Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

15 APRIL, 2014

Zelda Fitzgerald’s Little-Known Art

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From Alice in Wonderland to Times Square, a delicate dance of the imagination.

When Zelda Sayre married legendary Jazz Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald to become Zelda Fitzgerald, she was anointed “the first American flapper” and embarked on one of the most turbulent relationships in literary history. Though best-remembered as a writer and dancer, Zelda, unbeknownst to many, not only considered herself an artist but was also an exceptionally gifted one. Her paintings place her among history’s famous writers with little-known talents in the visual arts, including Tolkien’s drawings, Sylvia Plath’s sketches, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age illustrations, and Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons.

Zelda: An Illustrated Life: The Private World of Zelda Fitzgerald (public library) collects 140 illustrations and 80 of her paintings from the late 1930s and 1940s, lovingly compiled by her granddaughter, the Vermont-based writer, filmmaker and artist Eleanor Anne Lanahan. From her cityscapes of New York City and Paris to her psychedelic Biblical allegories to her delicate paper dolls she made for her daughter Scottie, the art paints an intricate picture of her psychoemotional world and reflects her passion for fairy tales, her irreverent dance with the absurd, and her enormous sensitivity to beauty — a visual reflection of the blend of intense intelligence and unapologetic mischievousness that made Zelda so alluring.

Puppeufee (The Circus)

Brooklyn Bridge

Times Square

Central Park

Washington Square

Marriage at Cana

Hansel and Gretel

Great Smokey Mountains

The Pantheon and Luxemburg gardens

Star of Bethlehem

A lady and a costume from The Louis XIV set (paper doll)

Ladies' costume from The Louis XIV set (paper doll)

A lady and a costume from The Louis XIV set (paper doll)

But as a lover of Alice in Wonderland art, I was especially thrilled to see Zelda’s paintings for the Carroll classic:

Lobster Quadrille

The Queen’s Croquet-Ground

Advice from a Caterpillar

Who Stole the Tarts

A Mad Tea Party

Zelda: An Illustrated Life is an absolute delight from cover to cover. Complement it with the art of Norah Borges.

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08 APRIL, 2014

The Adulterous Society: How John Updike Made Suburban Sex Sexy

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“There is no such thing as static happiness. Happiness is a mixed thing, a thing compounded of sacrifices, and losses, and betrayals.”

John Updike (March 18, 1932–January 27, 2009) wasn’t merely the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Humanities medal, among a wealth of other awards. He had a mind that could ponder the origin of the universe, a heart that could eulogize a dog with such beautiful bittersweetness, and a spirit that could behold death without fear. He is also credited with making suburban sex sexy, which landed him on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Adulterous Society” — something Adam Begley explores in the long-awaited biography Updike (public library).

Begley chronicles Updike’s escapades in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s, just as he was breaking through with The New Yorker — the bastion of high culture to which he had dreamed of contributing since the age of twelve. His literary career was beginning to gain momentum with the publication of Rabbit, Run in 1960 — the fictional story of a twenty-something suburban writer who, drowning in responsibilities to his young family, finds love outside of marriage. The fantasy would soon become a reality for 28-year-old Updike, a once-dorky kid who had gotten through Harvard by playing the class clown clad in his ill-fitted tweed jackets and unfashionably wide ties. Suddenly, he and his wife Mary landed in the middle of a network of Ipswich couples entwined by more than close friendships:

Updike wasn’t the first in his Ipswich crowd to commit adultery, and it’s possible that he wasn’t even the first in his marriage…

He didn’t have to look far to find a lover. Several of the couples had already had affairs before moving to Ipswich, and once they were all settled and best friends, romantic intrigue was very much in the air. It’s safe to say that the group’s unusual closeness (and a large part of the pain that followed) had something to do with the collective willingness to indulge in extramarital sex. This “weave of promiscuous friendship” wasn’t a purely local phenomenon. “Welcome to the post-pill paradise” is perhaps the most famous line from [Updike's 1968 novel] Couples, which Updike set in 1963, three years after he claimed to have first fallen “in love, away from marriage” — and three years after the first birth-control pill was approved for use in the United States. Did the advent of oral contraception unleash a frenzy of adulterous coupling in suburban communities all over the country? That theory seems a little pat, yet there’s a measure of truth to it. There’s no doubt that by the time of JFK’s assassination, the junior set of Ipswich were already hopping in and out of one another’s beds with impressive frequency. Whatever moral qualms Updike might have had were long since banished, and any lingering shyness had dissipated. He threw himself with reckless enthusiasm into the tangle of Ipswich infidelities. It’s worth stressing, however, that it wasn’t his idea; he wasn’t the instigator. He made suburban sex famous, but he didn’t invent it.

(Curiously, it was in the thick of that period that Updike penned his first children’s book.)

To give a sense of just how normalized the extramarital escapades were in the Ipswich community, Begley offers a telling example — the only two affairs of real significance in Updike’s life, one with Joyce Harrington, who was a “core member” of the love-swapping crowd along with her husband Herbert, and the other with Martha Bernhard, who had joined the circle later on with her husband Alex. Begley writes:

The first affair came within a whisker of ending the Updikes’ marriage in the fall of 1962; the second did end the marriage: John separated from Mary in 1974, and they were divorced two years later. John and Martha married soon afterward. And then, as if to demonstrate what a snarled web it was, Alex Bernhard, Martha’s ex-husband, married Joyce Harrington, John’s ex-mistress.

John and Martha Updike in East Hampton, July 14, 1978 (photograph by Jill Krementz)

John and Martha remained together for the rest of the author’s life, and yet Updike’s words to a Time magazine reporter in March of 1968 poignantly captured the essence of those thunderous emotional upheavals:

There is no such thing as static happiness. Happiness is a mixed thing, a thing compounded of sacrifices, and losses, and betrayals.

Though later, in his 1996 memoir Self-Consciousness — which is an altogether excellent read — Updike would speak of that youthful promiscuity with great disdain, proclaiming those behaviors to be “malicious, greedy … obnoxious … rapacious and sneaky … remorseless,” he did draw on them as raw material in his writing for decades to come.

That, indeed, was the most fervent and most faithful love affair of his life — his eternal marriage to literature. For all the rewards of carnal pleasure and cultural prestige, Updike remained most enchanted and gratified by the joy of writing itself. In 2006, upon receiving the coveted Rea Award for the Short Story after twenty years of wistfully watching it be awarded to other writers, Updike marveled:

It doesn’t do to think overmuch about prizes, does it? Being a writer at all is the prize.

Updike is an irresistibly rich read in its entirety, a rare dimensional glimpse of one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, housed in the interior of an infinitely interesting man. Complement it with Updike on writing and death, why the world exists, and the most important thing aspiring writers should know.

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04 APRIL, 2014

Young Hans Christian Andersen Climbs Mount Vesuvius During an Eruption and Lives to Tell About It in a Beautiful, Dramatic Account

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“The sea raised its great wings, coal black smoke arose from Vesuvius into the blue sky…”

Hans Christian Andersen revolutionized storytelling with his timeless fairy tales, driven by a cinematic sensitivity to beauty. In mid-February of 1834, while touring Europe, 29-year-old Andersen arrived in Naples just as the mighty Mount Vesuvius was in the midst of one of its then-regular and dramatic eruptions, three centuries after the first of them had drowned dozens of Italian villages in hot lava and killed an estimated 3,000 people. The flamboyant mesmerism of the event cast a spell that would stay with him for the rest of his life. In The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) — the same obscure yet remarkable volume that gave us Andersen’s little-known and lovely sketches — comes his breathtaking account of his visit to Vesuvius and his crazy quest to climb the mount as it was erupting.

18th-century painting of Vesuvius erupting by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797)

In a diary entry from February 18, Andersen — a true enchanter with a penchant for cinematic storytelling — recounts his first breathtaking impressions of the fiery marvel:

I bought some drawings, walked by the sea pounding against the rocks. — It was the world’s great pulse beat that I heard. The sea raised its great wings, coal black smoke arose from Vesuvius into the blue sky… Such shades of colors on the mountains! Just as the sun went down, the red lava was glowing. Some boys played soldiers on the beach, and tramps in their brown hooded coats sat on the rocks watching them.

It may seem like a wild and rather unsafe notion today, but the eruption of Vesuvius, a regular occurrence since the middle of the 17th century, was quite the tourist attraction in Andersen’s time — so much so, that tour guides hustled for visitors’ attention. Andersen writes on February 21:

They were literally chasing me, underbidding each other… I had to say, in order to get away, that I would come back tomorrow. Then they all asked me to write down their names, and I got away by scribbling something down, and so I walked around in a small side street that seems to have been constructed entirely by lava debris.

But unperturbed by this brush with the materialistic exploitation of such a wonder, he goes on to marvel at nature’s might ablaze before him:

Smoke swirled thickly up out of Vesuvius, and the lava gave off a cloud of steam… At dusk I walked down to the sea. Vesuvius spewed great streams of lava; it blazed into the air; it was like tongues of fire flaring up. This is the most violent I have seen it.

Hans Christian Andersen's diary drawing of the Vesuvius eruption, 1834

Four days later, on February 22, Vesuvius quiets down as Andersen paints another breathtaking vignette:

The moon was shining on the dark blue water, and the waves breaking on the shore looked like a glimmering piece of embroidery. Fire was running in great streams down Vesuvius, but there was almost no smoke to be seen. — I walked out to the lighthouse and saw then in the moonlight a handsome frigate coursing under full sail into the harbor.

But then, two days later, Vesuvius reaches its climax and Andersen beholds it in breathtaking detail as he and a small group of fellow Danes set out to climb the mountain, now shaken by Vesuvius’s frequent huffs and puffs of smoke and lava:

The evening was so infinitely beautiful; the sun set like a ball of fire; the sky was a glimmering gold that shaded over into the ether-blue. The sea was like indigo, and the islands were lying like pale blue clouds on it. It was a magic world that had manifested itself… The mountains were shining so splendidly with the white snow; they lay far off in the blue sky, and close to us we could see all the red lava of Vesuvius.

Nocturnal Eruption of Vesuvius with Bay of Naples by Michael Wutky (1739–1822)

By the time Andersen and his crew reached the hermitage in the mountain, it was almost dark — a perilous detail that only added to the inspired insanity of their expedition. Andersen recounts:

The wind was so biting cold that I had to get off my donkey and walk… Soon the donkeys couldn’t take us any further. We stood before the mountain itself, whose rounded contours were covered with blocks of lava and ash. We were now ascending a fairly steep grade, sinking up over our knees into ash. With every other step we slid backward by one. Large, loose rocks went sliding downward when we stepped on them.

[…]

An hour passed and we were on some sort of plain under the cauldron. Here we caught a sudden glimpse of the moon right over the crater. Coal-black smoke swirled upward; then a ball of fire and gigantic, glowing boulders rolled down onto the plain that we had to cross to get to the lava flow… There was no path at all; we had to walk and crawl between huge pieces of lava… With every eruption the moon was entirely hidden by the pitch-black smoke.

Andersen was a man at once keenly sensitive to beauty, as both his fairy tales and his travel writing attest, and afflicted by great vanity, which reared its head even in these grueling circumstances: “I sang loudly to show how little it was tiring me,” he confesses in the diary. Indeed, the entire endeavor was perhaps a manifestation of youthful vanity for a band of twenty-something men — an exercise to conquer danger for no good reason, except the vainglory of living to tell about it. And their bravado only accelerated as the danger got more intense:

After a while we could feel the heat coming up from underneath us. In order to see the new lava flow we had to cross one that had been flowing the night before; only the outermost crust was black and hard, and red fire was burning in the cracks. We stepped out onto it; it burned our feet through the soles of our shoes. If the crust had broken, we would have sunk into a sea of fire. Then we saw the monstrous stream of fire pouring slowly, thick and red like porridge, down the mountains. The sulphur fumes were so strong; the fire was burning our feet, so that after two minutes we had to go back. All around we saw fissures of fire. There was a whooshing sound coming from the crater, like when all at once a flock of birds starts up from a forest.

Eruption of Vesuvius by Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857)

Ultimately, however, one has to give Andersen the benefit of the doubt and trust that the hazardous undertaking was for the sake of beauty, driven by a longing to get as close as humanly possible to nature’s source, to that fiery frontier of life and death, of beauty and suffering, from which true awe springs. It was beauty, ultimately, that Andersen took away:

The lava looked like colossal, fallen stars. — We rode again over the black lava field. I hung back from the others in order to watch the matchless play of nature.

The voyage to Vesuvius is but a sliver of the richness found in The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen, an exquisite read in its entirety — a treasure trove that blends breathtaking travel writing with rare insight into the great storyteller’s soul. Complement it with the most beautiful illustrations from 150 years of Andersen fairy tales.

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