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17 APRIL, 2013

Willa Cather’s Only Surviving Letter to Her Partner, Edith Lewis

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“I can’t but believe that all that majesty and all that beauty, those fated and unfailing appearances and exits, are something more than mathematics and horrible temperatures.”

Long before the age of data and hacking and involuntary transparency, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Willa Cather was a fierce custodian of her own privacy. Despite being a prolific letter-writer, she burned much of her correspondence and, in a will written during the final and rather dark years of her life, forbad the posthumous publication of the remainder. Now, more than sixty-five years after her death, her correspondence is at last revealed in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (public library). But even so, only a fraction of her letters survive, the vast majority a victim of Cather’s own privacy-obsessed hand — something editors Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout speculate was “an expression of a personality seeking to control all access to itself.” They make a note of Cather’s extreme compulsion for privacy:

In her maturity, Cather was a skillful self-marketer, and a major element of her marketing strategy was to limit her publicly available texts to those she had meticulously prepared.

Cather was most voracious in guarding — and, to a large degree, destroying — her the most personal of her letters. This is the only known surviving letter from Cather to her lifelong partner and literary executor, Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived for the last 39 years of her life. A poetic ode to the same cosmos that great minds from Ptolemy to Carl Sagan have admired, it may lack the passion of Virginia Woolf’s letter to Vita Sackville-West or the proud surrender of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s confessions to Edith Wynn Matthison or the longing of Eleanor Roosevelt’s missives to Lorena Hickok, but it bespeaks one of love’s greatest hallmarks: the shared wonderment at the magnificence of a universe two souls inhabit as one. For, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has famously put it, “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

Sunday 4:30 P.M.
[October 5, 1936]
Shattuck Inn, Jaffrey, New Hampshire

My Darling Edith;

I am sitting in your room, looking out on the woods you know so well. So far everything delights me. I am ashamed of my appetite for food, and as for sleep — I had forgotten that sleeping can be an active and very strong physical pleasure. It can! It has been for all of three nights. I wake up now and then, saturated with the pleasure of breathing clear mountain air (not cold, just chill air) of being up high with all the woods below me sleeping, too, in still white moonlight. It’s a grand feeling.

One hour from now, out of your window, I shall see a sight unparalleled — Jupiter and Venus both shining in the golden-rosy sky and both in the West; she not very far above the horizon, and he about mid-way between the zenith and the silvery lady planet. From 5:30 to 6:30 they are of a superb splendor — deepening in color every second, in a still-daylight-sky guiltless of other stars, the moon not up and the sun gone down behind Gap-mountain; those two alone in the whole vault of heaven. It lasts so about an hour (did last night). Then the Lady, so silvery still, slips down into the clear rose colored glow to be near the departed sun, and imperial Jupiter hangs there alone. He goes down about 8:30. Surely it reminds one of Dante’s “eternal wheels”. I can’t but believe that all that majesty and all that beauty, those fated and unfailing appearances and exits, are something more than mathematics and horrible temperatures. If they are not, then we are the only wonderful things — because we can wonder.

I have worn my white silk suit almost constantly with no white hat, which is very awkward. By next week it will probably be colder. Everything you packed carried wonderfully — not a wrinkle.

And now I must dress to receive the Planets, dear, as I won’t wish to take the time after they appear — and they will not wait for anybody.

Lovingly
W.

I don’t know when I have enjoyed Jupiter so much as this summer.

Edith Lewis, left, with Willa Cather in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, 1926

(Image: Special Collections, University of New Brunswick)

Of the choice to violate Cather’s insistence on privacy, the editors rationalize:

The concerns that we believe motivated her to assert her preference are no longer valid. Cather’s reputation is now as secure as artistic reputations can ever be, and her works will continue to speak for themselves. These lively, illuminating letters will do nothing to damage her reputation. Instead, we can see from our twenty-first-century perspective that her letters heighten our sense of her complex personality, provide insights into her methods and artistic choices as she worked, and reveal Cather herself to be a complicated, funny, brilliant, flinty, sensitive, sometimes confounding human being. Such an identity is far more satisfying — and more honest — than that of a “pure” artist, unmoved by commercial motivations, who devoted herself strictly to her creations and nothing else.

[…]

Cather is now a part of our cultural history. Her works belong to something greater than herself. It is time to let the letters speak for themselves.

And speak they do — vibrant, dimensional, full of the uncontrolled richness of human experience, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather join the ranks of history’s most wonderful letters.

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16 APRIL, 2013

How Attractive Are You To The Opposite Sex? Esquire’s 1949 Questionnaire

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“Almost any man can stand almost any amount of flattery.”

Somewhere between the time women stopped being chastised for wearing pants and riding bicycles and the time they began hacking their way to true love, women were building the atomic bomb in secret, but mainstream society had cut the ribbon on the era of the arm-candy babe. From Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts: A Time-Honored Guide to the Perfect Party (public library), originally published in 1949 and brimming with the era’s most flagrantly preposterous gender stereotypes, comes a set of questionnaires designed to help the ladies and bachelors make themselves more attractive to each other. And though at first glance the lists might appear to reveal the era’s appalling standards of good womanhood, encrusted with all kinds of superficial qualities and completely vacant of intellectual merit, they in fact reveal far more about the Esquire man and his own sensibilities in what he desires in a mate. (Also of note: The disparity in agreeableness of appearance between the male and female illustrations.)

  1. Do you bring the names of other men into the conversation to give yourself a sought-after appearance?

    Don’t. This may give a man a sense of inferiority — he is uncomfortable with you, and soon drifts away to someone else. It may make him wonder how much talking you do about him.

  2. Do you wear clothes that make you a little more up-to-the-minute than the other women in your set?

    Good — provided your taste is reliable and that the clothes suit you. Men may rant about the “crazy hat” but they swell with pride when their lady companions arouse admiring stares.

  3. If you are asked to get another girl for a foursome, do you pick one obviously less attractive than you are?

    You are unwise to do so. Get the most glamorous girl you know, and both men will be pleased.

  4. Do you make a point of building up other women, even those you dislike, in discussing them with a man?

    This is sound practice. But don’t put it on so thick that it sounds like a line.

  5. Do men marvel at your capacity for holding liquor?

    A great mistake: it gives you a fast reputation and runs into money — the man’s money — besides.

  6. How many comfortable chairs are there in your living room?

    At least two, I hope. No man can fall in love unless he has a chance to relax and he can’t if either of you sits bolt upright.

  7. Do you keep men interested by hinting that later — not tonight — you’ll be really demonstrative?

    This is a low trick and one that a surprising number of men see through at once. If you kiss a man, it should be for your own pleasure and not to reward him.

  8. Do you make things easier for a man by suggesting that he climb into a car first, if he’s driving, or by asking him not to stand up when you come into the room?

    This is an error — men know that they are supposed to show these signs of consideration to a girl and they respect her more if she takes them as a matter of course.

  9. Do you ever embarrass a man by telling him he’s good-looking or has big muscles or is too, too intelligent?

    Try it! Almost any man can stand almost any amount of flattery, however obvious, without embarrassment or surprise.

  10. Do you knit when you are having a cozy, fireside evening with a man?

    For some reason, men hate to see a woman doing anything with her hands when talking to her. Undivided attention is best.

  11. Do you either play bridge or dance really well?

    If not, take steps to correct this at once. You’re better off if you do both well, but one talent is mandatory.

  12. Are you so beautifully groomed that you make an average man feel like a lout when he takes you out?

    Fine. Men are extremely critical of any imperfection in a girl’s neatness. If he feels like a lout once, the average escort will take pains to be better-dressed himself the next time.

  13. Do you, when you have first met a really attractive man, clinch your future acquaintance by some polite variation of “Come up and see me sometime”?

    It often helps out on the occasions when the man is too shy to make the first advance himself.

  14. Do you keep your friendships warm by chatty calls to your men friends at their offices?

    This is fatal.

  15. Do you use artificial conversation gambits like “What movie would you choose if you had to see it every week for a year?” to start talk with a shy dinner partner?

    A very good plan — someone has to start the conversation and a question like this can keep it rolling for quite awhile.

  16. Do you save yourself wear and tear by not troubling to entertain men bores?

    A grave mistake. Bores have their uses since a clever girl can practice her conversation on them, with nothing much to lose. Besides, they often have attractive friends.

  17. Do you suffer from indecision when ordering dinner or drinks in a restaurant with a man?

    This maddens them — learn to make up your mind rapidly.

  1. Do you use the continental approach, based on the belief that an immediate pass flatters a woman?

    This is the average man’s greatest mistake. If a pass, on first acquaintance, doesn’t insult a girl it at least bores her.

  2. Do you show your real fondness for a girl by telling her about her bad points and advising her how to improve them?

    This is again an error. If you must tell her you hate her perfume or how she does her hair, wrap it up in heavy sugar coating.

  3. Do you show your devotion to a woman by holding her hand or putting your arm around her when her friends are present?

    Please don’t. Even a girl who is affectionate in private dislikes public mauling.

  4. Can you describe the dress or hat worn by the last two girls you took out?

    If not, notice and comment on the next few. Women appreciate having men notice the efforts they make over their appearance.

  5. Do you have a double code about drunkenness for men and women when they are together?

    If a man has to get drunk, he’ll be more attractive if he restricts this behavior to stag company.

  6. Do you sometimes take a girl out on parties of four or more, as a change from twosomes?

    A good idea. A girl may feel hurt if you never ask her to meet your other friends.

  7. Do you make distinctions between the jokes you’d tell a man in the club and those you’d tell a girl in a park automobile?

    Almost no women like bathroom jokes or jokes with dirty words.

  8. Do you tell a woman she’s beautiful, even if she isn’t?

    This habit hurts nobody and makes a lot of girls happier.

  9. Do you ask an attractive girl — who is probably busy most evenings — to call you up sometime when she’s free?

    Don’t do this: you may always ask a popular girl far enough ahead of time to find a free evening.

  10. Do you plan your evenings with a woman ahead of time or leave the choice of amusement up to her?

    It’s much more flattering for a man to announce the evening’s program, showing he has given thought to her amusement.

  11. Do you believe it necessary in the modern age to push in a girl’s chair for her and to light her cigarettes?

    These small courtesies mean a lot to a girl.

  12. Do you ever tell a girl you love her, under the spell of the moment, when you suspect that you won’t tomorrow?

    This is a dirty trick and if you do, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Moreover, the word will soon get around to other women.

  13. How many times a week do you shave?

    Once a day is minimum, if you care what women think of you.

  14. Would you dine a girl expensively and not buy her flowers, or economize on the place and bring her at least a gardenia?

    Most women would prefer having flowers and less to eat.

  15. If your hostess at a dance is obviously having a whirl, do you consider it necessary to dance with her?

    You always should, as a matter of good manners.

  16. Do you try to arouse a girl’s interest by boasting of your success with other women?

    Don’t ever do this!

  17. Do you consider it a young girl’s own business whether she gets tight and is indiscreet when she’s out with you?

    Keep an inexperienced girl from getting tight, if you have to spank her, and don’t let any woman become indiscreet through liquor. Triumphs over drunken women don’t help any man.

  18. If a girl you’re fond of asks you to be nice to her cousin with adenoids and buck teeth do you cut her off your list?

    Not pleasant, but if you rally around and give Cousin Belle a whirl, you’ll soon be known as the nicest man in town.

  19. If you had a quarrel with a girl — in which she is clearly in the wrong — will you wait for her to apologize before calling her up or risk being a door mat and do it first?

    Be a door mat — it’s easier for you to call a girl than for her to call you.

The rest of Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts features a variety of recipes and party tips, from how to brew the perfect cup of coffee to how to estimate the ideal number of guests for your dinner party to how to finesse the art of dessert, with an invariable side of era-appropriate sexism so dated by today’s standards that it tips over from the appalling into the amusing. Complement it with this Victorian map of woman’s heart tipping the same balance.

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16 APRIL, 2013

Modern Art Desserts: From Mondrian Cake to Matisse Parfait

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Edible masterpieces from the pastry chef at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

As a lover of modern art, Mondrian-inspired creative projects, and unusual cookbooks, I was instantly enamored with Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art (public library) by Caitlin Freeman, pastry chef at the Blue Bottle café at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s, which she roams for inspiration, then translates the artwork into edible masterpieces. From Matisse parfait to Mondrian cake to Frida wedding cookies to Fuller hot chocolate, the recipes hit the spot for art-lovers and foodies alike, adding an extra layer of whimsical delight to the art of dessert.

The story of the Blue Bottle café is itself a heartening tale of modern creativity. It was founded by Freeman’s husband, James — a former professional clarinet player and hobbyist coffee-roaster — in 2002, after he started experimenting with roasting coffee at home and began selling his drinks at Bay Area farmers’ markets. A few years later, he dreamed up a cafe at Rooftop Garden of the SFMoMA and approached them with the idea. The museum loved it. Meanwhile, Caitlin had just sold her own pastry business, so the timing was perfect for her to bring her talents to the newborn venture. The rest, as they say, is modern history.

Mondrian cake

Donald Judd tomato soup

Rothko dessert

Modern Art Desserts is, in both the punniest and least punny way possible, an absolute treat.

Photographs via Kobini

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