Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

04 JULY, 2013

Walt Whitman Reads “America”: The Only Surviving Recording of the Beloved Poet’s Voice

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36 seconds of timeliness from a rare wax-cylinder capsule of timelessness.

Walt Whitman is celebrated as the father of free verse and revered as one of the most influential voices in American literature. A century after his death, a serendipitous discovery surfaced a tape-recording of what is likely an 1889 or 1890 wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading his late poem “America,” an 1888 addition to his continuously revised 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass (public library; public domain). Though the origin and authenticity of the tape, preserved by The Walt Whitman Archive, has been debated, it is currently believed to be the only surviving recording of the beloved poet’s voice. What makes it all the more special is that the poem itself rings with particularly timely resonance as we celebrate a long overdue step towards equality for all in America. Enjoy:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

For an extra helping of awe, complement with James Earl Jones reading Whitman and a superb homage to the cosmos in a mashup of Whitman and NASA, then pair with the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice.

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02 JULY, 2013

A Visual History of Magic

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What the art of levitation has to do with creative debt and the legacy of vintage graphic design.

Whether in the rites of religion, the science of reality, or the folklore of love, or the transcendence of art, or even the allure of early image manipulation, the hunger for magic has always underpinned the human experience.

Originally published in 2009 as one of Taschen’s notoriously expensive hardcover masterpieces, Magic. 1400s-1950s (public library) is now released as a drastically more affordable and no less magnificent tome of 544 pages exploring the mesmerizing visual culture of history’s greatest magicians from the Middle Ages to the 1950s. With 1,000 rare vintage posters, photographs, handbills, and engravings, it’s at once a fascinating journey into the history of performative sorcery and a priceless time-capsule of vintage graphic design and visual culture.

Accompanying the treasure trove of visual ephemera are fascinating micro-essays and historical notes contextualizing their role in the craft by magic historian Jim Steinmeyer and author, collector, and professional magician Mike Caveney.

Among the curious patterns that emerge is a chronicle of creative debt, a kind of circles of influence within the canon as we begin to see how different magicians influenced each other.

Pair Magic. 1400s-1950s with Taschen’s previous gems: the world’s best infographics, the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm, Harry Benson’s luminous photos of The Beatles, the history of menu design, and New York’s illustrated jazz scene in the roaring twenties.

Images courtesy Taschen

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01 JULY, 2013

Kids on Gender Politics: Amusing and Poignant Responses from Children in the 1970s-1980s

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Minors counter major hegemony with disarming clarity.

“Children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real,” MoMA’s Juliet Kinchin observed in her wonderful design history of childhood. Indeed, children have a singular way of seeing even the most complex of cultural phenomena with disarming clarity. From Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) — the same wonderful tome that gave us the story of how feminist magazine Ms. sparked the “social media” storm of women’s empowerment and Pete Seeger’s delightful solution to gender politics in language — comes this charming selection of children’s responses to the cultural climate of the second wave of feminism. Amusing, poignant, and infinitely telling, the letters epitomize the signature Ms. “click” moment — a term coined by the magazine to denote an instant feminist insight derived from an anecdote that just “clicks.”

My four-year-old niece was sharing a snack of cheese and crackers with her grandfather. Halfway through the plate he noticed she was gobbling it up at a pace rivaling his own. He proclaimed, “Boy, Erin you’re really a ‘cheeseman’!” Amused at his obvious error she replied, “No, Papa! I’m a cheese ‘person’!”

This wasn’t a statement of the influence of feminism; it was an innocent recognition of an obvious mistake in word usage. At four years old, Erin was aware of someone’s casual denial of her womanhood. Before long she may no longer notice it and begin to accept it …. not if I can prevent it.

Name Withheld
June 24, 1981

I thought you might enjoy hearing a discussion I heard between my son and his neighbor friend. They were playing together and the little boy got the giggles. “Hee-hee-hee-hee,” he giggled, whereupon my son replied in a very condescending tone, “What are you, Danny, some kind of chauvinist? In this house we say “her-her-her-her!”

Her who laughs last,

Name Withheld
August 7, 1975

Recently my nine-year-old son and I were looking around the house for a ruler for his homework assignment. I observed to him that when I was growing up, most rulers had the golden rule printed upon them. “What’s that?” he asked. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” I replied. “Oh,” he said, “I know where you got that. You got that at all those ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] meetings.” Click!

Betsy Brinson
Richmond, Virginia
August 1980 Issue

I offer the following excerpt, taken from a school assignment written by my seven-year-old grandniece, as evidence of the future good health of the feminist movement:

“George Washington’s brother had died. In those days women did not get to own there own home. So George Washington’s sister did not get the house. George got the house. . . . He became the first president. And then he was put on a nickel.”

Name Withheld
March 11, 1979

The analysis of power-preserving notions of behavior based on biological characteristics in Steinem’s article was topical for our family. Only a few weeks ago our three-year-old daughter added to the list of attitudes toward genitalia undocumented in print.

Her behavior occurred in the locker room with her father after a swimming lesson. Observing all the male genitals, she asked if all people grow up to have penises. Her father told her that only men and boys have them. She studied him carefully and consoled him. “Don’t worry, Dad, it’s only a little one.”

Alice Fredricks
Mill Valley, California
September 23, 1978

I was observing in my daughter’s class during a sixth-grade open house when the discussion turned to immigration. Why did people immigrate to America? The teacher and the class discussed pestilence, war, persecution and then addressed famine. “What is famine?” the teacher asked one of the boys in the class.

“Discrimination against women.”

Name Withheld
April 1, 1981

I recently had an experience that I suppose falls into the click category. I was sharing the bathroom with my daughter, who is not yet three. She made an observation and the following conversation ensued:

“You don’t wipe your bottom when you tinkle.”

“No, Kristin, I don’t.”

Reflective pause, then, “Why?”

“Because my tinkle comes out a different place than yours.”

Another reflective pause, then, “Why?”

“Because boys and girls are different.”

Another reflective pause, then with certainty, “No, boys are different.”

My interpretation of this sample event is that she does not see the society or the world in terms of masculine “norm,” with her own status defined only in relation to that “norm.” I hope my interpretation is correct. As parents, we must be doing something right.

Robert J. Shaw, Minister
Tabernacle Christian Church
Franklin, Indiana
July 1981 Issue

Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 is absolutely fantastic — necessary, even — in its entirety, at once timeless and infinitely timely in bespeaking the struggles we still face as a society striving for equality in all dimensions.

Public domain photographs by Nickolas Muray via George Eastman House

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