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Posts Tagged ‘gender’

28 JULY, 2015

Beatrix Potter, Mycologist: The Beloved Children’s Book Author’s Little-Known Scientific Studies and Illustrations of Mushrooms


“Imagination is the precursor to policy, the precondition to action. Imagination, like wonder, allows us to value something.”

Beatrix Potter (July 28, 1866–December 22, 1943) is one of the most beloved and influential storytellers of all time. The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her other gloriously illustrated children’s books tickle the human imagination through the fantastical aliveness of nature and its creatures, in a spirit partway between Aesop and Mary Oliver, between Tolkien and Thoreau. At a time when women had no right to vote and virtually no access to higher education, very rarely owned property and were themselves considered the property of their husbands, Potter became a commercially successful writer and artist, using the royalties from her books to purchase her famed Hill Top Farm, where she lived simply and with great love for the land for the remaining four decades of her life. Potter’s art was a formative influence for Maurice Sendak, who collected her books, traveled to her farm, winked at her famous costumed mice in his reimagining of Nutcracker, and incorporated some of her work into his illustrations for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves. Her 1913 book The Tale of Pigling Bland was a childhood favorite of George Orwell’s and became one of the key inspirations for his allegorical masterwork Animal Farm. (In addition to her extraordinary achievements and far-reaching creative legacy, I have always held special affection for Potter for the absurdly human reason that we share a birthday.)

Teenage Beatrix Potter with her pet mouse Xarifa, 1885 (Princeton University Library, Rare Books and Special Collections)

But no aspect of Potter’s kaleidoscopic genius is more fascinating than her vastly underappreciated contribution to science and natural history, which comes to life in Linda Lear’s altogether magnificent Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (public library) — by far the best book on Potter and one of the finest biographies ever written, Lear’s prose itself a supreme work of art.

The pervasive Victorian enthusiasm for natural history produced quite a few female amateur scientists, including ornithologist Genevieve Jones, lepidopterist Maria Merian, and fossil-hunter Mary Anning — “amateur” being not a reflection of their scientific rigor and dedication, which were formidable, but of the fact that a formal scientific education was virtually inaccessible to women, except for the rare Ada Lovelace or Maria Mitchell, and membership in scientific societies was strictly reserved for men. But Potter’s scientific work was exceptional in that she deliberately tried to penetrate the very institutions that dismissed women’s scientific labor solely on the basis of gender.

Flammulina velutipes (Armitt Museum and Library)

By her early twenties, Potter had developed a keen interest in mycology and began producing incredibly beautiful drawings of fungi, collecting mushroom specimens herself and mounting them for careful observation under the microscope. In the winter months, she frequented London’s Natural History Museum to study their displays. Lear writes:

Beatrix’s interest in drawing and painting mushrooms, or fungi, began as a passion for painting beautiful specimens wherever she found them. She never saw art and science as mutually exclusive activities, but recorded what she saw in nature primarily to evoke an aesthetic response. She was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques. Unlike insects or shells or even fossils, fungi also guaranteed an autumn foray into fields and forests, where she could go in her pony cart without being encumbered by family or heavy equipment.

Hygrophorus puniceus (Armitt Museum and Library)

There is also something quite poetic about Potter’s obsession with fungi — in her later children’s books, she bridged real life and fantasy by transmuting the animals and plants she observed in nature into whimsical characters and stories, and mushrooms have long symbolized this very transmutation, perhaps most prominently in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, which first captured the popular imagination the year Potter was born.

But her interest went far beyond the mere aesthetics or symbolism of mushrooms — she was studious about their taxonomy, taught herself the proper technique for accurate botanical illustration, and worked tirelessly to get an introduction to the eminent mycologist Charles McIntosh. With his help and encouragement, she continued advancing her microscopic observations, which kindled in her an intense fascination with how mushrooms reproduced — something poorly understood at the time. Potter soon began conducting her own experiments with spores she had germinated herself. She was particularly captivated by lichens, considered at the time the “poor peasants of the plant world,” in the words of the great botanist Linnaeus — a statement itself belying the dearth of scientific understanding at the time, for lichens are not plants but a hybrid of fungi and algae.

Himeola auricula (Armitt Museum and Library)

This hybrid nature, first proposed by the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener in 1869 and believed by no one else for decades, seemed so laughable a concept that “Schwendenerist” became a term of derision. But young Beatrix’s experiments convinced her that Schwendener was on to something with his “dual hypothesis.” She set down her theories and empirical findings in a paper titled “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae,” accompanied by her breathtakingly detailed illustrations.

Strobilomyces strobilaceus (Armitt Museum and Library)

But between her and the acceptance of the truth stood formidable sociocultural forces: London’s Linnean Society, the bastion of Victorian botany, was exclusively male and barred women from membership, denied them access to the research library, and wouldn’t even allow them to attend the presentations of scientific papers. One of the Society’s most influential gatekeepers was William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, the despotic director of the famed Kew Gardens and a man of particularly misogynistic conviction — and it was he whom thirty-year-old Potter had to sway in order for her paper to be presented at the Society. His response was blatantly patronizing — he called her ideas unimportant “mares’ nests” that couldn’t possibly measure up to a subject this “profound” and dismissed her drawings without even looking at them.

That night, an indignant and furious Potter wrote in her diary:

I informed him that it would all be in the books in ten years, whether or no, and departed giggling.

Lepiota friesii (Armitt Museum and Library)

Hydrocybe coccinea (Armitt Museum and Library)

Amanita excels (Armitt Museum and Library)

Potter’s uncle, a respected scientist himself, was equally appalled by Thiselton-Dyer and took it upon himself to see to her paper’s presentation at the Society. Lear writes:

The general membership of the Society met at seven o‘clock on Tuesday evening, 1 April 1897 with President Albert C. L. G. Gunther in the chair. The business of the meeting was the reading of a paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae by Miss Helen B. Potter,” and the presentation of several exhibits by five distinguished fellows, including Thiselton-Dyer and George Murray. Since women were not allowed to be members or to participate in the meetings, Beatrix was not present… Afterwards, together with any slide drawings as exhibits, it was ‘laid on the table’ where it could be examined… “Laid on the table” had the specialized meaning in Linnean Society parlance of the time of “received but not seriously considered in open forum.” In short, while Beatrix’s paper was read at least in part, no substantive notice was given to it… Like other women at the time who attempted to gain a hearing for their scientific research at the Linnean, Beatrix’s theories were never seriously considered.

So the paper never even got to the point of peer-reviewing Potter’s actual reproduction hypothesis to determine whether it was correct — she (any “she”) was, it was made clear, not a peer and thus not worthy of such consideration.

A century later, the Linnean Society issued an apology of sorts for its historic sexism — its executive secretary formally acknowledged that Potter’s research had been “treated scurvily.” And yet to this day, Potter’s remarkable fungi illustrations are studied for their scientific accuracy and consulted by mycologists all over the world in identifying mushroom species. And, who knows, perhaps one day a kindly mycologist will discover a new species and name it after Potter.

Clitocybe ampla (Armitt Museum and Library)

But Potter wasn’t too perturbed by the rejection — she channeled her genius and creative energy in a different direction. Only five years later, the self-published first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit sold out before the next commercial edition was even printed, and Potter became one of the most famous and successful children’s book artists and writers of her time, and soon of all time. The same reverent fascination with nature that had fueled her scientific work now appeared in a new guise in her stories, full not of the fantastical beings of fairy tales but of the realistic animals and plants native to the very woods in which she had collected her mushroom specimens.

Lepitoa procera (Armitt Museum and Library)

In the epilogue to the book, Lear captures Potter’s larger legacy as a naturalist, environmentalist, and singular artisan who dedicated her life to weaving a profound reverence for nature into the very fabric of culture:

Beatrix Potter brought nature back into the English imagination with her books and her illustrations. She wrote most of them at a time when nature was viewed as something of little value, when the plunder of nature was more popular than its preservation. After her marriage [to William Heelis] in 1913 the emphasis of her imaginative work shifted more and more away from literature towards the land and the animals it sustained. Beatrix cared about the old ways, and about what was necessary to live simply in nature.

Imagination is the precursor to policy, the precondition to action. Imagination, like wonder, allows us to value something. Imagination allowed Beatrix Potter to value the natural world and to share the treasures she found in the Lake District and its culture. As a far-sighted businesswoman she understood that their preservation was inherently linked to the success of fell farming.

Beatrix Heelis’s stewardship created a singular moment in the recovery of nature in the twentieth century; a paradigm of environmental awakening.

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature is a glorious read in its entirety, detailing Potter’s creative evolution, her era-defying development as a businesswoman and entrepreneur, her intimate relationship with place and landscape, and much more. Complement it with the butterfly drawings of entomological illustrator Maria Merian and the bird eggs of self-taught artist Genevieve Jones, then revisit Jon Mooallem’s magnificent modern-day appeal to the environmental imagination.

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12 MARCH, 2015

Radiant Fatherhood: A Playful and Profound 1925 Meditation on Gender Stereotypes and the Rewards of Parenting


“It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning.”

Legendary muckraker Lincoln Steffens (April 6, 1866–August 9, 1936) is one of the greatest journalists who ever lived, his trailblazing exposés on government corruption having pioneered investigative reporting. His passion for social justice and his unflinching dedication to speaking truth to power extended beyond politics and into every realm of life. He had particularly little patience for limiting stereotypes, and frequently took it upon himself to offer an antidote in his writing.

In 1925, while living in Italy with his wife — the Australian-British journalist, activist, and intellectual Ella Winter, of whom Steffens thought the world — the 58-year-old journalist was given the surprising and at first utterly disorienting gift of fatherhood. He captured the experience and its many dimensions in an infinitely wonderful essay titled “Radiant Fatherhood: An Old Father’s Confession of Superiority.” (The title winks at Radiant Motherhood — a groundbreaking book by palaeobotanist, activist, and birth control pioneer Marie Stopes, published five years earlier.) It was eventually included in the anthology Lincoln Steffens Speaking (public library), published the year Steffens died, and reveals Steffens to be not only a warm, wholehearted, genial man with just the right amount of irreverence, but also the kind of father who was the very opposite of Kafka’s.

The essay, at once playful and profound, is without exaggeration one of the most delightful things I’ve ever read — the kind that makes you smile at the page, again and again, wholly unconcerned with how this might appear to your fellow subway passengers. But what makes it triply delightful is that I found out about it from the very product of this radiance — Steffens’s grandson Daneet, who reached out after I wrote about his grandfather’s magnificent letter to that surprise-child, his father, and recommended this long-forgotten gem of a book.

Steffens writes:

A baby was coming, the doctor said, and he smiled when he saw how shocked I was. I did not want a baby. Did I? Fifty-odd years I had lived without one, without a conscious wish for one. Anyhow I had long ago made up my mind that I would not, probably could not have a child of my own and I was not only resigned — as I saw my friends staked out on a home — I had come to appreciate my singular liberty.

For Steffens, a baby had always been “a muling, puling, bawling tyrant” that would stand in the way of happiness. And yet something strange happened the day the doctor delivered the news:

Best of all I remember my surprise at the discovery that I wanted that baby… The doctor, an Italian old in practice and wise in the ways of men, looked at my wife and laughed quietly with her at me. I did not care how weak and ridiculous I appeared.


It was days before I confessed, it was hours before I knew that I wanted that child for its own sake and mine… It was not pride, it was not possession, it wasn’t any of the sentiments that I had heard attributed to fatherhood. I don’t know yet why I wanted what I wanted, but I believe that, in my bones, all my life I have wanted what I have now — a child.

Nearly a century before contemporary standards of equal parenting, and long before even Margaret Mead’s prescient case for it, Steffens offers a spirited rebuttal of cultural norms and the self-appointed authorities (capital-T “They”) policing them:

They say that the father has nothing to do with child-bearing. He is a negligible, ridiculous figure, and they neglect and laugh at him. They set him aside, him and all men. Child-bearing is women’s business: the mother’s, the nurses’, the women-neighbors’. Even the doctor is called in only to stand around ready to act as surgeon in an emergency at the actual birth. The woman nurse delivers the child normally. And, as for the father, from the first kick to the final weaning and beyond, he is out of it, of no use, a hindrance, whose duty is to vanish.

Well, like so many of the things They say, this is bunk. It is an item in the Great Lie that They tell and live and fight for. They have put it over on young husbands for centuries. I am not a young husband, I am an old father, and so I have something to put over on Them. I repeat:

I, the father, first gave my baby love; and I, not the mother, gave him Life, a soul, personality.

Steffens, of course — being a kind and just man — means this not as an insult to the mother but as a literal and rather self-derisive comment on the sweetly sheepish ways in which he projected his hopes on the child-to-be:

I gave [the baby] the wrong sex. I thought I wanted a girl. My theory was that, as a father who cared not a whoop for what They say and do, I could give a girl a chance for once. To a boy I could offer only the opportunities many boys have, but I could give a girl of mine everything that They waste now only upon the most favored boys. That was my great idea and it still hangs over as an idea. Ideas, however, are the products of intellectualism. They cannot rise higher than their source, the mind. Having been a feminist in theory, I said that I believe I preferred a girl baby and, since the wish is father to the thought, I thought of my coming child as a girl.

Paradoxically — and prophetically, as it later turns out — he named his wished-for girl Pete. Steffens captures all the complexities of gender and personhood, of parental expectation and social reality, an absolutely delicious play on pronouns:

While the mother was still calling him (her) “it,” I was addressing her (him) as a human being.

His wife eventually began referring to the baby “as alive, to think of her as a person, as a little girl,” too. But in another charming bout of amicable contrariness, he writes:

“Pete is very active,” she would say, laying down her book to look up with wonder and a smile. She liked it. She was loving the baby almost as much as I.

Mother-love is a fact. I do not deny that… The love of the mother for her husband’s child is a big, a helpful, and a very beautiful natural phenomenon. I can understand Man’s wonder at it. But mother-love is not only late of birth and slow of growth, it is not so complete, unscrupulous, and not nearly so sympathetic as the father’s love for his child. Pete’s early stirrings, for example, were mere movements to his mother. I understood at once that he was trying to communicate with us.

“Pete’s kicking,” she would say, with maternal pride.

“What about?” I would ask with paternal concern.

“Oh, nothing; life,” she answered with the indifference of the practical sex.

Steffens weaves little-big remarks like this throughout the essay, as if to make sure it registers with the reader just how highly he thinks of women in general, and of his wife in particular, and how little he cares for his era’s gender stereotypes — particularly those concerned with reason and irrationality as masculine and feminine qualities respectively. (So prevalent and deep-seated were those stereotypes, in fact, that nearly two decades later Walt Disney made a sexist short film based on them.) He furthers this reversing of roles by relaying his delightfully excitable response to the baby’s kicking and his wife’s coolly rational dismissal of it:

Nonsense! Any man with the least gift of imagination would feel in his heart that the child wanted to tell us something, and so, to the mother’s amusement I set about arranging with the helpless baby a code of signals by which he and I could talk together, he knocking on the inside, I on the outside. This took time. It was a little like communicating with Mars, and she declared that to be impossible. But I declare that if Mars were inhabited by the children of men, devoted fatherhood would find a way to get in touch with the star.

And then, as one has already come to expect, the parents-to-be find out that Pete is a boy after all. In a passage that once again emanates Steffens’s progressive views on gender and his contempt for stereotypes, he writes:

Fortunately, in between her work on her novel and a translation she was making of a German tome, the mother hand-made some other garments, underpinnings that go beyond, below or above the sex line. And so in looking for a house to hold our growing family, I demanded a garden for Little Pete. The mother kept asking about the heating system and things like that. A warm, sanitary house with plenty of hot water was her ideal of a home. Mine was flowers and pretty walks, sunshine with shady, romantic corners, and views of hills and sea. Father-love has some sentiment, the mother’s is calculating and business-like. Both of us being obstinate, we got both: a villetta with modern conveniences and a lovely garden and views. And neighbors.

Art by Livia Signorini for 'Pictures from Italy' by Charles Dickens. Click image for more.

Steffens enthusiastically extols the virtues of Italy as a mecca for fatherhood:

Italy is the best place in the world for a father to have his children in. The Italians adore children. They are not polite to animals and women ordinarily. The men stare at every woman they meet, especially a married woman, especially if she is with her husband. And the women don’t look at a man (if he is old enough to be a father). But when the Italians see that a woman is carrying a child, they all look, men and women too — they look and smile and nod approvingly, and not only at the mother. The Italians take the father in also then. I advise any man about to become a father to go to Italy…

Among the neighbors that came with their new home was one extremely conscientious contessa — a Scot by birth, Italian countess by marriage. Shortly after they moved in, she introduced herself cautiously, mindful of the fact that not all people wish to befriend their neighbors, and offered her help should they need any on their journey to parenthood. She owned one particularly uncommon commodity that proved itself helpful indeed: a telephone. Steffens recounts the rather comical events of the birth itself:

About a week before the date fixed, the predicted “first signs” occurred. The doctor had warned me that “she,” the mother, would mistake the first for the final symptoms, so, when, after midnight one dark, cold night she awoke with pains, I got up, of course. I knew from the novels how to behave. She asked anxiously for the doctor.

“But you know, don’t you,” I said coolly, “that this will go on now for a week.”

She answered that she did, and she really did know about everything. An “intellectual,” a college lecturer, she had been making just such a study of child-bearing as she would have made for a course of lectures. Our house contained a complete library of Radiant Motherhood, with all the classics on biology, breeding, feeding — everything, all read, marked, and I noted well that the doctors conversed in technical terms with her, as with an insider; with a respect that they did not show to me. But science and art still differ. As the pains grew that night, she asked if I did not think we might risk a false alarm and summon the doctor and nurse.

And so they did:

Nurse and doctor came together, both cross, and — so sure were they that it was a false alarm — the doctor did not bring his instruments. The nurse saw or heard at once that it was “a case,” and she took command. Brushing rudely past me, she gave the Contessa one fierce look, stepped in between her and the patient. “Oh, I will go,” the Contessa said, and she did, advising me also to “get out.” The nurse bade the doctor scoot for his things, gave orders to me, to the mother, the servants. The doctor scooted, so did the rest of us, every man to his post, while the nurse whirled about her preparations. By the time the doctor got back, that nurse had everything ready and everybody at work and scared — the hateful, dominating, efficient thing.

She put me out of the room. The doctor soon followed, with a shrug. Women’s business. Bah!

Indeed, Steffens paints the Italian doctor as a rather detestable character — on the matter of what to do if the baby arrived “obviously defective,” the doctor offered some counsel “utterly without human feeling.” He goes on to describe the farcical unfolding of the situation:

I had a cigarette and I had also an ugly feeling against professionalism, especially in a doctor and more especially at child-birth. I went downstairs to the kitchen and swatted flies. I killed forty-three before I rejoined the doctor. We were standing there silent when the nurse stuck her British, red, professional face in the door.

“It’s peeping,” she said, and was gone, shutting the door firmly.

“What?” the doctor asked. “Peeping? I never heard that term.”

“It’s not a technical term,” I said. “I take it for a descriptive announcement that Pete is peeping out upon the world with a view to –”

“Oh!” he exclaimed, and throwing away his cigarette, he darted into the room, he likewise closing the door, pointedly.

Steffens, still harboring hope that the baby might be a girl after all, was eventually faced with the newborn reality:

A boy! Not a girl, a boy. They say I groaned. But it was over! I started in to the room. All I had time to see was the detestable nurse, rising with something in her arms and a face of fury for me. “Not yet!” she spat. I retreated out of sight, but not so far that I could not hear what was going on. A child was crying, people were bustling about, and the quiet voices of the doctor, nurse, and the mother were chatting pleasantly about how quick it had been, how easy and how extraordinarily successful.

In another amusing passage, which calls to mind Ann Friedman’s excellent essay on what it means for a woman to be a “badass,” Steffens writes:

Reviewing all these evidences laboriously, I arranged my mind to the amazing conclusion that the baby was born, the mother was all right and I had not suffered at all. It was nothing like in the novels. They say that the father suffers terribly, more than the mother. It is not so. I did not suffer, not so much even as the mother herself and I heard her say it was “not very much worse than the grippes.”

In a remark that the English would find particularly delightful, Steffens recounts disobeying the nurse’s suggestion that he take a walk while they “clear up”:

That nurse, being British, knew what is done; she knew the etiquette as she knew everything else about her business; and, being English, she was disgusted when I did what is not done. I went in and saw the mother and child.

But what he saw was a stark testament to the fact that the crucible of all love is fantasy — we imbue the object of our love, be that a lover or a newborn, with our own subjective ideas and needs and desires, heeding little the inherent presence or absence of the qualities we project. Steffens captures this perfectly:

The child was a thing by itself, stuck off in a corner on a cot. It did not look like Pete: not as I had imagined him; not in the least. And not only because he was not a girl. He looked like anybody’s new-born infant in everybody’s novel, red, ugly, and out for himself alone. There was no sign of recognition of me as the fellow that used to talk with him o’ nights. He was a sight, a sound, too, but his head was so elongated, so deformed that I was glad the doctor had forgotten, as I had, my instructions about “the obvious defective.” A stranger, he was still a human being and — well, as They say, I say live and let live.

His mother made up for him, for everything. She was Radiant Motherhood personified. A good phrase. She gave forth light. Still, pale, smiling (with surprise, she said afterwards) she really seemed to be illuminated from within.

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

And yet in the ugliness of his newborn son Steffens finds the most beautiful thing in the world — the very thing he would later counsel Pete never to lose. He writes:

I turned again to the child, the ugliest but the latest and therefore, biologically, the most advanced human being on earth. What did he know? It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning from God’s everyday revelations of the truth. This “knowledge and belief” that is so false and so impious is said to be inborn. Is it? I asked my new-born baby boy and he answered; and his answer is the best news I, a veteran reporter, have ever had to report.

He did not know a thing.

In a passage reminiscent of Descartes’s view of animals as “automata,” Steffens adds:

He did not know how to eat. His sucking apparatus worked; his machine was a going concern, but the nurse put in two days of hard, patient work teaching him to take the breast. He did not know when he was tired. As his machine ran down, it squeaked and They said he cried for sleep. He did not. He resisted drowsiness as if he were in a fight for his life; as if he did not know the difference (if any) between sleep and death. He has not yet learned that he will wake up again.

Illustration by Øyvind Torseter from 'My Father's Arms Are a Boat' by Stein Erik Lunde. Click image for more.

So when “a kindly clergyman” shows up one day to christen the baby and “start the process of mind-fixing and standardization,” Steffens adamantly refuses, on account of “Pete’s superior ignorance and scientific open-mindedness” — something contemporary scientists would heartily commend. And therein lies Steffens’s most profound, most elevating point — his passionate case for the power of not-knowing, of keeping our “baby eyes (which are the eyes of genius)” and unlearning all the falsehoods our grownup compulsion for certitude inflicts on us. Decades before the great Rachel Carson argued that “for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel, Steffens writes:

And believe me, a father at last, it is true. There is hope for the race. Babies are born all right. They are not born with, they don’t know any of the bunk that makes us grown-ups make war and money, constitutions and best-sellers. They don’t know respect, they don’t know fear, they don’t know any of the evils we call virtues. They are clean-minded and clear-eyed and empty-headed; and curious. They are fit to go out and climb God’s tree of life, eat the fruit thereof and see (and see the beauty of) all things as they are. They have no convictions, no principles to blind them.

Anyhow my baby hasn’t, and I am going to try to save him from all such sure things. I don’t know what to teach him, but I do know what to keep him from learning. He will have to go to Their schools and a college and They will force him, with Their authority to — recite. But I can warn him against Their authority and Their worse than ignorance. But that is later. The damage is done earlier, in babyhood.

That hedge against absorbing society’s limiting beliefs and dogma of conformity, Steffens argues, is what the father can offer the child:

I am old enough to be through with that silly servitude. The father’s place is in the home and there I am and there I mean to stay — on guard — to protect my child from education… There I am all the time and always, as now, when the mother picks up Pete I join her.

He ends with a return — at once tongue-in-cheek and incredibly profound — to the urgency of undoing the damage of gender stereotypes:

I can afford to let the mother, with her brains, provide the science and the business side of my child’s up-bringing; I, the father, will furnish the love (which women call “spoiling”), the art, the sport, the doubt divine. She can impart knowledge, I the highly cultivated ignorance. As I explained to Pete one day when we lay back bloated and contemplative after a deep feed of mother’s milk, his dear mamma will make of him a strong, knowing, successful man, I will leave him a fine fellow, who, whether he is a poet or a politician, a businessman, a reporter or a lounge lizard, can play the game and win, without believing in it or in his own lies: a humorous man of the world, a true prophet of the beautiful life to come on this earth and, perhaps, if he is good, the father of a girl baby.

Lincoln Steffens Speaking is an immensely ennobling trove of wisdom on life and liberty from one of the noblest men who ever lived, and the fact that it has vanished out of print is nothing short of a cultural tragedy. Still, used copies are findable and well worth looking for. Complement it with Steffens’s spectacular letter of life-advice to two-year-old Pete, then revisit history’s greatest letters of fatherly advice and the Scandinavian treasure My Father’s Arms Are a Boat.

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07 NOVEMBER, 2014

Why “Psychological Androgyny” Is Essential for Creativity


“Creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.”

Despite the immense canon of research on creativity — including its four stages, the cognitive science of the ideal creative routine, the role of memory, and the relationship between creativity and mental illness — very little has focused on one of life’s few givens that equally few of us can escape: gender and the genderedness of the mind.

In Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) — one of the most important, insightful, and influential books on creativity ever written — pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi examines a curious, under-appreciated yet crucial aspect of the creative mindset: a predisposition to psychological androgyny.

In all cultures, men are brought up to be “masculine” and to disregard and repress those aspects of their temperament that the culture regards as “feminine,” whereas women are expected to do the opposite. Creative individuals to a certain extent escape this rigid gender role stereotyping. When tests of masculinity/femininity are given to young people, over and over one finds that creative and talented girls are more dominant and tough than other girls, and creative boys are more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers.

Illustration by Yang Liu from 'Man Meets Woman,' a pictogram critique of gender stereotypes. Click image for details.

Csikszentmihalyi points out that this psychological tendency toward androgyny shouldn’t be confused with homosexuality — it deals not with sexual constitution but with a set of psychoemotional capacities:

Psychological androgyny is a much wider concept, referring to a person’s ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturant, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.

Citing his team’s extensive interviews with 91 individuals who scored high on creativity in various fields — including pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, legendary sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, philosopher and marginalia champion Mortimer Adler, universe-disturber Madeleine L’Engle, social science titan John Gardner, poet extraordinaire Denise Levertov, and MacArthur genius Stephen Jay Gould — Csikszentmihalyi writes:

It was obvious that the women artists and scientists tended to be much more assertive, self-confident, and openly aggressive than women are generally brought up to be in our society. Perhaps the most noticeable evidence for the “femininity” of the men in the sample was their great preoccupation with their family and their sensitivity to subtle aspects of the environment that other men are inclined to dismiss as unimportant. But despite having these traits that are not usual to their gender, they retained the usual gender-specific traits as well.

Illustration from the 1970 satirical book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' Click image for more.

Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention is a revelatory read in its entirety, featuring insights on the ideal conditions for the creative process, the key characteristics of the innovative mindset, how aging influences creativity, and invaluable advice to the young from Csikszentmihalyi’s roster of 91 creative luminaries. Complement this particular excerpt with Ursula K. Le Guin on being a man — arguably the most brilliant meditation on gender ever written, by one of the most exuberantly creative minds of our time.

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17 OCTOBER, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man


A journey to where the semicolon meets the soul.

Who are we when we, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s enduring words, “are together with no one but ourselves”? However much we might exert ourselves on learning to stop letting others define us, the definitions continue to be hurled at us — definitions predicated on who we should be in relation to some concrete or abstract other, some ideal, some benchmark beyond the boundaries of who we already are.

One of the most important authors of our time, Ursula K. Le Guin has influenced such celebrated literary icons as Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie. At her best — and to seek the “best” in an altogether spectacular body of work seems almost antithetical — she blends anthropology, social psychology, and sheer literary artistry to explore complex, often difficult subjects with remarkable grace. Subjects, for instance, like who we are and what gender really means as we — men, women, ungendered souls — try to inhabit our constant tussle between inner and outer, individual and social, private and performative. This is what Le Guin examines in an extraordinary essay titled “Introducing Myself,” which Le Guin first wrote as a performance piece in the 1980s and later updated for the beautifully titled, beautifully written, beautifully wide-ranging 2004 collection The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library). To speak of a subject so common by birth and so minced by public discourse in a way that is completely original and completely compelling is no small feat — in fact, it is the kind of feat of writing Jack Kerouac must have had in mind when he contemplated the crucial difference between genius and talent.

Le Guin writes:

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter… I predate the invention of women by decades. Well, if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn’t know how to sell the product. Their distribution techniques were rudimentary and their market research was nil, and so of course the concept just didn’t get off the ground. Even with a genius behind it an invention has to find its market, and it seemed like for a long time the idea of women just didn’t make it to the bottom line. Models like the Austen and the Brontë were too complicated, and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was way too far ahead of its time.

Illustration from 'The Human Body,' 1959. Click image for details.

Noting that when she was born (1929), “there actually were only men” — lest we forget, even the twentieth century’s greatest public intellectuals of the female gender used the pronouns “he” to refer to the whole lot of human beings — Le Guin plays with this notion of the universal pronoun:

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.

Le Guin turns to the problem of the body, which is indeed problematic in the context of this Generic He:

I admit it, I am actually a very poor imitation or substitute man, and you could see it when I tried to wear those army surplus clothes with ammunition pockets that were trendy and I looked like a hen in a pillowcase. I am shaped wrong. People are supposed to be lean. You can’t be too thin, everybody says so, especially anorexics. People are supposed to be lean and taut, because that’s how men generally are, lean and taut, or anyhow that’s how a lot of men start out and some of them even stay that way. And men are people, people are men, that has been well established, and so people, real people, the right kind of people, are lean. But I’m really lousy at being people, because I’m not lean at all but sort of podgy, with actual fat places. I am untaut.

Illustration by Yang Liu from 'Man Meets Woman,' a pictogram critique of gender stereotypes. Click image for details.

For an example of someone who did Man right, Le Guin points to Hemingway, He with “the beard and the guns and the wives and the little short sentences,” and returns to her own insufficient Manness with a special wink at semicolons and a serious gleam at the significance of how we die:

I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”

And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old. And that brings up the real proof of what a mess I have made of being a man: I am not even young. Just about the time they finally started inventing women, I started getting old. And I went right on doing it. Shamelessly. I have allowed myself to get old and haven’t done one single thing about it, with a gun or anything.

But between the half-assed semicolons and the guns lies the crux of the gender-imitation problem — the tyranny of how we think and talk about sex:

Sex is even more boring as a spectator sport than all the other spectator sports, even baseball. If I am required to watch a sport instead of doing it, I’ll take show jumping. The horses are really good-looking. The people who ride them are mostly these sort of nazis, but like all nazis they are only as powerful and successful as the horse they are riding, and it is after all the horse who decides whether to jump that five-barred gate or stop short and let the nazi fall off over its neck. Only usually the horse doesn’t remember it has the option. Horses aren’t awfully bright. But in any case, show jumping and sex have a good deal in common, though you usually can only get show jumping on American TV if you can pick up a Canadian channel, which is not true of sex. Given the option, though I often forget that I have an option, I certainly would watch show jumping and do sex. Never the other way round. But I’m too old now for show jumping, and as for sex, who knows? I do; you don’t.

Le Guin parlays this subtle humor into her most serious and piercing point, partway between the tragic and the hopeful — the issue of aging:

Here I am, old, when I wrote this I was sixty years old, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” as Yeats said, but then, he was a man. And now I am over seventy. And it’s all my own fault. I get born before they invent women, and I live all these decades trying so hard to be a good man that I forget all about staying young, and so I didn’t. And my tenses get all mixed up. I just am young and then all of a sudden I was sixty and maybe eighty, and what next?

Not a whole lot.

I keep thinking there must have been something that a real man could have done about it. Something short of guns, but more effective than Oil of Olay. But I failed. I did nothing. I absolutely failed to stay young. And then I look back on all my strenuous efforts, because I really did try, I tried hard to be a man, to be a good man, and I see how I failed at that. I am at best a bad man. An imitation phony second-rate him with a ten-hair beard and semicolons. And I wonder what was the use. Sometimes I think I might just as well give the whole thing up. Sometimes I think I might just as well exercise my option, stop short in front of the five-barred gate, and let the nazi fall off onto his head. If I’m no good at pretending to be a man and no good at being young, I might just as well start pretending that I am an old woman. I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Laura Anglin

The Wave in the Mind, like Le Guin’s mind, is joltingly original in its totality, Chinook salmon in the wild. Complement this particular bit with Anna Deavere Smith on how to stop letting others define us.

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