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25 MARCH, 2013

Mark Twain’s Fan Mail

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“This world would not be satisfying unless one person were allowed to express gratitude and thanks to another.”

One spring day in 1909, a little boy found his mother’s magazine clipping — the portrait of a man bearing “the aureole of sunny hair” — and asked her this was God. She chuckled with equal parts amazement and amusement, and got to writing the man in question a letter to recount the delightful incident — not only because of its inherent charm, but because her son had intuited a shared cultural sentiment: The man pictured was Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain — one of the most revered men in all the land.

Over the course of his prolific career, Twain received countless letters from his adoring readers and, occasionally, his critics. Two hundred of them, written according to the style of he era’s wonderfully quaint epistolary etiquette, are collected in Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers (public library) — a magnificent, remarkably researched book by Twain scholar R. Kent Rasmussen, featuring adulation, criticism, and a range of audacious requests Clemens received between 1861 and his death in 1910 from correspondents spanning school children, businessmen, farmers, political activists, con artists, teachers, and housewives. Most stirring of all, however, is the fan mail Twain received — a timeless testament to the soul-stirring power of earnest gratitude. A small sampling:

On April 18, 1894, Twain heard from a young lawyer named Henry E. Barrett:

Dear Sir: —

It seems that this world would not be satisfying unless one person were allowed to express gratitude and thanks to another. It has struck me as wrong that I should go on and not say to you what I feel.

From my boyhood, when I was kept from play by my interest in “Tom Sawyer” and “Huck Finn,” till now, your books and stories have given me more genuine pleasure than those of any other author. I think so often of the many pleasant hours you have given me and have made up to me the lack some times of pleasant companions. Mr. Clemens, please accept this in the spirit that it is sent for the intention is good.

My wishes are that you may for many years continue to cheer the sorrowful and make burden bearing easier.

Yours Respectfully,
Henry E. Barrett.

On October 17, 1906, a dying man wrote Twain:

Dear Mark Twain:

Writing this letter is one of the pleasantest duties I have to perform before leaving for “Hell or Hadleyburg” — which the doctor tells me must be soon now.

In fact I’m living beyond my time, — because he said Oct 15 was my last day “on live” — The only reason I didn’t die on that date was that I wanted to read your latest story in Harpers. Some people see Naples and die, — I prefer to read Mark Twain & die. I’ve never seen Naples, — and dont expect to. I’ve read almost everything youve written, — and when I finish your whole output I’ll give up seeing Naples and die happily without that privilege.

But —

I want to thank you for all the pleasure your books have given me during many years of confinement to my room. Life would frequently have been dull indeed had it not been for the companionship of Huck Finn, Col. Sellers, et al.

When I get to Hell the greatest torture that I will have will be the possible knowledge that you shall have written something else I shall not be permitted to read.

Yours gratefully
Benj Ochiltree.

On October 19 of the same year, an Irishman named Chris Healey sent Twain this heart-warming and deeply personal story, one of many he received:

Dear Mr Clements,

As an Irish admirer of yours who has travelled 4000 miles mainly to see you, may I request the privilege of calling on you to pay my respects.

Indeed I might claim this as a right. Here is the proof: Twenty four years ago a little Irish boy lay dying in a Liverpool hospital. The nurse spoke to him very kindly — a bad sign –& asked if there was anything he would like, which was even worse. In hospitals politeness is saved only for those who will soon be beyond the need of it. He wearily asked for a book to read, & they gave him “Babylon” by Grant Allen. There was a quaint American interest in the book which made the boy discover America for the first time. Before that it had been only a place on a map. Then he became interested, threw the first book away, & demanded one about America –& they gave him Huckleberry Finn. He read it, & laughed, & laughed, & laughed, until he fell into the first sound sleep he had had for a fortnight. When he awoke twenty six years later — it was only hours, but it seemed years since he had read the book — he hollered for it again, & got it, & had some breakfast, the first for a week, The nurse was rude to him but he didn’t mind — he had Huckleberry under his pillow. This is why he didn’t pay much attention to the doctor’s remark that it was a miraculous recovery, & Nature still had a fat purseful of miracles left. The boy only grinned, & knew better: it was Mark Twain.

On December 13 of the same year, a young women who had grown up cherishing Twain’s writing, wrote him:

Dear Mark Twain:

Ever since I read, in my childhood, my first story from your pen, it has been the great desire of my life to meet Mark Twain.

Now, I am a woman of five and thirty, and the years are flying, and the goal of my desire seems to recede as I approach. Yet, strange to say — strange, because nearly all childish desires change in the lapse of years — the desire is still as strong within me as ever it was.

Once I saw you. I was only a child — but I marked that day with a white stone. You were driving, and it was all I could do to keep myself from running after your carriage and crying, “Please, Mr. Mark Twain, stay long enough to speak to a little girl who thinks you are the greatest man on earth.”

I am sure I should not have so much self control now. But youth is so hopeful of opportunities. — You must be overwhelmed with such communications as this — and yet. The longing is still great within me to run after your carriage and cry “Stop long enough to speak to a little girl who still thinks you the greatest man on earth.”

Cally Ryland

On rare occasions, Twain replied to his readers in a few well-measured words, as he did Ryland:

Dear Miss Ryland:

I am thankful to say that such letters as yours do come — as you have divined — with a happy frequency. They refresh my life, they give it value; like yours, they are always welcome, and I am always grateful for them. Sincerely

Yours
[signed:]
SL. Clemens

Twain received a plethora of requests for photos and autographs, most of which he found gratuitous and didn’t respond to . But on December 29, 1906, a poor and barely literate Englishwoman sent him an irresistibly sincere personal story, coupled with a modest request:

Mr S. L. Clemens,

Dear Sir

I wonder if you would care to hear how much my husband & self appreciate your books. We have been married 4 years & I have bought him one of your works each birthday & at Christmas. He is never tired of reading them & they keep him at home many a time when he would be out at night He reads them aloud to me & I enjoy the reading as much as himself. The reason I am writing is to beg a favour of you. Would you be kind enough to give me your phota so that I can give my husband a surprise on his next birthday? We have one hung up that I cut from a paper but I should dearly prize a real phota I dont seem able to come across one here & we arent so well off else I might if I was rich. My husband earns £ 1/-per week as a booking clerk on the railway. We have a little boy six months & his father says when he is older he will tell him about poor little Huck & Tom Sawyer. Perhaps you will be too great a man to answer this & grant my request as we are only humble cottagers. I trust Ive done no harm writing. I have just been reading some extracts in our paper copied from your articles in the “North American Review” I am sorry you lost your daughter Susy you seem to have had a lot of trouble in your life but you always come up smiling. This seems a long letter but I will have to pay 2 ½ to post so I will get my money’s worth. The only thing is I am sorry you arent an Englishman & more especially a Lancashire man, perhaps you will put this in the fire I hope I have a phota from you

I beg to remain
Yours respectfully

Edith Draper

Clemens wrote back a little over two weeks later:

I will comply with pleasure, dear Mrs Edith. My secretary will choose a photo which will go handily in the mail & I will autograph it. Indeed I shouldn’t regret it if I were an Englishman –& particularly a Lancashire man.

Sincerely Yours

S L . Clemens

[enclosure, written on a photograph of Clemens on a rocking chair:]

To Mrs. Edith Draper
with the best wishes of
Mark Twain
New York

On Clemens’s seventy-second birthday, he received the following sweet note from a fourteen-year-old girl named Florence Benson:

My dear Mr. Clemens: I have seen in the New York Tribune this morning that to-day is your birthday — and it is mine too! I am writing to wish you many happy returns of the day and to tell you that I think Tom Sawyer is the nicest boy I have ever known.

Sincerely yours,

Florence Benson
(written in my best handwriting)

Twain, true to his beat, wrote back:

Dear Florence: Thank you for your nice note.

[Private.] I have always concealed it before, but now I am compelled to confess that I am Tom Sawyer!

Sincerely Your friend
S L . Clemens

On September 19, 1908, Twain received this moving personal confession from a Brooklyn minister named Frederick A. Wright:

Mr. S. L. Clemens,

Dear Sir,

I have wanted for a long time to time to thank you for the pleasure which your books have given me, but I have hesitated for fear that even thanks ought not to intrude on the privacy of a public character. But now I am making the venture. Having known Huck Finn twenty two years, and Tom and Sid and Mary and Aunt Polly still longer, I feel as if these friends might give me an introduction, especially so since the thing that I have enjoyed most in your books is the glimpse of yourself between the lines. So I have known you, though you have not known me. I only say how long I have enjoyed this, for if I should say how much I have enjoyed it, you might think me extravagant or insincere. My wife, (who remembers meeting you with her sister and cousins, when she was a little girl at the house of her uncle, Mr. Cable in New Orleans) says that I read Mark Twain the way old ladies read the Bible (I am a clergy man) — a chapter before going to bed.

Those boys and girls of your novels seem to me the most remarkable thing in American literature, and for me they have proved altogether the most enjoyable thing in American literature. I do not believe that any other literature has any representations of child life which are so universal and yet so concrete. I have a boy of my own now, and I am just having the fun of introducing them to him — these children that never grew up, “whose mortal years immortal youth became — ”

By the spring of 1910, newspapers were regularly reporting on Twain’s deteriorating health. On April 19, Twain received the following desperately heart-warming letter of support:

Dear Mark Twain: —

Together with all other reading men and women, I deeply sympathise with you in your illness, and also together with them I rejoice at the favorable reports from your bed-side which we receive from day to day.

You have given me more delights than any other author I ever read, and if everyone whom you have charmed as you have charmed me, were to write you now and tell you about it, the post-office at Redding would be blockaded for months to come. — I believe you are better loved than any other living man, and if the heart-felt wishes of each and all of us for your speedy recovery can avail you anything, I am sure you cannot remain long sick. Dear Mark, we simply cannot spare you, you must get well.

Again expressing my very best wishes,
I am Very Truly Your Friend
Geo. B. Byron

Three days later, Twain passed away. This was the last note from an adoring stranger he ever read.

Dear Mark Twain, the best such treasure since Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children, is an absolute treat in its entirety.

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25 MARCH, 2013

The Mortality Paradox

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“Our overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not.”

“It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life,” Goethe, who ceased to be 181 years ago this week, proclaimed as he concluded that “in this sense, everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.” Since the dawn of time, it has been the human instinct to resolve the psychological dilemma by constructing various immortality narratives — one of the hallmarks of our species. In Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (public library), Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave explores the inner workings of that ancient impulse, inviting us on a mind-bending, intense, at times unsettling and at times deeply comforting journey into the most cavernous quarters of the human psyche.

Cave argues that besides our immortality narratives, what sets us apart from other sentient beings are our highly connected brains and our self-awareness — adaptive developments that have enabled us to foresee different possibilities and make sophisticated plans, but also, in envisioning the future, to grapple with the terrifying prospect of our own demise. He terms this the “Mortality Paradox” and argues that it gives shape to both immortality narratives and civilization itself:

On the one hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably to the conclusion that we, like all other living things around us, must one day die. Yet on the other, the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is the very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.

[…]

Both halves of this paradox arise from the same set of impressive cognitive faculties. Since the advent some two and a half million years ago of the genus Homo, the immediate ancestors of modern humans, our brain size has tripled. This has come with a series of crucial conceptual innovations: First, we are aware of ourselves as distinct individuals, a trait limited only to a handful of large-brained species and considered to be essential for sophisticated social interaction. Second, we have an intricate idea of the future, allowing us to premeditate and vary our plans — also an ability unseen in the vast majority of other species. … And third, we can imagine different scenarios, playing with possibilities and generalizing from what we have seen, enabling us to learn, reason and extrapolate.

But while the survival benefits of these faculties are indisputable, Cave argues, they come at a cost:

If you have an idea of yourself and of the future and can extrapolate and generalize from what you see around you, then if you see your comrade killed by a lion, you realize that you too could be killed by a lion. This is useful if it causes you to sharpen your spear in readiness, but it also brings anxiety — it summons the future possibility of death in the present. The next day you might see a different comrade killed by a snake, another by disease and yet another by fire. You see that there are countless ways in which you could be killed, and they could strike at any time: prepare as you will, death’s onslaught is relentless.

[…]

We are therefore blessed with powerful minds yet at the same time cursed, not only to die, but to know that we must. … This is the central theme of philosophy, poetry and myth; it is what defines us as mortal. … Since we attained self-awareness, as Michel de Montaigne wrote, ‘death has us by the scruff of the neck at every moment.’ No matter what we do, no matter how hard we strive, we know that the Reaper will one day take us. Life is a constant war we are doomed to lose.

What Cave neglects to mention, of course, is that Montaigne shared not so much a lament over our mortality as one over our preoccupation with it, famously writing that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Still, Cave does consider the second half of the Mortality Paradox — our inability to even conceive of our own obliteration:

The fact is, whenever we try to imagine the reality of our deaths we stumble. We simply cannot envision actually not existing.

He points out that even in trying to imagine your own funeral, or the “dark empty void” of death itself, you’re still present as the observer, the virtual eye doing the envisioning.

We therefore cannot make death real to ourselves as thinking subjects. Our powerful imaginative faculties malfunction: it is not possible for the one doing the imagining to actively imagine the absence of the one doing the imagining.

He cites Freud, who wrote in 1915:

It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. … [Therefore] at bottom no one believes in his own death … [for] in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.

A century after Freud, contemporary science has dissected the inner workings of this quintessentially human phenomenon:

Modern cognitive psychology gives a scientific account of this ancient intuition. Our acceptance of new facts or possibilities depends upon our ability to imagine them — we accept, for example, that playing with matches could cause our house to burn down because this is something we can easily picture. But when our minds come across an obstacle to imagining a certain scenario, then we find it much more difficult to accept. Our own death is just such a scenario, as it involves the end of consciousness, and we cannot consciously simulate what it is like to not be conscious.

(Unless, that is, we were to do as Buckminster Fuller did and conclude that “all phenomena are metaphysical, wherefore … life is but a dream.”)

And while Christopher Hitchens, always the contrarian till the very end, claimed to “love the imaginary struggle,” for most of us, Cave points out, it’s a source of endless cognitive dissonance:

And thus we have a paradox: When we peer into the future we find our wish to live forever fulfilled, as it seems inconceivable that we might one day cease to be. Thus we believe in our own immortality. Yet at the same time we are painfully aware of the countless possible threats to our being. . . . And thus we believe in our own mortality. Our very same overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not, both that death is a fact and that it is impossible.

[…]

The paradox stems from two different ways of viewing ourselves — on the one hand, objectively, or from the outside, as it were, and on the other hand, subjectively, or from the inside. When we deploy reason to view ourselves as we do other living things around us, then we realize that we, like them, will fail, die and rot. From this outside, objective perspective, we are mortals. But when we switch to our own perspective and try to make sense of what this means subjectively, then we encounter the imaginative obstacle — the inability to accept the prospect of annihilation. Our introspection tells us we are imperishable as the angels, indivisible and everlasting; yet when we look in the mirror we see ourselves as others see us … an imperfect and impermanent creature fated to a brief existence. . . .

But while the friction between these two perspectives might explain how the Mortality Paradox arises, Cave argues, it doesn’t make light of the fact that most of us don’t live with the constant, all-consuming tension such a conflict might suggest. Henry Miller’s timeless words — “The aim of life is to live. . . . No why or wherefore…” — reverberate as we amble along the increasingly dimly lit corridors of existence.

From ancient mythology to today’s dominant world religions to modern scientific models like Terror Management Theory, the remainder of Immortality explores precisely how we’ve enlisted storytelling in weaving powerful immortality narratives that lift us out of our cognitive dissonance and, in the process, lay the very groundwork for human civilization.

Thanks, Filip; public domain images via Flickr Commons

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22 MARCH, 2013

In Which Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw Collide on Their Bicycles

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“Still I am not thoroughly convinced yet that I was not killed. Anybody but a vegetarian would have been.”

“How many intellectuals does it take to crash two bicycles?,” asks Craig Brown in Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings (public library) — the same wonderful daisy chain of famous encounters that gave us Rudyard Kipling’s warm memories of Mark Twain and Walt Disney’s copyright contentions with Igor Stravinsky — before introducing us to a calamitous encounter between George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell. And, yes, it does involve bicycles.

Brown chronicles the unusual encounter, which took place in September of 1895, while the two then-young men were visiting the socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb at their house in Monmouthshire:

Though aged twenty-nine, he is still learning to ride a bicycle, and is doing so with a recklessness at odds with his usual physical timidity. He regularly falls off at corners, simply because no one has satisfactorily convinced him of the need to lean into them. Faced with a steep downhill slope, he places his feet on the handlebars, and is then unable to steady himself when he hits a bump. Whenever he falls off his bicycle, which is often, he never admits to a mistake, behaving as though it had always been his intention.

“Many of his falls, from which he would prance away crying ‘I am not hurt,’ with black eyes, violet lips and a red face, acted as trials for his optimism,” notes his biographer, Michael Holroyd. “The surgery afterwards was an education in itself. Each toss he took was a point scored for one or more of his fads. After one appalling smash (hills, clouds and farmhouses tumbling around drunkenly), he wrote: ‘Still I am not thoroughly convinced yet that I was not killed. Anybody but a vegetarian would have been. Nobody but a teetotaller would have faced a bicycle again for six months.’ After four years of intrepid pedalling, he could claim: ‘If I had taken to the ring I should, on the whole, have suffered less than I have, physically.'”

Also staying with the Webbs was up-and-coming philosopher Bertrand Russell, twenty-three at the time. Years later, he would come to use the bicycle — like Steve Jobs famously did — as frequent metaphor for his intellectual arguments. In the 1926 treatise Education and the Good Life, for instance, he offers learning to ride a bicycle as an example of overcoming fear by acquiring skill.

But on that particular September afternoon, the bicycle carried an urgency of a far more practical nature for Russell and Shaw, who could’ve used this vintage bike safety manual. Brown details the farcical incident:

The two spindly intellectuals set off on their bicycles through the rolling hills of Monmouthshire. Before long, Bertrand Russell, slightly out in front, stops his bike in the middle of the road in order to read a direction sign and work out which way they should head. Shaw whizzes towards him, fails to keep his eyes on the road, and crashes right into the stationary Russell.

Shaw is hurled through the air and lands flat on his back “twenty feet from the place of the collision,” in Russell’s empirical estimation. Following his normal practice, Shaw picks himself up, behaves as though nothing is wrong, and gets back on his bicycle, which is, like him, miraculously undamaged.

But for Russell, it is a different story. “Russell, fortunately, was not even scratched,” Shaw tells a friend, adding mischievously, “But his knickerbockers were demolished.” Russell’s bicycle is also in a frightful state, and is no longer fit to ride. Russell says of his assailant: “He got up completely unhurt and continued his ride. Whereas my bicycle was smashed, and I had to return by train.”

Shaw, true to his bravado, reinforces his “victory” in a rascally demonstrative manner:

The train is extremely slow, so Shaw is easily able to outpace it. Never one to let tact get in the way of comedy, he pops up with his bicycle on the platform of every station along the way, putting his head into the carriage to jeer at Russell. “I suspect that he regarded the whole incident as proof of the virtues of vegetarianism,” suggests Russell sixty years later.

Their relationship never fully recovers, though it bumbles on for half a century or so. Russell concludes that, “When I was young, we all made a show of thinking no better of ourselves than of our neighbours. Shaw found this effort wearisome, and had already given it up when he first burst upon the world. My admiration had limits … it used to be the custom among clever people to say that Shaw was not unusually vain, but unusually candid. I came to think later on that this was a mistake.”

The rest of Hello Goodbye Hello goes on to recount such similarly riveting encounters between luminaries like Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy, Andy Warhol and Jackie O, J. D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway, and a wealth of others.

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