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Posts Tagged ‘history’

30 JUNE, 2015

The Art of Constructive Criticism: Trailblazing Feminist Margaret Fuller Rejects Young Thoreau and Helps Him Improve His Writing

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“I can have no advice or criticism for a person so sincere; but, if I give my impression of him, I will say, ‘He says too constantly of Nature, she is mine.’ She is not yours till you have been more hers.”

Few things reveal your intellect and your generosity of spirit — the parallel powers of your heart and mind — better than how you give feedback, especially if it is to a friend and especially if the work in question leaves something to be desired. Evidence like Samuel Beckett’s masterwork of tough love and poet Thom Gunn’s role in Oliver Sacks’s evolution as a writer further impresses how rare the masters of this delicate, monumental art of constructive criticism are.

But there is no greater genius at it than trailblazing journalist, essayist, and editor Margaret Fuller, whose 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century endures as a foundational text of feminism. It originated as an essay titled “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women,” published two years earlier in the influential Transcendentalist magazine The Dial, of which Fuller had become founding editor — elected over Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was also being considered for the position — in 1839.

In the fall of 1841 — shortly after moving into Emerson’s house and around the time he was contemplating the true measure of meaningful labor in his famous diary — 24-year-old Henry David Thoreau, urged by Emerson, submitted one of his poems to The Dial. What he received from Fuller was a rejection on the surface but an enormous and generous gift at its heart — in a lengthy and immeasurably beautiful letter, she delineated the reasons for the poem’s rejection and offered caring constructive feedback on how to improve not only his writing but the very soul from which it springs.

Fuller’s masterpiece of constructive criticism is preserved in the original by Project REVEAL at Harry Ransom Center and was included in the 1907 volume Heralds of American Literature: A Group of Patriot Writers of the Revolutionary and National Periods (public library) by essayist and literary culture champion Annie Russell Marble.

Fuller's original handwritten letter to Thoreau (Harry Ransom Center)

On October 18, 1841, Fuller — herself only thirty-one — writes:

I do not find the poem on the mountains improved by mere compression, though it might be by fusion and glow. Its merits to me are, a noble recognition of Nature, two or three manly thoughts, and, in one place, a plaintive music.

With great sensitivity to every artist’s vulnerable tendency to take criticism of his or her work as criticism of his or her character, Fuller envelops her critique of Thoreau the poet in great warmth for Thoreau the person, assuring him that behind his mediocre poem lies great potential — but making clear that he must work diligently at it in order to attain it:

Yet, now that I have some knowledge of the man, it seems there is no objection I could make to his lines (with the exception of such offenses against taste as the lines about the humors of the eye…), which I would not make to himself. He is healthful, rare, of open eye, ready hand, and noble scope. He sets no limits to his life, nor to the invasions of nature; he is not willfully pragmatical, cautious, ascetic, or fantastical. But he is as yet a somewhat bare hill, which the warm gales of Spring have not visited… He will find the generous office that shall educate him…

Although she is only seven years Thoreau’s senior, barely in her thirties herself, Fuller brims with precocious wisdom. More than a century before Grace Paley asserted in her advice to aspiring writers that “in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world,” Fuller gently points Thoreau to the greatest education for a writer — life itself, the richness of experience amassed by living it, and the enlarging effects of human relationships:

The unfolding of affections, a wider and deeper human experience, the harmonizing influences of other natures, will mould the man and melt his verse. He will seek thought less and find knowledge the more. I can have no advice or criticism for a person so sincere; but, if I give my impression of him, I will say, “He says too constantly of Nature, she is mine.” She is not yours till you have been more hers. Seek the lotus, and take a draught of rapture. Say not so confidently, all places, all occasions are alike. This will never come true till you have found it false.

After encouraging him to keep submitting his work and to write to her, Fuller — a century before George Orwell’s famous admonition against “stale metaphors, similes and idioms” — adds:

Will you finish the poem in your own way, and send it for the ‘Dial’? Leave out

“And seem to milk the sky.”

The image is too low; Mr. Emerson thought so too.

She ends with the kind of signature that embodies what Virginia Woolf meant in calling letter-writing “the humane art” and makes one wistful for its death:

Farewell! May truth be irradiated by Beauty! Let me know whether you go to the lonely hut, and write to me about Shakespeare, if you read him there. I have many thoughts about him, which I have never yet been led to express.

Margaret F.

Illustration from 'Henry Builds a Cabin,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

Thoreau did go to the lonely hut to be owned by Nature, sequestering himself in the humble cabin he built with his own hands to write the very work for which he is remembered today. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,” he reflected in Walden — the most enduring masterwork of his meditations on those essential facts of life learned during his time in that lonely hut. There, he clearly took Fuller’s invaluable advice to heart — the shift she encouraged in his writing and his way of being is palpable both in Walden and in the beautiful journals he kept while living in the woods.

As for Shakespeare, he did read and admire him: “A genius — a Shakespeare, for instance — would make the history of his parish more interesting than another’s history of the world,” Thoreau wrote in the very journals that made the history of his interior parish more interesting than any history of the world.

Complement with Thoreau on the spiritual rewards of walking and what it really means to be awake.

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25 JUNE, 2015

The One That Got Away: The Bittersweet Story of George Orwell and His Childhood Sweetheart

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“It took me literally years to realise that we are all imperfect creatures but that Eric was less imperfect than anyone else I ever met.”

One summer day in a1914, an English family found a neighborhood boy standing on his head in their garden. When asked about his peculiar position, he replied: “You are noticed more if you stand on your head than if you are the right way up.”

The boy was eleven-year-old Eric Blair, better known today as George Orwell (June 25, 1903–January 21, 1950), and the neighboring family were the Buddicoms, whose three children — Jacintha, Prosper, and Guinever — became young Eric’s favorite playmates. But it was the budding poet Jacintha, two years older than Eric, who captured his heart — soon, between them blossomed the tender and unspoken romantic affection of early adolescence.

And then something happened that abruptly ruptured the relationship — something that would remain a secret for decades, until years after Jacintha’s death in 1994 and more than half a century after Orwell’s.

Prosper and Guinever Buddicom with Eric Blair (right)

In the 2006 postscript to Buddicom’s 1974 memoir Eric & Us (public library), her cousin Dione Venables — who was left the copyrights to the book after Buddicom’s death and did significant research in the family archives — tells a disquieting story: Although Eric was a romantically awkward youth reticent to assert himself and unprone to aggression — and although he would grow up to be quite the feminist — during a summer holiday with the Buddicoms shortly before his departure to Burma in 1922, he “attempted to take things further and make SERIOUS love to Jacintha” despite her protestations. Failing to honor the basic “no means no” tenet of respectful intimate relationships, he pinned her down — he was 6’4″ and she just under 5′ — and, despite her exhorting him to stop, managed to rip her skirt and bruise her shoulder. He came to what little was left of his senses before the bodily assault went any further, but the assault on the relationship had fully ruptured it. Eric stayed with the family for the remainder of the holiday, but was kept apart from Jacintha.

Jacintha Buddicom in 1918

Upon returning from Burma five years later, he immediately sought out the Buddicoms, hoping to see Jacintha. Although he could barely make ends meet, he had brought with him an engagement ring for her.

He was invited for a visit, but only her siblings were there and the family was evasive about her absence — an absence shrouded in shame, for it was due to what was considered a grave transgression: Jacintha had just given birth to a child out of wedlock, by a man who fled the country as soon as he found out about the pregnancy. Her aunt and uncle adopted the baby, and she never told Orwell any of what was going on despite their occasional correspondence. He, instead, assumed that Jacintha was gone because she was still hurt and angry with him — which was undoubtedly true, but far from the complete story.

He eventually convinced Prosper to share her London number and telephoned her right away, begging her to meet him so he could make amends. She refused. He tried again two weeks later, but she would not relent. They went their separate ways. Jacintha eventually became the inspiration for many of Orwell’s female characters, most notably Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Illustration by Jonathan Burton for a Folio Society edition of 'Nineteen Eighy-Four.' Click image for more.

But the story doesn’t end there. Mere months before Orwell’s death, Buddicom found out in a letter from her aunt that her childhood friend Eric was the famous author George Orwell. Her feelings for him had remained conflicted and complex — she was hurt by his inexplicable youthful outburst, but had also never forgiven herself for not forgiving his flawed humanity and giving him a second chance. She was haunted by the latent realization that he had been her big love, the one that got away.

In a moving 1972 letter, found in the altogether revelatory George Orwell: A Life in Letters (public library), Buddicom exorcised this conflictedness while trying to console a relative navigating a similar situation of bearing a child out of wedlock. She writes:

I have just finished reading your sad letter and hasten to answer it. I cannot believe that the same miserable tragedy has struck twice in the same family but I CAN give you my total understanding and sympathy which might help a little. Strangely, your letter comes at a time when my mind and concentration are centred on similar events that took place in my life also some time ago.

[…]

How I wish I had been ready for betrothal when Eric asked me to marry him on his return from Burma. He had ruined what had been such a close and fulfilling relationship since childhood by trying to take us the whole way before I was anywhere near ready for that. It took me literally years to realise that we are all imperfect creatures but that Eric was less imperfect than anyone else I ever met. When the time came and I was ready for the next step it was with the wrong man and the result haunts me to this day… Memories of the joys and fun that Eric and I shared, knowing each other’s minds so totally ensured that I would never marry unless that “oneness”” could be found again.

One can’t help but feel that Buddicom is speaking to her own younger self — this, after all, might be true of most advice ever given — as she issues an unambiguous admonition to the young woman from this ambivalent place of resentment and wistful what-ifs:

You are still an extremely beautiful woman, even if you feel that this has been your downfall. The men in your life have not wanted your very great intelligence and so it has caused you to drift from relationship to relationship, looking for something you never find. A tragedy which you simply must take control of, or life will begin to depend on the bottle rather than the fascination of other lives and situations. At least you have not had the public shame of being destroyed in a classic book as Eric did to me. Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four is clearly Jacintha, of that I feel certain. He describes her with thick dark hair, being very active, hating politics — and their meeting place was a dell full of bluebells. We always wandered off to our special place when we were at Ticklerton which was full of bluebells. They die so quickly if you pick them so we never did but lay amongst them and adored their heavy pungent scent. That very bluebell dell is described in his book and is part of the central story but in the end he absolutely destroys me, like a man in hob nailed boots stamping on a spider. It hurt my mother so much when she read that book that we always thought it brought on her final heart attack a few days later. Be glad that you have not been torn limb from limb in public.

Gather yourself together, my Dear. Our family is well blessed with looks and brains and you have both in liberal quantities. You are an extremely elegant communicator so enjoy what you have instead of looking at the past… You have the finest of minds which outstrips your physical attributes. Make both work for you. Look ahead. What is past is gone. It is the only way I manage to keep my reason.

But the story of Jacintha and Eric isn’t entirely heartbreaking — it has, in fact, a rather bittersweet ending.

Jacintha Buddicom in 1948

In early 1949, as soon as Buddicom found out from her aunt that George Orwell was her childhood friend Eric, she telephoned his publisher to find out where he lived, hoping to reconnect and repair the relationship. Orwell, already in poor health, was being cared for in a sanatorium. She wrote to him on February 9, as soon as she got his address, but dated the letter February 14 — Valentine’s Day.

Orwell was greatly delighted by her missive and responded the very same day, but at first kept his tone rather reserved and signed with the somewhat distancing “Yours, Eric Blair.” He wrote:

I am a widower. My wife died suddenly four years ago, leaving me with a little (adopted) son who was then not quite a year old… I have been having this dreary disease (T.B.) in an acute way since the autumn of 1947, but of course it has been hanging over me all my life, and actually I think I had my first go of it in early childhood… I am trying now not to do any work at all, and shan’t start any for another month or two. All I do is read and do crossword puzzles. I am well looked after here and can keep quiet and warm and not worry about anything, which is about the only treatment that is any good in my opinion. Thank goodness Richard is extremely tough and healthy and is unlikely, I should think, ever to get this disease.

But seeing that the letter wasn’t posted immediately, he wrote a second, far warmer and more emotional one the next day, opening with their favorite childhood greeting:

Hail and Fare Well, my dear Jacintha,

… Ever since I got your letter I’ve been remembering. I can’t stop thinking about the young days with you & Guin & Prosper, & things put out of mind for 20 and 30 years. I am so wanting to see you. We must meet when I get out of this place, but the doctor says I’ll have to stay another 3 or 4 months.

George Orwell with his son, Richard, in 1946. (Photograph: Veina Richards)

What he writes next is of particular poignancy in light of the past — after Jacintha’s illegitimate daughter was born, her sister Guinever had remarked that young Eric “might well have welcomed the little girl as his own child.” Now, thirty years later, in telling Jacintha about his five-year-old adopted son, he poses a question perfectly innocent for him and perfectly piercing for her:

I would like you to see Richard… When I was not much more than his age I always knew I wanted to write, but for the first ten years it was very hard to make a living…

Are you fond of children? I think you must be. You were such a tender-hearted girl, always full of pity for the creatures we others shot & killed. But you were not so tender-hearted to me when you abandoned me to Burma with all hope denied. We are older now, & with this wretched illness the years will have taken more of a toll of me than of you. But I am well cared-for here & feel much better than I did when I got here last month. As soon as I can get back to London I do so want to meet you again. As we always ended so that there should be no ending.

Farewell and Hail.

Eric

Despite their mutual eagerness to reconnect, there was indeed no ending — Orwell’s health suffered a rapid decline over the next few months and he died of a massive lung hemorrhage in the early hours of January 21, 1950. But in this bittersweet epistolary reconciliation, the two shared a grace that few ruptured relationships enjoy — a special kind of closure in that one final, redemptive “Farewell and Hail.”

George Orwell: A Life in Letters is a fantastic read in its totality. Complement these with the beloved author on why he writes, his eleven golden rules for the perfect cup of tea, and some beautifully haunting illustrations for the celebrated novel into which he wrote Jacintha.

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24 JUNE, 2015

The John Lennon Sketchbook: A Weird and Wonderful Vintage Animated Film About the Beloved Beatle’s Life, Music, and Philosophy

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Quips and prophecies in vibrant color.

In 1986, seventeen years after Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s animated conversation about love and six years after the beloved Beatle’s assassination, Ono commissioned independent animator John Canemaker to create a short animated film based on Lennon’s drawings, music, and interviews. Given her penchant for the intersection of art and philosophy, Lennon’s own quirky illustrations, and the odd fact that the couple’s love began in visual poetry long before they met, it was the perfect medium for commemoration.

Titled The John Lennon Sketchbook, the befittingly weird and wonderful film — a vibrant testament to our long cultural history of anthropomorphizing animals to illuminate the human experience — begins with Lennon’s iconic “Imagine,” features Ono’s song “The King of the Zoo,” and weaves in chillingly prophetic conversations from the limited-edition 1980 LP Heart Play: Unfinished Dialogue, the first interview album of Lennon and Ono’s interviews after the breakup of The Beatles and the second posthumously released Lennon record.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are great examples of fantastic nonviolents who died violently. I can never work that out — we’re pacifists, but I’m not sure what it means when you’re such a pacifist that you get shot. I can never understand that.

Exactly twenty years later, Canemaker received an Academy Award for his animated short film The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation.

Complement with The Beatles’ final photo shoot and a teenage boy’s marvelous animated conversation with Lennon, then revisit his semi-sensical illustrated verses.

HT Open Culture

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18 JUNE, 2015

MoMA Acquires the Rainbow Flag as a Design Icon: A Conversation with the Artist Who Made It

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“Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade. They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design.”

In 1976, a young man named Gilbert Baker conducted that great creative act of “bisociation,” bringing two unrelated concepts together into something revolutionary. He fused vexillography — the art-science of designing flags — with the groundswell of the LGBT rights movement, spearheaded by his friend Harvey Milk. Baker incubated the idea for the next two years and on June 25, 1978, he raised the first two rainbow flags at the United Nations Plaza in downtown San Francisco. He was twenty-seven.

Nearly forty years later, the Museum of Modern Art acquired the iconic rainbow flag into its permanent design collection — a visionary move by Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, who has previously acquired the @ symbol in her continual quest to expand our understanding of design as a force of culture and an agent of civic discourse.

There is a poignant parallel between this acquisition and Antonelli’s 2011 exhibition Talk to Me, which examined the communication and interaction between people and (mostly digital) objects. The rainbow flag is an utterly analog yet highly interactive object — a flag only flies on the wings of wind or human hands, or else it collapses into limp fabric — that speaks to and with people powerfully. It embodies Antonelli’s famous words from her Talk to Me essay: “In our relationship with objects, as in any relationship, indifference is the worst offense and laziness the worst sin.”

There is also a profound resonance with her more recent Design and Violence project, as the rainbow flag was a telegraphic response to the Stonewall riots that catalyzed the political momentum of the LGBT rights movement. The flag became an inclusive celebration of those violently excluded by nation and state, the people whose basic human and civic rights were being denied and outright violated by the very entities supposed to protect them — the same entities belonging to which traditional national flags symbolize.

I spoke with Antonelli about her rationale behind the acquisition and its broader cultural implications:

Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade. They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design. They are made of icons and become icons themselves — even more so when they come to represent a long struggle, as does the rainbow flag: bright, simple, luminous, positive despite everything. The epitome of grace under pressure, a design feat. When it was born almost 40 years ago, it defied violence and prejudice. Sadly, it still does, in some places. There is no prouder addition to our collection than a great design object about real life and tough issues.

Antonelli and her curatorial assistant, Michelle Millar Fisher, kindly shared this exclusive recording of Fisher’s conversation with Baker about the origin story of his iconic creation and its enduring impact in the world. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

On being inadvertently initiated into vexillography and how the rainbow flag was born:

It started hitting me in 1976, [which was] the bicentennial of the United States… I began to notice the American flag — which is where a lot of the rainbow flag comes from… All of a sudden I’m looking at the American flag everywhere — from Jasper Johns paintings to trashy jeans in the GAP and all kinds of tchotchkes. And I [realized] a flag is something that’s really different than any other form of art — it’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not a logo. It functions in so many ways, it’s interpreted in so many different ways.

And I thought that’s the kind of symbol that we needed as a people — something that everyone instantly understands. It doesn’t have to say the word [like] it doesn’t say “United States” on the American flag, but everyone knows visually what that means… I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we’re a people — a tribe, if you will — and flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate that we have that kind of symbol.

On being at the right place at the right time — a fruitful intersection of culture, conviction, and craft:

I was a big drag queen in 1970s San Francisco [and] I knew how to sew — I was in the right place at the right time to make the thing that we needed. It was necessary to have the rainbow flag, because up until then we had the pink triangle — the pink triangle came from the Nazis [and] was the symbol that they would use to still label us, but it came from such a horrible place of murder and Holocaust and Hitler. We needed something beautiful — something from us, and the rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in the sense of our race, our gender, all of those things, our ages… Plus, it’s a natural flag — it’s from the sky…

[…]

Because I was in San Francisco in the early seventies [knowing how to sow] translated into being the guy that would make banners for protest marches… and that became … my role in the movement. My craft … became my activism.

On how the rainbow flag came to telegraph the most important message Harvey Milk championed for a community that had remained invisible for most of modern history:

Harvey Milk … carried a really great message about how important it was to be visible, how important it was to come out… That was the single most important thing — our job, as gay people, was to come out, be visible, to live in the truth… to get out of the lie. And a flag really fit that mission — because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility.

On being very deliberate about the birthplace of the flag and how this inclusive intention has since been reflected in the universal language the flag carried around the world:

The United Nations Plaza wasn’t an accident. That was very deliberate — because, even in those days, [our] vision was that we’re a global struggle, this is a global human rights issue.

[…]

Much has changed for some [but] as a global vision, we’re way far from that. We’re still dealing with huge, massive resistance — even here, in our own country; even here, in our own city; in our own families… What the rainbow has given [gay people] is a thing that kind of connects us. I [travel] and I see a rainbow flag and I think … that’s a kindred spirit or it’s a safe place to go… It’s sort of a language onto itself… The beauty of it is the way that’s connected us, and that’s the wonder of it.

See more of Baker’s work — including a series of limited-edition handmade rainbow flags — on his site. Complement this milestone for design and human rights with the illustrated biography of Harvey Milk, the the greatest LGBT children’s books, and these vintage photos of the first-ever Pride parades.

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