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Posts Tagged ‘books’

24 OCTOBER, 2013

E. B. White on the Future of Reading: Timeless Wisdom from 1951

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“Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy.”

“A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” Carl Sagan memorably marveled in the 11th episode of Cosmos. But in our day and age where we can no longer be sure what a book even is and the future of the book swells with uncertainty, what has become of that singular magic? Count on E. B. White — extraordinary essayist, heartfelt dog-lover, celebrator of New York, tireless champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style — to sweep us into his time machine of timeless insight and take us straight to the heart of the issue. The Annotated Charlotte’s Web (public library) — which also gave us White’s rare illustrated manuscripts of his children’s classic — includes a short essay titled “The Future of Reading,” which White penned in 1951 and which touches on so much of what we grapple with today, half a century and a digital revolution later. It was originally published in the New Yorker and was eventually included in the 1954 collection of White’s essays, The Second Tree from the Corner.

White writes:

In schools and colleges, in these audio-visual days, doubt has been raised as to the future of reading — whether the printed word is on its last legs. One college president has remarked that in fifty years “only five per cent of the people will be reading.” For this, of course, one must be prepared. But how prepare? To us it would seem that even if only one person out of a hundred and fifty million should continue as a reader, he would be the one worth saving, the nucleus around which to found a university. We think this not impossible person, this Last Reader, might very well stand in the same relation to the community as the queen bee to the colony of bees, and that the others would quite properly dedicate themselves wholly to his welfare, serving special food and building special accommodations. From his nuptial, or intellectual, flight would come the new race of men, linked perfectly with the long past by the unbroken chain of the intellect, to carry on the community. But it is more likely that our modern hive of bees, substituting a coaxial cable for spinal fluid, will try to perpetuate the rave through audio-visual devices, which ask no discipline of the mind and which are already giving the room the languor of an opium parlor.

How reminiscent this is of Virginia Woolf’s 1926 meditation on the moving image, in which she pondered the audiovisual mesmerism of cinema: “The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think.” White sees reading as the antidote to this mental resignation, likening the mutuality of its ecstasy to that of sex — something he knows a thing or two about:

Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy. As in the sexual experience, there are never more than two persons present in the act of reading — the writer, who is the impregnator, and the reader, who is the respondent. This gives the experience of reading a sublimity and power unequalled by any other form of communication.

He concludes by urging for the conservation of reading, both in education and in culture at large:

It would be just as well, we think, if educators clung to this great phenomenon and did not get sidetracked, for although books and reading may at times have played too large a part in the educational process, that is not what is happening today. Indeed, there is very little true reading, and not nearly as much writing as one would suppose from the towering piles of pulpwood in the dooryards of our paper mills. Readers and writers are scarce, as are publishers and reporters. The reports we get nowadays are those of men who have not gone to the scene of the accident, which is always farther inside one’s own head than it is convenient to penetrate without galoshes.

The Annotated Charlotte’s Web contains several more of White’s unpublished short essays on reading and writing, which alone render it a treasure. Complement it with White on the role and responsibility of the writer, then revisit this living history of books.

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24 OCTOBER, 2013

Divine Fury: A Brief History of Genius

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“If we wish to appreciate the role that genius has played in the modern world, we must [remember] that genius is ultimately the product of the hopes and longings of ordinary people.”

“Genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly,” celebrated British novelist Amelia E. Barr wrote in her 9 rules for success in 1901. Indeed, the notion of what genius is and isn’t endures as one of our culture’s greatest fixations. We apply the label of “genius” to everyone from our greatest luminaries to exceptional children’s book editors to our dogs, and we even nickname prestigious cultural awards after it. But what, precisely, is genius? Why was the concept of it born in the first place, where did it begin, how did it evolve, and what does it mean today? That’s precisely what historian Darrin M. McMahon explores in Divine Fury: A History of Genius (public library) — a fascinating, first-of-its-kind chronicle of the evolution of genius as a cultural concept, its permutations across millennia of creative history, and its more recent role as a social equalizer and a double-edged sword of democratization.

McMahon begins:

Even today, more than 2,000 years after its first recorded use by the Roman author Plautus, [the word “genius”] continues to resonate with power and allure. The power to create. The power to divine the secrets of the universe. The power to destroy. With its hints of madness and eccentricity, sexual prowess and protean possibility, genius remains a mysterious force, bestowing on those who would assume it superhuman abilities and godlike powers. Genius, conferring privileged access to the hidden workings of the world. Genius, binding us still to the last vestiges of the divine.

Such lofty claims may seem excessive in an age when football coaches and rock stars are frequently described as “geniuses.” The luster of the word — once reserved for a pantheon of eminence, the truly highest of the high — has no doubt faded over time, the result of inflated claims and general overuse. The title of a BBC television documentary on the life of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman sums up the situation: No Ordinary Genius. There was a time when such a title would have been redundant. That time is no more.

History's 100 geniuses of literature and language, visualized. Click image for details.

McMahon argues that, in an age where we’re urged to explore the “genius” in all of us, we’ve grown increasingly obsessed with the word and the idea of genius, robbing it of substance in the process. Particularly in the last century, we’ve applied the label of “genius” frivolously and indiscriminately to everyone from rock stars to startup founders to, even, Adolf Hitler, whom TIME magazine crowned “man of the year” in 1938 for his evil genius. And yet the impulse to know — to be — genius is among our greatest, most profound human yearnings for union with divinity, something the legendary literary critic Harold Bloom has explored in his own meditation on genius. For the perfect embodiment of this desire, McMahon points to Albert Einstein, whom he considers “the quintessential modern genius”:

“I want to know how God created the world,” Einstein once observed. “I want to know his thoughts.” It was, to be sure, a manner of speaking, like the physicist’s celebrated line about the universe and dice. Still, the aspiration is telling. For genius, from its earliest origins, was a religious notion, and as such was bound up not only with the superhuman and transcendent, but also with the capacity for violence, destruction, and evil that all religions must confront.

McMahon sets out to unravel this lineage of unexpected associations by tracing the history of genius, both as a concept and as a figure, from antiquity to today, exploring a vibrant spectrum of individuals who both embodied and shaped the label — poets, philosophers, artists, scientists, inventors, composers, military strategists, entrepreneurs, and even a horse. As much a history of ideas as a psychological history of our grasping after the divine, the journey he takes us on is above all one of introspection through the lens of history. Reminding us that, as Toni Morrison memorably wrote, “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” McMahon argues for the social construction of genius:

If we wish to appreciate the role that genius has played in the modern world, we must recall the evil with the good, bearing in mind as we do so the uncomfortable thought that genius is ultimately the product of the hopes and longings of ordinary people. We are the ones who marvel and wonder, longing for the salvation genius might bring. We are the ones who pay homage and obeisance. In a very real sense, the creator of genius is us.

Which is not to deny that geniuses almost always possess something special, something real, however elusive that something may be. But it is to recognize the commonsense fact that genius is in part a social creation — what historians like to call a “construction” — and, as such, of service to those who build. That fact reminds us further that for all their originality (and originality is itself a defining feature of genius in its modern form), extraordinary human beings not only define their images but embody them, stepping into molds prepared by the social imaginary and the exemplars who came before. Even outliers as remarkable, as deviant, as Einstein and Hitler are no exceptions to this rule: however inimitable — however unique — their genius was partly prepared for them, worked out over the course of generations.

A hereditary 'tree' of idiosyncratic nervous illness included in Jacques-Joseph Moreau’s 'La psychologie morbide' (Morbid Psychology) of 1859. In the upper right , just a branch above that containing criminals and prostitutes, is the branch of 'exceptional intelligence,' which leads to offshoots of genius in the arts, letters, music, painting, and the sciences. (Image courtesy of Yale University Library, Harvey Cushing / John Hay Whitney Medical Library.)

This construction of genius as “a figure of extraordinary privilege and power,” McMahon argues, began in ancient Greece, where the era’s luminaries — poets, philosophers, politicians — first pondered the question of what makes a great man. (For, as McMahon explores in a later chapter, the original concept of genius was an exercise in cultural hegemony excluding women and various “others.”) The Romans picked up the inquiry where the Greeks had left off, seeking to understand what lent Julius Caesar his military might and why Homer could enchant as he did. This quest continued through Christianity, which attempted to answer it with the image of the God-man Christ, the ultimate genius. During the Renaissance, da Vinci and Michelangelo bent this fascination with Godlike genius through the lens of art, attempting both to capture it and to further illuminate its elusive nature.

And so we get to the modern genius. McMahon writes:

The modern genius was born in the eighteenth century—conceived, in keeping with long-standing prejudices, almost exclusively as a man. There were precedents for this birth, stretching all the way back to antiquity. But that the birth itself occurred in the bright place of deliverance we call “the Enlightenment” is clear. Scholars have long recognized the genius’s emergence in this period as the highest human type, a new paragon of human excellence who was the focus of extensive contemporary comment and observation.

What remains a mystery, however, is why the genius emerged in the first place, and why it did under those specific circumstances of time and place. Tracing scholars’ attempts to answer these questions, McMahon points to several factors, ranging from the rise of capitalism to the evolution of aesthetics to new models of authorship and selfhood. But his own explanation has to do with something else entirely: The religious change described as the “withdrawal from God” — a collective pulling back from spiritual companions, which opened up a space for humans to embrace self-reliance as we came to entrust ourselves with the fate of our civilization and our individual lives. That, in turn, catalyzed the birth of the modern genius — at once a stand-in for God and a testament to the human spirit at its highest potential. McMahon frames the shift:

Geniuses mediated between human beings and the divine. Chosen to reveal wonders, geniuses were conceived as wonders themselves, illustrating perfectly the proposition that the gradual disenchantment of the world was accompanied from the outset by its continual re-enchantment. Geniuses pulled back the curtain of existence to reveal a universe that was richer, deeper, more extraordinary and terrible than previously imagined. The baffling beauty of space-time was no different in this respect from the sublime majesty of Byron’s poetry, Beethoven’s symphonies, or Poincaré’s theorems, as radiant as an Edison light bulb or the explosion of the atomic bomb. Genius was a flash of light, but its brilliance served to illuminate the dark mystery that surrounded and set it apart.

Geniuses, then, were believed to possess rare and special powers: the power to create, redeem, and destroy; the power to penetrate the fabric of the universe; the power to see into the future, or to see into our souls.

Bigger is better. A design by the respected German anatomist Johann Christian Gustav Lucae for Wilhelm Gwinner’s 1862 hagiography of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. The size of Schopenhauer’s skull (the largest) is plotted in comparison to that of six others, including Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, Napoleon, the German poet Christoph August Tiedge, and a “cretin.” (Image courtesy of John M. Merriman.)

By the early twentieth century, geniuses rose to greater cultural authority and a new, scientifically driven movement to understand the nature of genius was afoot. The IQ test was invented. Dominant political ideologies sought to justify the worship of their leaders — from Stalin to Hitler — by means of religious genius. A new generation of geniuses, from Einstein to Twain, entered the realm of pop-culture celebrity. Then, as is our tendency as a culture of extremes, we took it too far. McMahon worries:

Genius is seemingly everywhere today, hailed in our newspapers and glossy magazines, extolled in our television profiles and Internet chatter. Replete with publicists, hashtags, and “buzz,” genius is now consumed by a celebrity culture that draws few distinctions between a genius for fashion, a genius for business, and a genius for anything else. If the “problem of genius” of yesteryear was how to know and how to find it, “our genius problem” today is that it is impossible to avoid. Genius remains a relationship, but our relationship to it has changed. All might have their fifteen minutes of genius. All might be geniuses now. … [But] a world in which all might aspire to genius is a world in which the genius as a sacred exception can no longer exist. Einstein, the “genius of geniuses,” was the last of the titans. The age of the genius is gone. Should citizens of democracies mourn this passing or rejoice? Probably a bit of both. The genius is dead: long live the genius of humanity.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Ode to the Genius, 1917. A fallen angel, or genius, is prostrate before a work of art, in search of redemption. Note the streaking comet, symbol of genius, in the background. (Image courtesy of Erich Lessing / Art Resource, New York.)

We’ve also grown increasingly obsessed with dissecting “genius” — from literally dissecting Einstein’s brain to being transfixed by the daily rituals of geniuses, as though emulating those would somehow sprinkle some of their pixie dust on our own ordinary lives. Rather than a cultural tragedy to lament, however, McMahon reminds us that this is merely a manifestation of our intense yearning for transcendence, for touching the extraordinary:

Einstein’s brain had become a “mythical object,” and Einstein’s genius a myth, which served to mediate the secrets of the universe and to comfort us in our darkness and insecurity. The genius of Einstein resembles even now what the ancients once called a “middle term” of the universe, shuttling between ordinary human beings and the heavens. The divinum quiddam of his brain provides a glimpse of another dimension; it is a portal to a mysterious realm.

The celebrated political theorist Hannah Arendt addressed this in a 1958 essay admonishing against the “vulgarization and commercialization of the notion of genius,” driven by “the great reverence the modern age so willingly paid to genius, so frequently bordering on idolatry.” But rather than a cheapening of the notion of genius, McMahon argues, this shift bespeaks a certain democratization that broadens traditional definitions to make genius a more inclusive concept, especially after the end of WWII:

This trickling down (or welling up) of genius along the vertical axis leading from high culture to low was accompanied, as well, by a horizontal expansion, a pushing outward of gender boundaries and geographical frontiers.

Touching on, though not naming, Howard Gardner’s seminal 1983 theory of multiple intelligences — the necessary antidote to the limitations of IQ — McMahon continues:

This gradual expansion of genius — in effect, its democratization and globalization — gathered momentum in the aftermath of 1945. The development marked, in some sense, a return to an older understanding of genius as a faculty possessed by all. That understanding, it is true, had never been entirely abandoned. Although men and women had spoken for centuries of genius as a general disposition or trait, Europeans, and especially Americans, continued long after the eighteenth century to acknowledge that different people might have a genius for different things.

And yet there is a downside to this democratization. Much like “curation,” which used to stand for something and now means nothing since we’ve applied it to everything, the ubiquity of “genius” renders its true manifestations all the more invisible:

If genius is everywhere, the genius is nowhere, or at least harder than ever to see. The same forces that have democratized and expanded genius’s kingdom have sent the genius into exile or to an early grave. That curious fact will become apparent if one tries to name a genius in the postwar world. Einstein comes immediately to mind, of course. But he is the exception who proves the rule. And though there are others — including artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, or scientists, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman — they tend either to be holdovers from an earlier age or fail to command common and overwhelming assent. The truth is that we live at a time when there is genius in all of us, but very few geniuses to be found.

Though McMahon allows for the possibility that genius can often only be recognized in retrospect, with the hindsight of generations — Shakespeare, after all, was only widely celebrated after the fact — he remains unconvinced that this dilution of “genius” is doing our culture justice:

Even if they now walk among us, we no longer regard geniuses as we once did; nor do we look to them for the same things that we did in the past. The religion of genius is a moribund faith: the genius is all but disenchanted.

Ultimately, however, McMahon turns to Emerson — the ultimate champion of self-reliance, who shaped the modern cultural ideal — for reassurance that everything is as it should be, even it if requires our constant mindfulness in recalibrating the genius of humanity:

As Ralph Waldo Emerson acknowledged of “the excess of influence” of great men, their “attractions warp us from our place.” But he also knew that it was natural to believe in them. “We feed on genius,” he said, we need it as sustenance to survive.

In an age as suspicious of “greatness” as our own, it is worth recalling that truth, and recalling that, although those who prostrate themselves before idols make themselves small, those who fail to take the measure of true stature are similarly diminished. Great men and great women still have their uses. As Emerson put it over a century and a half ago in a passage that serves as an epigraph to this book, the genius of humanity continues to be the right point of view of history. “Once you saw phoenixes: they are gone; the world is not therefore disenchanted.” May it never be.

Divine Fury is excellent in its entirety. Complement it with Denise Shekerjian’s indispensable Uncommon Genius.

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23 OCTOBER, 2013

Vintage Illustrations for the Fairy Tales E. E. Cummings Wrote for His Only Daughter, Whom He Almost Abandoned

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What elephants and butterflies have to do with the failures and redemptions of fatherhood.

In 1916, at the peak of WWI and shortly after graduating from Harvard, beloved poet E. E. Cummings penned an epithalamion — a poem celebrating nuptials — for his classmate and close friend Scofield Thayer’s marriage to his fiancé Elaine Orr. The newlyweds moved to Chicago and Cummings was drafted to serve in France, where he spent some months in prison for his unapologetic anti-war views. By the time he returned to New York in 1918, the Thayers were living in two separate apartments at Washington Square. Cummings’s old friend, who had risen to an influential position in literary circles, became the poet’s patron, supporting his poetry and even purchasing his paintings — a context that makes the affair Cummings undertook with Elaine all the more morally suspect, even though the poet knew his friend’s insistence on wanting to focus on work was merely a veil for his loss of interest in his wife. In May of 1919, Elaine became pregnant with Cummings’s child — something that threw an even more destabilizing curveball in what was already a triangle of impending disaster.

To make matters worse, Cummings shirked his responsibility as a father and abandoned Elaine. Thayer, even though he knew the truth of paternity, stepped in to raise little Nancy once she was born on December 20, 1919. It took Cummings nearly a year to come around — in October of 1920, once it became clear that the Thayers were divorcing, he rekindled his relationship with Elaine and began seeing his daughter, who came to call him Mopsy, daily.

The following year, the three moved to Paris, but Elaine, supported by Thayer’s alimony, lived comfortably in a large apartment, while Cummings, having lost his patron but bent on keeping the remnants of his dignity, lived the classic poor-writer’s life in his own humble quarters. He did, however, set out to build a relationship with his baby daughter, his only child, which he did the best way he knew how — by telling her original stories he made up for her.

In 1965, three years after Cummings’s death, four of these stories — “The Elephant & the Butterfly,” “The Little Girl Named I,” “The House That Ate Mosquito Pie,” and “The Old Man Who Said ‘Why?'” — were collected in a slim volume simply titled Fairy Tales (public library) — a fine addition to the little-known children’s books of famous authors, including gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

The stories, while closer to fables than to fairy tales, are nonetheless charming and doubly so thanks to the gorgeous illustrations by Canadian artist John Eaton. I’ve tracked down a surviving copy of the original edition for our shared enjoyment:

Complement Cummings’s Fairy Tales with 17 whimsical songs based on his poetry and a marvelous picture-book biography of the beloved poet.

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23 OCTOBER, 2013

Legendary Anthropologist Margaret Mead’s Love Letters to Her Soulmate, Ruth Benedict

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“The thought of you now makes me a little unbearably happy.”

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) with the permission of Mead’s daughter, are a thing of absolute, soul-stirring beauty, on par with such famed epistolary romances as those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.

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)

By December, her urgency for union with Ruth grows:

Ruth, what have I done that is wrong? What have I done? It is very truth that your love is keeping me alive. I could only face life for you, now. I love you, always.

And soon:

Ruth, Ruth, you’ll never doubt that I love you, love you, love you? Soon I’ll make you believe it.

Later that month, 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.

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

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.

She then goes on to assuage Ruth’s anxieties about losing her love:

Risk my love — Sweetheart, sweetheart, what nonsense you do talk — and will the birds forget to come north in the spring to the land of their desire? When I do good work it is always always for you — That’s my wishing. What do you care, really, whether I devise elaborate color tests for the Samoans? … But none the less it’s all for you. And a day like today when I’ve worked from dawn to dusk without stopping, I feel very peaceful and it is such joy to go to sleep loving you, loving you — and waken so. I’ve a hundred details I should be writing about, but if I were there I’d kick all the mss. and proofs under the table and bury my face in your breast — 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.

Margaret Mead standing between two Samoan girls, 1926. (Library of Congress)

In 1928, Mead’s marriage to Crossman expired, but her love for Benedict, while complicated, remains ablaze. She closes a letter to Ruth with the sort of restless exhale one would expect of new lovers:

Oh, sweetheart I’m lonely for your arms.

That summer, Mead met and decided to marry her second husband, the New Zealand anthropologist Reo Fortune. Traveling by train for their marriage in September, she sends Ruth a bittersweet letter reflecting on the relationships:

Perhaps only one person can make a sufficiently fundamental impression on me to hold me to unswerving fidelity. Perhaps the capacity and attention which I have left for other people beside you is somewhere a little off center and incapable of rising to such heights. The psychoanalysts could fix that up to suit themselves but still I think that it might be explained in terms of a basic orientation of the personality, the only orientation which that personality was capable of. And maybe what I give any man is less than half.

This whole thing is much harder for me to understand than anything which has happened yet. Schematizing my life, there has been you and you steadfastly since you came into it. Nothing has ever threatened that fact.

[…]

My feeble attempts to go on with my marriage once I had rejected it don’t count in my sense of having willed what I wanted. But I didn’t will this. I have a sense of very definitely not willing it, of having felt no place for any other important relationship in my life, and of having quite clearly done what I could to avoid it.

She continues with a poetic meditation on the nature of her relationship to Ruth and its fundamental difference from any of her marriages:

Our relationship and any relationship to a man are as separate and incomparable as they seem, operating on different sets of wheels. . . . It would make a fascinating study to work out just in what respects two people could gradually come to depend upon a common mind, selecting one function from one mind and one from the other, counting one person’s experience to explain one set of points, drawing on the other’s memory to clear up others, etc. We come awfully near to doing that in everything from science to love. I wonder if you’ll feel as mentally amputated as I do. I have just one definite urge and that is to write to you, write to you, write to you.

[…]

The great pieces of space, the steadily falling hours of time which are passing without being woven closely in the net of our common knowledge, terrify me. It’s as if in a long, woven strip suddenly blank spaces were to appear where before all had been rainbowed and patterned. Something has happened to the weft, it runs brown and gray, gray and brown through my hurrying fingers. I weave desperately fast, but under my window pass fields gold and lovely with flowers which you will never see and my elbow is sore and irritated from a bad cut which you didn’t know I’d gotten by falling down on the Museum steps. Brown and gray and only every twenty or thirty threads can I slip in a colorful one and regain one note in the pattern which winds woven and beautiful all about me, woven by our four hands in the last six years.

The next day, in another letter, Mead explodes with reawakened gratitude and love:

Darling, you will never know what a priceless and so undeserved gift you have given me in giving me a perfect love no least inch of which I need ever repudiate — Oh — I love you, my beautiful. I kiss your eyes.

A day later, on September 5, 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.

To Cherish the Life of the World features more of their tender correspondence. Complement it with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s love letters to Edith Wynne Matthison and Virginia Woolf’s short and stirring epistle to Vita Sackville-West.

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