröf,
varðveitt á Handritadeild Landsbókasafnsins This article explores a source which Icelandic historians have literally payed no attention to at all: the diary. It is argued that the diary is one of those personal sources which can give us an unusual insight into peoples everyday life in former times, and more so than any other historical source. Even the autobiography falls short in comparison. It can be argued that the autobiography is like snapshots of incidents from peoples life, but the diary more lika a motion picture with all the deatails which everyday life offers. This very nature of the diary creates enormous problems when it is suppose to serve as a historical source. It is so difficult to sort out the improtant aspects of peoples life from the one which is secondary or unimportant. But once that kind of analysis is done, the rewards are unmistakable.

The diary which is explored in this article belongs to a young man who was raised up in West fjord of Iceland. He started on his diary at the age of seventeen, 1888, and kept it for twenty four years or until he drawned at sea, the year 1912. There are number of intresting features about his diary. First, it is extreamly detailed and he writes something everyday; usually half a page or more. On the side he kept another type of diary, more like a book where he could collect all kinds of material which he found, notes on things he was wandering about, and his calculation about his economy or the productivity of the life-stock at the farm. In addition to all this he collected poetry, printed and unpublished, which filled up fifteen book which were up to 400 pages. Secondly, the period the diary spans covers three different life stages in his life-course. It began when he was a son of a farmer, then he became a hired hand (boarder) in his commune for ten years, and, at last, he got married and became an independent farmer. This mixture gives us an unusual opportunity to explore the possibilities which young people had for growth and maturity in this late nineteenth and early twenteenth century society.

At last, the content of the diary opens up possibilities for all kinds of analysis relating to different debates about this time period. The author gives us both a strait farward view of his daily affairs (like the weather, daily work, etc.) and also a personal evaluation of differnt situation which he encounters. It is just like the reader steps into the nineteenth century peasant society and becomes a dircet participant in peoples daily affairs. Descriptions of the struggle for surviving are so vivid and personal that it gives us an very unusual opportunity for studying this society.

Icelandic historians have usually aruged that the peasant society was a self-sufficiant society. Each farm was suppose to be an island both in economic and social sens. The production was mostly for domestic use and only the bear minimum was bought from the outside. Socially, each farm was supposed to be an isolated united with very little contact with the outside world and basicly non with larger cultural centers. The picture which has been drawn is, therefore, mostly of a stagnet and introversive people who ran their life in the same manners as had been done in Iceland since the country was settled, 1000 years ago, peacefully and in tact with the seasonal rhythm.

The diary gives an opportunity to actually test this theory of self-sufficiency as it is played out in the life of Halldór Jónsson and his contemporaries. One thing has to be kept in mind, that this commune which Halldór lived in was in a rather isolated part of the country, so if the theory holds, it certainly should have work there.

To make a long story short there are three noticable features which immediately stand out when one studies the life of Halldór Jónsson and his family and friends. First, it is intresting to find out how intens and busy all daily life was on his family farm. One task followed another, in tackt with the seasons, and with little or no break in between. Life was also extremely fragile and with a minor accident the whole family or for that matter the whole commune could be facing a major crisis. Life was for this reason a constant struggle for survival.

Secondly, one notice an extensive specialization within this little community. Halldór Jónsson, for exampel, had number of tasks which he specialized in and supported himself with during his days as a boarder (an independent worker). He was a tarweling teacher and construction specialist to name some of his skills. His brothers had other areas of expertise, so it can be argued that the whole comunity enjoyed considerble division of labor. In fact, one form of proto-indrustry did exist in this community. It was not in an advanced state, but nevertheless, it did give people who grew up there and opportunity to specialize in one or more tasks and that specialization was an important first step towards more modernization. This division of labor was not discussed in public debates because the focus was on the attempt to hold the peasant community together and boarders were considered to be one of the destroying factors at the time. To acknowledge the improtance of this part of the workforce would almost mean the end of the traditional order (between farmers and servants) which most farmers were trying desperately to protect, because it gave them an access to a very cheap labor. The phenomenon which one notices when the diary is read might be called “disguised specialization".

At last, there is no doubt that the people of this commune were extreamly progressive in their thinking. People like Halldór Jónson and his brothers used all their extra time to read and write and all their money was used to by books and look for some guidance from the those who were educated and lived in their neighborhood. This was all done for the shake of planing ahead for a future which they visioned. This gives a differnt picture from what is usually considered to be an appropriat portrait of life in the nineteenth century. It is aruged in this paper that the diary gives a great opportunity to analyses other aspect of peoples life. Open for study are topics like peoples attitude towards death, the relationship between the genders, etc. More over, the diary keeping is in itself a manifestation of the mental capacity of poor peasants in the late nineteenth century. This source is an unknown territory and can indeed change our understanding of societies in former times.

SUMMARIES:
Metastories
Dreams of Things Past
Education, Love and Grief
Pieces and Molds
The Sound of Divine Revelation
Microhistory - Conflicting Paths
Brothers from the Stranda Commune
Modes of Living in Reykjavik, 1930-1940
Away. Faraway! - And to Another Continent
The Contours of Social History
Method facing a Dilemma
"I am 479 Days Younger than Nilli."...
Modern fairy tales...
Dissertation: The Continuity of Everyday Life
LINKS:
microhistory.org
The Reykjavík Academy
Íslensk heimasíða
© 2006 - Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon