So many feels: the child prodigy who invented the feels meme in 1920

Opal WhiteleyIt’s internet slang from 2010 that’s become ubiquitous: “the feels.” Internet shorthand for “feelings,” it’s a way to express emotion in an ironically distant way. Someone might say a tragic TV episode “hit them in the feels” or made them have “so many feels.” The phrase is the epitome of modern text-speak—except it was also used in 1920.

She was a prodigy in nature

Who pioneered it? Her name was Opal Whiteley and she was more enigmatic than any meme. She was a child prodigy, a wild child, and definitely a little weird. Born in 1897, she was raised in an Oregon that was still very much the wild West. Her home life was tough because she and her siblings endured poverty and the common difficulties of small town life. Despite her hardships, she was a near-savant, able to remember tons of information about animals and plants (this excellent New Yorker article provides great background on her early years). Her talent led to stints on the lecture circuit, after which she tried to make it as an actress in LA.

Acting didn’t work out, so writing was the backup plan. She pitched a Boston editor a book called The Fairyland Around Us based on her popular lectures. That didn’t sell, but she did manage to meet Ellery Sedgwick, who was editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Sedgwick passed on Fairyland too, but he did buy Opal’s childhood diary. It was published in The Atlantic before coming out as a book in 1920. You can read the full text of Opal’s diary here. Reviewers praised The Story of Opal as “a book of singular beauty and authority to those who are willing to take it for what it is—the outpourings of a lonely and eager child.” The text is eloquent and whimsical, like Faulkner if he only drank honey.

The feels appear in Opal’s diary

That’s where the feels start. Opal’s diary has more than 100 feels, used in the same shorthand found on the internet today. “I feel the feels of gladness,” she writes in one chapter. Due to Opal’s frightening mother, she has many “anxious feels” and “sad feels,” but there are a fair share of “happy feels” too. Colored pencils gave Opal many “glad feels” along the way. The 1920 diary introduced feels almost 100 years before it became a meme.

The rest of Opal’s story may give you sad feels

Opal Whiteley’s story isn’t just about language, however. It also has an ending that might give you some feels of your own. Almost immediately after the book’s huge success, people claimed it was a fake. The problem? The diary was comprised of ripped pages written on with crayon, but the insights, allusions, and style were all extremely eloquent for a child’s diary. Opal’s writing was so good that critics were convinced it was fake. Most recognized Opal was a genius, but they doubted a six-year-old could have done so much. The diary’s authenticity remains up for debate.

To make matters worse, Opal’s life after publication was tragic. She meandered, lost her fame and money, and ended up in a mental institution. She was given a lobotomy in the 1950s and in 1992 she died. Her gravestone has a simple epitaph:

She spake like a child.

What all those feels mean

Opal’s tragedy highlights the obvious difference between her feels and the internet’s. On the internet, feels represent a type of emotional stunting and mild embarrassment—for a commenter to feel actual feelings would be too revealing and sincere. Opal wasn’t at all ashamed of her feels—for her, feels were a childlike expression of youth and pure emotion. But both Opal and the internet used feels to perform. The internet has feels because feelings are embarrassing, and Opal had feels because they were pure (whether the diary was authentic or not).

There may not be a greater significance to feels existing for 100 years. But if there is a lesson to be drawn from it, it might be that lol-speak and gibberish aren’t just pure silliness. They aren’t new, either. People keep trying to express their feels in a new way because feelings always feel unique, even if they aren’t.

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Do you think Opal's diary was real? Which feels do you prefer?