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13 AUGUST, 2014

Charity and Sylvia: The Remarkable Story of How Two Women Married Each Other in Early America

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“For 40 years… they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness.”

In 1897, a man by the name of Hiram Harvey Hurlburt recorded in his diary: “Miss Bryant and Miss Drake were married to each other.” Nine decades earlier in a neighboring village, more than two centuries before Edie and Thea claimed equal dignity for all love in the eyes of the law, 30-year-old Charity Bryant and 22-year-old Sylvia Drake had entered into a lifelong union and promised eternal love to one another, immortalizing their vows in a traditional silhouette portrait. With level eyes and uplifted chins, two elegant black outlines gaze at each other across a thick cream-colored mat, framed by delicate paper with pinkened edges and encircled by a thin braid of blond hair, which forms a heart between their mirrored bosoms.

This is how historian Rachel Hope Cleves paints the backdrop of these two women’s era-defying relationship, the remarkable story of which she tells with equal parts rigor and sensitivity in Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (public library).

Reflecting on the symbolism of the silhouette portrait, Cleves writes:

Their sameness is misleading, a misapprehension that obscures their differences from each other, and their difference as a pair from others at the time…

Charity opened the door to a different life. She struck an astonishing contrast to the women in Sylvia’s family, who were all mothers to large and growing families. Sylvia ultimately had sixty-four nieces and nephews; one sister-in-law gave birth to eighteen children, ten by the time Sylvia and Charity met…

[Charity] had pledged at age twenty-three to never get married. Instead [she] poured her creative energies into writing verses, not birthing children. Charity’s singularity and singlehood were intoxicating to Sylvia, who had very little interest in marriage herself. Sylvia dismissed the men who courted her without consideration. The Drakes could not make sense of Sylvia’s aversion. But in Charity, Sylvia finally found a kindred soul.

What an irony that these two marriage-averse women ended up forming such a remarkable union… Once Sylvia and Charity found each other, they were never willing to be parted. Charity described their encounter as “providence.”

Mere months after that fateful first meeting — one imagines something akin to how Alice B. Toklas met Gertrude Stein — Charity rented a room at Weybridge and on July 3, 1807, Sylvia moved in. Cleves writes:

For the rest of their lives, the two women would celebrate this date as the beginning of their union. Over the next forty-four years they remained mutually devoted to each other through the tribulations of ill health, overwork, and spiritual doubt.

They finally parted when Charity died in 1851. Seventeen lonely years later, Sylvia was buried next to her in the graveyard on Weybridge Hill, under a shared headstone, like any married couple.

Charity and Sylvia's headstone at Weybridge Hill cemetery

But even though such same-sex unions were not entirely uncommon, what made that between Charity and Sylvia so singular was that it was an open secret — if there was any closet at all, it was wholly transparent, with the entire village looking in:

Although Sylvia and Charity lived a quiet life, far from the bustle and commotion of the nineteenth century’s growing cities, they did not live in secret. Everyone who knew them understood that they were a couple and viewed their relationship as a marriage or something like it… Charity’s nephew, the poet William Cullen Bryant, came close when he described the relationship as “no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage.”

And yet even boldness is beholden to the cultural context of its time — though their marriage was in many ways revolutionary, it simply reappropriated domestic gender expectations rather than creating new ones altogether:

One reason people viewed Charity and Sylvia’s relationship as marital was that the women divided their domestic and public roles according to the familiar pattern of husband and wife. Throughout their lives together Charity always served as head of the household. Her name came first in public documents, such as tax records and census records. She handled the money and took the leading role in all of their business. Sylvia performed the wifely work of cooking and keeping house. In some ways, she did not live all that differently from her sisters after all.

Once again, this dynamic calls to mind Gertrude Stein, who famously called Alice B. Toklas her “kitten, baby, queen, cherubim, cake, lobster and wife.” Cleves writes:

Hiram Hurlburt explained in his memoir, “Miss Bryant was the man” in the marriage. And Sylvia, according to William Cullen Bryant, was a “fond wife” to her “husband.”

Charity and Sylvia also seem to have viewed their relationship in these terms. Charity portrayed herself as a husband when she called Sylvia her “help-meet” — a common early American synonym for wife, adopted from the Bible, Genesis 2:18. Sylvia fantasized about taking Charity’s name for her own. On an archived scrap of paper, in Sylvia’s handwriting, there survives a list of names that looks like practice toward a signature, with big loops on the capitals and flourishes on the final letters. The list begins with the name “Bryant,” followed by “Bryant Charity,” then plunges into the sequence “Bryant Sylvia Bryant Sylvia Bryant Charity Bryant Sylvia.” Excluded from the legal form of marriage, it appears that Sylvia, in a romantic gesture, once inscribed her desire to become a wife in name as well as practice.

According to English common-law tradition, wives assumed their husbands’ names because marriage transformed spouses into a single person. Genesis 2:24 states that “a man shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” The idea that a husband and wife became one person, in spirit, body, and law, lay at the heart of early American ideas of marriage. The eighteenth-century English jurist William Blackstone described husbands and wives as one person in the law. Charity shared Sylvia’s evident wish for marital oneness. “May we pass our whole life,” Charity serenaded Sylvia in an 1810 poem, “and our minds be united in one.” Her language echoed an early nineteenth-century English treatise, which defined husbands and wives as “united in one body out of two by God.”

But perhaps most interesting of all is the transparency of their marriage. Indeed, that proverbial closet appears less like a closet than like a translucent Japanese parlor screen — as in their wedding portrait, one can see the women’s silhouettes, the outlines of the relationship, and interpret them with one’s chosen degree of realism, fill them in with as much social propriety as one needs to feel proper oneself.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love. Click image for more.

Cleves considers the question of freely relinquished privacy:

Like queer people in many times and places, Charity and Sylvia preserved their reputations by persuading their community to treat the matter of their sexuality as an open secret. Although it is commonly assumed that the “closet” is an opaque space, meaning that people who are in the closet keep others in total ignorance about their sexuality, often the closet is really an open secret. The ignorance that defines the closet is as likely to be a carefully constructed edifice as it is to be a total absence of knowledge. The closet depends on people strategically choosing to remain ignorant of inconvenient facts…

The open closet is an especially critical strategy in small towns, where every person serves a role, and which would cease to function if all moral transgressors were ostracized. Small communities can maintain the fiction of ignorance in order to preserve social arrangements that work for the general benefit. Queer history has often focused on the modern city as the most potent site of gay liberation, since its anonymity and living arrangements for single people permitted same-sex-desiring men and women to form innovative communities. More recognition needs to be given to the distinctive opportunities that rural towns allowed for the expression of same-sex sexuality.

[...]

Charity and Sylvia gained the toleration of their relatives and community not by hiding away but by being public-minded… They became “Aunt Charity” and “Aunt Sylvia” to the whole community… [Their] relationship, far from hidden, was widely known and respected. In fact, the absence of a man in their household allowed the women’s marriage less privacy than traditional unions received. In a male-dominated world, two women could not claim the same freedom from public interference that a man could for his home.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love. Click image for more.

The first formal account of the women’s marriage came from Charity’s nephew, Cullen, who wrote about it in the New-York Evening Post in 1843, as Charity and Sylvia were celebrating their fortieth anniversary. Charity supported Cullen’s poetic aspirations from a young age and he went on to become a writer. In 1850, he published a book of letters, in which he wrote a lyrical account of Charity and Sylvia’s life together, inspired by a popular marriage passage in The Book of Common Prayer:

If I were permitted to draw aside the veil of private life, I would briefly give you the singular, and to me most interesting history of two maiden ladies who dwell in this valley. I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for forty years, during which they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness; for sickness has made long and frequent visits to their dwelling. I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other’s relations, and how one of them, more enterprising and spirited in her temper than the other, might be said to represent the male head of the family, and took upon herself their transactions with the world without, until at length her health failed, and she was tended by her gentle companion, as a fond wife attends her invalid husband. I would tell you of their dwelling, encircled with roses, which now in the days of their broken health, bloom wild without their tendance, and I would speak of the friendly attentions which their neighbors, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure in bestowing upon them, but I have already said more than I fear they will forgive me for, if this should ever meet their eyes, and I must leave the subject.

But the story, Cleves notes with a charming wink at her profession (“Historians, unlike poets, are not content with evocative imagery. We have a ravenous appetite for the factual.”), so woven as much of such second-hand accounts as it is of first-hand silences — once again, the negative space shapes the silhouette, adding by leaving out:

Not only have few of the women’s letters survived, the documents that do remain are mostly silent on the subject that first sparked my interest and probably the interest of most readers: the women’s sexuality. Some of the strongest evidence for the women’s sexual relationships appears in their religious writings, where they struggled with the burden of secret sins that left both women feeling uncertain about their redemption. Romantic letters and poems hint at more positive aspects of the women’s physical relationship. In both these sources, references to sexuality take the form of allusions, not direct statements. Respectable nineteenth-century women rarely wrote directly about sex of any sort, but this silence is especially characteristic of the history of same-sex intimacy. For many centuries, sex between women or between men was referred to as “the mute sin” or the “crime not fit to be named.”

Even famous lovers like Oscar Wilde and Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Cleves points out, called their longtime relationship “the love that dare not speak its name.” What’s singular about the women’s story is that they did speak, if sidewise, to the true nature of their relationship. As such, it reveals just how much more tolerant early America was of same-sex marriage than most people realize. Cleves writes:

Charity’s and Sylvia’s lives tell a more complicated story, revealing the gap that existed between prescription and practice, the rules that govern society and how societies actually operate… More astonishing still, society could also tolerate such sexual possibilities through manufactured ignorance, creating opportunities for same-sex sexuality that should ostensibly have been impossible.

[...]

Same-sex marriage is not as new as Americans on both sides of today’s debate tend to assume; it is neither the radical break with timeless tradition that conservatives fear nor the unprecedented innovation of a singularly tolerant age that liberals praise. It fits within a long history of marriage diversity in North America that included practices such as polygamy, self-divorce, free love, and interracial unions… Through their union, Charity and Sylvia undermined the conventional definitions of womanhood and manhood that ordinary marriages reinforced. They staked out new claims to familial, economic, and spiritual authority that were denied to their conventionally married sisters. It seems reasonable to hope that same-sex marriage has the same potential to reshape acceptable sex roles today.

In that regard, Cleves — who chanced upon Charity and Sylvia’s story by complete accident while browsing a local history museum — reflects on the broader importance of mining history for evidence of social phenomena we mistakenly believe to be unique to our age:

The research process has left me more sure than ever that there are countless pieces remaining to be found, if not from Charity’s and Sylvia’s lives then from the lives of other lovers who lived outside the norms. Their stories have been hard to see because they confound our expectations. We see each story as one of a kind, defying categorization. Taken together they tell a history we are only beginning to know. The most remarkable element of Charity and Sylvia’s life together, in the final assessment, may be how unremarkable it was.

Charity & Sylvia is an absorbing and perspective-shifting read in its entirety, chronicling the lives of these two pioneering women, the multitude of challenges, personal and social, they overcame to be together, and the depth and richness of their lifelong love. Complement it with the greatest queer love letters of all time, including Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Margaret Mead, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, then revisit the passionate correspondence of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and these moving vintage photographs of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century.

Thanks, Michelle

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11 AUGUST, 2014

Ordering the Heavens: Hevelius’s Revolutionary 17th-Century Star Catalog and the First Moon Map

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How a visionary manuscript, completed by the first female astronomer of the Western world, survived three fires to become a beacon of scientific dedication.

On September 26, 1679, a fierce fire consumed the Stellaburgum — Europe’s finest observatory, built by the pioneering astronomer Johannes Hevelius in the city of Danzig, present-day Poland, decades before the famous Royal Greenwich Observatory and Paris Observatory existed. That autumn day, Hevelius — whose exquisite lunar engravings are considered the first true maps of the moon and who believed, long before it was established by scientific consensus, that the stars in the night sky were thousands of suns like our own — had retired to a garden outside the city, “feeling himself oppressed with great and unaccustomed troubles, as if presaging some disaster,” as a friend later recounted in a letter. In Hevelius’s absence, his coachman had left a burning candle in the stable and the wooden platform across the roofs of Hevelius’s three adjoining houses, upon which his fine brass instruments and telescopes were mounted, had caught aflame. As the fire raged on, the town’s people broke into the observatory trying to save Hevelius’s precious bound books, throwing them out the windows. Some survived, some were pilfered. His optical instruments and almost all of his bountiful unbound manuscripts perished.

Hevelius in his later years

Hevelius was sixty-eight when his observatory was destroyed. But despite having spent forty years building his own instruments, making groundbreaking observations with them, and engraving and printing his own books — fruits of labor most of which were consumed by the fire along with all his “worldly Goods and Hopes,” as he later wrote in a letter to the king of France — he refused to sink into bitterness and resignation. Instead, he set out to rebuild the observatory so he could return to observing the stars.

His resilience was in large part fueled by the miraculous salvation of one of his manuscripts — his fixed-star catalog, which contained the results of thousands of calculations of the positions of the stars made over decades of patient observation. The small leather-bound notebook was the sole manuscript to survive the fire, presumably saved by Hevelius’s 13-year-old daughter Katharina Elisabeth, the sole family member in Danzig at the time of the fire, who had a key to her father’s study. Half a millennium later, it was rediscovered. In 1971, it made its way to Utah’s Brigham Young University, becoming the one-millionth acquisition by the institution’s library. To mark the landmark event, the university published a slim volume titled Johannes Hevelius and His Catalog of Stars (public library) — an immeasurably engrossing chronicle of the life and legacy of Hevelius, the 300-year odyssey of his fixed-star catalog, and how it changed our world.

The manuscript of 'Catalogus Stellarum Fixarum,' Johannes Hevelius's fixed-star catalog

Hevelius was born in 1611, a year after Galileo had made his first observations with a telescope, at a time of blazing scientific breakthrough and controversy. His father, a successful merchant, pressed young Johannes to follow in his footsteps rather than pursue what he perceived to be the fool’s gold of the scientific revolution, and sent the nine-year-old boy to Poland to study Polish. (At the time, Danzig was part of the Prussian Confederation and Hevelius’s native language was German, something his father saw as an obstacle to doing trade.) When the boy returned at age sixteen, he pleaded with his father to allow him to continue his formal education. The old man eventually relented and young Hevelius quickly fell in love with mathematics, under the influence of his mentor, the acclaimed mathematician, astronomer, and polymath Peter Krüger. He also learned Latin, the language of most scientific publications and international correspondence, and under Krüger’s nurturing watch began learning to draw, engrave, and build rudimentary instruments out of wood and metal. As Krüger’s sight began deteriorating, he encouraged young Johannes to take an active part in the observation part of science.

When he was nineteen, Hevelius watched the total solar eclipse of 1630 and saw Saturn veil the moon in a rare lunar eclipse. He was filled with cosmic awe, but wasn’t ready, or didn’t yet know how, to translate this sense of purpose into a career in astronomy. Instead, he married the daughter of a distinguished businessman and settled into the comfortable life of a merchant. But in 1639, when Krüger was on his deathbed, he urged young Hevelius not to let his exceptional gift go to waste. Aware that his end was near, Krüger lamented that he would miss the rare solar eclipse about to occur later that year and exhorted Hevelius to take up the historic task of its observation.

Equipment used by Hevelius with a telescope to project an astronomical image onto a sheet of paper. This arrangement was used in his historic observation of the transit of Mercury on May 3, 1661.

His teacher’s dying words reawakened Hevelius’s forsaken but fiery love of astronomy. On June 1, 1639, he meticulously observed the solar eclipse, then decided to dedicate the rest of his life to understanding the cosmos. True to the notion that revolutionary discovery is the product of “the meeting of the right people at the right place with just the right problem,” Hevelius harnessed the fruitfulness of his timing — just as he chose to devote himself to astronomy, the telescope was revolutionizing the field and making possible discoveries never before imagined.

Hevelius's revolutionary map of the moon

Hevelius was particularly enchanted with the moon and made it the target of his first obsessive observations. Dissatisfied with the imprecise and vague drawings of its surface, he decided to complain the way all innovators do — by making something better. Turning his modest telescope to the moon and enlisting his talents as a draftsman and engraver, he set out to create a large, complete, delicately detailed map of its surface. But he quickly realized his telescope wasn’t up to the task — so he decided to build a better one himself. In 1647, after five years of methodical work fueled by this greatest talent — dogged patience — Hevelius published his magnificent maps under the title Selenographia.

One of Hevelius's exquisitely illustrated phases of the moon from 'Selenographia'

One of his first great admirers was the famed English traveler Mundy who, upon seeing the maps, marveled in his diary:

Of the Moone he hath Made above 30 large mappes, prints, or Copper peeces of the Manner of every daies encrease and decrease, deciphering in her land and sea, Mountaines, valleies, Ilands, lakes, etts., making in another little world, giving Names to every part, as wee in a mappe of our world.

Praise continued to pour in from all over Europe, but the greatest validation of the maps’ merit was the fact that they endured as the best moon maps for more than a century, despite the rapid progress of observational tools — assurance, perhaps, that what sets innovators apart from the rest aren’t their tools but their creative vision in using those tools and their unrelenting work ethic.

Encouraged, Hevelius set out to improve his observations, building bigger and better telescopes, with an unblinking eye on his most important project — the quest to revise the paltry star catalogs of the era. Star catalogs, Hevelius knew, were an essential tool for astronomers, enabling them to track the changes taking place in constellations — changes that would profoundly challenge the religious dogmas of the day, which depicted the universe as a static starscape laid out by a divine creator a long time ago. At a time when heliocentrism — the knowledge that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice-versa as the church claimed — was still a novel and controversial concept, proving that the universe was a dynamic ecosystem of bodies would be a major feat for science. But star maps had to be accurate and precise in order to reveal these changes.

So, in 1641, shortly after his thirtieth birthday, Hevelius began building his rooftop observatory. Three years into his work, the city of Danzig presented him with a gift — an astronomical instrument that had been stored in Danzig armory for many years, alongside firefighting equipment, the use and worth of which had remained unknown. A six-foot contraption known as an azimuthal quadrant, it had been envisioned by Krüger but remained uncompleted by his death. Once again, Hevelius’s mentor was shaping the course of his life, even from the grave — Hevelius completed the instrument, mounted it on his observatory tower, and began making observations with it. With its ability to measure the angular distances between neighboring stars, it became a key tool in the completion of his stellar catalog. Long before the invention of the meridian circle, Hevelius used his instrument to record coordinates according to what was essentially an equator line.

Hevelius and his large azimuthal quadrant, which he used to make many of the measurements in his fixed-star catalog

Over the sixteen years that followed, Hevelius expanded his observatory and equipped it with the best instruments he could build or acquire. His became Europe’s finest observatory.

But perhaps the most important event in Hevelius’s life and career was not one of science but of romance — or, rather, an exquisite fusion of the two. When he was 55, widowed for over a year, Hevelius married a young woman named Elisabeth Koopman, the daughter of an acquaintance of his, a Danzig merchant. Hevelius had known Elisabeth, many years his junior, since she was a child, when she had implored him to teach her astronomy. As a young woman, she had renewed her request, enveloping the now-revered astronomer with admiration and, soon, adoration. A German biography quotes her as exclaiming one night, while looking through Hevelius’s telescope:

To remain and gaze here always, to be allowed to explore and proclaim with you the wonder of the heavens; that would make me perfectly happy!

It was, essentially, a marriage proposal, which Hevelius gladly accepted. They were wedded at St. Catherine’s Church in 1663. Johannes was 52; Elisabeth was 17. Before recoiling in modern judgment, it’s important to note that such unions were far from uncommon at the time. But perhaps more importantly, they were often the only way for women, who were were barred from most formal education and scholarly work, to gain access to creative and intellectual pursuits through a kind of conjugal apprenticeship.

Hevelius and Elisabeth observing at the six-foot brass sextant

That is precisely what young Elisabeth, who had developed an active interest in astronomy at an early age, did. Hevelius saw in her a kindred mind, and they began making astronomical observations together as she mastered the craft. Nearly two centuries before Maria Mitchell, Elisabeth Hevelius essentially became the first Western female astronomer. All the while, she emboldened her husband — another biography cites her most frequent words of encouragement to him:

Nothing is sweeter than to know everything, and enthusiasm for all good arts brings, some time or other, excellent rewards.

In the years following their marriage, Elisabeth continued to observe the stars, but also gave birth to four children — a boy, who died in infancy, and three girls. All the while, she worked alongside Hevelius in completing the star catalog that had become the holy grail of his scientific career and his highest hope for a lasting legacy. In one of his books, Hevelius, who spoke highly of Elisabeth’s scientific skills and called her the “faithful Aide of [his] nocturnal Observations” in a letter to the king of France, included an engraving of the duo making an observation together.

With Elisabeth’s help, Hevelius published the first star maps in a planned series in 1673. The most extraordinary thing about them was that, as he explained in the preface, he had made most of the observations not with a telescope but with a naked eye — a practical method he favored, despite acknowledging the theoretical advantages of telescopes. It was a controversial statement in the golden age of telescopic studies, which caused a tumult among Europe’s astronomers, but Hevelius’s astounding accuracy spoke for itself and established him as the last and greatest of the naked-eye star observers.

Hevelius's comet drawings

Hevelius's comet drawings

But the fire that destroyed Hevelius’s observatory in 1679 nearly put a halt to his quest to catalog the stars. Desperate to resume his project, Hevelius wrote to French king Louis XIV, one of his longtime patrons, a lyrical and heartfelt plea for financial support. The letter stands as an exquisite exemplar of the art of asking, as well as the curious testament to how deeply religious piety permeated the minds of even the most dedicated scientists of the time:

Most Illustrious and mightiest King, most beneficent Lord: Your high Favour and incomparable Mercy have ever spurred me to scatter with diligence the Seeds of my Gratitude and to sow them in the Bosom of Urania, so that I have set in the Heavens nigh to seven hundred Stars which were not there aforetimes, and have named some of them after your Majesty. . .

But, alas, will this Fruit of the Labours of mine Age ever see the Light of Day? For no man knoweth what the Dark of Even bringeth. Woe and alas, how multitudinous the Misfortunes that embroil the Life of Man. All my worldly Goods and Hopes have been overturned in the Space of scarce an Hour.

Rumour of the dread Conflagration which hath destroyed my astronomical Tower hath no doubt already sped upon rapid Feet to Paris. Now I come myself hasting to Your Majesty as Herald of this great Woe, clad in Sackcloth and Ashes, deep distressed by this Visitation from Him Who judgeth all Things.

[...]

May the Windows of the Human Soul never again look upon such a conflagration as devoured my three Houses… if God had not commanded the Wind to turn in its Course, all of the Old City of Danzig would surely have burned to the Ground…

Saved by God’s Mercy were .. Kepler’s immortal Works, which I purchased from his Son, my Catalogue of Stars, my New and Improved celestial Globe, and the thirteen Volumes of my Correspondence with learned Men and the Crowned Head of all Lands.

But the cruel Flames have consumed all the Machines and Instruments conceived by long Study and constructed, alas, at such great Cost, Consumed also the Printing Press with Letters … consumed, finally my Fortune and the means which God’s Mercy had granted me to serve the Royal Science.

If such Damage should crush me to the Ground, I whose Locks are Hoary and who am not far from my Appointed End, could any reasonable Man cast Blame upon me therefor? Yet with the Aid of my many Friends I hope that I may restore my Specula observatoria, and implore you, Most Illustrious Monarch who have so often manifested Royal Munificence toward me, to breathe by some further Token of your Generosity new Life into the Work which may still lie before me. Then will I no longer bewail my cruel Misfortune, and yours, Noble Majesty, will be eternal Fame for all Posterity.

The king, moved, granted his request. But the most generous support came from the king of Poland, who granted Hevelius a yearly stipend of 1,000 Danzig gulden for the rest of his life. The astronomer thus went on to resume his observations and finish his publications.

In October of 1681, the French writer Jean-François Regnard visited the newly rebuilt observatory and marveled in his little-known diary not only at Hevelius’s prolific writings and his impressive proto-rolodex, but also at his sublime cross-pollination of art and science:

His works, the number of which exceeds all belief … are full of plates made with his own hand: he shewed us them all, besides fifteen large volumes, as thick as the Lives of the Saints, full of letters which the most learned men on the whole world had written to him on various subjects.

Map of the constellations from 'Prodromus Astronomiae'

But Hevelius remained preoccupied with the completion of his catalog of the stars, which had become his most consuming endeavor and his highest hope for legacy. Alas, he never fully attained it — at least not as a sole creator. On January 28, 1687 — the exact date of his 76th birthday — Hevelius died, having outlived the era’s life expectancy by decades. But Elisabeth, who had assisted him in the catalog all along, took it upon herself to finish Hevelius’s lifelong quest. She completed the book, dedicating it to the generous Polish monarch. The finished catalog included more than 600 new stars that Johannes and Elisabeth had observed, as well as a dozen new constellations, whose names, as given by Hevelius, astronomers still use today.

One of Hevelius's plates depicting a new constellation he discovered, the Lynx, named for the sharpness of vision required to see its faint stars

Hercules with the new constellation Cerberus

Elisabeth guarded the manuscript carefully until her death in 1693, at the age of 46. She left to each of her three daughters a complete set of Hevelius’s published works. The eldest, Katharina — who as a teenager had saved her father’s star catalog from the fateful fire — fittingly inherited a beautifully illuminated copy of the book, originally prepared as a gift for Louis XIV. But once Katharina married, her husband sold most of Hevelius’s prized books to a museum in Russia. The manuscript of the star catalog that had survived the fire was overlooked. Ironically, the greedy son-in-law didn’t think Hevelius’s magnum opus valuable enough to sell.

But the story of the star catalog and its miraculous survival doesn’t end there: In 1734, during the Saxonian-Russian siege of Danzig, artillery fire struck the son-in-law’s house and destroyed most of the property. One bomb fell directly into the room where Hevelius’s manuscripts and instruments were kept, destroying nearly all unbound manuscripts. But the star catalog somehow survived once more. Over the next two centuries, it made its way to the Danzig Institute of Technology. Then, as World War II broke out, the German administration evacuated the Institute’s library to a nearby village, where it was almost completely destroyed in the last days of the war. And yet the star catalog, by yet another stroke of mysterious fortune, survived its third assault by fire. This strange phoenix of science finally arrived at Brigham Young University in 1971, where it has remained safe from fire and brimstone in the decades since.

The manuscript of the fixed-star catalog featured in front of a copy of the posthumously published 'Prodromus Astronomiae' (1690), opened to the title page of the printed version of the printed star catalog

Complement engrossing out-of-print gem Johannes Hevelius and His Catalog of Stars with this modern-day field guide to naked-eye stargazing, then revisit pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell’s wisdom on education and women in science.

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07 AUGUST, 2014

Rilke on Body and Soul

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“I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.”

Modern science is only beginning to shed light on how our minds actually affect our bodies, but entrenched deep in our cultural mythology is a dangerous divide between the two, which are often pitted against one another as an either/or proposition. Even the starving artist trope — which, like a proper cliché, became a victim of its own semantic success — is predicated on the idea that one must sacrifice the body in order to manifest the mind and set free the creative soul, the mythic “spiritual electricity” of art.

Count on Rainer Maria Rilke — literary history’s high priest of metaphysics, a writer of breathtaking letters, and a wise advisor of the young — to bridge the two and compromise neither. In a 1921 letter to a young girl who had asked him for advice, found in the collection Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke: 1910–1926 (public library; public domain), 46-year-old Rilke writes:

I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion. All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood, for which reason I precede my work, through a pure and simple way of life that is free from irritants and stimulants, as with an introductory prelude, so that I cannot be deceived over the true spiritual joy that consists in a concord, happy and as if transfigured, with the whole of Nature.

[...]

If I look into my conscience I see but one law, relentlessly commanding: to lock myself into myself and in one stretch to end this task that was dictated to me at the very center of my heart. I am obeying. . . . I have no right whatever to change the direction of my will before I have ended the act of my sacrifice and my obedience.

Channeling the philosophy of the main character in his only novel, the semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke goes on to reflect on the essence of art:

You must, in order that it shall speak to you, take a thing during a certain time as the only one that exists, as the only phenomenon which through your diligent and exclusive love finds itself set down in the center of the universe. . . . Don’t be frightened at the expression “fate” … I call fate all external events (illnesses, for example, included) which can inevitably step in to interrupt and annihilate a disposition of mind and training that is by nature solitary. . . .

That went through me like an arrow, when I learned it, but like a flaming arrow that, while it pierced my heart through, left it in a conflagration of clear sight. There are few artists in our day who grasp this stubbornness, this vehement obstinacy. But I believe that without it one remains always at the periphery of art, which is rich enough as it is to allow us pleasant discoveries, but at which, nevertheless, we halt only as a player at the green table who, while he now and again succeeds with a “coup”, remains none the less at the mercy of chance, which is nothing but the docile and dexterous ape of the law.

Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke: 1910–1926, which covers the period between the completion of Rilke’s novel and the writer’s death, offers a treasure trove of his timeless wisdom on love, life, and literature. Complement it with Rilke’s passionate love letters and his beloved posthumous volume Letters to a Young Poet, which moved generations and inspired a wealth of modern homages and reimaginings, from Anna Deavere Smith’s indispensable Letters to a Young Artist to Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian to James Harmon’s fantastic compendium of luminaries’ letters of advice to the young.

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