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18 MARCH, 2014

Marketing the Moon: How NASA Sold Space to Earth


When the mission became the message and NASA undertook the monumental task of explaining rocket science to an audience looking to the stars.

It wasn’t until the soft beep…beep…beep of the Sputnik satellite reached Earth on October 4, 1957 that the Soviet Union could declare the first unequivocal success of their space program. The Soviets had launched Sputnik in secret, and the news took the United States by surprise. It was Soviet policy that every launch would be kept secret unless it was successful, and that its public would only be fed propaganda. The Soviet government would deny ever having attempted a manned lunar landing until 1990, and cosmonauts who died in the line of duty were erased from the public record. (The details of the training-accident death of Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut to orbit the earth, were covered up until 2013.)

One year after the surprise launch of Sputnik, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded. The U.S. space program was determined to be markedly different from the Soviets — it would be an “open program” in which facts and data would flow freely between the agency and the public using an extensive public relations program, explain authors David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek in Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program (public library). It was a radical proposition: NASA, not the military, would release information and information would be released before, not after, a mission — an antithesis to the typical military strategy of confidentially. Tragedy would be reported alongside success.

Despite the somewhat cynical title, Marketing the Moon is not simply a story of the “selling” of the space program or the “spinning” of the NASA public relations machine — rather, it’s a rigorous and unvarnished look at one of the largest and most successful disseminations of science education in the twentieth century.

Reporters at Cape Canaveral during the launch of one of the Mercury missions

How could rocket physics, geology, astronomy, and more be explained to the lay person? How could the chain of information — from the lab to the Public Affairs Office to the TV producer to the host to the viewer at home — retain accuracy and clarity? Using rare press materials from the early days of NASA as well as the Apollo program — press releases, reference material, news bulletins, and photographs of reporters at work — Scott and Jurek show that the launch of a fact was as precarious as the launch of a missile: both could spectacularly fail to reach their targets.

The staff of the Public Affairs Office at Mission Control in Houston, 1965

The Public Affairs Office would control the consistency of the information, not its message. From the beginning, the office hired ex-newsmen to work as reporters inside the agency, determining which stories the public should know and in language that would be accessible — reporters knew what reporters would need. It was a move that today might be labeled “brand journalism,” but at the time was a revolutionary step for a government agency that needed its story told accurately and efficiently.

Press kits prepared for the major contractors in the Apollo programs, including IBM and Omega watches (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

Control, however, became the topic of one of the most controversial media relationships set up by NASA: the LIFE magazine / World Book contracts, which paid $500,000 to the Mercury 7 astronauts and their wives in 1959 (because then, decades before women took to the stars, women’s role in space exploration amounted to being astronaut wives), as well as a $100,000 life insurance policy that wasn’t provided by the government. It was easy to see the contract as “cashing in” on a project funded by taxpayers, but NASA had perhaps naively understood the contract as protecting the astronauts from being hounded or exploited by the media. The astronauts could only talk about their personal lives, not the missions.

The exclusive LIFE magazine coverage of the wives of the Mercury 7 astronauts

NASA created materials that addressed reporters’ needs in press releases, bylined articles, background materials, sponsored media symposiums, television newsreels, and fully produced radio broadcasts complete with interviews and sound effects. Every mission was explained pre-launch by the Public Affairs Office and reported with text and visuals far more elaborate than any press kit.

Before the Apollo 11 launch, journalists received The Apollo Spacecraft News Reference, a thick, three-ring binder with tabbed pages for easy thumbing. It included detailed diagrams of the command module, oxygen tanks, the spacesuit, and much more. It was an encyclopedia of technical information that would have been considered high-treason to release under the Soviets, but NASA considered the reference book an essential “classroom handout” for a proverbial public of fascinated students.

A series of books several hundred pages in length, that detailed technical concepts and vocabulary for reporters covering the Apollo 11 launch (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

Any advertisement that mentioned the space program had to be submitted to NASA in order to both maintain both factual accuracy and ensure that no product was directly endorsed. Contractors could advertise that their product had traveled to the moon, but not that it had been used. No astronauts could be shown in an ad, only their anonymous suited counterparts. Photographs taken in space were government-produced and therefore were in the public domain.

Advertisements couldn’t show the face of any astronaut, nor suggest the product had actually been used on a mission. This ad for Tang would have been vetted for accuracy by the Public Affairs Office.

Television proved to be one of the hardest and most important outlets for NASA to tell its story. The Public Affairs Office made sure that the producers had access to model spacecraft, maps, graphs, charts, as well as interviews with scientists and guidance about the right questions to ask. The mission was the message; the concept was easy to explain, the execution much harder. Walter Cronkite, who would propel CBS into the pole position during the Apollo 11 broadcast, relied on information from the Public Affairs Office as a much-needed crash course:

Covering the space program presented a challenge to us all… There was a great deal we had to learn about the mechanics of space flight and the idiosyncrasies of the physics of moving bodies in the weightlessness and atmosphere-free environment of space.

The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite during the tense coverage of the Apollo 13 mission. (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

The Public Affairs Office considered itself a champion of accurate scientific information, created to “furnish Congress and the media with the facts — unvarnished facts — about the progress of NASA programs,” explained its founder in 1959. Congress was just as important an audience, and it is an unfortunate reality that space education falls in and out of fashion with the budget of each new session. Public affairs was more than a perception, it was the life and death of the space program. When the lunar module of Apollo 11 began its fifty state tour, public relations was taken over by local affiliates, and the effect was more sideshow than science fair.

Dick Cavett interviews the Apollo 15 astronauts, 1971. (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

However, this is only the story of the public perception of NASA and the space program, not the public’s appetite for space, which has thrived for decades on the ecstatic visions of Carl Sagan, and has been reinvigorated with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s relaunch, and loving tribute, to Sagan’s Cosmos. With his clear yet poetic communication of complex scientific ideas, Tyson has championed science on all platforms and has mastered the art of the soundbite:

A soundbite is useful because it triggers interest in someone, who then goes and puts in the effort to learn more…

Communication of the work is as important as the work itself, something that Wernher von Braun knew as he stood to address the reporters at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center after the Apollo 11 astronauts were headed back to earth aboard the command module Columbia:

I would like to thank all of you for the fine support you have always given the program. Because without public relations and good presentations of these programs to the public, we would have been unable to do it.

For a bittersweet complement to Marketing the Moon, see Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s urgent and poetic antidote to the precarious fate of space exploration today.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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06 MARCH, 2014

Wondrous Beauty: How Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte Pioneered the Ideal of the Independent Woman


How an American who married into the most powerful family in Europe became a model of empowered womanhood in the nineteenth century.

Nineteen-year-old naval officer Jerome Bonaparte was on the run. During a minor skirmish in the Caribbean, he had fired a warning shot over a British ship but accidentally hit the rigging. To avoid an international incident, he had to lay low for a few months. Under a pseudonym, he made his way to America, where a friend said that if Jerome liked women, the most beautiful women lived in Baltimore.

But this is not simply the story of a beautiful woman, explains historian Carol Berkin in Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (public library) — this is the story of Elizabeth Patterson, a Baltimore belle who turned three years of marriage to the youngest brother of Napoleon Bonaparte into an extraordinary life of independence that would characterize the new American woman of the nineteenth century. For one thing, it was highly unusual at the time for a woman to leave her father’s house, let alone travel to Europe alone several times over the course of her life. Berkin writes:

What prompted her to cross the Atlantic Ocean was the promise of opportunities an American woman could not hope to enjoy if she remained in her native land: intellectual freedom, the chance to establish an individual identity, and the right to exist not as a bundle of female duties or behaviors, but as a unique person.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte in 1804, the year she married Jerome Bonaparte. A year later, he left to visit his brother and never returned. Triple portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1804. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It is unknown where Jerome and Betsy met — some say a ball or a social call — but the intensity of their affair was rooted in the baser instincts of two teenagers. Betsy was seventeen, ambitious, and eager to leave Baltimore. Jerome was flirtatious, flighty, charming, and desired the most beautiful possessions. An unknown admirer of Betsy would later describe her:

She possessed the pure Grecian contour; her head was exquisitely formed, her forehead fair and shapely, her eyes large and dark, with an expression of tenderness that did not belong to her character; and the delicate loveliness of her mouth and chin, the soft bloom of her complexion, together with her beautifully rounded shoulders and tapering arms, combined to form one of the loveliest of women.

While Betsy may have appealed to Jerome as a delicious American bon-bon, Jerome for Betsy was a way out of a dreary American marriage. “I would rather be the wife of Jerome Bonaparte for an hour than the wife of any other man for a lifetime.”

Portrait of Jerome Bonaparte by Sophie Lienard

The American Revolution had hardly been a revolution for women. The United States that Betsy was born into remained a conservative place for its daughters, housed by fathers who expected obedience. If America was a new country of self-sufficiency, it was for men alone, tended to by their wives. (While Benjamin Franklin turned an apprenticeship into a business, and a business into a political career, he wrote often to his younger sister Jane, who apologized for her erratically spelled letters — she had not been taught any better. Only one Franklin had the opportunity to transform his American life.)

Betsy’s father, William Patterson, was part of the generation of American merchants who bet their capital on independence and won. During the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the nineteenth century, America still may not have been able to define who it was on the world stage, but instead the country was able to define itself by what it was not: the aristocratic “Old World” of Europe.

Elizabeth Patterson’s wedding dress when she married Jerome Bonaparte in 1804. The dress was the height of European fashion, but Americans called her 'an almost naked woman.' (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The marriage was an international incident, a suggestion that America and France might be allied. Betsy and Jerome instantly became the most famous couple in America, and their news began to spread. As the pair began their honeymoon in Washington D.C., tended to by Dolly Madison, Napoleon first heard of his brother’s elopement and immediately declared it null and void. The emperor had passed a law requiring anyone under the age of twenty-five to have parental consent to marry, and he declared the pair “no more man and wife than any other couple of lovers who united themselves in a garden, pledging their vows at the altar of love, in the presence of a witnessing moon and stars.”

It was a lovely scene, but legally invalid. Napoleon had built his empire by installing his brothers and sisters in the courts of the newly-conquered: His older brother Joseph was made King of Naples and Sicily, his brother Louis the king of Holland. Only brother Lucien would stand firm, marrying his housekeeper’s sister rather than a Bourbon Spanish Princess. “When we marry we are to consult our own happiness and not that of another,” he wrote. “It matters not who else is or is not to be displeased.”

Jerome was far more easily swayed, especially when threatened with disinheritance. As the newlyweds embarked in Lisbon to meet the family, Jerome would travel ahead to meet his brother. Betsy would not see him again for at least thirty years. She gave birth to their child, Jerome “Bo” Bonaparte, and after waiting a year for news, heard that Jerome was to be made King of Westphalia and married to a local princess.

Marriage of Prince Je?ro?me Bonaparte and the Princess Fre?de?rique Catherine of Württemberg, by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1810.

In spirit, Betsy was far more like Benjamin Franklin than his his sister, using a marriage and a misadventure to propel her into the world she desired, rather than sink back into a life that was expected. Now the mother of a Bonaparte, she petitioned Napoleon for a pension: “Tell him that Madame Bonaparte is ambitious and demands her rights as a member of the imperial family.”

Divorced from Jerome, Betsy vowed never to marry again. Over the next five years she would negotiate with Napoleon’s ambassadors about a place for her son in the succession as well as a monthly pension. In 1810, she received the second request, but not the first. Recognition would become one of the furious goals of her life. One of the most famous and beautiful women in America would not remarry and she would not deny her name.

Daguerreotype of Jerome 'Bo' Bonaparte, son of Betsy and Jerome, nephew of Napoleon. The exiled Bonapartes were curious about this American relative who resembled his uncle.

The American attitude towards single women at the turn of the nineteenth century was hardly forgiving, but the woman who could live independently was now at least the subject of debate. A young Massachusetts woman wrote to her cousin in 1800:

I do not esteem marriage absolutely essential to happiness, and that it always does not bring happiness we must every day witness in our acquaintances.

Betsy recognized what could be achieved outside of marriage. She would invest her small pension in stocks and real estate, forgoing a household, and spending the interest on her son’s education, first in Geneva, and then at Harvard. She would live for long stretches in London, Paris, and Switzerland among women that she admired as peers, such as Madame de Stael.

The European woman, Betsy found, was assessed for her conversation, her charm, and her wit. (Qualities Voltaire prized in the Marquise du Châtelet, along with her mathematical genius.) The American woman, Betsy amended, was only prized for her obedience. She would remain herself among these women, a beautiful and essential member of society into her fifties and sixties. It broke Betsy’s heart when her son, and later her two grandsons, married Americans. She had raised them to love European women, whom she found superior in education. The American women they chose, she felt, as pocketbooks. It was an affront to her very existence.

Betsy Bonaparte around age thirty-two in 1817, by François Kinsoen, formerly the court painter for her former husband Jerome, King of Westphalia.

Gradually independent women like Betsy would become more visible in the nineteenth century: astronomer Maria Mitchell, writer Margaret Fuller, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, journalists Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, the women who fought as men during the Civil War. Betsy Bonaparte would live for 94 years between two worlds that didn’t quite know what to make of her equal talents for American commerce and European civility. At her death in 1879, she had grown her small pension from Napoleon into $10 million in today’s currency.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was a self-made American who refused to dim her love for the old world. Wondrous Beauty is the story of a woman who entered the nineteenth century far before her time — it was America that would have to catch up.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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14 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Philosopher and the Prodigy: How Voltaire Fell in Love with a Remarkable Female Mathematician


“That lady whom I look upon as a great man… She understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.”

“I found, in 1733, a young woman who thought as I did, and who decided to spend several years in the country, cultivating her mind.” So begins the description by Voltaire in his memoirs of a relationship that would define the most productive years of his life. The most famous man in Europe had met his match: the twenty-seven-year-old mathematical prodigy Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet.

The pairing was dynamic and productive — together, they would achieve some of the most important Enlightenment writing on science, physics, and philosophy. But as Nancy Mitford explains in her fantastic 1957 biography of the intellectual power couple, Voltaire in Love (public library), they were devoted not just as intellectuals, but as lovers as well as friends. It was an extraordinary bond that lasted for nearly fifteen years.

In his youth, Voltaire enjoyed the education of a minor aristocrat; Émilie could credit her education solely to her father, who recognized her capacity for learning at an early age. She studied Latin, English, Italian, and Greek, translated the Aeneid, read Homer and Cicero, and, most importantly, excelled at math.

Madame du Châtelet at her Desk by Maurice Quentin de La Tour.

She was less successful at the feminine arts, and at the height of her fame would be chastised for having poor teeth, unkempt hair, and messy clothes. Mitford writes:

Elegance, for women, demands undivided attention; Émilie was an intellectual, she had not endless hours to waste with hairdressers and dressmakers.

Émilie and her talents inspired both awe and jealousy among the nobility; she had removed the most charming and witty man in Paris from their dinner tables. While Voltaire remained a bachelor, Émilie had married at nineteen the dull and abiding Marquis du Châtelet, the perfect arrangement for one to conduct a necessary love affair. Mitford explains:

Love, in France, is treated with formality; friends and relations are left in no doubt as to its beginning and its end. Concealment, necessitating confidants and secret meeting places, is only resorted to when there is a jealous husband or wife. The Marquis de Châtelet always behaved perfectly.

Before they met, both Voltaire and Émilie had a parade of lovers: He enjoyed the attentions, though not the intellect, of wealthy aristocrats who would feed and house him, while she entered into passionate affairs and even once drank poison to discourage a lover from leaving. After her third pregnancy at twenty-seven, she renounced the bearing of children and began the serious study of mathematics.

Their meeting was simple: The pair was introduced by another set of aristocratic lovers over a tavern dinner of chicken fricassee. Voltaire had just returned from England and was thrilled to discuss the latest scientific discoveries of the age. He wrote in a letter:

That lady whom I look upon as a great man… She understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.

Portrait of Voltaire by Maurice Quentin de la Tour c. 1736, three years into his relationship with the Marquise du Châtelet. (Wikimedia commons)

She invited him to her house in the country. He moved in. (The Marquis was often away on military campaigns.) With the essential assistance of Émilie, Voltaire would publish Elémens de la philosophie de Newton in 1738, a simplified guide to the famous scientist, which popularized his most advanced theories, including the gravity of planets, the proof of atoms, the refraction of light, and the uses of telescopes. Voltaire sincerely recognized the intellectual debt he owed his lover. The frontispiece of the work shows the philosopher touched by the divine light light of Newton, reflected down to earth by a heavenly muse, Madame du Châtelet.

Frontispiece for Voltaire’s Elémens de la philosophie de Newton (1738). Newton and the Marquise as muse are shown floating above the author.

Émilie herself sought a more profound goal: the translation into French of Newton’s Mathematica Principia, in which the elements of calculus were first laid out. She not only translated, but also added her own commentary on Newton’s calculations. Her mathematical skills awed her social set. Émilie was a hustler of sorts at the gaming tables in Paris, though she rarely had the luck to win. Mitford writes:

Voltaire said of her that the people she gambled with had no idea she was so learned, though sometimes they were astonished by the speed and accuracy with which she added up the score. He himself once saw her divide nine figures by nine others in her head.

Voltaire and Émilie lived in an intellectual fairyland, punctuated by the occasional need for Voltaire to flee to the country due to an insult or an affront. But as with all French affairs, there was no doubt to the beginning of the love between Voltaire and Émilie, and there was no doubt to its end. In 1744, the Marquis de Saint-Lambert, a poet in the Academie Française and a Byronic figure at court, paid a visit to their country house. Ten years younger than the forty-three-year-old Émilie, Saint-Lambert began a cold seduction of the Marquise, who quickly fell in love. Voltaire, who had been recently ill, was enraged and depressed.

I am here in a beautiful palace… with all of my historical books and my references and with Mme du Châtelet; even so I am one of the most unhappy thinking creatures upon earth.

Portrait of Émilie du Châtelet, by Nicolas de Largillière c. 1740. (Louvre)

But in the manner of French love affairs, Voltaire decided that it was better to remain friends with the muse of his life. Instead of challenging the young Saint-Lambert to a duel, he let Émilie go:

No, no, my child, I was in the wrong. You are still in the happy age when one can love and be loved. Make the most of it. An old, ill man like myself can no longer hope for these pleasures.

With Saint-Lambert, Émilie soon found herself pregnant and terrified at the age of forty-four. She threw her attentions on translating Newton from Latin into French. She worked from eight in the morning until coffee at three in the afternoon, then she continued four until ten, and after a few hours with Voltaire, until five in the morning. With her work finished, she died in childbirth surrounded by her husband, her new lover, and Voltaire. (“It is you who has killed me!” he shouted at Saint-Lambert, learning of her death.) Voltaire would help publish her translation of Newton ten years after her death, which remains the standard version of the text in France today.

Issac Newton’s Principia, translated into French by the Marquise du Châtelet, published in 1759, ten years after her death.

Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet were among the most inspirational couplings of the Enlightenment, and became a model for brilliant and difficult men and women who would come together in a blaze of all-consuming affection between like minds, including Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, and Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz. Savor their singular romance in the altogether wonderful Voltaire in Love.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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11 FEBRUARY, 2014

Beauty, Aging, and the Expansion of Our Sympathies: What George Eliot Teaches Us About the Rewards of Middle Age


“The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies.”

At twenty-six, Henry James was a handsome young man, well-dressed, hair brushed and polished with a straight part down the middle. In 1869 he left New York in what would become a permanent relocation to England, and his first order of business was to meet the greatest writers of his adopted country. In a letter to his father, he described a meeting with George Eliot, who would begin that year to write a novel of life in an average country town she called Middlemarch:

She is magnificently ugly — deliciously hideous… She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth…

In My Life in Middlemarch (public library | IndieBound), Rebecca Mead writes that for visitors to Eliot’s home, a consideration of the writer’s famously ungainly looks was compulsory and often the basis for the most backhanded of compliments. James continued:

Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her… Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking.

Youth and beauty hadn’t rewarded George Eliot with their typical pleasures, nor did she expect them to. Eliot was fifty-one years old when she began Middlemarch, having only begun to write novels under her pen-name in her early forties. “What would at first appear to be a book about youth turns out to be a book about middle age,” explained Mead at a recent talk at the New York Public Library. Yet middle age for Eliot was the most expansive period of her life, which allowed her to create the most expansive novel of her career. The year she turned thirty-eight, Eliot wrote in her diary:

Few women, I fear have had such reason as I have to think the long sad years of youth were worth living for the sake of middle age.

Painting of Mary Ann Evans in 1849 by Alexandre Louis François d'Albert Durade. Evans was living with the painter’s family in Switzerland when she turned thirty. The next year she moved to London and began to write.

In the Victorian era, middle age as a phase of life was not a thing to be celebrated — it was an age at which one simply lived, having passed the excitement and signposts of youth. It was an age in which one was lucky to be alive, let alone fortunate enough to look to a future. Mead writes:

The notion of middle age as a distinct stage of life was a relatively recent concept; its onset was earlier that would be reckoned today, and much more of middle life would fall within it.

She goes on to note that an American writer in 1828 placed middle age as existing somewhere between 26 and 60. Middle age for Mary Ann Evans, who adopted the pseudonym George Eliot in her late thirties and began writing fiction nearing forty, therefore becomes life itself — not a decline or a thing to be borne wearily. It’s a time in which our actions and our memory are in balance, and each informs the other. In The Mill on the Floss, Eliot writes:

The middle aged, who have lived through their strongest emotions, but are yet in the time when memory is still half passionate and not merely contemplative, should surely be a sort of natural priesthood whom life has disciplined and consecrated to be the refuge and rescue of early stumblers and victims of self-despair.

It took a peculiar life to recognize this new phase, a life that George Eliot was not reluctant to embrace. The uses of age would not be dictated to her, even in youth. At twenty-five, Mary Ann Evans, as she was still known, considered herself merely at the beginning of what would be an expansive emotional life:

One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy. I am just beginning to make some progress in the science.

For the entirety of her twenties, a segment of the Victorian biographical timeline in which much of her life plot should have been enacted and resolved, Evans took care of her father. He died in 1849, the year she turned thirty. Evans left her childhood home, traveled to Switzerland, and decided that she would move to London to become a journalist. Happiness, she suspected, would only grow with age.

And so it did. A successful and well-known magazine writer at thirty-eight, Evans met critic George Henry Lewes, a married man with three children who had been separated from an unfaithful wife for years. They lived together for twenty-four years until his death, and their mutual love and support was considered by those around them as a true modern marriage built on a union of character and intellect. From him she took the pen name of George, and began to write her first novels as she approached forty.

Photograph of Mary Ann Evans in 1858. Well-known as a journalist, she had yet to publish under her pen name. She turned thirty-eight this year. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

In her beautiful and compassionate exploration of the creation of Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead, in her early forties, found herself in a similar position as Eliot, realizing that she had a capacity to find joy in a life in which you could “no longer see the endless possibilities of the person you might become.”

This is where Eliot began to build her novel. In the closing off of infinite space, one’s sympathies are enlarged for those around. This, Mead explains, is the essence of Middlemarch — a book which begins where many novels of the time ended, with marriage. But it is the drama that spins out after the milestones of youth that fascinate Eliot:

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.

Expanded sympathy is the essence of middle age and the center of Middlemarch, argues Mead — a novel about “the necessity of growing out of self-centeredness.” Middlemarch could only have been written by an author whose sympathies were expansive, who allowed herself to feel deeply even what was painful. For much of her youth, George Eliot threw herself into loving men who did not love her back (“I suppose no woman ever before wrote a letter such as this—but I am not ashamed of it.”), but she also recognized early on when a young man who offered her marriage was not worthy of her respect and “would involve too great a sacrifice of her mind and pursuits.”

Drawing of George Eliot in 1864 by Frederick Burton. She turned forty-four this year and had just published Romola.

A novel allows us to experience deeply the lives of others, to grow out of self-centeredness as Mead says, and enlarge our sympathy. Perhaps Eliot’s plainness allowed her to transcend youth’s narcissism sooner than others, but it feels ungenerous to diagnose sympathetic genius from a face. (“No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Edith Wharton,” Jonathan Franzen wrote in in The New Yorker, enumerating her luxurious existence. “Edith Newbold Jones did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty.”) Eliot’s sympathies were instead the product of a life well-considered and fully lived. She wrote in an essay in 1856:

The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies… Art is the nearest thing to life, it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

In an age when we grasp so tightly and so tragically at the idea of the beauty and pleasures of youth, George Eliot and Rebecca Mead have both extended it far beyond its natural boundaries to find a richer source of creative inspiration and pleasure in middle age.

Portrait of George Eliot by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project.

In Middlemarch, Eliot takes the necessary dramas of life — a marriage, a birth, an inheritance, a debt, a death — and uses them as a mere beginning, leading the reader along a path where a turn in sympathy, a changed mind, is far more powerful than a birth or death. When thinking about our own life, we strive to carve out its plot — a beginning, middle, and end; a conflict, a change, a resolution. In My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead found herself in the years between 26 and 60 living unmoored by the typical signposts of an adult life, returning to Middlemarch again and again to find herself among characters whose lives expand and contract, changing each day, each hour, unconsciously as breath itself. Mead reminds us that Eliot’s characters exist stubbornly in-between, their lives are the “home epic,” conjured by an inspired middle-aged mind. Unlike in her youth, Mead no longer sought instruction from her reading, but instead now saw her own expanded sympathies reflected there:

A book many not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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