Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

02 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Emma Darwin’s Stirring Love Letter to Charles

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“I feel in my inmost heart your admirable qualities & feelings & all I would hope is that you might direct them upwards.”

Given my soft spot for exquisite love letters, particularly those exchanged between yesteryear’s greats — including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, E. B. White and Katharine White — I was hopelessly heartened to discover a missive addressed to Charles Darwin from Emma Wedgwood, with whom the father of evolution spent the remaining forty years of his life and raised ten children. Found in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 9 (public library), the letter comes nearly thirty years into their marriage, long after young Darwin penned his famous and timelessly endearing list of the pros and cons of marriage.

In June of 1861, shortly after Darwin faced a major confrontation with the British clergy over their accusations that his theory of evolution was heresy, Emma sends Charles this exquisite testament to love’s power of spiritual elevation:

I cannot tell you the compassion I have felt for all your sufferings for these weeks past that you have had so many drawbacks. Nor the gratitude I have felt for the cheerful & affectionate looks you have given me when I know you have been miserably uncomfortable.

My heart has often been too full to speak or take any notice I am sure you know I love you well enough to believe that I mind your sufferings nearly as much as I should my own & I find the only relief to my own mind is to take it as from God’s hand, & to try to believe that all suffering & illness is meant to help us to exalt our minds & to look forward with hope to a future state. When I see your patience, deep compassion for others self command & above all gratitude for the smallest thing done to help you I cannot help longing that these precious feelings should be offered to Heaven for the sake of your daily happiness. But I find it difficult enough in my own case. I often think of the words “Thou shalt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee.” It is feeling & not reasoning that drives one to prayer. I feel presumptuous in writing thus to you.

I feel in my inmost heart your admirable qualities & feelings & all I would hope is that you might direct them upwards, as well as to one who values them above every thing in the world. I shall keep this by me till I feel cheerful & comfortable again about you but it has passed through my mind often lately so I thought I would write it partly to relieve my own mind.

To further celebrate the intersection of science and romance, see Darwin’s life adapted in poems by his great-granddaughter, then revisit Richard Dawkins’s beautiful letter to his daughter on the importance of evidence in science and in love.

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28 AUGUST, 2013

Why Invest in Space Exploration? Isaac Asimov’s Witty 1969 Letter

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“The people of the United States spend exactly as much money on booze alone as on the space program.”

The quest to understand our place in the cosmos has long mesmerized humanity. Dreams of space travel captivated our collective imagination long before the Space Race materialized as a reality. Indeed, this very spirit of exploration and curiosity has been, as Brian Cox elegantly put it, “the rocket fuel that powers our civilization.” Ray Bradbury saw in it the key to the immortality of the human race and without it, Carl Sagan would’ve never inspired and humbled generations with his iconic love letter to the cosmos. After all, what better and more tangible reminder that we are all stardust than direct immersion in the cosmos? And yet, space exploration has been shoved down a sinking spiral in the hierarchy of executive priorities — one of our era’s most tragic failures of political imagination.

The Carina Nebula (public domain image courtesy of NASA)

From Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime in Letters (public library), which also gave us Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan, comes the beloved author’s succinct reality check, a timelier-than-ever rebuttal of half-baked arguments debating the value of space exploration — something that must be restated again and again with ever-greater urgency and passion.

In a letter to a friend dated July 23, 1969 — just three days after the “giant leap for mankind” that was the historic Apollo 11 moon landing — Asimov writes with his signature blend of wry humor, irreverence, and unflinching conviction:

I got a letter from a reader who wrote to berate me on the expense of the space program and telling me I ought to be ashamed for not spending the money on the cities and the poor.

I wrote back to say that the people of the United States spend exactly as much money[*] on booze alone as on the space program. And if you add tobacco, drugs, cosmetics, and worthless patent medicines (and chewing gum, suggests Carl Sagan), then we spend far more on these useless-to-harmful substances than on space exploration.

I asked her if she indulged in any of these vices and if she would consider sponsoring a movement to have the people give up these things and donate the money equivalent to the cities. (Of course, this would throw a hell of a lot of people out of work, which shows how difficult it is to do anything.

* Asimov was inadvertently softening the situation — if he knew the real numbers, which have changed little since his day, he would’ve been even more appalled: Americans spent $50 billion a year on alcohol, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while NASA’s entire annual budget is $18 billion.

Fourteen years later, Asimov reiterated his conviction in this delightful interview for Muppet Magazine.

Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime in Letters remains a treasure trove of wisdom and wit in its entirety. Complement this particular bit with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent testimony before Senate on the value of space exploration — possibly the most poetic and profound speech on science ever delivered before the revered legislative chamber, then revisit Asimov, Sagan, and Bradbury’s legendary 1971 conversation on Mars and the mind of man.

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20 AUGUST, 2013

E. B. White’s Love Letter to His Wife on the Occasion of Her Pregnancy, “Written” by Their Dog

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“White has been stewing around for two days now, a little bit worried because he is not sure that he has made you realize how glad he is that there is to be what the column writer in the Mirror calls a blessed event.”

E. B. White — beloved author, celebrator of New York, champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style — topped the ranks of literary history’s famous pet-lovers as he made room in his home and his heart for a dozen dogs of various breeds over the course of eight decades. Indeed, dogs, alongside literature and his wife Katharine, whom he married in 1929 and loved until death did them part in 1977, were the love of White’s life. E. B. White on Dogs (public library) gathers his finest letters, poems, sketches, and essays celebrating his canine companions in a soul-quenching compilation by his granddaughter and literary executor, Martha White, who believes her grandfather was able to “observe and express his own childlike wonder at the natural world around him” through his furry friends and their boundless eccentricities.

Among the collection’s greatest gems is a letter to Katharine that White penned in the spring of 1930 on the occasion of her pregnancy with their first and only child together, Joel. What makes the missive extraordinary, however, is that it was “written” by Daisy, Katharine’s beloved Scotty. More than a quirky delight, the choice was also a sentimental wink — Elwyn had met Katharine, a literary agent, at the New Yorker in 1925, where she had taken a job to distract her from the problems of her collapsing first marriage; shortly after she finally divorced her husband, she and White eloped and got married, with only Daisy as their witness; they were back at their desks the next day.

Katharine S. White with infant Joel in the pram and Daisy on a leash, New York City, 1931

Dear Mrs. White:

I like having Josephine here in the morning, although I suppose I will get less actual thinking done — as I used to do my thinking mornings in the bathroom. White has been stewing around for two days now, a little bit worried because he is not sure that he has made you realize how glad he is that there is to be what the column writer in the Mirror calls a blessed event. So I am taking this opportunity, Mrs. White, to help him out to the extent of writing you a brief note which I haven’t done in quite a long time but have been a little sick myself as you know. Well, the truth is White is beside himself and would have said more about it but is holding himself back, not wanting to appear ludicrous to a veteran mother. What he feels, he told me, is a strange queer tight little twitchy feeling around the inside of his throat whenever he thinks that something is happening which will require so much love and all on account of you being so wonderful. (I am not making myself clear I am afraid, but on the occasions when White has spoken privately with me about this he was in no condition to make himself clear either and I am just doing the best I can in my own way.) I know White so well that I always know what is the matter with him, and it always comes to the same thing — he gets thinking that nothing that he writes or says ever quite expresses his feeling, and he worries about his inarticulateness just the same as he does about his bowels, except it is worse, and it makes him either mad, or sick, or with a prickly sensation in the head. But my, my, my, last Sunday he was so full of this matter which he couldn’t talk about, and he was what Josephine in her simple way would call hoppy, and particularly so because it seemed so good that everything was starting at once — I mean those things, whatever they are, that are making such a noise over in the pond by Palmer Lewis’s house, and the song sparrow that even I could hear from my confinement in the house, and those little seeds that you were sprinkling up where the cut glass and bones used to be — all starting at the same time as the baby, which he seems to think exists already by the way he stands around staring at you and muttering little prayers. Of course he is also very worried for fear you will get the idea that he is regarding you merely as a future mother and not as a present person, or that he wants a child merely as a vindication of his vanity. I doubt if those things are true; White enjoys animal husbandry of all kinds including his own; and as for his regard for you, he has told me that, quite apart from this fertility, he admires you in all kinds of situations or dilemmas, some of which he says have been quite dirty.

Well, Mrs. White, I expect I am tiring you with this long letter, but as you often say yourself, a husband and wife should tell each other about the things that are on their mind, otherwise you get nowhere, and White didn’t seem to be able to tell you about his happiness, so thought I would attempt to put in a word.

White is getting me a new blanket, as the cushion in the bathroom is soiled.

Lovingly, Daisy

This missive is without a doubt among history’s most beautiful love letters, joining those exchanged between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. The remainder of E. B. White on Dogs is equally fantastic, imbued with White’s warm wit and expansive heart.

Thanks, Kaye

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