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Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Mead’

06 AUGUST, 2014

Margaret Mead on Female vs. Male Creativity, the “Bossy” Problem, Equality in Parenting, and Why Women Make Better Scientists

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“In the long run it is the complex interplay of different capacities, feminine and masculine, that protects the humanity of human beings.”

Margaret Mead is celebrated as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, having not only popularized anthropology itself but also laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. She brought the essential tools of anthropology — the art of looking, coupled with a great capacity for listening, for asking and answering questions — to her prolific university lectures, public talks, and presentations at various organizations that claimed her time and thought. In the sixteen-year period between 1963 and January of 1979, Redbook Magazine published Mead’s answers to the best questions she had received from audience members over her extensive career — questions about love, sex, religion, politics, social dynamics, gender equality, personal choices, and the human condition.

After Mead’s death in late 1978, her partner for the last twenty-two years, the anthropologist and Redbook editor Rhoda Metraux, collected the best of these questions and answers in Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library). As Metraux writes in the foreword, “Margaret Mead’s most winning gift was surely her capacity for immediate, zealous response… She took for granted that a sophisticated question required a sophisticated answer, but she never rebuffed the person who had to struggle to find words. One thing exasperated her: without hesitation she pricked the balloon of the pompous, pretentious questioner.”

With her characteristic blend of scientific rigor, humanistic wisdom, and strong personal conviction, Mead addresses a number of issues all the timelier today, but none with more prescience than the question of the shifting social norms and responsibilities for women and men.

In 1963, she offers a wonderfully dimensional answer to a question about why “the most outstanding creative people in all fields have been predominantly men,” folding into her rationale the still-radical assertion that women make naturally better scientists:

There are three possible positions one can take about male and female creativity. The first is that males are inherently more creative in all fields. The second is that if it were not for the greater appeal of creating and cherishing young human beings, females would be as creative as males. If this were the case, then if men were permitted the enjoyment women have always had in rearing young children, male creativity might be reduced also… The third possible position is that certain forms of creativity are more congenial to one sex than to the other and that the great creative acts will therefore come from only one sex in a given field.

There is some reason to believe that males may always excel — by just the small degree that makes the difference between good capacity and great talent — in such fields as music and mathematics, where creativity involves imposing form rather than finding it. There is also reason to believe that women have a slightly greater potential in those fields in which it is necessary to listen and learn, to find forms in nature or in their own hearts rather than to make entirely new ones; these fields could include certain areas of literature, and some forms of science that depend on observation and recognition of pattern, such as the study of living creatures or children or societies.

But Mead argues that the capacity for achievement is, above all, a matter of context, which is invariably a social construct — something that only intensifies our responsibility in creating a cultural context that allows all creative abilities to shine:

When women work in a creative field, even one that is particularly congenial to them, they must generally work with forms that were created by men, or else struggle against special odds to develop new forms. Until we have an educational system that permits enough women to work within any field — music, mathematics, painting, literature, biology and so on — so that forms which are equally congenial to both sexes are developed, we shall not have a fair test of this third possibility.

We do not know that what one sex has developed, members of the other sex can learn — from cookery to calculus. In those countries of the Eastern bloc in which women are expected to play an equal part with men in the sciences, great numbers of women have shown a previously unsuspected ability. We run a great risk of squandering half of our human gifts by arbitrarily denying any field to either sex or by penalizing women who try to use their gifts creatively.

In another question from December of the same year, Mead returns to the cultural differences across the Iron Curtain. A few months earlier, in June of 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova had become the world’s first woman in space. It would be twenty years until the second, American astronaut Sally Ride, launched into the cosmos. Considering the cultural context Russian vs. American women have for achievement in space exploration, Mead writes:

On the question of woman cosmonauts, the Russians have been able to be realistic and practical. If we are going to do anything important with space, especially with space colonization, then we need to know at once how well women can withstand the new conditions. The American tendency to protect men’s sense of masculinity by keeping women out of things results — as does our handling of race — simply in an American loss.

Illustration from 'Blast-Off,' a visionary 1973 children's book celebrating gender equality and ethnic diversity in space exploration. Click image for more.

In November of 1965, Mead answers a question about women’s evolving identity outside “their purely feminine role” and how they are to seek fulfillment beyond the qualities of beauty and charm traditionally rewarded as the height of female accomplishment:

It is probable that far more women can achieve lasting contentment … where a woman can be honored as a person because she has borne and cared for children, has taught in a school or cared for the sick, has managed a business, has practiced a profession, has written poems.

[...]

When marriage was for life and when death was likely to come early, a woman’s career as wife and mother was often completely circumscribed by her husband’s career as provider and achiever.

Today, however, this is no longer true. We educate girls so that they are capable of greater intellectual accomplishment than our form of marriage and housekeeping permits them to use. Marriages are not always for life. And child rearing takes up only part of a woman’s adult life. These three major changes have refocused our attention on the question of woman’s identity and the relationship between the feminine arts and feminine accomplishments.

But as these changes were afoot in the 1960s — the cusp of monumental cultural change, propelled by such landmark events as the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the introduction of the oral contraceptive pill in the early 1960s — many bemoaned the “defeminization” of society. Mead handles this term with enormous semantic skepticism and addresses it in answering a question from March of 1966:

Defeminization [may] refer to role. Where men have been the traditional breadwinners, initially it seems defeminizing when women go out to earn their living. Where all secretaries were men, as at one time they were in the English-speaking world, it was defeminizing for a woman to take a position as a secretary. Most roles of this kind are a matter of convention in a particular society at a given time. Their specific definitions as “masculine” or “feminine” often have very little to do with the capacities of men and women.

There is a sense, however, in which certain changes in women’s roles may be regarded as dehumanizing. Traditionally women have had to consider their children’s long-time protection and well-being to be their central goal. Where a society, by its moral conventions and standards of living or by various coercive rules and regulations,* forces women to neglect any of the necessary forms of prenatal and maternal behavior, there may be a dehumanizing effect on the members of that society — both men and women.

Before WWII, pink was a color associated with masculinity, considered a watered-down red symbolizing the power generally associated with that color. Photographs from Korean visual artist JeongMee Yoon's 'Pink and Blue Projects.' Click image for details.

Mead’s words ring with particular poignancy half a century later, in the Lean In era and its crusade against “bossy”, as she considers how women can counter these claims of “defeminization,” rooted in old values and male ideals, by claiming a new context of evaluation:

Whenever women become part of an organization or an activity that is defined as aggressively and ruthlessly competitive, they must develop a style of behavior different from that of men in the same occupation if they are not to become “defeminized.” … In the conference room, women do better to insist on high standards of courtesy, comfort and consideration in a mixed group of which they are an integral part. In the long run it is the complex interplay of different capacities, feminine and masculine, that protects the humanity of human beings.

Mead’s prescience doesn’t end there — half a century before Shonda Rhimes addressed the issue in her superb commencement address, Mead considers the impossible standards for women as they try to reconcile inhabiting their capacities fully with fulfilling traditional roles. In June of 1967, upon being asked whether modern women are becoming “increasingly narcissistic,” Mead offers a brilliant answer at once thoughtful and feisty:

The ideal of the all-purpose wife is perhaps the most difficult any society has set for its women.

[...]

It is taken for granted that [a woman] ought to be able to do everything, however hard and tedious, and still give the impression that she spends her days pleasantly and restfully, that she has the leisure to keep her hair shining and smoothly waved, her skin soft and glowing, her clothes fashion-model perfect and her smile warm and welcoming.

[...]

Educated women have never before been asked to pay so high a price for the right to be wives and mothers. The demand that in spite of their hard work they should be soignée, perfectly turned out and always charming puts an almost intolerable burden on them. Calling them narcissistic adds insult to injury.

All of this brings up an inevitable question: In June of 1967, nearly fifty years before our present age of “Be a man. Take paternity leave,” Mead explores the changing role of men in parenting:

We are evolving a new style of fatherhood, in which young fathers share very fully with mothers in the care of babies and little children… One question one can ask is what effect this is likely to have on the next generation and the life of the wider community.

Illustration by Øyvind Torseter from 'My Father's Arms Are a Boat' by Stein Erik Lunde. Click image for details.

Noting that the invention of bottle feeding and instant baby food has enabled fathers to do for their children everything mothers can physically do, she peers into the broader cultural liberation that equal parenting makes possible, returning to the question of male and female creative achievement:

Perhaps we are in the process of developing a style of parenthood that has never before been attempted by a civilized people, a style that will set children of both sexes free of some of the constraints that have forced on them narrow occupational and personality choices because of narrow sex identification. On the other hand, we may be destroying the set of motives that have made men the great achievers and innovators of civilization. At the same time we may not be developing enough ambitious and highly motivated women to take the place of the men whose chief delight is their children. It is still an open question how our children, as adults, will respond to the challenges of the wider society to become active in its concerns and interests.

In answering two questions in August of 1975, Mead considers the necessary shifts in gender dynamics that would help both men and women ease into such cultural change rather than tensing against it. Once again, her words resound with extraordinary prescience and emanate the bittersweet reminder that however far we may have come in resolving these issues, they still gape raw and vulnerable for both sexes. Mead writes:

It will take genuine commitment, not to labels such as chauvinist or liberationist, but to the value of human relationships to work out new ways for men and women to live together.

[...]

It isn’t really a question of men’s “getting over” [the liberation of women], but of men’s and women’s finding a new balance in their relationships.

Illustration from the parodic 1970 children's book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' by New Yorker cartoonist Whitney Darrow, Jr. Click image for details.

Mead examines the broader social dynamics underpinning the shift, which apply equally to other, present-day areas of resistance to social change, from immigration to marriage equality:

Whenever there are changes in the way tasks and roles, obligations and privileges, opportunities and responsibilities are apportioned between the sexes, among people of different ages or among people of different national backgrounds or races, some group is bound to feel threatened. But the curious thing is that those who are proposing — insisting on — change tend to believe that those who feel threatened must be hostile, and often they themselves become hostile in response to what they believe they perceive.

I emphasize these feelings of threat and counterthreat because I think that today, in the face of the Women’s Liberation Movement, we are making far too much of the point of necessary anger on the part of women and inevitable hostility on the part of men.

Roles are changing for both women and men. Women are being pressured on every side to insist on living in a different way and to believe that their past status was brought about by male oppression. At the same time men who thought that they were being good husbands and fathers and were working hard to care for and protect the mothers of their children are being accused of being oppressors — and angry oppressors at that. The whole process of change is taking place in an atmosphere of the greatest bad temper and a tremendous amount of secondary hostility is being generated that in itself poses a threat to a good outcome.

[...]

We should begin to realize that both men and women need liberation from a life-style that is stultifying and destructive to both sexes.

But despite the challenges of her time — challenges still very much present today — Mead saw the future of gender dynamics with unflinching optimism:

I believe we are already beginning to create new manly and womanly roles that will permit a great deal more individual choice as well as better health for men and a fuller, more gratifying sense of themselves for women.

Above all, she championed a vision for unmooring human potentiality from imprisoning stereotypes about gendered creative ability — something Susan Sontag memorably echoed a decade later — and creating the best possible conditions for individual gifts, male and female, to blossom:

There is encouraging evidence [that society] is moving — gradually, at least — toward recognition of individual aptitudes and inclinations, away from the automatic assignment of tasks based on stereotyped expectations of the capacities of either sex.

Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views is excellent in its entirety, brimming with Mead’s farsighted wisdom on culture and society. Complement it with her equally prescient views on same-sex love and her symbolic dream about the meaning of life.

* Mead is most likely referring to anti-abortion laws, which she consistently condemned for forcing girls and women into motherhood who may be unfit, unwilling, or socioeconomically unequipped to be mothers. In answering a question on the subject in 1963, she asserted: “I believe that our abortion laws should be changed… I believe that we should not prescribe the conditions under which abortion is permissible… Wherever abortion is illegal, unnumbered girls and women, married and unmarried, run frightful risks…”

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25 FEBRUARY, 2014

Life Is Like Blue Jelly: Margaret Mead Discovers the Meaning of Existence in a Dream

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Revelations from the laboratory of the unconscious.

The meaning of life has been contemplated by just about every thinking, feeling, breathing human being, and memorably so by a number of cultural icons, including Carl Sagan, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, David Foster Wallace, Richard Feynman, and other luminaries. But one of the most unusual and poignant meditations on the eternal question comes, obliquely yet with crystalline precision, from legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead.

In a 1926 letter found in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Mead’s love letters to her lifelong soulmate, Ruth Benedict, and her prescient thoughts on human sexuality — Mead recounts a particularly pause-giving dream. More than a mere record on the unconscious, it unfolds into a powerful metaphor for the meaning of life — for the beauty of not-knowing, for the soul-nourishment of wonder, and for the question of “enough” that Vonnegut once contemplated.

Mead writes:

Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in a laboratory with Dr. Boas and he was talking to me and a group of other people about religion, insisting that life must have a meaning, that man couldn’t live without that. Then he made a mass of jelly-like stuff of the most beautiful blue I had ever seen — and he seemed to be asking us all what to do with it. I remember thinking it was very beautiful but wondering helplessly what it was for. People came and went making absurd suggestions. Somehow Dr. Boas tried to carry them out — but always the people went away angry, or disappointed — and finally after we’d been up all night they had all disappeared and there were just the two of us. He looked at me and said, appealingly “Touch it.” I took some of the astonishingly blue beauty in my hand, and felt with a great thrill that it was living matter. I said “Why it’s life — and that’s enough” — and he looked so pleased that I had found the answer — and said yes “It’s life and that is wonder enough.”

Complement with famous scientists on the art of wonder.

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14 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Most Moving and Timelessly Beautiful LGBTQ Love Letters in History

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A sublime manifestation of the highest hope one soul can have for a union with another.

What is love? This question haunts the human psyche perhaps more persistently than any other. It has occupied our collective imagination for millennia, it has baffled scientists, taunted philosophers, and tantalized artists. So mystified by love were the Ancient Greeks that they itemized six types of it. But nothing defines it with more exquisite expressiveness than the love letter. At its best, it makes the personal universal, then personal again — a writer from another era or another culture captures the all-consuming complexity of love with more richness and color and dimension than we ourselves could, making us feel at once less alone and more whole in our understanding of love and of ourselves.

As we turn the leaf on a new chapter of modern history that embraces a more inclusive definition of love — both culturally and, at last, politically — here is a celebration of the human heart’s highest capacity through history’s most beautiful and timelessly bewitching LGBTQ love letters.

VIRGINIA WOOLF AND VITA SACKVILLE-WEST

The gender-bending protagonist in Virginia Woolf’s pioneering novel Orlando, which subverted censorship to revolutionize the politics of queer love, was based on the English poet Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s onetime passionate lover and lifelong dear friend. In fact, the entire novel is thought to have been written about the affair — so much so that Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, has described it as “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.” Be that as it may, the two women also exchanged some gorgeous love letters in real life, found in the altogether wonderful collection The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time (public library). Here is one from Virginia to Vita from January of 1927, shortly after the two had fallen madly in love:

Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.

On January 21, Vita sends Virginia this disarmingly honest, heartfelt, and unguarded letter, which stands in beautiful contrast with Virginia’s passionate prose:

…I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.

On the day of Orlando’s publication, Vita received a package containing not only the printed book, but also Virginia’s original manuscript, bound specifically for her in Niger leather and engraved with her initials on the spine.

MARGARET MEAD AND RUTH BENEDICT

Margaret Mead endures as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, who not only popularized anthropology itself but also laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s with her studies of attitudes towards sex. In addition to broadening cultural conventions through her work, she also embodied the revolution in her personal life. Married three times to men, she dearly loved her third husband, the renowned British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, with whom she had a daughter. But the most intense and enduring relationship of her life was with a woman — the anthropologist and folklorist Ruth Benedict, Mead’s mentor at Columbia university, fourteen years her senior. The two shared a bond of uncommon magnitude and passion, which stretched across a quarter century until the end of Benedict’s life.

Margaret’s love letters to Ruth, posthumously gathered in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) — which also gave us Mead’s prescient position on homosexuality — are a thing of absolute, soul-stirring beauty, on par with such famed epistolary romances as those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

In August of 1925, 24-year-old Mead sailed to Samoa, beginning the journey that would produce her enormously influential treatise Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. (Mead, who believed that “one can love several people and that demonstrative affection has its place in different types of relationship,” was married at the time to her first husband and they had an unconventional arrangement that both allowed her to do field work away from him for extended periods of time and accommodated her feelings for Ruth.) On her fourth day at sea, she writes Benedict with equal parts devotion and urgency:

Ruth, dear heart,

. . . The mail which I got just before leaving Honolulu and in my steamer mail could not have been better chosen. Five letters from you — and, oh, I hope you may often feel me near you as you did — resting so softly and sweetly in your arms. Whenever I am weary and sick with longing for you I can always go back and recapture that afternoon out at Bedford Hills this spring, when your kisses were rained down on my face, and that memory ends always in peace, beloved.

A few days later:

Ruth, I was never more earthborn in my life — and yet never more conscious of the strength your love gives me. You have convinced me of the one thing in life which made living worthwhile.

You have no greater gift, darling. And every memory of your face, every cadence of your voice is joy whereon I shall feed hungrily in these coming months.

In another letter:

[I wonder] whether I could manage to go on living, to want to go on living if you did not care.

And later:

Does Honolulu need your phantom presence? Oh, my darling — without it, I could not live here at all. Your lips bring blessings — my beloved.

Letter from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, October 1925 (Library of Congress)

In December of that year, Mead was offered a position as assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History, where she would go on to spend the rest of her career. She excitedly accepted, in large part so that she could at last be closer to Benedict, and moved to New York with her husband, Luther Cressman, firmly believing that the two relationships would neither harm nor contradict one another. As soon as the decision was made, she wrote to Benedict on January 7, 1926:

Your trust in my decision has been my mainstay, darling, otherwise I just couldn’t have managed. And all this love which you have poured out to me is very bread and wine to my direct need. Always, always I am coming back to you.

I kiss your hair, sweetheart.

Four days later, Mead sends Benedict a poignant letter, reflecting on her two relationships and how love crystallizes of its own volition:

In one way this solitary existence is particularly revealing — in the way I can twist and change in my attitudes towards people with absolutely no stimulus at all except such as springs from within me. I’ll awaken some morning just loving you frightfully much in some quite new way and I may not have sufficiently rubbed the sleep from my eyes to have even looked at your picture. It gives me a strange, almost uncanny feeling of autonomy. And it is true that we have had this loveliness “near” together for I never feel you too far away to whisper to, and your dear hair is always just slipping through my fingers. . . .

When I do good work it is always always for you … and the thought of you now makes me a little unbearably happy.

Five weeks later, in mid-February, Mead and Benedict begin planning a three-week getaway together, which proves, thanks to their husbands’ schedules, to be more complicated than the two originally thought. Exasperated over all the planning, Margaret writes Ruth:

I’ll be so blinded by looking at you, I think now it won’t matter — but the lovely thing about our love is that it will. We aren’t like those lovers of Edward’s “now they are sleeping cheek to cheek” etc. who forgot all the things their love had taught them to love —

Precious, precious. I kiss your hair.

By mid-March, Mead is once again firmly rooted in her love for Benedict:

I feel immensely freed and sustained, the dark months of doubt washed away, and that I can look you gladly in the eyes as you take me in your arms. My beloved! My beautiful one. I thank God you do not try to fence me off, but trust me to take life as it comes and make something of it. With that trust of yours I can do anything — and come out with something precious saved.

Sweet, I kiss your hands.

As the summer comes, Mead finds herself as in love with Benedict as when they first met six years prior, writing in a letter dated August 26, 1926:

Ruth dearest,

I am very happy and an enormous number of cobwebs seem to have been blown away in Paris. I was so miserable that last day, I came nearer doubting than ever before the essentially impregnable character of our affection for each other. And now I feel at peace with the whole world. You may think it is tempting the gods to say so, but I take all this as high guarantee of what I’ve always temperamentally doubted — the permanence of passion — and the mere turn of your head, a chance inflection of your voice have just as much power to make the day over now as they did four years ago. And so just as you give me zest for growing older rather than dread, so also you give me a faith I never thought to win in the lastingness of passion.

I love you, Ruth.

Letter from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, January 1926 (Library of Congress)

In September of 1928, as Mead travels by train to marry her second husband after her first marriage crumbled, another bittersweet letter to Ruth leaves us speculating about what might have been different had the legal luxuries of modern love been a reality in Mead’s day, making it possible for her and Ruth to marry and formalize their steadfast union under the law:

Darling,

[…]

I’ve slept mostly today trying to get rid of this cold and not to look at the country which I saw first from your arms.

Mostly, I think I’m a fool to marry anyone. I’ll probably just make a man and myself unhappy. Right now most of my daydreams are concerned with not getting married at all. I wonder if wanting to marry isn’t just another identification with you, and a false one. For I couldn’t have taken you away from Stanley and you could take me away from [Reo] — there’s no blinking that.

[…]

Beside the strength and permanence and all enduring feeling which I have for you, everything else is shifting sand. Do you mind terribly when I say these things? You mustn’t mind — ever — anything in the most perfect gift God has given me. The center of my life is a beautiful walled place, if the edges are a little weedy and ragged — well, it’s the center which counts — My sweetheart, my beautiful, my lovely one.

Your Margaret

By 1933, despite the liberal arrangements of her marriage, Mead felt that it forcibly squeezed out of her the love she had for Benedict. In a letter to Ruth from April 9, she reflects on those dynamics and gasps at the relief of choosing to break free of those constraints and being once again free to love fully:

Having laid aside so much of myself, in response to what I mistakenly believed was the necessity of my marriage I had no room for emotional development. … Ah, my darling, it is so good to really be all myself to love you again. . . . The moon is full and the lake lies still and lovely — this place is like Heaven — and I am in love with life. Goodnight, darling.

Over the years that followed, both Margaret and Ruth explored the boundaries of their other relationships, through more marriages and domestic partnerships, but their love for each other only continued to grow. In 1938, Mead captured it beautifully by writing of “the permanence of [their] companionship.” Mead and her last husband, Gregory Bateson, named Benedict the guardian of their daughter. The two women shared their singular bond until Benedict’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1948. In one of her final letters, Mead wrote:

Always I love you and realize what a desert life might have been without you.

See more of their gorgeous correspondence here.

ALLEN GINSBERG AND PETER ORLOVSKY

From the wonderful 1998 anthology My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries (public library) — a diverse collection of missives covering the universalities of romantic love, from longing and infatuation to jealousy and rejection to tenderness and loyalty — comes the correspondence of Beat Generation godfather Allen Ginsberg and the poet Peter Orlovsky. The two had met in San Francisco in 1954, embarking upon what Ginsberg called their “marriage” — a lifelong relationship that went through many phases, endured multiple challenges, but ultimately lasted until Ginsberg’s death in 1997.

Their letters, filled with typos, missing punctuation, and the grammatical oddities typical of writing propelled by bursts of intense emotion rather than literary precision, are absolutely beautiful.

Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in San Francisco, 1955

In a letter from January 20, 1958, Ginsberg writes to Orlovsky from Paris, recounting a visit with his close friend and fellow beatnik, William S. Burroughs, another icon of literature’s gay subculture:

Dear Petey:

O Heart O Love everything is suddenly turned to gold! Don’t be afraid don’t worry the most astounding beautiful thing has happened here! I don’t know where to begin but the most important. When Bill [ed: William S. Burroughs] came I, we, thought it was the same old Bill mad, but something had happened to Bill in the meantime since we last saw him . . . . but last night finally Bill and I sat down facing each other across the kitchen table and looked eye to eye and talked, and I confessed all my doubt and misery — and in front of my eyes he turned into an Angel!

What happened to him in Tangiers this last few months? It seems he stopped writing and sat on his bed all afternoons thinking and meditating alone & stopped drinking — and finally dawned on his consciousness, slowly and repeatedly, every day, for several months — awareness of “a benevolent sentient (feeling) center to the whole Creation” — he had apparently, in his own way, what I have been so hung up in myself and you, a vision of big peaceful Lovebrain. . . .

I woke up this morning with great bliss of freedom & joy in my heart, Bill’s saved, I’m saved, you’re saved, we’re all saved, everything has been all rapturous ever since — I only feel sad that perhaps you left as worried when we waved goodby and kissed so awkwardly — I wish I could have that over to say goodby to you happier & without the worries and doubts I had that dusty dusk when you left… — Bill is changed nature, I even feel much changed, great clouds rolled away, as I feel when you and I were in rapport, well, our rapport has remained in me, with me, rather than losing it, I’m feeling to everyone, something of the same as between us.

A couple of weeks later, in early February, Orlovsky sends a letter to Ginsberg from New York, in which he writes with beautiful prescience:

…dont worry dear Allen things are going ok — we’ll change the world yet to our dessire — even if we got to die — but OH the world’s got 25 rainbows on my window sill. . . .

As soon as he receives the letter the day after Valentine’s Day, Ginsberg writes back, quoting Shakespeare like only a love-struck poet would:

I have been running around with mad mean poets & world-eaters here & was longing for kind words from heaven which you wrote, came as fresh as a summer breeze & “when I think on thee dear friend / all loses are restored & sorrows end,” came over & over in my mind — it’s the end of a Shakespeare Sonnet — he must have been happy in love too. I had never realized that before. . . .

Write me soon baby, I’ll write you big long poem I feel as if you were god that I pray to –

Love,

Allen

In another letter sent nine days later, Ginsberg writes:

I’m making it all right here, but I miss you, your arms & nakedness & holding each other — life seems emptier without you, the soulwarmth isn’t around. . . .

Citing another conversation he had had with Burroughs, he goes on to presage the enormous leap for the dignity and equality of love that we’ve only just seen more than half a century after Ginsberg wrote this:

Bill thinks new American generation will be hip & will slowly change things — laws & attitudes, he has hope there — for some redemption of America, finding its soul. . . . — you have to love all life, not just parts, to make the eternal scene, that’s what I think since we’ve made it, more & more I see it isn’t just between us, it’s feeling that can [be] extended to everything. Tho I long for the actual sunlight contact between us I miss you like a home. Shine back honey & think of me.

He ends the letter with a short verse:

Goodbye Mr. February.
as tender as ever
swept with warm rain
love from your Allen

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY AND EDITH WYNN MATTHISON

In 1917, during her final year at Vassar College — which she had entered at the unusually ripe age of 21 and from which she was almost expelled for partying too muchEdna St. Vincent Millay met and befriended British silent film actress Edith Wynne Matthison, fifteen years her senior. Taken with Matthison’s fierce spirit, majestic beauty, and impeccable style, Millay’s platonic attraction quickly blossomed into an intense romantic infatuation. Edith, a woman who made no apologies for relishing life’s bounties, eventually kissed Edna and invited her to her summer home. A series of disarmingly passionate letters followed. Found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — which also gave us Millay on her love of music and her playfully lewd self-portrait — these epistolary longings capture that strange blend of electrifying ardor and paralyzing pride familiar to anyone who’s ever been in love.

Writing to Edith, Edna cautions of her uncompromising frankness:

Listen; if ever in my letters to you, or in my conversation, you see a candor that seems almost crude, — please know that it is because when I think of you I think of real things, & become honest, — and quibbling and circumvention seem very inconsiderable.

In another, she pleads:

I will do whatever you tell me to do. … Love me, please; I love you. I can bear to be your friend. So ask of me anything. … But never be ‘tolerant,’ or ‘kind.’ And never say to me again — don’t dare to say to me again — ‘Anyway, you can make a trial’ of being friends with you! Because I can’t do things that way. … I am conscious only of doing the thing that I love to do — that I have to do — and I have to be your friend.

In yet another, Millay articulates brilliantly the “proud surrender” at the heart of every materialized infatuation and every miracle of “real, honest, complete love”:

You wrote me a beautiful letter, — I wonder if you meant it to be as beautiful as it was. — I think you did; for somehow I know that your feeling for me, however slight it is, is of the nature of love. … nothing that has happened to me for a long time has made me so happy as I shall be to visit you sometime. — You must not forget that you spoke of that, — because it would disappoint me cruelly. … I shall try to bring a few quite nice things with me; I will get together all that I can, and then when you tell me to come, I will come, by the next train, just as I am. This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness; know that it is a proud surrender to you; I don’t talk like that to many people.

With love,

Vincent Millay

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT AND LORENA HICKOK

Eleanor Roosevelt endures not only as the longest-serving American First Lady (1933-1945), but also as one of history’s most politically impactful, a fierce champion of working women and underprivileged youth.

But her personal life has been the subject of lasting controversy.

In the summer of 1928, Roosevelt met journalist Lorena Hickok, whom she would come to refer to as Hick. The thirty-year relationship that ensued has remained the subject of much speculation, from the evening of FDR’s inauguration, when the First Lady was seen wearing a sapphire ring Hickok had given her, to the opening up of her private correspondence archives in 1998. Though many of the most explicit letters had been burned, the 300 published in Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters Of Eleanor Roosevelt And Lorena Hickok (public library) — at once less unequivocal than history’s most revealing woman-to-woman love letters and more suggestive than those of great female platonic friendships — strongly indicate the relationship between Roosevelt and Hickok had been one of great romantic intensity.

On March 5, 1933, the first evening of FDR’s inauguration, Roosevelt wrote Hick:

Hick my dearest–

I cannot go to bed tonight without a word to you. I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving tonight. You have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you.

Then, the following day:

Hick, darling

Ah, how good it was to hear your voice. It was so inadequate to try and tell you what it meant. Funny was that I couldn’t say je t’aime and je t’adore as I longed to do, but always remember that I am saying it, that I go to sleep thinking of you.

And the night after:

Hick darling

All day I’ve thought of you & another birthday I will be with you, & yet tonite you sounded so far away & formal. Oh! I want to put my arms around you, I ache to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it & think “she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it!”

And in yet another letter:

I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.

Hick herself responded with equal intensity. In a letter from December 1933, she wrote:

I’ve been trying to bring back your face — to remember just how you look. Funny how even the dearest face will fade away in time. Most clearly I remember your eyes, with a kind of teasing smile in them, and the feeling of that soft spot just north-east of the corner of your mouth against my lips.

Granted, human dynamics are complex and ambiguous enough even for those directly involved, making it hard to assume anything with absolute certainty from the sidelines of an epistolary relationship long after the correspondents’ deaths. But wherever on the spectrum of the platonic and romantic the letters in Empty Without You may fall, they offer a beautiful record of a tender, steadfast, deeply loving relationship between two women who meant the world to one another, even if the world never quite condoned or understood their profound connection.

OSCAR WILDE AND SIR ALFRED “BOSIE” TAYLOR

Even as we make historic progress on the dignity and equality of human love, it’s hard to forget the enormous indignities to which the lovers of yore have been subjected across the 4,000-year history of persecuting desire. Among modernity’s most tragic victims of our shameful past is Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned multiple times for his “crime” of homosexuality, driven into bankruptcy and exile, and finally succumbed to an untimely death. But Wilde’s most “sinful” quality — his enormous capacity for passionate, profound love — was also one of the most poetic gifts of his life.

In June of 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, a 21-year-old Oxford undergraduate and talented poet, who would come to be the author’s own Dorian Gray — his literary muse, his evil genius, his restless lover. It was during the course of their affair that Wilde wrote Salomé and the four great plays which to this day endure as the cornerstones of his legacy. Their correspondence, collected Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters (public library), makes for an infinitely inspired addition to the most beautiful love letters exchanged between history’s greatest creative and intellectual power couples.

In January of 1893, Wilde writes to Bosie:

My Own Boy,

Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days.

Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there to cool your hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things, and come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place and lacks only you; but go to Salisbury first.

Always, with undying love, yours,

Oscar

Letter from Oscar Wilde to Bosie, November 1892 (The Morgan Library)

In early March of 1893, Wilde channels love’s exasperating sense of urgency:

Dearest of All Boys — Your letter was delightful — red and yellow wine to me — but I am sad and out of sorts — Bosie — you must not make scenes with me — they kill me — they wreck the loveliness of life — I cannot see you, so Greek and gracious, distorted with passion; I cannot listen to your curved lips saying hideous things to me — don’t do it — you break my heart — I’d sooner be rented* all day, than have you bitter, unjust, and horrid — horrid.

I must see you soon — you are the divine thing I want — the thing of grace and genius — but but I don’t know how to do it — Shall I come to Salisbury — ? There are many difficulties — my bill here is £49 for a week! I have also got a new sitting-room over the Thames — but you, why are you not here, my dear, my wonderful boy — ? I fear I must leave; no money, no credit, and a heart of lead –

Ever your own,

Oscar

* “renter” was slang for male prostitute in London

Their affair was intense, bustling with dramatic tempestuousness, but underpinning it was a profound and genuine love. In a letter from late December of 1893, after a recent rift, Wilde writes to Douglas:

My dearest Boy,

Thanks for your letter. I am overwhelmed by the wings of vulture creditors, and out of sorts, but I am happy in the knowledge that we are friends again, and that our love has passed through the shadow and the light of estrangement and sorrow and come out rose-crowned as of old. Let us always be infinitely dear to each other, as indeed we have been always.

[…]

I think of you daily, and am always devotedly yours.

Oscar

In July of the following year, Wilde writes:

My own dear Boy,

I hope the cigarettes arrived all right. I lunched with Gladys de Grey, Reggie and Aleck York there. They want me to go to Paris with them on Thursday: they say one wears flannels and straw hats and dines in the Bois, but, of course, I have no money, as usual, and can’t go. Besides, I want to see you. It is really absurd. I can’t live without you. You are so dear, so wonderful. I think of you all day long, and miss your grace, your boyish beauty, the bright sword-play of your wit, the delicate fancy of your genius, so surprising always in its sudden swallow-flights towards north and south, towards sun and moon — and, above all, yourself. The only thing that consoles me is what Sybil of Mortimer Street (whom mortals call Mrs. Robinson) said to me*. If I could disbelieve her I would, but I can’t, and I know that early in January you and I will go away together for a long voyage, and that your lovely life goes always hand in hand with mine. My dear wonderful boy, I hope you are brilliant and happy.

I went to Bertie, today I wrote at home, then went and sat with my mother. Death and Love seem to walk on either hand as I go through life: they are the only things I think of, their wings shadow me.

London is a desert without your dainty feet… Write me a line and take all my love — now and for ever.

Always, and with devotion — but I have no words for how I love you.

Oscar

* The fortuneteller’s prophesy apparently came true — Wilde and Douglas travelled to Algiers together the following January.

In 1895, at the height of his literary success, with his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest drawing continuous acclaim across the stages of London, Wilde had Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, prosecuted for libel. But the evidence unearthed during the trial led to Wilde’s own arrest on charges of “gross indecency” with members of the same sex. Two more trials followed, after which he was sentenced for two years of “hard labor” in prison. On April 29 of that year, having hit emotional and psychological rock-bottom, his reputation ruined and his health deteriorating, Wilde wrote to Douglas on the eve of the final trial:

My dearest boy,

This is to assure you of my immortal, my eternal love for you. Tomorrow all will be over. If prison and dishonour be my destiny, think that my love for you and this idea, this still more divine belief, that you love me in return will sustain me in my unhappiness and will make me capable, I hope, of bearing my grief most patiently. Since the hope, nay rather the certainty, of meeting you again in some world is the goal and the encouragement of my present life, ah! I must continue to live in this world because of that.

Another letter, written on August 31, 1897, shortly after Wilde’s release from prison, reads:

Café Suisse, Dieppe
Tuesday, 7:30

My own Darling Boy,

I got your telegram half an hour ago, and just send a line to say that I feel that my only hope of again doing beautiful work in art is being with you. It was not so in the old days, but now it is different, and you can really recreate in me that energy and sense of joyous power on which art depends. Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don’t understand us. I feel that it is only with you that I can do anything at all. Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world.

I wish that when we met at Rouen we had not parted at all. There are such wide abysses now of space and land between us. But we love each other. Goodnight, dear. Ever yours,

Oscar

Oscar and Bosie in 1893

But perhaps the most eloquent articulation of their relationship comes from a letter Wilde wrote to Leonard Smithers — a Sheffield solicitor with a side business of printing erotica, who became the only publisher interested in Wilde’s books in his post-prison years — on October 1, 1897:

How can you keep on asking is Lord Alfred Douglas in Naples? You know quite well he is — we are together. He understands me and my art, and loves both. I hope never to be separated from him. He is a most delicate and exquisite poet, besides — far the finest of all the young poets in England. You have got to publish his next volume; it is full of lovely lyrics, flute-music and moon-music, and sonnets in ivory and gold. He is witty, graceful, lovely to look at, lovable to be with. He has also ruined my life, so I can’t help loving him — it is the only thing to do.

More of their exquisite correspondence appears in Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters, but that one sentence alone — “He understands me and my art, and loves both.” — is an immeasurably beautiful addition to history’s most profound definitions of love, a sublime manifestation of the highest hope one creative soul can have for a union with another.

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