Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

20 DECEMBER, 2013

Hans Christian Andersen’s Little-Known Sketches: The Beloved Storyteller’s Illustrated Travelogue of Europe


What made Andersen particularly enchanting was his singular gift for noticing and depicting not only the whimsical, but also the wistful.

Hans Christian Andersen forever changed storytelling with his timeless fairy tales, but he was also among those rare famous creators with multiple talents: After he received a small travel grant from the King of Denmark in his late twenties, Andersen, a prolific diarist, set out to tour Europe and populated the pages of his journals with beautiful passages about the places he visited during his travels, accompanied by his own sketches of the sights and scenes that spoke to him. Found in The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen (public library), these little-known and lovely sketches, both literary and visual, bespeak the celebrated writer’s capacity for not only witnessing life with extraordinary presence of heart and mind, but also for capturing its vibrancy in minute, expressive detail — the kind that the ordinary person dismisses as mundane but the great storyteller transmogrifies into magical material for world-building.

Andersen drew his very first sketch in 1821, when he was sixteen — he was already enamored with the theater as a youth, dreaming of escaping from his small hometown of Odense to become an actor in Copenhagen, so it is of little surprise that he chose to depict a theater stage in that seminal drawing:

Stage of the Royal Theater in Copenhagen, 1821, the earliest drawing by Andersen.

But over the next decade, Andersen devoted himself to poetry and other literary pursuits. By 1831, he had established himself as a promising young writer, but as any rising talent, he wasn’t immune to attacks. After one that particularly hurt him — Henrik Hertz’s anonymously published 1830 critique Letters of a Ghost — Andersen decided to escape on a six-month trip across the Herz Mountains to Leipzig and Dresden, eventually returning to Copenhagen via Berlin and Hamburg. In the mountains, he visited the highest peak, Brocken, the legends of which were famously extolled in Goethe’s Faust.

Sketch of the trip from Lüneburg to Braunschweig, from a diary entry dated May 22, 1831.

The valley of the Plauenscher Grund near Dresden, from a diary entry dated June 4, 1831.

In 1833, Andersen traveled to Paris, then the Jura Mountains and the Brig district of Switzerland. Only twenty-eight, he had already begun to experience his first brush with international celebrity.

In the Jura Mountains

The gateway at Brig, from a diary entry dated September 18, 1833.

In a diary entry from September 18, 1833, he describes an encounter that struck him:

Went for a short walk in a black jacket, vest and trousers. The farmers probably took me for a cleric, because they stood still and tipped their hats. All of a sudden an old fellow came toward me and fell on his knees; then I got really scared and turned back. — This is the first time anyone has knelt in front of me.

The Simplon Road across the Alps.

This was the period when Andersen first began honing the literary talent that would later manifest in his travelogues, describing with exquisite emotionality the natural landscapes and architectural landmarks he was encountering on his travels. In an entry from September 19, 1833, he relays being overwhelmed by awe while traveling through the Alps:

The huge masses of stone gripped me; on one side a mighty waterfall plunged far down. — Everything was granite — it was like driving through the earth’s backbone.

Two days later, he adds with equal parts awe and pride:

Everything smelled fragrant; everything was so peaceful. . . . The Alps looked like the glass mountains of the fairy tale, and now I had crossed them.

Genoa, October 2, 1833

Andersen arrived in Milan a day later, then traveled to Genoa and Florence. On October 2, 1933, he wrote in the diary:

If France is the country of reason, then Italy is the country of the imagination. (Germany and Denmark, of the heart.) — Here is all you could wish for in a landscape — the oranges hanging so yellow between the lush greenery; big, grass-green lemons greeted us with their fragrance. — Everything was like a painting…

Egeria's Grotto outside Rome.

View of the dome of St. Peter's from Monte Mario, from a diary entry dated July 26, 1834.

Villa Borghese

Grave of Ascanius.

One of the most beautiful passages comes from a diary entry for October 26, which reads like a fairy tale:

On the big, silent Campagna the lonely ruins of the huge aqueduct stood. (Near Albano, the grave of Ascanius.) — In the little valley in Campagna lay some ground fog. We went through it. It was as if an elfin maid had wrapped her cloak around me; it was a dank shroud. I pressed my lips together to avoid the kiss.

By the summer of the following year, Andersen is still traveling across Italy. In an entry from July 25, 1835, he marvels:

We heard the sound of surf and then saw the endless blue sea off Sorrento; the moon was shining on the foam. Cape Mysenium, Procida and Ischia lay large as life before me. I was in paradise! It was masterful!

Beethoven's grave in the cemetery at Währing near Vienna, from a diary entry dated June 30, 1834.

Piazza del Trinità with Michelangelo's house, from a diary entry dated April 11, 1834.

Between 1835 and 1846, Andersen entered his most prolific creative period, during which he penned three novels, six collections of fairy tales, and six musical dramas. It was also then that his diaries got to their most expressive, suggesting that for Andersen, fairy tales were not a fancy but a record of his inner world and lived experience as he perceived it. For instance, he writes in a journal entry from November 3 of 1840, while traveling through Germany:

Yesterday we passed a forest; with its brown foliage it looked exactly like a copper forest. There was something so utterly magical about it that the big steers we encountered on the muddy road appeared to me to be enchanted people, for the one, of course, had to correspond to the other.

A street in Athens.

In 1841, he visits Athens, which he finds foreign and disorienting, but still revels in the whimsy of the new experience:

Imagine for yourself a town built in a hurry, as if for a big market, and that the market is in full swing — and there you have the new Athens. … The tall, solitary palm trees and cypresses nearby, the picturesque costumes! — I don’t understand it myself; I still don’t have any idea about it all, but I’m happy. I can’t really believe that I am in Greece, in Athens! The city is growing as I walk here!

Turkish graves near Constantinople, from a diary entry dated April 28, 1841.

From there, he visits Turkey — a brush with an even more unfamiliar culture. In a diary entry from April 29, 1841, he describes visiting a Turkish cemetery:

We went to the cemetery, which was very extensive. The graves of dervishes have dervish turbans; there are green turbans on the graves of those who themselves, or one of whose forefathers, have been to the Prophet’s grave. We walked so far that we could see the town Chalcedon and the Sea of Marmara. (In Scrutari we saw Ali Pasha’s grave, which had something like a wire birdcage over it and fountains.) Carved in the burial stones by the graves there is one big hole or two small ones for water, so that dogs can quench their thirst — this is a blessing for the dead.

But as a native Bulgarian who has frequently witnessed foreigners’ perplexity by traditional Balkan music, I was especially amused by Andersen’s description of the Turks’ singing and dancing:

A strange song with shifting rhythms was sung by a few of [the dervishes] and then by them all. It was something with scales and runs, as if a musically gifted savage had heard an Italian singer for the first time and now in his own way was trying to imitate him.

He describes a dancing dervish with the same bemused colonialist’s judgment:

His body moved to the one side, then into obscene positions; finally all his limbs were moving as if they were driven by a steam engine. All the dancers were groaning and drawing in deep breaths. The sweat was dripping from their pale faces; at last they sank to the ground. I felt really discomforted.

Whirling dervishes at Pera

In a diary entry from the following day, April 30, he visits a monastery in Pera and observes another traditional dance, this time with more admiration than judgment. Incidentally, that particular dance embodied Carl Sagan’s assertion about ancient religions celebrating cosmology — the dervishes were dancing about astronomy:

The dervishes took off their tunics and now stood in their brimless, high-crowned white hats, in open green jackets and long green skirts that were extremely wide, looking like funnels on them when they whirled themselves around on the same spot with their arms stretched out and half raised. There were two in the middle; the others were turning around them and around themselves. A priest walked very quietly among the ones in the middle and those on the outside. Their faces were extremely pale. There was the sound of music and the singing. They stopped suddenly and stood still for a moment; then they began to dance the same dance again. They looked just like lifeless dolls; they were portraying the course of the planets.

The next day, May 1, another magical passage depicting nature as a fairy tale:

The nightingales were jugging, and the turtledoves were cooing in the high cypresses. The Sea of Marmara was like glass; the mountains in Asia seemed ethereal; in the clear air beyond lay a chain of snow-covered mountains. Ships with all their sails were lying at anchor like swans mirroring themselves in the water; the small boats were gliding like back snakes across the current.

A Wallachian girl.

But what made Andersen a particularly enchanting storyteller was that he was able to notice and convey not only the whimsical, but also the wistful. On May 6, upon arriving on the desolate and barren coast of Constanta, Romania, he writes:

A dead stork was lying by the sea; it had a melancholy effect on me — it had just reached the sea and then sunk down dead. … A wet, cold fog; the entire sea hidden from sight. Close to the dead stork there was a dead dog; I didn’t make a note of it — the stork appealed to my imagination; the dog had perhaps been noble and faithful, and now went unnoticed.

The irony, of course, is that he did make a note of it, and therein lies Andersen’s greatest, most timeless talent — his singular ability to notice what goes unnoticed by most, and to imbue it with a story that speaks to our deepest fears and our highest aspirations: In the dead dog, he saw the human virtues of honor and loyalty, as well as the tragedy of dying without having mattered, and what could be more resonant with the human condition than that?

Monument on a grave.

The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen is an enchanting read in its entirety, revealing the inner world of this legendary world-builder with unprecedented intimacy. Complement it with other famous creators’ little-known art, including Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, William Faulkner’s Jazz-Age drawings, Richard Feynman’s sketches, Marilyn Monroe’s poetry, and Sylvia Plath’s drawings.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

19 DECEMBER, 2013

Jane Austen on Creative Integrity


How to defend your creative vision against commercial pressure with graciousness, honor, and unflinching conviction.

“Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in,” beloved Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson famously admonished in his speech on creative integrity. “Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.”

In December of 1815, Jane Austen released her novel Emma (free download), followed closely by a second edition of her controversial 1814 novel Mansfield Park (free download) — the last two novels published during her lifetime. The former sold well, but the latter was a commercial failure — so much so that it nearly absorbed all of Austen’s profits from Emma. In the spring of 1816, less than a year before her death, she received a letter from Mr. Clarke, chaplain and private English secretary to Prince Leopold and the librarian at His Royal Highness’s Coburg House, who had come to admire Austen’s talents but also wanted to steer them in a certain direction. He suggested that “a historical romance illustrative of the august House of Coburg would just now be very interesting” — essentially a request for a publicity puff piece that would be at once more commercially successful for her and politically beneficial for the Prince. (A proposition tragically prescient and familiar amidst our day and age of churnalism and clickbait vacant of substance.) But in a letter from April 1 that year, found in A Memoir of Jane Austen (public library; public domain), the celebrated author stands her ground with equal parts integrity and elegance, articulating the supremacy of the creative impulse over the allure of commercial success and capturing the very essence of why writers write:

My dear Sir,

I am honoured by the Prince’s thanks and very much obliged to yourself for the kind manner in which you mention the work…. You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe-Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

I remain, my dear Sir,
  Your very much obliged,
    and very sincere friend,
  J. Austen.

During that time, Austen had begun to write her final novel, which she titled The Elliots. She completed the draft mere months after her letter to Clarke. But she never lived to see it published, succumbing to fatal illness in July of 1817. It was posthumously published under the title Persuasion (free download) six months later.

In 2013, the Bank of England announced that Jane Austen would appear on its currency, making her only the third woman in history, after Elizabeth Fry and Florence Nightingale, to appear on a British banknote.

A Memoir of Jane Austen, written by Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh and originally published in 1869, is excellent in its entirety, offering an unprecedented, highly influential first-hand account of the elusive icon’s character and habits, and painting a dimensional portrait of the author whom Virginia Woolf called “the most perfect artist among women.”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

19 DECEMBER, 2013

The Story of Benjamin Franklin’s Sister and How Women Are Sidelined in History


Exposing the subjectivity of history’s substance.

“I Read as much as I Dare,” Jane Franklin once wrote to her older brother Benjamin. Jane was the youngest daughter of the Franklin family, and Benjamin the youngest son. Both were members of an undistinguished lineage of Francklynnes, then Francklins, and eventually Franklins, none of whom established themselves as much more than the name suggested — blacksmiths, tinkerers, experimenters—until Benjamin made their name one of the most famous in America.

The story of Jane Franklin is the story of a woman living on the fringes of recorded history. We know her only through the letters responded to by her brother, and a small book — a “Book of Ages” — which lists no more than the dates of births, marriages, and deaths for her children, her husband, and herself. It is this tiny work that Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore places at the center of her fantastic biography Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (public library), which she describes as “a book of remembrance”:

[Jane Franklin] had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones. Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together. The remains of her remains.

Jane Franklin spent very little of her life with her now-famous last name. She became Jane Mecom at fifteen, married to an unremarkable and increasingly troublesome saddler of twenty-two, Edward Mecom, who simply moved himself into the Franklin home and began attempting, unsuccessfully, to find himself a job. Benjamin’s married life also began with little fanfare as he entered a common-law marriage with his landlady’s daughter Deborah — who was already married to a deserting husband — at twenty-four, after fathering an illegitimate child with another women. This, however, did not define the course of his life.

The birthplace of Jane and Benjamin Franklin. Jane would live here for most of her life, while Benjamin would leave to pursue his apprenticeship.

Their educations were typical for common men and women of the time, and yet vastly different. Jane was proficient at reading and writing, her entries in her Book of Ages involve an elaborately looped and fashionable form of handwriting. But her letters would surely disappoint a modern reader, as they did Jane herself, with their poor spelling and often indecipherable sentences. Nearly every letter begins with an apology for the spelling or the grammar therein — and yet this wasn’t something to hold against her: As Lapore explains at the beginning of the book, “all original English spellings have been retained. Spelling is part of the story.”

Spelling was not as rigidly defined in the education of women, who would write their family members and keep household accounts. Jane knew what good writing was, for she read it as much as she dared, and she received it from her brother. Benjamin wrote formal, “polite” letters, as Lepore describes it. Jane wrote as she talked — how would she know any differently? In her letters, she apologized for their content, for their form, for their grammar, for their penmanship — ”Dont let it mortifie that such a Scraw came from your Sister.”

Letter-writing wasn’t only a primary form of communication, it was also a rare chance at self-expression. To spell badly and be misunderstood was a constant source of frustration between sister and brother: “I know I have wrote & and speld this worse that I do sometimes but I hope you will find it out.”

Yet Jane was more literate than most women of her stature. She herself was poor, in trade, relying on a husband who was increasingly in debt, but she had two brothers who were printers, and who printed some of the most popular tracts and journals in the colonies. Her education consisted of the scraps of Benjamin Franklin’s own haphazard and self-directed education, to which he was entitled as a man in the world of the day.

Spelling and punctuation were irregular habits for most — something only standardized among printers and readers. Benjamin Franklin was one of the most prolific printers in all the land and spelling was his profession, which only served to illuminate for Jane how little she had been taught. Jane’s education was one of knitting, sewing, cleaning, and learning to make soap — the Franklin family trade.

Jane Mecom’s copy of The Ladies Library, 'written by a lady,' edited by Richard Steele, 1714.

When she turned twenty-one, her brother gave her a book, The Ladies Library. Meant to encourage her reading, the book was mostly a screed on virtue, duty, a woman’s place as wife and mother, piety, and repentance. In Philadelphia, Benjamin had begun the Free Library as a means of repairing “in some Degree the loss of the Learned Education my father once intended for me.” The three volumes of The Ladies Library were not meant to repair — they contained no history whatsoever — but were instead considered a complete education.

In 1750, the year she turned thirty-eight, Benjamin sent Jane a copy of Experiments and Observations on Electricity, which she read modestly. She often read his work, “as far as my capacity Enables me to understand it.” “His books,” Lepore writes, “her capacity.” She had been pregnant twelve times in twenty-two years before she gave birth to her last child at thirty-nine. Benjamin had three. Benjamin’s life was measured in worldly accomplishments — new employment, a controversial essay, a promotion, a successful experiment; Jane in the most harrowing of life’s beginnings and endings — the birth and death of her children. In between is the stuff of life, of keeping house, attempting to get her husband out of debt, to keep their tallow-trade afloat, of scrambling for money, taking in rags, starting a new business, failing, starting another. Yet her days were no less worth recording than her brother’s, Lepore argues.

Jane Mecom’s copy of Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity, 1750.

Her days were days of flesh: the little legs, the little arms, the little hands clutched around her neck, the softness. Her days were days of toil: swaddling and nursing the baby, washing and dressing the boys, scrubbing everyone’s faces, feeling everyone’s hunger, cleaning everyone’s waste. She taught her children to read. She made sure they learned to write better than she did.

Book of Ages is a remarkable biography of a woman whom no one considered remarkable, a woman who lived on the fringes of history. That Lepore chooses to shine her historian’s light on Jane Franklin is itself a remarkable act, for this is a book with a ghostly heroine at its center, better described by her outline and the negative space shaped by those who surrounded her.

But this is a biography about the substance of history: who gets to write it, who gets to choose what is written. Should Jane Franklin’s small book of deaths and births sit on the same shelf as her brother’s collected work? It is by all accounts minuscule, insubstantial, but Lepore reveals the deep intelligence behind each carefully looped letter. “The Book of Ages was her archive,” Lepore writes. “Behold the historian.”

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

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.