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Posts Tagged ‘Nellie Bly’

05 MAY, 2014

Ten Days at the Mad-House: How Nellie Bly Posed as Insane in 1887 in Her Brave Exposé of Asylum Abuse

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A timeless and sobering reminder that the true measure of power is not how deftly we can assert our authority but how much kindness and compassion we can show others in their greatest moments of vulnerability.

In 1887, two years after she launched her career with a response to a patronizing chauvinist and two years before she raced around the world in a quest to outpace Jules Verne’s fictional eighty-day itinerary, pioneering Victorian journalist Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864–January 27, 1922) pulled off one of the most courageous feats in the history of investigative reporting — posing as insane, she embedded herself at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island to bring public attention to the horrific brutality and neglect to which patients were subjected. Her resulting exposé, titled Ten Days in a Mad-House and originally published as a series of articles in New York World, is now included in the altogether fantastic collection Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings (public library). The story not only established Bly, a twenty-something woman amidst a male-dominated Victorian media landscape, as a formidable and fearless journalist, but also led to a grand jury investigation, which she assisted in and which resulted in a $1,000,0000 increase in New York City’s budget for the care of the mentally ill.

Bly’s strategy was simple, yet anything but easy: She’d “assume the characteristics of insanity to such a degree [as to fool] the doctors,” and then proceed to write “a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein and the methods of management” — a mission she knew would be at once delicate and difficult. What she witnessed there — cold baths, forced starvation, beatings, the hovering threat of sexual assault, and a general atmosphere more akin to a concentration camp than to a healthcare establishment — is a timelessly tragic parable for what happens when largely arbitrary circumstances render one group of people helpless and another in power, a heartbreaking real-life enactment of the Stanford Prison Study revealing just how much cruelty humans are capable of when they assume positions of authority, however minuscule, over those less fortunate. Above all, it’s a sobering reminder that the true measure of power is not how deftly we can assert our authority but how much kindness and compassion we can show others in their greatest moments of vulnerability.

And yet despite the harrowing brutality she both witnessed and experienced, Bly was a true believer in the human spirit and noted, amidst the cesspool of cruelty, the kindness of the few individuals who chose to rise above the poisonous atmosphere that turned others into monsters. She frames the premise in the preface:

From the moment I entered the insane ward on the island I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.

She began by assuming the look of the insane — “they must have staring eyes, and so I opened mine as wide as possible and stared unblinkingly”; “I assumed the look which maidens wear in pictures entitled ‘Dreaming.'” — and presented herself at a temporary women’s shelter at 84 Second Avenue in New York. Her plan was to feign a mental breakdown there, with no sign of family or friends, and have the matron commit her to the mental ward at the hospital, where she would convince the doctors that she belonged in a permanent asylum.

Bly had barely begun her foray into the lives of the less privileged when she already experienced the sliding scale of dismissal and disrespect those classes of citizens routinely received. She describes her arrival at the shelter for poor women:

I passed through the little paved yard to the entrance of the Home. I pulled the bell, which sounded loud enough for a church chime, and nervously awaited the opening of the door to the home which I intended should ere long cast me forth and out upon the charity of the police. The door was thrown back with a vengeance and a short, yellow-haired girl of some thirteen summers stood before me.

“Is the matron in?” I asked faintly.

“Yes, she’s in; she’s busy. Go to the back parlor,” answered the girl in a loud voice, without one change in her peculiarly matured face.

I followed these not overkind or polite instructions and found myself in a dark, uncomfortable back parlor. There I awaited the arrival of my hostess. I had been seated some twenty minutes at the least, when a slender woman, clad in a plain dark dress, entered and, stopping before me, ejaculated inquiringly, “Well?”

Despite the general unfriendliness of the matron and her staff, Bly encounters at the shelter a kindly Boston proofreader named Mrs. Caine “who was as courageous as she was good-hearted.” Still, Bly proceeds with her plan and when probed about her circumstances and how she ended up at the shelter, she acts according to her strategy, all the while maintaining her humor about the absurd expectations for women at the time:

“Everything is so sad,” I said in a haphazard way, which I had intended to reflect my craziness.

“But you must not allow that to worry you. We all have our troubles, but we get over them in good time. What kind of work are you trying to get?”

“I do not know; it’s all so sad,” I replied.

“Would you like to be a nurse for children and wear a nice white cap and apron?” she asked.

I put my handkerchief up to my face to hide a smile and replied in a muffled tone, “I never worked; I don’t know how.”

Bly tells her inquisitors that she’s been having a terrible headache, which made her forget everything. To further enact her role of a “poor loon,” as the other women had quickly come to call her, she refused to go to sleep that first night, forcing herself to stay awake. Her exquisite writing and beautiful mind shine through, emanating Susan Sontag’s famous assertion that “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world… a professional observer” as Bly recounts how she occupied herself during that sleepless night with a blend of awake curiosity and unflinching humor:

Robert Bruce in his captivity had won confidence in the future and passed his time as pleasantly as possible under the circumstances by watching the celebrated spider building his web. I had less noble vermin to interest me. Yet I believe I made some valuable discoveries in natural history. I was about dropping off to sleep in spite of myself, when I was suddenly startled to wakefulness. I thought I heard something crawl and fall down upon the counterpane with an almost inaudible thud. I had the opportunity of studying these interesting animals very thoroughly. They had evidently come for breakfast, and were not a little disappointed to find that their principal plat was not there. They scampered up and down the pillow, came together, seemed to hold interesting converse and acted in every way as if they were puzzled by the absence of an appetizing breakfast. After one consultation of some length they finally disappeared, seeking victims elsewhere, and leaving me to pass the long minutes by giving my attention to cockroaches, whose size and agility were something of a surprise to me.

Though able to remain amused at these initial discomforts, Bly soon finds herself in much less comical circumstances. The next morning, the matron calls the police and the “poor loon” is taken to the courthouse by two strong policemen, “making an advance towards the home of the insane.” To her dismay, she is faced with an officer whom she had interviewed just ten days earlier in her regular job as a reporter and instantly fears he would remember and give her away. Alas, she has already become invisible in that insidious way that befalls society’s least privileged members — the officer doesn’t recognize her but sees, instead, just a faceless insane woman before him. Even as she begins to grasp the deep-seated neglect and even contempt with which the “poor unfortunates” are treated by the legal system and society at large, Bly doesn’t fail to note those oases of kindness she encounters along the way, as in the judge presiding over her case:

Judge Duffy sat behind the high desk, wearing a look which seemed to indicate that he was dealing out the milk of human kindness by wholesale. I rather feared I would not get the fate I sought because of the kindness I saw on every line of his face.

Although the system folds his kindness into its merciless machinery and Bly is ordered to be taken away by an ambulance, she finds herself grateful for the dignity the kindly judge affords her even as he hands her off to the ambulance driver:

The Judge told him to take me and to be kind to me, and to tell the people at the hospital to be kind to me and to do all they could for me. If we only had more such men as Judge Duffy the poor unfortunates would not find life all darkness.

But the further down the rabbit hole of mental healthcare Bly tumbled, as she successfully fooled the authorities into pronouncing her insane, the more keenly aware she became of the degree of darkness that enveloped those “poor unfortunates” who entered the system against their will. As soon as she arrived at Bellevue Hospital, her third stop en route to the final destination of the Blackwell’s Island asylum, she was assigned to the “insane pavilion” — the mental ward at the hospital — and dragged there unceremoniously:

A muscular man came forward and caught me so tightly by the arm that a pain ran clear through me. It made me angry, and for a moment I forgot my role as I turned to him and said: “How dare you touch me?” At this he loosened his hold somewhat, and I shook him off with more strength than I thought I possessed. “I will go with no one but this man,” I said, pointing to the ambulance surgeon. “The Judge said that he was to take care of me, and I will go with no one else.” At this the surgeon said that he would take me, and so we went arm in arm, following the man who had at first been so rough with me.

Once inside, she paints a menacing picture more akin to a prison than to a facility dedicated to healing:

The long, uncarpeted hall was scrubbed to that peculiar whiteness seen only in public institutions. In the rear of the hall were large iron doors fastened by a padlock. Several stiff-looking benches and a number of willow chairs were the only articles of furniture. On either side of the hall were doors leading into what I supposed and what proved to be bedrooms. Near the entrance door, on the right-hand side, was a small sitting room for the nurses, and opposite it was a room where dinner was dished out. A nurse in a black dress, white cap and apron and armed with a bunch of keys had charge of the hall.

True to her unrelenting optimism, Bly is able to find goodness even in this grim environment, noting of an old Irishwoman doing maid work at the ward:

I am glad to know that there is such a good-hearted woman in that place. I experienced only kindness and the utmost consideration from her.

There are only three other patients at the ward, including a young chambermaid taken there some time ago after experiencing a breakdown from overwork, but appearing perfectly sane to Bly’s eye. Indeed, this is Bly’s first inkling that the line between the sane and the insane in those institutions, far from sharp, is drawn in a rather arbitrary and artificial manner by doctors who treat their patients as invisible and refuse to listen to their rational protestations.

Soon, Bly also has her first brush with the physical discomforts and outright pain inflicted by the negligent and often deliberately malicious personnel. Her first such sobering experience comes by nightfall:

All the windows in the hall were open and the cold air began to tell on my Southern blood. It grew so cold indeed as to be almost unbearable, and I complained of it to [the nurses]. But they answered curtly that as I was in a charity place I could not expect much else. All the other women were suffering from the cold and the nurses themselves had to wear heavy garments to keep themselves warm. I asked if I could go to bed. They said “No!” At last Miss Scott got an old gray shawl and shaking some of the moths out of it told me to put it on. “It’s rather a bad looking shawl,” I said. “Well, some people would get along better if they were not so proud,” said Miss Scott. “People on charity should not expect anything and should not complain.” So I put the moth-eaten shawl with all its musty smell around me, and sat down on a wicker chair, wondering what would come next, whether I should freeze to death or survive.

Just as Bly wraps herself reluctantly in the shabby shawl, it is jerked from her by the nurse, who has brought with her a doctor. After examining Bly — and insinuating that she must be a prostitute — he pronounces her “positively demented.” She spends another sleepless night, her first at Bellevue, this time kept up against her will by the nurses who read aloud to each other all night with no regard for patients. The next morning, she is to be taken, at last, to the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum. But even this light sample taste of the fate of the mentally ill gives Bly unshakable unease about what’s to come, despite her arrangement:

In spite of the knowledge of my sanity and the assurance that I would be released in a few days, my heart gave a sharp twinge. Pronounced insane by four expert doctors and shut up behind the unmerciful bolts and bars of a madhouse! Not to be confined alone, but to be a companion, day and night, of senseless, chattering lunatics; to sleep with them, to eat with them, to be considered one of them, was an uncomfortable position.

Still, she plows ahead with the plan. Once at Blackwell’s Island, her entire reality is transmogrified into a living nightmare — a nightmare from which the system’s real patients can’t be awakened by the end of an undercover assignment. What follows is made all the more poignant by the fact that from the moment Bly arrives on the island, she stops making any attempt to feign insanity and behaves as her usual sane self, only to find that the doctors make no distinction — a detail that pulls into question whether a good portion of the other “insane”” women belong there in the first place.

A hint of the brutalities in store arrives almost immediately, as Bly is dragged to her first meal at the institution. After being made to wait for 45 minutes standing in the hallway, the women are taken to the dining hall, where they are seated on backless benches facing a long table, “uncovered and uninviting,” running from one end of the room to the other. They are served thick slices of bread with rancid butter and five prunes each, along with bowls “filled with a pinkish-looking stuff which the patients called tea.” (“It had no sugar and it tasted as if it had been made in copper.”) Bly is flung her food by a hostile nurse, but it is so repugnantly inedible that, despite her two days of starvation, she is unable to swallow it.

Another offering, spoiled beef, is served without utensils, forcing the women to gnaw the tough chunks like savages — one of the myriad practices at the asylum that inflicts upon even the sane women, of whom Bly is to meet a number, the behaviors of the insane, systematically chipping away at their psychoemotional resilience and turning even the false diagnoses of insanity into self-fulfilling prophesies.

But what comes next makes the supper look like a picnic. Bly describes terror of the cold baths, to which the patients were routinely subjected:

We were taken into a cold, wet bathroom and I was ordered to undress. Did I protest? Well, I never grew so earnest in my life as when I tried to beg off. They said if I did not they would use force and that it would not be very gentle. At this I noticed one of the craziest women in the ward standing by the filled bathtub with a large discolored rag in her hands. She was chattering away to herself and chuckling in a manner which seemed to me fiendish. I knew now what was to be done with me. I shivered. They began to undress me and one by one they pulled off my clothes. At last everything was gone excepting one garment. “I will not remove it,” I said vehemently, but they took it off. I gave one glance at the group of patients gathered at the door watching the scene, and I jumped into the bathtub with more energy than grace.

The water was ice-cold, and I again began to protest. How useless it all was. I begged, at least, that the patients be made to go away, but was ordered to shut up. The crazy woman began to scrub me. I can find no other word that will express it but scrubbing. From a small tin pan she took some soft soap and rubbed it all over me, even all over my face and my pretty hair. I was at last past seeing or speaking, although I had begged that my hair be left untouched. Rub, rub, rub, went the old woman, chattering to herself. My teeth chattered and my limbs were goosefleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head—ice-cold water, too — into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane, as they put me, dripping wet, into a short canton flannel slip, labelled across the extreme end in large black letters, “Lunatic Asylum, B. I. H. 6.” The letters meant Blackwell’s Island, Hall 6.

After the shock of the experience, Bly finds herself unable to sleep and keeps herself occupied by pondering the devastating consequences of the opposite element: the asylum is a monumental fire hazard that dooms the patients to certain and gruesome death should the place be set ablaze. (The proposition is far from hypothetical: More than half a century later, little had changed — Zelda Fitzgerald perished in a hospital fire in 1948.) Bly considers the hypothetical but chillingly likely scenario:

Every door is locked separately and the windows are heavily barred so that escape is impossible. In the one building alone there are [around] 300 women. They are locked, one to ten to a room. It is impossible to get out unless these doors are unlocked. A fire is not improbable, but one of the most likely occurrences. Should the building burn the jailors or nurses would never think of releasing their crazy patients. This I can prove to you later when I come to tell of their cruel treatment of the poor things intrusted to their care. As I say, in case of fire, not a dozen women could escape. All would be left to roast to death. Even if the nurses were kind, which they are not, it would require more presence of mind than women of their class possess to risk the flames and their own lives while they unlocked the hundred doors for the insane prisoners. Unless there is a change there will some day be a tale of horror never equaled.

Besides the physical and psychoemotional trauma of the cold baths and the imminent threat of a fiery death, Bly observes — and experiences — the institution’s gobsmacking failures of hygiene, which the nurses go to great lengths to hide from visitors and public officials. The women are all dried with the same towel — those with healthy skin as well as those with extreme eruptions of rashes and infections — and combed with a “public comb.” The baths themselves are the most egregious atrocity of hygiene:

On bathing day the tub is filled with water and the patients are washed, one after the other, without a change of water. This is done until the water is really thick, and then it is allowed to run out and the tub is refilled without being washed. The same towels are used on all the women, those with eruptions as well as those without. The healthy patients fight for a change of water, but they are compelled to submit to the dictates of the lazy, tyrannical nurses. The dresses are seldom changed oftener than once a month. If the patient has a visitor I have seen the nurses hurry her out and change her dress before the visitor comes in. This keeps up the appearance of careful and good management.

As if these assaults on basic human dignity weren’t enough to render the asylum abominable, Bly has by that point only experienced a fraction of the horrors. It isn’t until she witnesses the actual “care” for the insane that she grasps the full scope of the institutionalized brutalities. In the yard, she is faced with a sight she’d never forget, the “rope gang” — a long rope onto which fifty-two women are strung together via wide leather belts locked around their waists; all are sobbing, crying, or screaming, each inhabiting her private delusion in public. The remaining patients — those less visibly delusional or violent, Bly included — are forced to sit on benches from morning till night, scolded and beaten for moving or speaking, and generally treated as mindless automata unworthy of dignity or compassion. An air of helplessness and hopelessness envelops the women, aware that telling the doctors of the brutalities would only elicit more beatings from the inhumane nurses.

Here, Bly makes her most important point:

What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured? I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A.M. until 8 P.M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane.

Wistfully, she notes how far removed that demonic world is from the reality we find conceivable in normal life:

People in the world can never imagine the length of days to those in asylums. They seemed never ending, and we welcomed any event that might give us something to think about as well as talk of.

Bly illustrates the lengths to which the nurses went to amuse themselves with a sliding scale of heartbreaking cases:

Soon after my advent a girl called Urena Little-Page was brought in. She was, as she had been born, silly, and her tender spot was, as with many sensible women, her age. She claimed eighteen, and would grow very angry if told to the contrary. The nurses were not long in finding this out, and then they teased her. “Urena,” said Miss Grady, “the doctors say that you are thirty-three instead of eighteen,” and the other nurses laughed. They kept this up until the simple creature began to yell and cry, saying she wanted to go home and that everybody treated her badly. After they had gotten all the amusement out of her they wanted and she was crying, they began to scold and tell her to keep quiet. She grew more hysterical every moment until they pounced upon her and slapped her face and knocked her head in a lively fashion. This made the poor creature cry the more, and so they choked her. Yes, actually choked her. Then they dragged her out to the closet, and I heard her terrified cries hush into smothered ones. After several hours’ absence she returned to the sitting-room, and I plainly saw the marks of their fingers on her throat for the entire day.

Some of the women Bly encounters at the asylum are foreigners, completely sane, confined there for no other reason than speaking too little English to explain their situation to the doctors, policemen, judges, and other examiners along the hellish road from normal life to Blackwell’s Island. One woman, a young foreigner, is sent there by her husband for having triggered his jealousy with other men.

The most gruesome abuses, however, take place in a corner of the asylum deceptively called the Retreat. One woman Bly meets, Mrs. Cotter, was sent there for speaking to a man on the premises. She relays the devastating experience to Bly:

For crying the nurses beat me with a broom-handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally so that I will never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bathtub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless. At other times they took hold of my ears and beat my head on the floor and against the wall. Then they pulled my hair out by the roots so that it will never grow in again.

Another woman shares her own story from the Retreat, where she was put on the “rope gang”:

The beatings I got there were something dreadful. I was pulled around by the hair, held under the water until I strangled, and I was choked and kicked. The nurses would always keep a quiet patient stationed at the window to tell them when any of the doctors were approaching. It was hopeless to complain to the doctors for they always said it was the imagination of our diseased-brains, and besides we would get another beating for telling. They would hold patients under the water and threaten to leave them to die there if they did not promise not to tell the doctors. We would all promise because we knew the doctors would not help us, and we would do anything to escape the punishment… Among other beatings I got there, the nurses jumped on me once and broke two of my ribs.

The physical abuse is coupled with chemical manipulation — Bly notes that the nurses injected enough morphine and chloral into patients to make even the sane crazy. And therein lies the heartbreaking core of her exposé: However grotesque a caricature, Blackwell’s Island, which no doubt had its parallels in other such institutions, was emblematic of society’s treatment of its most vulnerable members, seeing every sign of weakness as an invitation to exploitation, every failing of privilege as an opening for the exertion of cruel power, every symptom of fragile humanity as a license for perpetrating inhumanity.

As Bly’s ten-day stay in the inferno of insanity comes to an end, she leaves with unsettling awareness of the fate of those “poor unfortunates” confined to the asylum for good:

The Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.

[…]

I had looked forward so eagerly to leaving the horrible place, yet when my release came and I knew that God’s sunlight was to be free for me again, there was a certain pain in leaving. For ten days I had been one of them. Foolishly enough, it seemed intensely selfish to leave them to their sufferings. I felt a Quixotic desire to help them by sympathy and presence. But only for a moment. The bars were down and freedom was sweeter to me than ever.

Ten Days in a Mad-House is well worth reading in its entirety, despite the excruciating discomfort — not only for Bly’s beautiful prose and sharp-witted observations, but also for the timeless reminder of how little it takes for power structures to mutate into abuse of marginalized groups and how crucial it is for us, as a society and as individuals, to find — to empower — to be — the Nellie Blys who call attention to injustice, effect change for those less privileged, and perhaps, above all, find the soft beams of kindness, those expansive rays of the human spirit, even amid the harshest of realities.

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30 APRIL, 2014

What Girls Are Good For: 20-Year-Old Nellie Bly’s 1885 Response to a Patronizing Chauvinist

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How the trailblazing female journalist got her start at speaking truth to power.

At the age of twenty-five, Nellie Bly did the unthinkable for a Victorian woman — a successful and fierce journalist in New York’s media boys’ club, she raced around the world in a quest to outpace Jules Verne’s fictional eighty-day itinerary. When she eventually got married at the age of thirty — an old maid by the era’s standards — she helmed the management of her husband’s factory and built within it a gymnasium, library, and recreation center for the workers. She even made a cameo in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel, where the character of Ella Kaye, a tough newspaperwoman, is based on Bly. It’s unsurprising, then, that Bly’s trailblazing, era-defying career in journalism began at the tender age of twenty, when she responded to a patronizing letter from the father of five girls published in her hometown newspaper, the Pittsburg Dispatch, under the headline “What Girls Are Good For” (the unsubtly implied answer being birthing babies and tending households). The man even evoked China’s then-policy of killing female babies, intimating that such an act would allegedly save girls from the drudgery of their destiny.

Bly’s anonymous letter to the editor, written in 1885 and found in the absolutely fantastic new Penguin Classics anthology Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings (public library), was at once so fierce and so thoughtful that it prompted the editor to print a notice asking the author of the letter to identify herself. Once Bly did, she was hired as a reporter for the paper.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton based on 'Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World.' Click image for details.

In the letter, titled “The Girl Puzzle,” Bly considers the value of women — not society women and wealthy matrons, “but those without talent, without beauty, without money” — and calls for a sort of empathy rarely afforded those in such circumstances:

Can they that have full and plenty of this world’s goods realize what it is to be a poor working woman, abiding in one or two bare rooms, without fire enough to keep warm, while her threadbare clothes refuse to protect her from the wind and cold, and denying herself necessary food that her little ones may not go hungry; fearing the landlord’s frown and threat to cast her out and sell what little she has, begging for employment of any kind that she may earn enough to pay for the bare rooms she calls home, no one to speak kindly to or encourage her, nothing to make life worth the living?

Bly argues that society’s “solution” to the problem — employing these poor young women at the factory — is more of a punishment than a help:

The pay may in some instances be better, but from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m., except for 30 minutes at noon, she is shut up in a noisy, unwholesome place. When duties are over for the day, with tired limbs and aching head, she hastens sadly to a cheerless home. How eagerly she looks forward to pay day, for that little mite means so much at home. Thus day after day, week after week, sick or well, she labors on that she may live. What think you of this, butterflies of fashions, ladies of leisure? This poor girl does not win fame by running off with a coachman; she does not hug and kiss a pug dog nor judge people by their clothes and grammar; and some of them are ladies, perfect ladies, more so than many who have had every advantage.

Bly’s most important point, however, is about the social advantages afforded to boys but not girls — about how this early discrepancy in starting points echoes out to shape entire lives and entire classes of citizens, and how fostering an entrepreneurial spirit in girls is the best way to mend the imbalance:

If girls were boys quickly would it be said: start them where they will, they can, if ambitious, win a name and fortune. How many wealthy and great men could be pointed out who started in the depths; but where are the many women? Let a youth start as errand boy and he will work his way up until he is one of the firm. Girls are just as smart, a great deal quicker to learn; why, then, can they not do the same? As all occupations for women are filled why not start some new ones. Instead of putting the little girls in factories let them be employed in the capacity of messenger boys or office boys. It would be healthier. They would have a chance to learn; their ideas would become broader and they would make as good, if not better, women in the end. It is asserted by storekeepers that women make the best clerks. Why not send them out as merchant travelers? They can talk as well as men — at least men claim that it is a noted fact that they talk a great deal more and faster. If their ability at home for selling exceeds a man’s why would it not abroad? Their lives would be brighter, their health better, their pocketbooks fuller, unless their employers would do as now — give them half wages because they are women.

She offers an illustrative example from the town itself:

A girl was engaged to fill a position that had always been occupied by men, who, for the same, received $2.00 a day. Her employer stated that he never had anyone in the same position that was as accurate, speedy and gave the same satisfaction; however, as she was “just a girl” he gave her $5.00 a week. Some call this equality.

Portrait by Lisa Congdon. Click image for details.

It may be tempting to think that such failures of equality and human rights are behind us — this was, after all, the Victorian era. They are not — their ghosts are alive and well, unconsciously shaping even our best-intentioned behaviors today. In world where women still make significantly less than men in the same occupations and girls are still encouraged to do “girl things,” and a media landscape where men still receive 63% of bylines and women are honored in a mere 23% of obituaries, Bly’s lament, even 120 years later, is a far cry from outdated and irrelevant.

Bly concludes the letter with a reflection remarkably timely in our “lean in” era:

Here would be a good field for believers in women’s rights. Let them forego their lecturing and writing and go to work; more work and less talk. Take some girls that have the ability, procure for them situations, start them on their way, and by so doing accomplish more than by years of talking. Instead of gathering up the “real smart young men” gather up the real smart girls, pull them out of the mire, give them a shove up the ladder of life, and be amply repaid both by their success and unforgetfulness of those that held out the helping hand.

However visionary this may sound, those who are interested in humankind and wonder what to do with the girls might try it.

And yet, despite Bly’s consistently intelligent and fearless journalism — she went on to write an exposé on the horrific working conditions for factory girls and an op-ed on the gender inequality embedded in divorce laws — her editor at the Pittsburg Dispatch routinely assigned her subjects deemed appropriate for women, from flower shows to ladies’ lunches. Never one to succumb to the pressures of the establishment, Bly quit and set her eyes on greater horizons — but not without leaving her bigoted editor a farewell note with a piece of her mind:

Dear Q.O., I’m off for New York. Look out for me. Bly.

And look out the world did. In New York, Bly broke into journalism despite the extreme male bias of the field and went on to write such pioneering pieces as her exposé on the abuses that take place in state institutions for the mentally ill, for which she embedded herself in an insane asylum for ten days and endured the very mistreatment on which she reported. In the preface to Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings, NPR Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan reflects on the many letters from girls and young women she receives every year, inquiring about various aspects of Bly’s life:

I suspect these young women want to know something else, too. I know I sure do. I want to know how a poor, skimpily educated teenager named Elizabeth Cochran found the guts to transform herself into a reporter named Nellie Bly who helped change the world by writing about it.

For more of how she changed the world, see Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings, which is superb in its entirety. Complement it with the illustrated story of how Bly raced around the world and some thoughts on feminism from George Orwell.

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25 NOVEMBER, 2013

The 13 Best Biographies, Memoirs, and History Books of 2013

By:

From Alan Turing to Susan Sontag, by way of a lost cat, a fierce Victorian lady-journalist, and some very odd creative habits.

It’s that time of year again, the time for those highly subjective, grossly non-exhaustive, yet inevitable and invariably fun best-of reading lists. To kick off the season, here are my thirteen favorite biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013. (Catch up on last year’s best history books.)

1. LOST CAT

“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell asserted indignantly in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs. Though hailed as memetic rulers of the internet, cats have also enjoyed a long history as artistic and literary muses, but never have they been at once more about cats and more about something else than in Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology (public library) by firefighter-turned-writer Caroline Paul and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton, she of many wonderful collaborations — a tender, imaginative memoir infused with equal parts humor and humanity. (You might recall a subtle teaser for this gem in Wendy’s wonderful recent illustration of Gay Talese’s taxonomy of cats.) Though “about” a cat, this heartwarming and heartbreaking tale is really about what it means to be human — about the osmosis of hollowing loneliness and profound attachment, the oscillation between boundless affection and paralyzing fear of abandonment, the unfair promise of loss implicit to every possibility of love.

After Caroline crashes an experimental plane she was piloting, she finds herself severely injured and spiraling into the depths of depression. It both helps and doesn’t that Caroline and Wendy have just fallen in love, soaring in the butterfly heights of new romance, “the phase of love that didn’t obey any known rules of physics,” until the crash pulls them into a place that would challenge even the most seasoned and grounded of relationships. And yet they persevere as Wendy patiently and lovingly takes care of Caroline.

When Caroline returns from the hospital with a shattered ankle, her two thirteen-year-old tabbies — the shy, anxious Tibby (short for Tibia, affectionately — and, in these circumstances, ironically — named after the shinbone) and the sociable, amicable Fibby (short for Fibula, after the calf bone on the lateral side of the tibia) — are, short of Wendy, her only joy and comfort:

Tibia and Fibula meowed happily when I arrived. They were undaunted by my ensuing stupor. In fact they were delighted; suddenly I had become a human who didn’t shout into a small rectangle of lights and plastic in her hand, peer at a computer, or get up and disappear from the vicinity, only to reappear through the front door hours later. Instead, I was completely available to them at all times. Amazed by their good luck, they took full feline advantage. They asked for ear scratches and chin rubs. They rubbed their whiskers along my face. They purred in response to my slurred, affectionate baby talk. But mostly they just settled in and went to sleep. Fibby snored into my neck. Tibby snored on the rug nearby. Meanwhile I lay awake, circling the deep dark hole of depression.

Without my cats, I would have fallen right in.

And then, one day, Tibby disappears.

Wendy and Caroline proceed to flyer the neighborhood, visit every animal shelter in the vicinity, and even, in their desperation, enlist the help of a psychic who specializes in lost pets — but to no avail. Heartbroken, they begin to mourn Tibby’s loss.

And then, one day five weeks later, Tibby reappears. But once the initial elation of the recovery has worn off, Caroline begins to wonder where he’d been and why he’d left. He is now no longer eating at home and regularly leaves the house for extended periods of time — Tibby clearly has a secret place he now returns to. Even more worrisomely, he’s no longer the shy, anxious tabby he’d been for thirteen years — instead, he’s a half pound heavier, chirpy, with “a youthful spring in his step.” But why would a happy cat abandon his loving lifelong companion and find comfort — find himself, even — elsewhere?

When the relief that my cat was safe began to fade, and the joy of his prone, snoring form — sprawled like an athlete after a celebratory night of boozing — started to wear thin, I was left with darker emotions. Confusion. Jealousy. Betrayal. I thought I’d known my cat of thirteen years. But that cat had been anxious and shy. This cat was a swashbuckling adventurer back from the high seas. What siren call could have lured him away? Was he still going to this gilded place, with its overflowing food bowls and endless treats?

There only one obvious thing left to do: Track Tibby on his escapades. So Caroline, despite Wendy’s lovingly suppressed skepticism, heads to a spy store — yes, those exist — and purchases a real-time GPS tracker, complete with a camera that they program to take snapshots every few minutes, which they then attach to Tibby’s collar.

What follows is a wild, hilarious, and sweet tale of tinkering, tracking, and tenderness. Underpinning the obsessive quest is the subtle yet palpable subplot of Wendy and Caroline’s growing love for each other, the deepening of trust and affection that happens when two people share in a special kind of insanity.

“Evert quest is a journey, every journey a story. Every story, in turn, has a moral,” writes Caroline in the final chapter, then offers several “possible morals” for the story, the last of which embody everything that makes Lost Cat an absolute treat from cover to cover:

6. You can never know your cat. In fact, you can never know anyone as completely as you want.

7. But that’s okay, love is better.

Take a closer look here, then hear MacNaughton and Paul in conversation about combining creative collaboration with a romantic relationship.

2. SUSAN SONTAG: THE COMPLETE ROLLING STONE INTERVIEW

In 1978, Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott interviewed Susan Sontag in twelve hours of conversation, beginning in Paris and continuing in New York, only a third of which was published in the magazine. More than three decades later and almost a decade after Sontag’s death, the full, wide-ranging magnificence of their tête-à-tête, spanning literature, philosophy, illness, mental health, music, art, and much more, is at last released in Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — a rare glimpse of one of modern history’s greatest minds in her element.

Cott marvels at what made the dialogue especially extraordinary:

Unlike almost any other person whom I’ve ever interviewed — the pianist Glenn Gould is the one other exception — Susan spoke not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. And what seemed most striking to me was the exactitude and “moral and linguistic fine-tuning” — as she once described Henry James’s writing style—with which she framed and elaborated her thoughts, precisely calibrating her intended meanings with parenthetical remarks and qualifying words (“sometimes,” “occasionally,” “usually,” “for the most part,” “in almost all cases”), the munificence and fluency of her conversation manifesting what the French refer to as an ivresse du discours — an inebriation with the spoken word. “I am hooked on talk as a creative dialogue,” she once remarked in her journals, and added: “For me, it’s the principal medium of my salvation.

In one segment of the conversation, Sontag discusses how the false divide between “high” and pop culture impoverishes our lives. In another, she makes a beautiful case for the value of history:

I really believe in history, and that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I know that what we do and think is a historical creation. I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly a real belief: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots — specifically in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period — and we’re essentially still dealing with expectations and feelings that were formulated at that time, like ideas about happiness, individuality, radical social change, and pleasure. We were given a vocabulary that came into existence at a particular historical moment. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert at CBGB, I enjoy, participate, appreciate, and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.

In another meditation, she argues for the existential and creative value of presence:

What I want is to be fully present in my life — to be really where you are, contemporary with yourself in your life, giving full attention to the world, which includes you. You are not the world, the world is not identical to you, but you’re in it and paying attention to it. That’s what a writer does — a writer pays attention to the world. Because I’m very against this solipsistic notion that you find it all in your head. You don’t, there really is a world that’s there whether you’re in it or not.

In another passage, she considers how taking responsibility empowers rather than disempowers us:

I want to feel as responsible as I possibly can. As I told you before, I hate feeling like a victim, which not only gives me no pleasure but also makes me feel very uncomfortable. Insofar as it’s possible, and not crazy, I want to enlarge to the furthest extent possible my sense of my own autonomy, so that in friendship and love relationships I’m eager to take responsibility for both the good and the bad things. I don’t want this attitude of “I was so wonderful and that person did me in.” Even when it’s sometimes true, I’ve managed to convince myself that I was at least co-responsible for bad things that have happened to me, because it actually makes me feel stronger and makes me feel that things could perhaps be different.

The conversation, in which Sontag reaches unprecedented depths of self-revelation, also debunks some misconceptions about her public image as an intellectual in the dry, scholarly sense of the term:

Most of what I do, contrary to what people think, is so intuitive and unpremeditated and not at all that kind of cerebral, calculating thing people imagine it to be. I’m just following my instincts and intuitions. […] An argument appears to me much more like the spokes of a wheel than the links of a chain.

Originally featured earlier this month — take a closer look here.

3. MAURICE SENDAK: A CELEBRATION OF THE ARTIST AND HIS WORK

Maurice Sendak is celebrated by many, myself included, as the greatest and most influential children’s book artist of the past century. A year after Sendak’s death comes Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (public library) — the companion volume to the wonderful 2013 exhibition at New York’s Society of Illustrators. From rich essays by historians and artists who contextualize Sendak’s life and legacy to a selection of his best-loved and notable little-known illustrations, the book is a treasure trove of insight on Sendak’s spirit, sensibility, and evolution as an artist.

Dive deeper with excerpts exploring Sendak’s lessons on art and storytelling and his lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.

4. DIVINE FURY: A HISTORY OF GENIUS

“Genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly,” celebrated British novelist Amelia E. Barr wrote in her 9 rules for success in 1901. Indeed, the notion of what genius is and isn’t endures as one of our culture’s greatest fixations. We apply the label of “genius” to everyone from our greatest luminaries to exceptional children’s book editors to our dogs, and we even nickname prestigious cultural awards after it. But what, precisely, is genius? Why was the concept of it born in the first place, where did it begin, how did it evolve, and what does it mean today? That’s precisely what historian Darrin M. McMahon explores in Divine Fury: A History of Genius (public library) — a fascinating, first-of-its-kind chronicle of the evolution of genius as a cultural concept, its permutations across millennia of creative history, and its more recent role as a social equalizer and a double-edged sword of democratization.

McMahon begins:

Even today, more than 2,000 years after its first recorded use by the Roman author Plautus, [the word "genius"] continues to resonate with power and allure. The power to create. The power to divine the secrets of the universe. The power to destroy. With its hints of madness and eccentricity, sexual prowess and protean possibility, genius remains a mysterious force, bestowing on those who would assume it superhuman abilities and godlike powers. Genius, conferring privileged access to the hidden workings of the world. Genius, binding us still to the last vestiges of the divine.

Such lofty claims may seem excessive in an age when football coaches and rock stars are frequently described as “geniuses.” The luster of the word — once reserved for a pantheon of eminence, the truly highest of the high — has no doubt faded over time, the result of inflated claims and general overuse. The title of a BBC television documentary on the life of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman sums up the situation: No Ordinary Genius. There was a time when such a title would have been redundant. That time is no more.

History's 100 geniuses of literature and language, visualized. Click image for details.

McMahon argues that, in an age where we’re urged to explore the “genius” in all of us, we’ve grown increasingly obsessed with the word and the idea of genius, robbing it of substance in the process. Particularly in the last century, we’ve applied the label of “genius” frivolously and indiscriminately to everyone from rock stars to startup founders to, even, Adolf Hitler, whom TIME magazine crowned “man of the year” in 1938 for his evil genius. And yet the impulse to know — to be — genius is among our greatest, most profound human yearnings for union with divinity, something the legendary literary critic Harold Bloom has explored in his own meditation on genius. For the perfect embodiment of this desire, McMahon points to Albert Einstein, whom he considers “the quintessential modern genius”:

“I want to know how God created the world,” Einstein once observed. “I want to know his thoughts.” It was, to be sure, a manner of speaking, like the physicist’s celebrated line about the universe and dice. Still, the aspiration is telling. For genius, from its earliest origins, was a religious notion, and as such was bound up not only with the superhuman and transcendent, but also with the capacity for violence, destruction, and evil that all religions must confront.

McMahon sets out to unravel this lineage of unexpected associations by tracing the history of genius, both as a concept and as a figure, from antiquity to today, exploring a vibrant spectrum of individuals who both embodied and shaped the label — poets, philosophers, artists, scientists, inventors, composers, military strategists, entrepreneurs, and even a horse. As much a history of ideas as a psychological history of our grasping after the divine, the journey he takes us on is above all one of introspection through the lens of history. Reminding us that, as Toni Morrison memorably wrote, “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” McMahon argues for the social construction of genius:

If we wish to appreciate the role that genius has played in the modern world, we must recall the evil with the good, bearing in mind as we do so the uncomfortable thought that genius is ultimately the product of the hopes and longings of ordinary people. We are the ones who marvel and wonder, longing for the salvation genius might bring. We are the ones who pay homage and obeisance. In a very real sense, the creator of genius is us.

Which is not to deny that geniuses almost always possess something special, something real, however elusive that something may be. But it is to recognize the commonsense fact that genius is in part a social creation — what historians like to call a “construction” — and, as such, of service to those who build. That fact reminds us further that for all their originality (and originality is itself a defining feature of genius in its modern form), extraordinary human beings not only define their images but embody them, stepping into molds prepared by the social imaginary and the exemplars who came before. Even outliers as remarkable, as deviant, as Einstein and Hitler are no exceptions to this rule: however inimitable — however unique — their genius was partly prepared for them, worked out over the course of generations.

Originally featured in October — read the full article here.

5. MAD GIRL’S LOVE SONG

Half a century ago this year, Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world — took her own life, leaving behind her husband Ted Hughes and their two children. In the highly anticipated biography Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (public library) — titled after the exquisite Plath poemAndrew Wilson explores the poorly understood period of Plath’s life before her relationship with Hughes. Diving into the darkest corners of her diaries and letters, as well as previously unavailable archives and direct interviews with those who knew Plath, Wilson sets out to “trace the sources of her mental instabilities and examine how a range of personal, economic, and societal factors — the real disquieting muses — conspired against her.”

He writes in the introduction:

In her journal in 1950 she wrote of how she was living on the ‘edge.’ She was not alone, she added, as all of us were standing on the edge of a precipice looking down into darkness, peering into an unnerving pit below.

This book will show what compelled Plath to peek over the edge and stare into the abyss of the human psyche.

Wilson notes Plath’s chronic dissonance between repression and an insatiable hunger for life:

Plath was an addict of experience, and she could not bear the fact that young women like her were denied something so life-enhancing. In the same letter she goes on to write of her deep envy of males, anger she describes as ‘insidious, malignant, latent.’

Sex — or rather the constraints and repressions surrounding it — played a central role in Plath’s creative and psychological development. She realized, as she wrote in her journal in the autumn of 1950, she was too well brought up to disregard tradition, yet she hated boys who could express themselves sexually while she had no choice but to ‘drag’ herself from one date to the next in ‘soggy desire.’ The system, she added, disgusted her.

But Wilson tends to jump to causality a little too eagerly. As Clay Shirky poignantly pointed out about the tragic loss of Aaron Swartz, “suicide is not only about proximate causes.” Wilson writes:

If too much has been made of the symptoms of Plath’s mental illness, so too little attention has been paid to its possible causes. Sylvia Plath was an angry young woman born in a country and at a time that only exacerbated and intensified her fury. Not only did she feel maddened that she could not express herself sexually, she also was furious that she had not been born into a family of greater means. Her letters and journals are full of references to feeling inferior and self-conscious because of her low status. As a scholarship girl at Smith College — one of America’s top universities for women — she was surrounded by the daughters of the country’s great and the good. She peeled potatoes, chopped vegetables, and waited on tables as a way of reducing her course fees. In order to try and take the burden off her mother — who worked at Boston University’s College of Practical Arts and Letters to pay the shortfall between her daughter’s fees and her scholarship — Sylvia volunteered for extra jobs at the college and, in whatever spare time she had, she wrote poems and stories for money. If she took boys home to her family’s two-bedroom house in Wellesley, Massachusetts — where she was forced to share a room with her mother — she worried that they would see the marks and rips in the wallpaper; on occasions like these, the lights would have to be kept low so as to try and disguise the blemishes. In her first semester at Smith, in the fall of 1950, she wrote in her journal of the arduous transition period between childhood and young adulthood. To help her make sense of this new, troubling reality, she made a list of certain aspects of life that she found difficult, an inventory of notes addressed to herself that she could use to boost her confidence when it was low. One of the sections focuses on her economic position in society. She noted how she knew she would have to compete with other girls who had been born into wealthier families. The Plaths, she realized, were not only of modest means but they didn’t come from a line of well-connected intellectuals. She observed how boys from richer families would often remark, in a casual fashion, of her ‘side of town,’ and although they didn’t mean to be cruel, she felt the comments keenly.

Originally featured in February — read the full article here.

6. DARWIN: A GRAPHIC BIOGRAPHY

Joining other famous graphic biographies of cultural icons like Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, The Carter Family, and Steve Jobs, Darwin: A Graphic Biography (public library) offers a delightful visual take on the story of the father of evolution, decoder of human emotion, hopeless romantic, and occasional grump.

Written by journalist Eugene Byrne and illustrated by cartoonist Simon Gurr, the story takes us into the life and times of Darwin — from a curious child on a “beeting” expedition to a patient young man persevering through the ups and downs of battling creationist oppression to a worldwide legend — tracing his intellectual adventures amidst the fascinating scientific world of the 1800s.

The best part? This illustrated version of Darwin’s famous balance sheet on the pros and cons of marriage:

Originally featured in February — see more panels here.

7. EIGHTY DAYS

“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real,” science fiction godfather Jules Verne famously proclaimed. He was right about the general sentiment but oh how very wrong about its gendered language: Sixteen years after Verne’s classic novel Eighty Days Around the World, his vision for speed-circumnavigation would be made real — but by a woman. On the morning of November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, an audacious newspaper reporter, set out to outpace Verne’s fictional itinerary by circumnavigating the globe in seventy-five days, thus setting the real-world record for the fastest trip around the world. In Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (public library), Matthew Goodman traces the groundbreaking adventure, beginning with a backdrop of Bly’s remarkable journalistic fortitude and contribution to defying our stubbornly enduring biases about women writers:

No female reporter before her had ever seemed quite so audacious, so willing to risk personal safety in pursuit of a story. In her first exposé for The World, Bly had gone undercover … feigning insanity so that she might report firsthand on the mistreatment of the female patients of the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. … Bly trained with the boxing champion John L. Sullivan; she performed, with cheerfulness but not much success, as a chorus girl at the Academy of Music (forgetting the cue to exit, she momentarily found herself all alone onstage). She visited with a remarkable deaf, dumb, and blind nine-year-old girl in Boston by the name of Helen Keller. Once, to expose the workings of New York’s white slave trade, she even bought a baby. Her articles were by turns lighthearted and scolding and indignant, some meant to edify and some merely to entertain, but all were shot through with Bly’s unmistakable passion for a good story and her uncanny ability to capture the public’s imagination, the sheer force of her personality demanding that attention be paid to the plight of the unfortunate, and, not incidentally, to herself.

For all her extraordinary talent and work ethic, Bly’s appearance was decidedly unremarkable — a fact that shouldn’t matter, but one that would be repeatedly remarked upon by her critics and commentators, something we’ve made sad little progress on in discussing women’s professional, intellectual, and creative merit more than a century later. Goodman paints a portrait of Bly:

She was a young woman in a plaid coat and cap, neither tall nor short, dark nor fair, not quite pretty enough to turn a head: the sort of woman who could, if necessary, lose herself in a crowd.

[…]

Her voice rang with the lilt of the hill towns of western Pennsylvania; there was an unusual rising inflection at the ends of her sentences, the vestige of an Elizabethan dialect that had still been spoken in the hills when she was a girl. She had piercing gray eyes, though sometimes they were called green, or blue-green, or hazel. Her nose was broad at its base and delicately upturned at the end — the papers liked to refer to it as a “retroussé” nose — and it was the only feature about which she was at all self-conscious. She had brown hair that she wore in bangs across her forehead. Most of those who knew her considered her pretty, although this was a subject that in the coming months would be hotly debated in the press.

But, as if the ambitious adventure weren’t scintillating enough, the story takes an unexpected turn: That fateful November morning, as Bly was making her way to the journey’s outset at the Hoboken docks, a man named John Brisben Walker passed her on a ferry in the opposite direction, traveling from Jersey City to Lower Manhattan. He was the publisher of a high-brow magazine titled The Cosmopolitan, the same publication that decades later, under the new ownership of William Randolph Hearst, would take a dive for the commercially low-brow. On his ferry ride, Walker skimmed that morning’s edition of The World and paused over the front-page feature announcing Bly’s planned adventure around the world. A seasoned media manipulator of the public’s voracious appetite for drama, he instantly birthed an idea that would seize upon a unique publicity opportunity — The Cosmopolitan would send another circumnavigator to race against Bly. To keep things equal, it would have to be a woman. To keep them interesting, she’d travel in the opposite direction.

And so it went:

Elizabeth Bisland was twenty-eight years old, and after nearly a decade of freelance writing she had recently obtained a job as literary editor of The Cosmopolitan, for which she wrote a monthly review of recently published books entitled “In the Library.” Born into a Louisiana plantation family ruined by the Civil War and its aftermath, at the age of twenty she had moved to New Orleans and then, a few years later, to New York, where she contributed to a variety of magazines and was regularly referred to as the most beautiful woman in metropolitan journalism. Bisland was tall, with an elegant, almost imperious bearing that accentuated her height; she had large dark eyes and luminous pale skin and spoke in a low, gentle voice. She reveled in gracious hospitality and smart conversation, both of which were regularly on display in the literary salon that she hosted in the little apartment she shared with her sister on Fourth Avenue, where members of New York’s creative set, writers and painters and actors, gathered to discuss the artistic issues of the day. Bisland’s particular combination of beauty, charm, and erudition seems to have been nothing short of bewitching.

But Bisland was no literary bombshell. Wary of beauty’s fleeting and superficial nature — she once lamented, “After the period of sex-attraction has passed, women have no power in America” — she blended Edison’s circadian relentlessness and Tchaikovsky’s work ethic:

She took pride in the fact that she had arrived in New York with only fifty dollars in her pocket, and that the thousands of dollars now in her bank account had come by virtue of her own pen. Capable of working for eighteen hours at a stretch, she wrote book reviews, essays, feature articles, and poetry in the classical vein. She was a believer, more than anything else, in the joys of literature, which she had first experienced as a girl in ancient volumes of Shakespeare and Cervantes that she found in the library of her family’s plantation house. (She taught herself French while she churned butter, so that she might read Rousseau’s Confessions in the original — a book, as it turned out, that she hated.) She cared nothing for fame, and indeed found the prospect of it distasteful.

And yet, despite their competitive circumstances and seemingly divergent dispositions, something greater bound the two women together, some ineffable force of culture that quietly united them in a bold defiance of their era’s normative biases:

On the surface the two women … were about as different as could be: one woman a Northerner, the other from the South; one a scrappy, hard-driving crusader, the other priding herself on her gentility; one seeking out the most sensational of news stories, the other preferring novels and poetry and disdaining much newspaper writing as “a wild, crooked, shrieking hodge-podge,” a “caricature of life.” Elizabeth Bisland hosted tea parties; Nellie Bly was known to frequent O’Rourke’s saloon on the Bowery. But each of them was acutely conscious of the unequal position of women in America. Each had grown up without much money and had come to New York to make a place for herself in big-city journalism, achieving a hard-won success in what was still, unquestionably, a man’s world.

Originally featured in May — read the full article, including Bly’s entertaining illustrated packing list, here.

8. ODD TYPE WRITERS

Famous authors are notorious for their daily routines — sometimes outrageous, usually obsessive, invariably peculiar. In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors (public library), Brooklyn-based writer Celia Blue Johnson takes us on a guided tour of great writers’ unusual techniques, prompts, and customs of committing thought to paper, from their ambitious daily word quotas to their superstitions to their inventive procrastination and multitasking methods.

As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:

One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.

Jack Kerouac's hand-drawn cross-country road trip map from 'On the Road'

Mode and medium of writing seem to be a recurring theme of personal idiosyncrasy. Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on slips of paper while walking — an activity he, like Maira Kalman, saw as a creative stimulant — then handed them to his secretary to type up. Edgar Allan Poe, champion of marginalia, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached into a running scroll with sealing wax. Jack Kerouac was especially partial to scrolling: In 1951, planning the book for years and amassing ample notes in his journals, he wrote On The Road in one feverish burst, letting it pour onto pages taped together into one enormously long strip of paper — a format he thought lent itself particularly well to his project, since it allowed him to maintain his rapid pace without pausing to reload the typewriter at the end of each page. When he was done, he marched into his editor Robert Giroux’s office and proudly spun out the scroll across the floor. The result, however, was equal parts comical and tragic:

To [Kerouac's] dismay, Giroux focused on the unusual packaging. He asked, “But Jack, how can you make corrections on a manuscript like that?” Giroux recalled saying, “Jack, you know you have to cut this up. It has to be edited.” Kerouac left the office in a rage. It took several years for Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord, to finally find a home for the book, at the Viking Press.

James Joyce in his white coat

James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat, and composed most of Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. But this was a matter more of pragmatism than of superstition or vain idiosyncrasy: Of the many outrageously misguided myths the celebrated author of Ulysses and wordsmith of little-known children’s books, one was actually right: he was nearly blind. His childhood myopia developed into severe eye problems by his twenties. To make matters worse, he developed rheumatic fever when he was twenty-five, which resulted in a painful eye condition called iritis. By 1930, he had undergone twenty-five eye surgeries, none of which improved his sight. The large crayons thus helped him see what he was writing, and the white coat helped reflect more light onto the page at night. (As someone partial to black bedding, not for aesthetic reasons but because I believe it provides a deeper dark at night, I can certainly relate to Joyce’s seemingly arbitrary but actually physics-driven attire choice.)

Virginia Woolf was equally opinionated about the right way to write as she was about the right way to read. In her twenties, she spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-half-foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to look at her work both up-close and from afar. But according to her nephew and irreverent collaborator, Quentin Bell, Woolf’s prescient version of today’s trendy standing desk was less a practical matter than a symptom of her sibling rivalry with her sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell — the same sibling rivalry that would later inspire a charming picture-book: Vanessa painted standing, and Virginia didn’t want to be outdone by her sister. Johnson cites Quentin, who was known for his wry family humor:

This led Virginia to feel that her own pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality.

Many authors measured the quality of their output by uncompromisingly quantitative metrics like daily word quotas. Jack London wrote 1,000 words a day every single day of his career and William Golding once declared at a party that he wrote 3,000 words daily, a number Norman Mailer and Arthur Conan Doyle shared. Raymond Chandler, a man of strong opinions on the craft of writing, didn’t subscribe to a specific daily quota, but was known to write up to 5,000 words a day at his most productive. Anthony Trollope, who began his day promptly at 5:30 A.M. every morning, disciplined himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch. Stephen King does whatever it takes to reach his daily quota of 2,000 adverbless words and Thomas Wolfe keeps his at 1,800, not letting himself stop until he has reached it.

Flannery O'Connor and her peacocks

We already know how much famous authors loved their pets, but for many their non-human companions were essential to the creative process. Edgar Allan Poe considered his darling tabby named Catterina his literary guardian who “purred as if in complacent approval of the world proceeding under [her] supervision.” Flannery O’Connor developed an early affection for domestic poultry, from her childhood chicken (which, curiously enough, could walk backwards and once ended up in a newsreel clip) to her growing collection of pheasants, ducks, turkeys, and quail. Most famously, however, twenty-something O’Connor mail-ordered six peacocks, a peahen, and four peachicks, which later populated her fiction. But by far the most bizarre pet-related habit comes from Colette, who enlisted her dog in a questionable procrastination mechanism:

Colette would study the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, with a discerning eye. Then she’d pluck a flea from Souci’s back and would continue the hunt until she was ready to write.

But arguably the strangest habit of all comes from Friedrich Schiller, relayed by his friend Goethe:

[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room.

Goethe followed the odor to its origin, which was actually right by where he sat. It was emanating from a drawer in Schiller’s desk. Goethe leaned down, opened the drawer, and found a pile of rotten apples. The smell was so overpowering that he became light-headed. He walked to the window and breathed in a few good doses of fresh air. Goethe was naturally curious about the trove of trash, though Schiller’s wife, Charlotte, could only offer the strange truth: Schiller had deliberately let the apples spoil. The aroma, somehow, inspired him, and according to his spouse, he “could not live or work without it.”

Charles Dickens's manuscript for 'Our Mutual Friend.' Image courtesy of The Morgan Library.

Then there was the color-coding of the muses: In addition to his surprising gastronome streak, Alexandre Dumas was also an aesthete: For decades, he penned all of his fiction on a particular shade of blue paper, his poetry on yellow, and his articles on pink; on one occasion, while traveling in Europe, he ran out of his precious blue paper and was forced to write on a cream-colored pad, which he was convinced made his fiction suffer. Charles Dickens was partial to blue ink, but not for superstitious reasons — because it dried faster than other colors, it allowed him to pen his fiction and letters without the drudgery of blotting. Virginia Woolf used different-colored inks in her pens — greens, blues, and purples. Purple was her favorite, reserved for letters (including her love letters to Vita Sackville-West, diary entries, and manuscript drafts. Lewis Carroll also preferred purple ink (and shared with Woolf a penchant for standing desks), but for much more pragmatic reasons: During his years teaching mathematics at Oxford, teachers were expected to use purple ink to correct students’ work — a habit that carried over to Carroll’s fiction.

But lest we hastily surmise that writing in a white coat would make us a Joyce or drowning pages in purple ink a Woolf, Johnson prefaces her exploration with another important, beautifully phrased disclaimer:

That power to mesmerize has an intangible, almost magical quality, one I wouldn’t dare to try to meddle with by attempting to define it. It was never my goal as I wrote this book to discover what made literary geniuses tick. The nuances of any mind are impossible to pinpoint.

[…]

You could adopt one of these practices or, more ambitiously, combine several of them, and chances are you still wouldn’t invoke genius. These tales don’t hold a secret formula for writing a great novel. Rather, the authors in the book prove that the path to great literature is paved with one’s own eccentricities rather than someone else’s.

Originally featured in September — for more quirky habits, read the original article here. Runner up: Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

9. ITALO CALVINO: LETTERS, 1941–1985

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) offers more than four decades of wisdom in 600+ pages of personal correspondence by one of the 20th century’s most enchanting writers and most beautiful minds. In one letter, written on July 27, 1949, Calvino contributes one of his many insights on writing:

To write well about the elegant world you have to know it and experience it to the depths of your being just as Proust, Radiguet and Fitzgerald did: what matters is not whether you love it or hate it, but only to be quite clear about your position regarding it.

In another, he considers the secret of living well:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Sample the altogether fantastic volume with Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, his poetic resume, and his thoughts on America.

10. DUKE: A LIFE OF DUKE ELLINGTON

Much like Freud engineered his own myth and Salinger crafted his personal legend, jazz legend Duke Ellington — whose funeral was witnessed by 10,000 people in the pews at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, another 2,500 listening outside via loudspeakers, and thousands more tuned into the live radio broadcast, even prompting President Nixon to take a timeout from Watergate and praise “America’s foremost composer” — sculpted his public image with meticulous, obsessive, almost paranoid precision. In Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (public library), writer, playwright, librettist, and Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout sets out to lift the veneer of Ellington’s polished public persona and uncover the mysterious complexity of Duke’s private person. Though Teachout — who also penned Pops, the excellent 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong — calls his biography “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis” for its collaging of existing research, interviews, and materials, don’t let his humility deceive you: This is a masterwork of dimensional insight into an icon who sought to flatten and flatter himself as much as possible and to shroud his exceptional artistry in exceptional artifice, a man woven of paradoxes, who, despite his chronic failings of private self-control, exerted his every faculty on controlling his public image. And yet, somehow, Teachout manages to peel away these protective layers and expose the flawed human being beneath them by elevating rather than diminishing Ellington’s humanity, enriching rather than discrediting his legacy.

Despite surrounding himself with a formidable entourage of deft PR custodians, he was ultimately his own best publicist — a man who employed the same charisma that made him an incredible entertainer in making his off-stage image as credible as possible, despite its assiduous artifice and methodical manipulation. Teachout writes:

That was Ellington’s way. He talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself. Even Ruth, his adoring younger sister, said that he “definitely wasn’t direct. He wasn’t direct with anybody about anything.” Yet he talked so fluently and impressively that nearly everyone believed him, save for those who had reason to know better.

Behind closed doors: Composing at the Dorchester, his favorite London hotel, in 1963. Unposed offstage photos of Ellington are comparatively rare. He went out of his way to shape his public image to his liking—and to keep his private life out of the papers

His publicists — who dubbed him “Harlem’s Aristocrat of Jazz” — took great care to echo and amplify the image Duke himself was projecting, pitching him not only as a mere jazzman but as a true artist bearing the seal of approval of the era’s glitterati. They issued actual publicity manuals that were sent out to the managers of theaters and ballrooms where Ellington performed. One read:

Sell Ellington as a great artist, a musical genius whose unique style and individual theories of harmony have created a new music. . . . Ellington’s genius as a composer, arranger and musician has won him the respect and admiration of such authorities as Percy Grainger, head of the department of music at the New York University; Basil Cameron, conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Leopold Stokowski, famed conductor of the celebrated Philadelphia Orchestra; Paul Whiteman, whose name is synonymous with jazz, and many others.

Ellington was especially attached to the idea of serving as a spokesperson for African Americans — an aspiration admirable enough on the surface, but only if unbridled from ego and self-inflation, something of which Ellington was far from innocent given the amount of personal publicity he poured into his objective. To support this goal of his, another publicity pamphlet emphasized his presentability in addition to his talent:

He is as genial as he is intelligent, always creates a good impression upon newspaper people with whom he comes in contact and invariably supplies them with good copy for their stories.

Ellington’s lifelong desire to “act on behalf of the race,” as he himself put it, was an expression of his own life’s contradictions — the son of a butler and the grandson of a slave, he carried himself with an air of regality; a high school dropout, he made a special effort to teach himself the etiquette and manners of high society. Teachout notes the effect of this deliberate application:

For all his polish, it was his artistry, not his personality, that was the source of his enduring appeal. But it was the personality that made white people who might not otherwise have done so give him a second glance, and in time it opened doors of opportunity through which few other blacks had been allowed to pass.

Arguably the most accurate, succinctly eloquent description of Ellington’s elusive personhood comes from Rex Stewart, cornetist of the Duke Ellington Orchestra:

Ellington is the most complex and paradoxical individual that I’ve ever known . . . a combination of Sir Galahad, Scrooge, Don Quixote, and God knows what other saints and sinners that were apt to pop out of his ever-changing personality.

Indeed, Ellington was a bundle of inner contradictions — the kind we all grapple with by virtue of being human, only his were far more numerous, more entangled, and more full of friction than average. Teachout writes:

He was at once deeply (if superstitiously) religious and a tireless philanderer who, in the words of an admiring friend, had the sexual appetite of “a romping, stomping alley cat.” He pretended to be a devoted family man for the benefit of the ever-vigilant press, he deserted Edna, his first and only wife, later settling into a long-term relationship with a Cotton Club showgirl whom he chose not to marry (he never divorced Edna) and on whom he cheated as often as he liked.

In fact, one of Ellington’s most pressing publicity concerns was keeping his affairs out of the papers — information he felt would greatly compromise the very presentability and wholesomeness he worked so hard to craft in order to feel like he belonged in high society. As Teachout observes, he went to great lengths to make sure “his fans saw only what he wished them to see, and nothing more.” At one point, he even went as far as paying off gossip columnists and placing expensive ads in newspapers to prevent his relationship with Evie from being reported.

Teachout, however, takes great care not to dim the enormity of Ellington’s talent in light of his immutable imperfection, noting instead that he used the former as a vehicle for both exorcising and tucking away the latter:

He was, like Chopin, Paul Klee, Jorge Luis Borges, and Flannery O’Connor, a disciplined lyric miniaturist who knew how to express the grandest of emotions on the smallest of scales, and who needed no more room in which to suggest his immortal longings.

Originally featured in October — take a deeper dive here, then also see this fascinating excerpt on Duke’s diet.

Complement with Teachout’s Design Matters interview, where he talks to Debbie Millman about the book and Duke’s elusive “immortal longings”:

11. TURING: PIONEER OF THE INFORMATION AGE

It is to Alan Turinggodfather of the digital universe, voracious reader, tragic hero of his era’s inhumane bigotry — that we owe an enormous amount of today’s givens, including my writing this very sentence and your reading it. In Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age (public library), philosophy professor and Turing Archive for the History of Computing director B. Jack Copeland turns to conversations and correspondence with some of Turing’s closest friends and collaborators to explore the life and legacy of this man of uncommon genius with unprecedented depth and insight, from the invention of the Universal Turing Machine — the granddaddy of the modern stored program computer — to Turing’s codebreaking feats during WWII to the tragic and mysterious circumstances of his death.

The first personal computer (Image courtesy Harry Huskey)

Copeland succinctly captures the magnitude of Turing’s contribution to contemporary life:

To Turing we owe the brilliant innovation of storing applications, and all the other programs necessary for computers to do our bidding, inside the computer’s memory, ready to be opened when we wish. We take for granted that we use the same slab hardware to shop, manage our finances, type our memoirs, play our favorite music and videos, and send instant messages across the street or around the world. Like many great ideas, this one now seems as obvious as the wheel and the arch, but with this single invention — the stored-program universal computer — Turing changed the way we live.

Alan Turing

Indeed, it took an exceptional mind — one inhabiting the outermost fringes of the obvious, in every imaginable way — to conceive of such world-changing technology. Copeland goes on to paint a portrait of Turing more dimensional and moving than ever before:

He was a Spartan in all things, inner and outer, and had no time for pleasing decor, soft furnishings, superfluous embellishment, or unnecessary words. To him what mattered was the truth. Everything else was mere froth.

[…]

What would it have been like to meet him? Turing was tallish (5 feet 10 inches) and broadly built. He looked strong and fit. You might have mistaken his age, as he always seemed younger than he was. He was good-looking but strange. If you came across him at a party, you would certainly notice him. In fact, you might ask, ‘Who on earth is that?’ It wasn’t just his shabby clothes or dirty fingernails. It was the whole package. Part of it was the unusual noise he made. This has often been described as a stammer, but it wasn’t. It was his way of preventing people from interrupting him, while he thought out what he was trying to say. ‘Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah.’ He did it loudly.

If you crossed the room to talk to him, you would have probably found him gauche and rather reserved. He was decidedly lah-di-dah, but the reserve wasn’t standoffishness. He was shy, a man of few words. Polite small talk did not come easily to him. He might — if you were lucky — smile engagingly, his blue eyes twinkling, and come out with something quirky that would make you laugh. If conversation developed, you’d probably find him vivid and funny. He might ask you, in his rather high-pitched voice, whether you think a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or could make you fall in love with it.

[…]

Like everyone else, Turing craved affection and company, but he never seemed to quite fit in anywhere. He was bothered by his own social strangeness — although, like his hair, it was a force of nature he could do little about. Occasionally he could be very rude. If he thought that someone wasn’t listening to him with sufficient attention, he would simply walk away. Turing was the sort of man who, usually unintentionally, ruffled people’s feathers — especially pompous people, people in authority, and scientific poseurs. … Beneath the cranky, craggy, irreverent exterior there was an unworldly innocence, though, as well as sensitivity and modesty.

Originally featured in April — read the original article here.

12. AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN, VOLUME 2

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2: The Complete and Authoritative Edition (public library) — the highly anticipated sequel to the excellent first installment — reveals previously unknown facets of the greatest American satirist, celebrated as “the Lincoln of literature.” A large part of what made Twain Twain was his capacity for cultural nitpicking, from his irreverent advice to little girls to his critique of the press to his snarky commentary on the outrageous requests he received, but one subject to which Twain applied his exquisite satire with absolute seriousness was religion — something that comes fully ablaze in this new volume.

In April of 1906, Twain — who famously believed that any claim of originality was merely misguided narcissism — offers this humorous lament on religion as a manifestation of human egotism:

The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality. The race has always been able to think well of itself, and it doesn’t like people who throw bricks at its naïve self-appreciation. It is sensitive upon this point. The other day I furnished a sentiment in response to a man’s request — to wit:

“The noblest work of God?” Man.

“Who found it out?” Man.

I thought it was very good, and smart, but the other person didn’t.

Twain treated all forms of dogmatic authority, from religious to parental, with equal irreverence. Spread from his ‘Advice to Little Girls’ illustrated by Vladimir Rudinsky. Click image for more.

In another meditation, dictated in 1906 and posthumously published in 1963 in the Hudson Review under the title “Reflections on Religion,” then eventually included in the altogether excellent The Bible According to Mark Twain: Irreverent Writings on Eden, Heaven, and the Flood by America’s Master Satirist, Twain revisits the subject of evidence-free idolatry of deistic character:

We deal in a curious and laughable confusion of notions concerning God. We divide Him in two, bring half of Him down to an obscure and infinitesimal corner of the world to confer salvation upon a little colony of Jews — and only Jews, no one else — and leave the other half of Him throned in heaven and looking down and eagerly and anxiously watching for results. We reverently study the history of the earthly half, and deduce from it the conviction that the earthly half has reformed, is equipped with morals and virtues, and in no way resembles the abandoned, malignant half that abides upon the throne. We conceive that the earthly half is just, merciful, charitable, benevolent, forgiving, and full of sympathy for the sufferings of mankind and anxious to remove them.

Apparently we deduce this character not by examining facts, but by diligently declining to search them, measure them, and weigh them. The earthly half requires us to be merciful, and sets us an example by inventing a lake of fire and brimstone in which all of us who fail to recognize and worship Him as God are to be burned through all eternity. And not only we, who are offered these terms, are to be thus burned if we neglect them, but also the earlier billions of human beings are to suffer this awful fate, although they all lived and died without ever having heard of Him or the terms at all. This exhibition of mercifulness may be called gorgeous. We have nothing approaching it among human savages, nor among the wild beasts of the jungle.

‘All gods are better than their reputation,’ inscription dated December 23, 1902 from a first edition of ‘A Double-Barrelled Detective Story’ (Kevin MacDonnell Collection)

An early proponent of the conviction that evidence should outweigh mythology, he continues:

There is no evidence that there is to be a Heaven hereafter. … Heaven exists solely upon hearsay evidence — evidence furnished by unknown persons; persons who did not prove that they had ever been there.

[…]

According to the hearsay evidence the character of every conspicuous god is made up of love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, sorrow for all suffering and desire to extinguish it. Opposed to this beautiful character — built wholly upon valueless hearsay evidence – it is the absolute authentic evidence furnished us every day in the year, and verifiable by our eyes and our other senses, that the real character of these gods is destitute of love, mercy, compassion, justice and other gentle and excellent qualities, and is made up of all imaginable cruelties, persecutions and injustices. The hearsay character rests upon evidence only — exceedingly doubtful evidence. The real character rests upon proof — proof unassailable.

Twain then traces the evolution — or, as it were, devolution — of religion over the course of human history, considering Christianity’s odds for survival:

Do I think the Christian religion is here to stay? Why should I think so? There had been a thousand religions before it was born. They are all dead. There had been millions of gods before ours was invented. Swarms of them are dead and forgotten long ago. Our is by long odds the worst God that the ingenuity of man has begotten from his insane imagination — and shall He and his Christianity be immortal against the great array of probabilities furnished by the theological history of the past? No. I think that Christianity and its God must follow the rule. They must pass on in their turn and make room for another God and a stupider religion. Or perhaps a better [one] than this? No. That is not likely. History shows that in the matter of religions we progress backward and not the other way.

(More than a century later, legendary atheist Richard Dawkins would come to echo this sentiment in his newly published biography, writing: “I learned from my mother that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?”)

Originally featured in October — full article here.

13. THE SECRET HISTORY OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Vladimir Nabokov — beloved author, butterfly-lover, no-bullshit lecturer, hater of clichés, man of strong opinions — endures as Russia’s most revered literary émigré export. While his journey to cultural acclaim in America was in many ways a story of hope, it was also one underpinned by profound sadness and loss that would come to permeate his work. After the Bolshevik Revolution, when Nabokov was only eighteen, his family was forced to flee their hometown of St. Petersburg. As refugees in nomadic exile, they finally settled in Berlin in 1920. Two years later, Nabokov’s father, who had become secretary of Russian Provisional Government, was killed by accident while trying to shield the real target of a political assassination. Shortly thereafter, Nabokov’s mother and sister moved to Prague, but he remained in Berlin and garnered considerable recognition as a poet. In 1923, he met Véra Evseyevna Slonim, the Jewish-Russian love of his life, with whom he’d remain for the rest of his days.

In The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov (public library), Andrea Pitzer, founder of Harvard’s narrative nonfiction site Nieman Storyboard, shines an unprecedented, kaleidoscopic spotlight on the author’s largely enigmatic life and its complex political context. What few realize — and what Pitzer reveals through newly-declassified intelligence files and rigorously researched military records — is that Nabokov wove serious and unsettling political history into the fabric of his fiction, which had gone undetected for decades: until now.

Vladimir Nabokov's United States Certificate of Naturalization

(Image courtesy Andrea Pitzer)

Originally featured in April, with the fascinating story of Nabokov’s travails with homeland security.

* * *

Honorable mentions: An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins, Salinger: The Private War of J.D. Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan, and The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout.

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