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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

24 JULY, 2015

Amelia Earhart on Sticking Up for Yourself, in a Remarkable Letter of Advice to Her Younger Sister

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“Adult human beings owe as much to themselves as to others, for by asserting individual rights, the baser natures of those who have them are held in check.”

Amelia Earhart (b. July 24, 1897) endures as one of the most beloved cultural figures in history — a trailblazing aviator, a model of the modern independent woman, and an icon of the spirit of adventure, her myth made all the more alluring by her mysterious disappearance. From the out-of-print treasure Letters from Amelia: An Intimate Portrait of Amelia Earhart (public library) — which also gave us her lucid and elevating ideas on education, personal growth, and human nature — comes a remarkable letter of advice she sent to her younger sister Muriel in 1937, shortly before Amelia disappeared over the Pacific never to be seen again.

What occasioned the letter were Muriel’s marital troubles — her husband, Albert, had become a gambling addict and was wasting the family’s funds away, including the money Earhart frequently sent to her sister. Although Albert was widely beloved by the town, never abusive to Muriel and their children, and didn’t drink or smoke, his gambling problem had started taking a significant toll on the family and on Muriel’s contentment.

The morning before her own wedding six years earlier, Amelia had sent her fiancé, George Putnam, a magnificent letter outlining her conditions for marriage, decades ahead of its time. Now, she saw it as her responsibility to instill in her sister the same kind of insistence on personal agency and financial independence:

Dear Muriel,

I am deeply sorry to hear further reports of your unhappy domestic situation. I had hoped that the money GPP and I advanced would help Albert grow up…

You have taken entirely too much on the chin for your own good or that of any man who holds the purse strings. I sometimes feel that adult human beings owe as much to themselves as to others, for by asserting individual rights, the baser natures of those who have them are held in check. That is often very hard to do. One hesitates to bring on a quarrel when it can be avoided by giving in. But perhaps one definite assertion will prevent the slow accumulation of a sense of superiority in a person who really should not claim superiority. Given a little power over another, little natures swell to hideous proportions. It is hopeless to watch a character change of this kind in one you have cared for.

Illustration by Pascal Lemaitre from 'The Book of Mean People' by Toni and Slade Morrison. Click image for more.

After advising her sister to obtain a legal separation in order to ensure her financial independence and encouraging her to move to the East Coast closer to her, Earhart adds an observation that reads rather like Anne Lamott, transcending the particular situation to speak to a universal truth:

Human crises have a way of happening at inconvenient times.

Although Muriel didn’t end up leaving Albert, Earhart’s advice seems to have made a difference — under Muriel’s threat to leave, Albert eventually changed his ways. The family’s financial situation stabilized and for the remainder of their lives they were known as a happy couple by their community. Muriel was able to go back to school, completing her education and becoming a successful and beloved high school teacher.

Letters from Amelia is a fantastic read in its totality — the most intimate and direct glimpse of Earhart’s inner world. What a pity that it perishes out of print — here’s to hoping that there exists a publisher invested enough in cultural preservation to bring it back.

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14 JULY, 2015

How a Dream Came True: Young Jane Goodall’s Exuberant Letters and Diary Entries from Africa

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How the beloved scientist transformed a childhood fantasy into the rugged reality of revolutionary work.

When Jane Goodall (b. April 3, 1934) was a little girl, she was given a stuffed toy chimpanzee, whom she named Jubilee. From that moment on, little Jane and Jubilee became inseparable, but she especially enjoyed sitting with him on a tree branch in her family’s backyard, where she would read the Tarzan novels for hours on end. Like most children, Jane transformed the toy and the books into raw material for dreams — in her case, the dream of going to Africa to study the curious lives of monkeys. Unlike most children, she spent the next two decades turning that childhood dream into a reality by becoming the world’s most influential primatologist and the most celebrated woman in science since Marie Curie.

When she boarded the S.S. Kenya Castle one chilly spring day, 22-year-old Goodall was burning with exuberant enthusiasm for the work she was heading to Kenya to do. But she had no idea that this work, at first met with enormous resistance, would revolutionize not only our understanding of chimpanzees — her lifelong locus of curiosity and expertise — but our understanding of the complexities of all animal consciousness.

Jane Goodall with the young chimp Flint at Gombe (Photograph: Hugo van Lawick, Goodall's first husband, courtesy of Jane Goodall Institute)

In a letter to her family penned aboard the Kenya Castle in March of 1957, found in the altogether magnificent Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters (public library), Goodall writes:

Darling Family,

It is now 4 p.m. on Thursday and I still find it difficult to believe that I am on my way to Africa. That is the thing — AFRICA. It is easy to imagine I am going for a long sea voyage, but not that names like Mombasa, Nairobi, South Kinangop, Nakuru, etc., are going to become reality.

The first page of Goodall's letter to her family from aboard the Kenya Castle

On April 3 — her twenty-third birthday — Goodall finally arrived in the dreamsome reality of Nairobi. Her first letter home brims with uncontainable gusto for the life she was about to begin — a life she had purposefully pursued since childhood:

I really do simply adore Kenya. It’s so wild, uncultivated, primitive, mad, exciting, unpredictable. It is also slightly degrading in its effect on some rather weak characters, but on the whole I am living in the Africa I have always longed for, always felt stirring in my blood.

Illustration by from 'Me ... Jane,' a picture-book about Goodall's childhood. Click image for more.

But the most fateful date in Goodall’s journey came more than three years later: On July 14, 1960, she arrived in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, where she would spend many years conducting the groundbreaking research for which she is celebrated today, and to which she still returns frequently in the course of her tireless environmental conservation work.

It was there that she met, named, and befriended the now-famous David Greybeard — the first chimp to overcome the fear of human contact and the generous gatekeeper who made possible Goodall’s research amid the chimpanzee community.

Jane Goodall with David Greybeard at Gombe

On her very first day at Gombe, Goodall saw her first chimp. It was a highly unlikely occurrence — at that point, scientists considered chimpanzees mysterious creatures at once wild and timid, nearly impossible to sight, let alone approach. In a diary entry from that first day, preserved by The Jane Goodall Institute, the young scientist captures the tremendous thrill of that miraculous event — a visceral affirmation that she was indeed living her childhood dream:

We woke at dawn … Left about 9 and arrived about 11. The fisherman were all along the beaches frying their dagga fish. It looked as though patches of sand had been whitewashed. Above, the mountains rose up steeply behind the beaches. The slopes were thickly covered with accacia and other trees… Every so often a stream cascaded down the vallys between the ridges, with its thick fringe of forest — the home of the chimps.

The lake water was so clear I could scarcely believe it.

Our tent was up in no time, in a clearing up from the fisherman’s huts on the stony beach. We had some lunch together, and then Ma and I spent an exhausting and hot afternoon setting things in order. I say exhausting because I had a foul sore throat, turning into a cold.

Then, about 5 o’clock, someone came along to say some people had seen a chimp. So off we went and there was the chimp. It was quite a long way -too far to tell its sex or even see properly what it looked like — but it was a chimp. It moved away as we drew level with the crowd of fishermen gazing at it, and, though we climbed the neighboring slope, we didn’t see it again. However, we went over to the trees & found a fresh nest there. — Whether that day’s of the day before I couldn’t tell. We returned to the beach and walked back.

We all had dinner together, and after long chats, & helplessly endeavoring to hear the news, Ma and I thankfully retired to bed.

Although 26-year-old Goodall was accompanied by her mother at Gombe — a requirement by the park’s chief warden, who was concerned about the young primatologist’s safety, and a reflection of what women scientists had to grapple with in that era — she continued corresponding with her relatives at home. On day three at Gombe, she writes in a picturesque letter to her grandmother Danny and the rest of the family:

We got here, Danny, on your birthday & mentally had tea with you — just after I had seen my first chimpanzee! I could hardly believe I could be lucky enough to see one on my very first day. We were quite far away, but at least close enough to know it was a chimp & not a baboon. There are lots of Baboon here — one Troop comes very close to the tent each morning to watch us. I went out yesterday afternoon to do a little exploring on my own and saw a beautiful bushbuck — a smallish animal, lovely reddish gold colour. He flew away almost from under my feet, barking like a dog.

The country here is quite beautiful, but very rugged. The little stream behind the tent rushes down the steep rock valley, gurgling and splashing down steppes of waterfalls. The water is pure and sweet — doesn’t even have to be boiled. 16 such streams flow down the valleys between the mountain ridges, & along their banks are the forest galleries, the home of the chimps. In between the mountain slopes are fairly bare — really it is ideal country for my job, though at the moment the task seems of a huge magnitude.

To see the passion and perseverance with which Goodall has dedicated her life to the accomplishment of that monumental task is nothing short of breathtaking.

Jane Goodall with David Greybeard at Gombe

Complement the altogether exhilarating Africa in My Blood, a trove of Goodall’s contagious enthusiasm and goodness, with the beloved scientist on empathy and our highest human potential, her answers to the Proust Questionnaire, and a lovely children’s book about her childhood.

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07 JULY, 2015

Declaration of the Independence of the Mind: An Extraordinary 1919 Manifesto Signed by Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Jane Addams, and Other Luminaries

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“We commit ourselves never to serve anything but the free Truth that has no frontiers and no limits and is without prejudice against races or castes.”

Decades before Martin Luther King, Jr. made his timeless case for the ancient Greek notion of agape as a centerpiece of nonviolence, another luminous mind and soaring spirit challenged humanity to pause amid one of the most violent periods in history and consider an alternative path.

In 1919, a few months after the end of WWI and four years after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature “as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings,” the great French dramatist, novelist, essayist, and art historian Romain Rolland (January 29, 1866–December 30, 1944) penned a remarkable text titled Declaration of the Independence of the Mind — a passionate cry for using the power of art and intellectual work not for propaganda, destruction, and divisiveness, but for bringing the world together and elevating the human spirit through the invisible fellowship that transcends national, ethnic, and class boundaries. It was signed by hundreds of the era’s most prominent intellectuals, including Albert Einstein (who was a vocal opponent of war), Bertrand Russell (who thought a great deal about what “the good life” entails), Rabindranath Tagore (who dedicated his life to our spiritual survival), Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair, Stefan Zweig, and Hermann Hesse.

The declaration was published in the socialist newspaper L’Humanité on June 26, 1919, and was later included in the out-of-print treasure Hermann Hesse & Romain Rolland: Correspondence, Diary Entries and Reflections (public library) — Rolland enclosed the text in an April 1919 letter to Hesse, asking the beloved German writer to be among the signatories. “I want to express at once at least my unreserved approval of your admirable [declaration],” Hesse wrote in reply. “Please add my name to it as well.”

Romain Rolland in 1914

Although the declaration is very much a response to the destruction of intellectual life during the war, at its heart is a timeless clarion call for the preservation of art and intellectual life in the face of any threat — be it by weapon or censorship or the pernicious mundane anti-intellectualism of modern media — urging us to uphold our duty in ennobling rather than corrupting each other’s souls through our art and intellectual contribution.

Rolland writes:

Intellectual workers, comrades scattered throughout the world, separated for the past five years by arms, censorship, and the hatred of nations at war, now that the barriers have been let down and the frontiers have been reopened, we address an Appeal to you to form once again our fraternal union — a new union closer and stronger than the one that existed before.

Noting that most intellectuals “placed their knowledge, their art, their reason in the service of their governments” during the war, Rolland laments the perilous hijacking of thought and art in the service of hate and violence, and urges humanity:

May this experience be a lesson to us, at least for the future! … The thinkers and artists have added an immeasurable amount of poisoning hatred to the scourge destroying Europe’s body and mind. In the arsenal of their wisdom, memory, and imagination, they should old and new reasons, historical, scientific, logical, and poetic reasons for hating. They worked to destroy mutual understanding among men. And in doing this, they disfigured, reduced, depreciated, and degraded the Idea whose representatives they were. They made it (perhaps without realizing it) the instrument of the passions and egotistical interests of a political or social clan, of a State, of a fatherland, of a class… And the Idea, compromised by their conflicts, emerges debased with them.

That Idea, of course, is the spirit of art itself — art as a force that fortifies our mutual dignity rather than demolishing it; one that causes constructive chaos rather than destruction; one that, as John F. Kennedy asserted half a century later in one of the greatest speeches ever given, nourishes the roots of our culture. “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth,” Kennedy urged — a sentiment at the heart of Rolland’s declaration.

Rolland's original handwritten manuscript of the declaration

Appealing equally to spirit and reason — curiously, the original French title was Déclaration de l’indépendance de l’Esprit, but its English translation replaced “spirit” with “mind” — and to the unshakable longing for justice and equality buried in every human soul, Rolland exhorts:

Arise! Let us free the Mind from these compromises, these humiliating alliances, this hidden subservience! The Mind is the servant of no man. We are the Mind’s servants. We have no other master. We are created to carry and to defend its light, to rally around it all men who are lost. Our role, our duty is to maintain a fixed point, to show the pole star amidst the storm of passions in the darkness. Among these passions of pride and mutual destructions, we do not single out any one, we reject them all. We commit ourselves never to serve anything but the free Truth that has no frontiers and no limits and is without prejudice against races or castes. Of course, we do not dissociate ourselves from Humanity. We toil for it — but for all humanity. We do not recognize peoples — we acknowledge the People — unique and universal — the People who suffer, who struggle, who fall and rise again, and who always advance along the rugged road that is drenched with their sweat and their blood. We recognize the People among all men who are all equally our brothers. And so that they may become, like us, ever more conscious of this brotherhood, we raise above their blind struggles the Arch of Alliance — the free Mind that is one, manifold, eternal.

Stefan Zweig captures the spirit of the declaration beautifully in his biography of Rolland, itself a sublime work of art:

The invisible republic of the spirit, the universal fatherland, has been established among the races and among the nations. Its frontiers are open to all who wish to dwell therein; its only law is that of brotherhood; its only enemies are hatred and arrogance between nations. Whoever makes his home within this invisible realm becomes a citizen of the world. He is the heir, not of one people but of all peoples. Henceforth he is an indweller in all tongues and in all countries, in the universal past and the universal future.

I wonder whether Frida Kahlo was familiar with and influenced by Rolland’s declaration when she wrote in her diary more than three decades later: “I am only a cell in the complex revolutionary mechanism of the peoples for peace in the new nations … united in blood to me.”

More of Rolland’s uncommonly luminous mind comes to life in Hermann Hesse & Romain Rolland. Complement this particular beam with William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the artist’s duty to help humanity endure, John Dewey on our individual role in world peace, and Jeanette Winterson on how art creates a sanctified space for the human spirit.

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06 JULY, 2015

A Living Obituary: Faulkner’s Beautiful Epitaph for Himself

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“He made the books and he died.”

By the time 64-year-old William Faulkner took his last breath on July 6, 1962, he had been a little-known Jazz Age artist, a world-famous sage of literature, the author of an obscure children’s book with a curious back-story, the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, and a Nobel laureate whose prize acceptance speech is itself a supreme work of art.

Perhaps because of this prolific and diverse body of work, or perhaps because he was as deliberate about how he lived his life, Faulkner was remarkably deliberate about how he would be remembered after his death.

While working on The Portable Faulkner in 1946, legendary editor Malcolm Cowley had pressed the author for biographical details, but the request was met with resistance. Three years later, Life magazine asked Cowley to write a piece on Faulkner. But after encountering Cowley’s biographical essay on Hemingway for a similar Life assignment, Faulkner grew reaffirmed in his resistance to being the subject of an intrusive biography.

In a 1949 letter to Cowley, penned a few months before Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize and found in Selected Letters of William Faulkner (public library), the 51-year-old author writes his own epitaph in what is essentially a beautiful living obituary:

I am more convinced and determined than ever that this is not for me. I will protest to the last: no photographs, no recorded documents. It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books; I wish I had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago, and like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them. It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died.

Faulkner’s resistance springs from the same source as Anaïs Nin’s refusal to be profiled and our present concerns about privacy — the fear that because no life is really a single and linear story, compressing its ever-evolving complexity into a static set of biographical details or data points does a grave disservice to what Walt Whitman called the multitudes comprising each of us. Any attempt at a neatly packaged public understanding therefore engenders in the private individual a deep sense of being misunderstood.

Assuage Faulkner’s concern with Vivian Gornick on how to own your story, then revisit Faulkner on the meaning of life, the writer’s responsibility to society, and his little-known children’s book.

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