Opal Whiteley (1897-1991)
By Walt Curtis © 1995
Opal is the flower child of Oregon literature. This charismatic and beautiful young woman lived in a southern Oregon logging community at the turn of the century. About the age of 6, she began writing a mystical and realistic diary.
In the diary she described her home, her animal friends, the landscape of cathedral trees and a singing creek. The diary was a full-fledged book complete with phonetic spelling, crayon drawings and scraps of colored paper. Early entries were written with childish clumsiness while later entries became polished prose. The little girl was a genius!
Or was she? As an adult in Boston, trying to sell a manuscript, Opal was asked by Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgewick if she had a diary. She did! But it was in pieces and needed to be assembled. She had it sent to Sedgewick loose in hat boxes containing 1/2 million pieces of paper. Opal assembled it. In 1920, The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart was serialized by the Atlantic Monthly. It became an instant best-seller. She was lionized as a fairy princess, intuitively in touch with nature and all its creatures. Including angel parents descended directly from the French Bourbon throne. Opal Whiteley became an international sensation.
Was she an adopted child as she claimed? The Whiteley parents were upset and worried about her mental health. Critics asked how could a little girl know French, be so philosophical and literary? She named animal friends after characters in classical literature: Lars Porsena - the crow; Brave Horatio - the dog; and Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus - the wood rat.
Skeptics called the diary a hoax. Opal Whiteley's promising, even brilliant, career was soon on the wane.
What was the true story behind Opal and her writing? Benjamin Hoff traveled halfway around the world unraveling Opal's hidden story. Hoff (whose books The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet have been on the NY Times best sellers list) went to Boston to research the original diary scraps. In London, he visited the Napsbury Hospital for the mentally ill. (In 1984, Opal was virtually entrapped there, incognito and unable to speak for herself). Hoff spoke with Opal's doctor who claimed she was in too delicate a condition to be seen. Opal's story is stranger than fiction. What a film this would make!
The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow (1986) published by Ticknor & Fields, is absolutely fascinating. The model for bringing back the work of any forgotten and neglected writer from a bygone era. His carefully researched 60 page introduction suggests that the diary is authentic but that Opal suffered from "a gift" of genius and schizophrenia.
Recently, Jane Boulton re-issued Opal, The Journal of an Understanding Heart (1995, Crown Trade paperback). In poetry form, this is a lovely version of the Opal story, which teaches us to revere the magic child within. Its afterword gives new information on Opal Whiteley and confirms her death in February 1991. So there are many ways to access "the Opal Diary".
- Steve McQuiddy has a wonderful overview: The Fantastic Tale of Opal Whiteley. Steve tells the amazing story with clarity and style.
- Steve Williamson, has created a terrific Opal Whiteley home pages in Cottage Grove. Cottage Grove has a park and a festival in her honor. Be sure to check out Steve's fascinating work! He was in Portland in March, 1999. Steve Williamson's insights both as a mental health professional and as a fan of Opal Whiteley's extraordinary life and work are riveting.
- A brand new digital edition of Opal's Diary is now available on-line. This remarkable project by the University of Oregon features pictures and maps of woods where Opal roamed, a biography, definitions and lots more. It is being developed at U of O's Center for Advanced Technology in Education (CATE) as a part of Project Intersect.
The following selections are from the original 1920 edition.
Journal of an Understanding Heart Morning is glad on the hills. I hear a song like unto the song of the verdier. The sky sings in blue tones. The earth sings in green. I am so happy. The mamma is gone for a visit away. Before her going she did set me to mind the baby. I do so. In between times I print, and I do spell over and over the words in my two books Angel Father and Angel Mother did make. I sing-song the letters of the words when I do adown the road. So I do when I am in the house when the mamma isn't at home. I do not so when she is at home, because she won't let me....
...Long time ago, this road did have a longing to go across the river. Some wise people did have understandings and they did build it a bridge to go across on. It went across the bridge and it goes on and on between the hills - the hills where dwell the talking fir trees. By its side goes the railroad track. Its appears are not so nice as are the appears of the road, and it has got only a squeaky voice. But this railroad track does have shining rails - they stretch away and away, like a silver ribbon that came from the moon in the night. I go a-walking on these rails. I get off when I do hear the approaches of the dinky engine. On this track on every day, excepting Sunday, comes and goes the logging train. It goes to the camps and it does bring back cars of logs and cars of lumber...
...While I was taking the water in the jug to the men in the field, from her sewing-basket Lars Porsena of Clusium took the mamma's thimble, and she didn't have it and she couldn't find it. She sent me to watch out for it in the house and in the yard and everywhere. I know how Lars Porsena of Clusium has a fondness for collecting things of bright colors, like unto my fondness for collecting rocks; so I ran to his hiding-place in the old oak tree. There I found the mamma's thimble; but she said the pet crow's having taken it was as though I had taken it, because he was my property; so I got a spanking with the hazel switches that grow near unto our back steps...
...He and I - we do have knows the fairies walk often in these woods, and when I do have needs of more color pencils to make more prints with, I do write the fairies about it. I write to them a little letter on leaves of trees and I do put it in the moss-box at the end of the old log. Then, after they do come walking in the woods and find the letter in the moss-box, they do bring the color pencils, and they lay them in the moss-box. I find them there and I am happy. No one does have knowing of that moss-box but one. He is the man that wears gray neckties and is kind to mice. He has knowings of the letters I do print on leaves and put there for the fairies. And after he does ask me, and after I do tell him I have wrote to them for color pencils that I have needs of - he does take a little fern plant and make a fern wish with it that the fairies will bring to me the color pencils I have needs of. Then we do plant the little fern by the old log. And the time is not long until I do find the color pencils in the moss-box by the old log...
...Today the grandpa dug potatoes in the field. Too, the chore boy did dig potatoes in the field. I followed along after. My work was to pick up the potatoes they got out of the ground. I picked them up and piled them in piles. Some of them were very plump some of them were not big. All of them wore brown dresses. When they were in piles, I did stop to take looks at them. I walked up close. I looked them all over. I walked off and took a long look at them. Potatoes are very interesting folks. I think they must see a lot of what is going on in the earth; they have so many eyes. And after I did look those looks as I did go along, I did count the eyes that every potato did have, and their numbers were in blessings...
...And all the times I was picking up potatoes I did have conversations with them. Too, I did have thinks of all their growing days there in the ground, and all the things they did hear. Earth-voices are glad voices, and earth-songs come up from the ground through the plants; and in their flowering and in the days before these days are come, they do tell the earth-songs to the wind. And the wind in her goings does whisper them to folks to print for other folks. So other folks do have knowing of earth's songs. When I grow up I am going to write for children-and grown-ups that haven't grown up too much - all earth-songs I now do hear...
...The baby-it is a beautiful baby-though it does have much redness of face from coming such a long way in the cold last night. Maybe it was the coldness of the night that did cause the angels to make the mistake. They stopped at the wrong house. I'm quite sure this is the very baby I have been praying for the angels to bring to the new young folks that do live by the mill by the far woods. Dear Love, her young husband does call her. And they are so happy. But they have been married seven whole months and haven't got a baby yet. Twice every day for a time long I have been praying prayers for the angels to bring them one real soon. And most all day today I did feel I better tell Elsie as how this baby isn't her baby, before she does get too fond of it.