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09 JULY, 2014

Bohemians: A Graphic History of Creative Mavericks

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Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Josephine Baker, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Thelonious Monk, and other creative mavericks of semi-subversive status.

Long before there were hipsters and squares, even before there were beatniks, there were Bohemians — named after Bohemia, a geographical area part of the modern Czech Republic, which mid-nineteenth-century French journalists mistakenly believed to be the source of Europe’s Roma population, the “gypsies” who symbolized carefree romanticism.

In Bohemians: A Graphic History (public library), editors Paul Buhle and David Berger assemble an all-star roster of contemporary comic artists — many familiar from the excellent Graphic Canon series — to trace back the origin of the Bohemian movement to the artist studios of 1850s Paris and celebrate its greatest luminaries from the century that followed. This graphic nonfiction counterpart to the story of Mark Twain’s West Coast Bohemia explores the worlds of literature, art, modern dance, jazz, and more through such cultural icons as Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass is celebrated as the greatest American poem, Henry Miller, “the Thoreau of Big Sur,” who bequeath us timeless wisdom on everything from creative discipline to growing old to the meaning of life, Oscar Wilde, whose opinions on art were as bold as were his romantic exploits, and Gertrude Stein, the Queen Bee of the literary expat community.

Buhle writes in the introduction:

Bohemians have occupied a semi-subversive status in modern society without being, in any consistent way, political-minded or even organized. The danger that they pose for the fretful of every generation since the 1850s is also the secret of their lasting appeal, in particular, to the disaffected and the young… They belong to no clear or certain social class, yet they continue to be the transgressive class.

Complement Bohemians: A Graphic History with more excellent graphic nonfiction on everything from Freud’s life and legacy to the inner workings of the brain to the unsung heroes of black history, as well as some excellent graphic biographies of Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, and Steve Jobs.

Images courtesy of Verso Books

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08 JULY, 2014

Thoreau on What Skunk-Cabbage Can Teach Us About Optimism and the Meaning of Human Life

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“There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.”

Even though our brains are wired for optimism, our cultural conditioning is to worry about everything. Long before modern psychology shed light on how our minds affect our bodies, one of humanity’s greatest thinkers drew from nature a subtle yet powerful metaphor for the vital importance of cultivating an optimistic outlook about the future.

From The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — the same treasure trove of wisdom that gave us Thoreau on what success really means, the greatest gift of growing old, friendship and sympathy, and why not to quote Thoreau — comes a beautiful meditation on what winter plants, and skunk-cabbage in particular, can teach us about melancholy, optimism, and the ebb and flow of human life.

Writing in a diary entry on the last day of October in 1857 — a time when climate change hadn’t yet rendered the latter part of New England autumn mild and frostless — Thoreau marvels at the sight of two swamp ferns, still green this late in the year:

You are inclined to approach and raise each frond in succession, moist, trembling, fragile greenness. What means this persistent vitality, invulnerable to frost and wet? They stay as if to keep up the spirits of the cold-blooded frogs which have not yet gone into the mud; that the summer may die with decent and graceful moderation, gradually. Even in them I feel an argument for immortality. Death is so far from being universal. The same destroyer does not destroy all. How valuable they are (with the lycopodiums) for cheerfulness.

Illustration from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

But the greatest source of cheerfulness and hopefulness comes from the skunk-cabbage, a prophet of perseverance and optimism:

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ’em,” “Give it to ’em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” — these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with the skunk-cabbage. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot! …

See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau is a soul-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with Henry Builds a Cabin and Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, two charming picture-books adapting Thoreau’s philosophy for children.

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08 JULY, 2014

The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework: A Proto-Feminist Children’s Book from 1935

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A visionary fable about equality delivered through a comic Rube Goldberg machine of domestic disaster.

In 1928, nearly a century before the internet cat memes reached their crescendo, pioneering artist, author, illustrator, and translator Wanda Gág won the prestigious Newbery and Lewis Carroll Shelf awards for her children’s book Millions of Cats, the oldest American picture-book still in print. But Gág’s visionary storytelling presaged social phenomena far more consequential than Buzzfeed. Her most prescient book was her penultimate one, Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework (public library) — a proto-feminist story published in 1935, two decades before the second wave of feminism and more than 75 years before Lean In.

Gág, who inspired beloved artists like Maurice Sendak and who did for picture-books what Nellie Bly did for journalism, tells an old fable-like story relayed to her by her grandmother — a witty parable about gender equality in work and housework, written mere months before George Orwell contemplated the subject.

Wanda Gág

Gág tells the story of the peasant Fritzl, who works the fields all day long, and his wife Liesi, who tends to their humble house:

They both worked hard, but Fritzl always thought that he worked harder. Evenings when he came home from the field, he sat down, mopped his face with his big red handkerchief, and said: “Hu! How hot it was in the sun today, and how hard I did work. Little do you know, Liesi, what a man’s work is like, little do you know! Your work now, ’tis nothing at all.”

“’Tis none too easy,” said Liesi.

“None too easy!” cried Fritzl. “All you do is to putter and potter around the house a bit — surely there’s nothing hard about such things.”

To prove her point, Liesi suggests that they swap roles for a day, so that Fritzl can “putter and potter around” for a taste of her life. Naively, he agrees.

At the crack of dawn, Liesi sets out for the fields with a jug of water and a scythe, while Fritzl begins “frying a string of juicy sausages for his breakfast.”

But as he holds the pot over the burning fire, he is lured by fantasies of a cold glass of cider. And so begins his Rube Goldberg machine of domestic disaster.

When he heads to the cellar to help himself to some cider, the dog runs off with the sausages. Fritzl chases after it, only to shrug “Na, na! What’s gone is gone.” in defeat. He returns to the house, only to find that he had forgotten to the bung back in the barrel and the cider had flooded the cellar.

“What’s gone is gone,” he sighs once more and moves on to his next task — churning butter. Stationing himself under a tree, where his little daughter Kinndli is playing in the grass, Fritzl begins to churn as hard as he can, only to realize he had forgotten to give the cow water on this hot summer day.

Once at the barn, he figures he should also feed her, but instead of taking her to the meadow, decides to keep her close by and let her graze on the grassy roof of the house, which is built on the side of a small hill.

But just as he returns to the churning station, he sees little Kinndli climbing on, then falling off the churn, spilling all the half-churned cream onto herself. Already exasperated, Fritzl leaves the little girl to dry in the sun and moves on to another urgent errand — making dinner for Liesi, as the day had progressed and she would be home soon. Gág writes:

With big fast steps Fritzl hurried off to the garden. He gathered potatoes and onions, carrots and cabbages, beets and beans, turnips, parsley and celery.

“A little of everything, that will make a good soup,” said Fritzl as he went back to the house, his arms so full of vegetables that he could not even close the garden gate behind him.

As he stations himself in the kitchen to begin cutting and paring away — “How the man did work, and how the peelings and parings did fly!” — he hears a strange sound coming from above. The comedy of errors is about to climax: To keep the cow from strutting on the roof, Fritzl ties a rope around her belly, drops it through the chimney, and loops the other end around his own waist.

He merrily continues making the soup, when suddenly…

Before long, there came Liesi home from the fields with the water jug in her hand and the scythe over her shoulder.

But Hulla! Hui! What was that hanging over the edge of the roof? The cow? Yes, the cow, and halfchoked she was, too, with her eyes bulging and her tongue hanging out.

Liesi lost no time. She took her scythe — and ritsch! rotsch! — the rope was cut, and there was the cow wobbling on her four legs, but alive and well, heaven be praised!

Liesi walks over to the garden only to find the gate open, with all their pigs and goats and geese gone. Nearby, she spots her little daughter sticky with semi-dried butter. She sees the dog laying in the grass, looking “none too well” from his mischievous sausage feast. She discovers the cellar flood, with cider “all over the floor and halfway up the stairs,” and the kitchen, covered with produce peelings and filthy pots.

Finally, she walks toward the fireplace — anyone with even a basic understanding of physics can guess what happened to poor Fritzl once the cow was set free from the rope:

Hu! Hulla! Hui What was that in the soup-kettle? Two arms were waving, two legs were kicking, and a gurgle, bubbly and weak-like, was coming up out of the water.

“Na, na! What can this mean?” cried Liesi. She did not know (but we do — yes?) that when she saved the cow outside, something happened to Fritzl inside. Yes, yes, as soon as the cow’s rope was cut, Fritzl, poor man, he dropped down the chimney and crash! splash! fell right into the kettle of soup in the fireplace.

Wág’s refreshing inversion of gender stereotypes shines once more as Liesi plays the knight-in-shining-armor part and rescues her husband from this domestic nightmare of his own making, pulling him out of the pot “with a cabbage-leaf in his hair, celery in his pocket, and a sprig of parsley over one ear.”

The story ends with an exchange partway between morality tale and political statement:

“Na, na, my man!” said Liesi. “Is that the way you keep house — yes?”

“Oh Liesi, Liesi!” sputtered Fritzl. “You’re right—that work of yours, ’tis none too easy.”

“’Tis a little hard at first,” said Liesi, “but tomorrow, maybe, you’ll do better.”

“Nay, nay!” cried Fritzl. “What’s gone is gone, and so is my housework from this day on. Please, please, my Liesi — let me go back to my work in the fields, and never more will I say that my work is harder than yours.”

“Well then,” said Liesi, “if that’s how it is, we surely can live in peace and happiness for ever and ever.”

And that they did.

All these decades later, Gone Is Gone remains an absolute delight, layered and lovely, as does the rest of Wág’s work. Complement this particular gem with Susan Sontag on how gender role stereotypes limit us.

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