Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘out of print’

24 JULY, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Muriel,

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

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

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

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

Human crises have a way of happening at inconvenient times.

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

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

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08 JULY, 2015

Mr. Gauguin’s Heart: The Beautiful and Bittersweet True Story of How Paul Gauguin Became an Artist

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What an invisible dog knows about the tenacity of the human spirit and the healing power of art.

Many great artists have in common the ability to transform trauma into creative power. Among them is the great French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (June 7, 1848–May 8, 1903), whose work influenced such legendary artists as Picasso and Matisse.

A wonderful addition to both the best children’s books about making sense of loss and the finest children’s books celebrating cultural icons, Mr. Gauguin’s Heart (public library) by writer Marie-Danielle Croteau and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault tells the bittersweet, unbelievably beautiful story of Gauguin’s early childhood and how, after his father’s death, the young boy sought solace in art and transmuted his grief into his first painting.

In this 2004 debut, Arsenault — whose genius has produced such subsequent treasures as Jane, the Fox & Me, Virginia Wolf, and Migrant — once again reveals herself to be one of the most gifted and evocative visual storytellers of our time.

We meet young Paul, a little boy who lives with his beloved parents, his sister Marie, and a dog he adores — “an odd-looking, little orange dog” with whom Paul goes everywhere, plays constantly, and even has conversations.

But the oddest thing about the little orange dog is that is that only Paul can see it.

One day, the Gauguins depart for Peru, and Paul’s imaginary companion boards the ship with the rest of the family. The other passengers find the bond between the boy and his invisible friend endearing — a testament not to his strangeness but to his boundless imagination.

It is a joyous journey, until Paul finds his mother in tears one afternoon.

She told Paul and his sister that their daddy had been carried away.

“How?” the children cried.

“It was his heart,” Mrs. Gauguin answered.

Marie threw herself, wailing, into her mother’s arms. Paul said nothing. He didn’t understand what it all meant. He didn’t see how being carried away by one’s heart could be such a tragedy.

Unable to make sense of it all, the boy perches on the ship’s bridge with his dog and peers into the ocean. All of a sudden, he sees a giant red balloon floating over the horizon. Holding onto its string is his father. As the other passengers gasp at the breathtaking sunset, Paul watches them point to his father’s big red heart.

The days wear on and every time the sun sets, Paul begins to cry all over again, saying goodbye to his father’s heart anew — a tender testament to the waves in which grief always seems to come.

When they finally reach Peru, Paul refuses to leave the ship, unwilling to part with the daily encounter with his father’s heart over the horizon. It takes an old man — a fellow passenger who had been watching the boy play with his invisible companion during the journey — to convince him to disembark the ship, on the pretext that his little orange dog needs to get out and run. So heartbroken is the little boy that he has stopped seeing his imaginary friend. All he wants is to be left alone, to scream that he never had a dog — but the old man seems to believe in the dog so staunchly that Paul doesn’t have the heart to disappoint him.

Leading Paul to the entrance of a great big park, the old man instructs the boy to meet him there next morning, with his little orange dog in tow. Paul complies and finds the old man painting quietly by the pond the next day, so immersed in his art that he doesn’t even notice the boy and his dog.

Eventually, he encourages Paul to join him at the easel and shows him how to mix red and yellow in order to make orange. More than that, he initiates the future painter in the incredible power of art:

“Painting is magic,” he said to Paul. “You can start with next to nothing and still do anything you want.”

The little boy looked the old man straight in the eye. “Even bring something to life?”

“Yes, you can bring things to life,” he replied. “Or prolong the life they had.”

The old man took a paintbrush and drew a picture of an orange on the white canvas. Then he peeled his own orange and ate it. “You see, my orange is gone and yet it isn’t. I still have this one.”

That evening, Paul goes home and shuts himself in his room. His mother, somewhat worried, hears rustling but the boy insists that she leave him alone. After a prolonged silence, he lets her in — and there, on a makeshift easel, is a painting of the ocean, with a giant red circle floating above the horizon.

Mrs. Gauguin’s face lit up. Seeing his mother’s smile, Paul realized that he wanted to be a magician.

Many people came to visit the Gauguin family in Peru. And all who came admired the little boy’s painting. Since they knew nothing about affairs of the heart, they assumed he had painted a picture of Japan’s national flag.

Years later, Paul would become one of the greatest painters of his time. It is said that his art resembles that of Japan. But what no one knows — other than you and Mrs. Gauguin — is that the red sun he painted all those years ago does not represent the flag for a faraway nation. The little boy’s painting of the big red sun is really a picture of Mr. Gauguin’s heart.

Mr. Gauguin’s Heart, originally published in French and translated into English by Susan Ouriou, is the kind of treasure that breaks your heart, then breaks it open. Complement it with an equally moving fictional counterpart in Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle, then revisit the illustrated stories of other luminaries’ childhoods: artist Henri Matisse, mathematician Paul Erdos, and primatologist Jane Goodall.

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07 JULY, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Romain Rolland in 1914

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

Rolland writes:

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

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

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

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

Rolland's original handwritten manuscript of the declaration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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06 JULY, 2015

A Living Obituary: Faulkner’s Beautiful Epitaph for Himself

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“He made the books and he died.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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