Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

05 APRIL, 2012

Dating Advice from Dickens: A Collection of Victorian Vignettes

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A “Manly Young Lady” and a “Poetical Young Gentleman” walk into a bar.

1837 was a good year for Charles Dickens. Sketches by Boz, his collected essays on London life, and the first volumes of The Pickwick Papers were both in circulation, and his publishers were eager to cash in on this rising star with the satiric voice.

The next year, a slim book of short vignettes appeared with the title Sketches of Young Ladies. It had a certain Dickensian flair, each lady named and tagged and organized in an encyclopedia of of feminine characters. Immediately popular, its author was, like Boz, anonymous.

Six months later, another similar book appeared, Sketches of Young Gentlemen, and then another, Sketches of Young Couples, specially timed to Queen Victoria’s 1839 engagement to the future Prince Albert. Also hugely popular, the three sketches were bound up and sold together over the second half of the nineteenth century before disappearing in the twentieth.

But who was the author? There was always “gold to be got out of Dickens,” as one newspaper put it in 1884, but the truth was not revealed until the turn of the century: the first book, Sketches of Ladies, had been written by the young humorist Edward Caswall; the others, Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Sketches of Young Couples, were written, as everyone had expected, by Charles Dickens himself.

All three books were recently resurrected by Oxford University Press as Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Young Couples: With Sketches of Young Ladies by Edward Caswall, revealing a taxonomy of archetypes that is at once amusingly outdated and surprisingly timely.

The “Extremely Natural Young Lady” might be a cousin to today’s manic pixie dream girl:

[She] is always doing some out-of-the-way-thing, that she might appear simple and girlish… She enjoys nothing so much as getting her gown torn and arranging her hair out of doors.

Indeed, Dickens had been inspired by a Dickens stylist — because everything was, and still is, a remix.

'The Mysterious Young Lady never utters a syllable to anyone.' Illustration by Phiz.

The “Petting Young Lady” would no doubt be delighted with today’s cat videos:

Her favorite term for expressing intense admiration is ‘little.’ Thus if she sees a hose which pleases her, she instantly cries out ‘What a dear little horse!’ although the horse be as big as a hay-stack.

The “Manly Young Lady” would surely put you in your place:

In conversation, she is most spectacularly positive, and should you sit next to her at dinner, ten to one but she puts you down half a dozen times at least.

'The Manly Young Lady has been known to travel alone, outside of the coach, all the way from Manchester to London.' Illustration by Phiz.

The “Out-and-Out Young Gentleman” had time only for parties:

[He] is employed in a city counting house or solicitor’s office, in which he does as little as he possibly can; his chief places of resort are, the streets, the taverns, and the theaters.

And the “Poetical Young Gentleman” was as you would expect:

He has a great deal to say about the world, and is given much to opining, especially if he has taken anything strong to drink, that there is nothing in it worth living for.

'The favorite attitude of the Poetical Young Gentleman is staring with very round eyes at the opposite wall.' Illustration by Phiz.

This new collection of Dickens’ Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Young Couples: With Sketches of Young Ladies gives Caswall his due both as a satirist and as an inspiration for one of the nineteenth century’s greatest caricaturists. And though its blend of humor and astute cultural observation captures a bygone era beautifully, its tease-points could easily apply to today’s crop of hipsters, techies, and other social performative roles we all don.

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

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03 APRIL, 2012

The Philosophy of Alice in Wonderland

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Cultivating the capacity to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

When Lewis Carroll penned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and Through The Looking-Glass in 1871, he probably didn’t envision his work would reverberate across time to become a cultural icon. It has germinated inspired homages like Salvador Dalí’s little-known illustrations and Tim Burton’s adaptation, it was formative reading for computing pioneer Alan Turing, and it endures as one of the most beloved children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups. The latter, in fact, is the subject of Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser, part of the relentlessly delightful and illuminating Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, which has previously given us such gems as Arrested Development and Philosophy: They’ve Made a Huge Mistake. The anthology of essays asks seventeen contemporary thinkers to examine the Lewis Carroll classic through the lens of philosophy, exploring subjects as diverse as drugs, dreams, logic, gender, perception, escapism, and what the Red Queen can teach us about nuclear strategy.

My favorite essay, entitled “Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast,” comes from the chapter on logic. In it, George A. Dunn and Brian McDonald write:

When it comes to the curious conditions of Wonderland, Alice’s efforts to make sense of the nonsensical pay off with dividends. But that’s because the nonsense is only provisional, only on the surface, beneath which a diligent investigator like Alice is able to discern perfectly intelligible, albeit unexpected, rules of cause and effect.

[...]

Once Alice has learned what these rules are, she can count on them to operate as dependably as any of the laws of nature that obtain in our world. They only seem nonsensical to us because our experience of our world aboveground and on this side of the looking glass has burdened us with a slew of preconceptions about what can and cannot be accomplished by ingesting the caps of gilled fungi.

[…]

It is to Alice’s credit that she doesn’t hesitate for a moment to discard her preconceptions when she comes across situations that patently refute them. In doing so, she displays an admirable readiness to encounter reality on its own terms, a receptive cast of mind that many philosophers would include among the most important “intellectual virtues” or character traits that assist in the discovery of truth.

(For a parallel meditation on the importance of being able to step away from assumption, cultivate doubt, and find pleasure in mystery, see yesterday’s related exploration of the necessity for ignorance in science.)

The remaining essays in Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser offer insights on everything from social contracts to post-feminism to logical fallacies, spanning schools of thought as varied as Aristotle, Socrates, Hobbes, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and a wealth in between.

Ultimately, as the Duchess keenly observed, “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”

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30 MARCH, 2012

Beautiful Vintage Cross-Sections of Trees, Many Rare or Extinct Today

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A bittersweet masterpiece of design and natural history.

From Cedric Pollet’s artful photos of bark to Rachel Sussman’s magnificent portraits of Earth’s most ancient perennial plants, trees seem to possess a special magnetism for human curiosity. But no visual documentarian has approached the inventory of trees with more dedication than Romeyn Beck Hough (1857-1924). Between 1888 and 1913, Hough cataloged hundreds of tree specimens in what became an epic 14-volume masterwork entitled American Woods. He employed a breathtaking, unusual display method: actual specimens mounted on card stock in three cutouts of the tree’s wood — transverse, radial, and tangential — alongside detailed descriptions of the tree’s habitat, characteristics, growth patterns, medicinal properties, and commercial possibilities. The collection endures as a work of unparalleled achievement and retails accordingly, with edition sets appraised as high as $30,000.

Luckily, Taschen has preserved Hough’s work and love of trees in the much more accessible The Woodbook: The Complete Plates, reproducing in painstaking facsimile all specimen plates from a rare original volume the editors acquired. The trees are arranged in alphabetical order and presented in Hough’s signature triad of cross-sections, revealing a wealth of colors and textures. Accompanying the wood cuts are lithographs by Charles Sprague Sargent, depicting the leaves and nuts of the trees, as well as texts contextualizing the trees’ geographical origins and physical characteristics.

Besides being an invaluable treat for naturalists and designers alike, The Woodbook is also a bittersweet artifact — in the century since Hough completed American Woods, many of the trees have become rare or completely extinct.

The individual plates have been made available online, courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center of the NCSU Libraries — a fine addition to these 7 important digitization projects.

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