Brain Pickings

The Power of Not-Knowing: Pioneering Muckraker Lincoln Steffens’s Beautiful Letter of Life-Advice to His Baby Son

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“Keep your baby eyes (which are the eyes of genius) on what we don’t know.”

Lincoln Steffens was one of the original muckrakers — that increasingly rare breed of capital-J Journalists driven not by vanity-motives but by the irrepressible urge to speak truth to power. His ambitious series of McClure magazine exposés on corruption in local government, a masterwork that pioneered the investigative reporting genre, was eventually collected in the influential 1904 book The Shame of the Cities. Steffens’s passion for justice extended not only to the public sphere, but also to the private — he was an early proponent of equal parenting and once proclaimed that “the father’s place is in the home.” He got to practice his preaching when, at the late age of 58, he was given the gift of fatherhood — a gift that took him by surprise, but one he welcomed with great delight and care.

From Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the wonderful anthology that gave us Albert Einstein’s advice to his son on the secret to learning anything, Sherwood Anderson on the key to the creative life, Benjamin Rush on travel and life, and some of history’s greatest motherly advice — comes a spectacular letter 60-year-old Steffens wrote to his two-year-old son, Peter, celebrating the importance of finding ourselves in the unknown.

Lincoln Steffens with his wife, Ella Winter, and young Peter

On a visit to Germany in June of 1926, while working on his autobiography, Steffens writes with equal parts humor and crystalline conviction:

This place will suit you I think. Down three flights of stairs is a restaurant through which you will go to either an open café in front or on a side toward the town to a large graveled playground. There is not much for a little fellow like you to do on this playground. It is the grown-up idea for a place for kids. A bare yard where there is nothing to break and nothing to get hurt on… Sometimes we can go in back of the house to a playground for grown-ups. That has a net and balls ’n’ everything to amuse the big children who can’t play with nothing like a baby. They have a game called tennis which they work at hard rather than do anything useful. It’s thought to be degrading to work; and it is.

He parlays this into a beautiful meditation on the difference between work and labor and the rewards of fulfilling work:

It is a sure sign that your father was an honest man and never got any graft, if you have to work for your living. I hope to arrange it so that you will not be ashamed of me; I leave you my graft and I’ll show you how to get more if you need it. If you work, you will work as a scientist or an artist, for fun, not for money. Money cannot be made by labor. But work, real work, for what we call duty or the truth, that is more fun than tennis.

Steffens’s most vital point, however, has to do with the self-transcendence that happens once we surrender to not-knowing:

Nobody understands things as they are and the proof of this is that nobody, — not the greatest scientist, not the tenderest poet, not the most sensitive painter; only for a moment, the kindest lover can see that all is beautiful. I can’t, I only believe that.

It may be wrong; there may be ugliness … but I have a funny old faith that, if a little fellow like you is shown everything and allowed to look at everything and not lied to by anybody or anything, he, even Pete, might do better even than Joyce did what Ulysses was meant to do; he might see and show that there is exquisite beauty everywhere except in an educated mind.

Steffens, indeed, was a vocal opponent of formal education, which he — like William Styron — believed only blunted children’s natural ability and inherent curiosity. In fact, his famous line asserting that a father belongs at home goes on to argue that there, he can “stay — on guard — to protect my child from education.” And so it is unsurprising that he takes a fitting jab at education in this letter to his own son, adding one final piece of advice about the importance of preserving children’s remarkable tolerance for taking risk and the soul-vitalizing power of taking care to continually expand one’s own range, capacities, and horizons:

An educated mind is nothing but the God-given mind of a child after his parents’ and his grandparents’ generation have got through molding it. We can’t help teaching you; you will ask that of us; but we are prone to teach you what we know, and I am going, now and again, to warn you:

Remember we really don’t know anything. Keep your baby eyes (which are the eyes of genius) on what we don’t know. That is your playground, bare and graveled, safe and unbreakable.

This is precisely what Rebecca Solnit so elegantly contemplated nearly a century later, when she wrote about the “art of being at home in the unknown.”

Complement Posterity with more timeless fatherly advice, including Ted Hughes, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck, and Jackson Pollock’s dad.

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