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Perception and the Power of the Critical Imagination: Alfred Kazin on Embracing Contradiction and How the Sacredness of Human Attention Shapes Our Reality

“The day, the living day, the actual moment, the pang of real life, — to be faithful to this, one must always pay attention, one must never dismiss anything a priori as too trivial.”

Perception and the Power of the Critical Imagination: Alfred Kazin on Embracing Contradiction and How the Sacredness of Human Attention Shapes Our Reality

“Reality is what we take to be true,” pioneering physicist David Bohm asserted in 1977. “What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.”

How our perception shapes our experience of reality, and how that can be a source of power, is what the great Jewish-American writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin (June 5, 1915–June 5, 1998) explored twenty years earlier in a series of entires from Alfred Kazin’s Journals (public library) — an immensely rewarding trove of wisdom in the tradition of the journals of Thoreau, André Gide, Anne Truitt, and Susan Sontag, which endure as a sort of secular scripture and to which I return for comfort, consolation, and emboldenment in trying times.

Radiating from Kazin’s unrelenting introspection is uncommon insight into the human spirit and a willingness to contact, even to embrace, all of its dimensions — the awe and the anguish, the exultant and the exasperating, all of it riding acrest an ebbing undercurrent of imperfection.

Alfred Kazin, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum)
Alfred Kazin, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum)

Three days before his forty-second birthday, Kazin writes:

Trust to the contradictions and see them all. Never annul one force to give supremacy to another. The contradiction itself is the reality in all its manifoldness. Man from his vantage point can see reality only in contradictions. And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know. “Harmony” as an absolute good is for the gods, not for man.

Cautioning against chasing the myth of harmony — a myth advanced, perhaps most famously, by Emerson and woven into the fabric of modern culture in tyrannical ideals like “work/life balance” — Kazin writes:

A thinker (like [Ralph Waldo Emerson]) misleads us as soon as he promotes harmony as the exclusive goal, and especially misleads us when he preaches harmony as a method. Man’s life is full of contradiction and he must be; we see through a glass darkly — we want more than we can have; we see more than we can understand. But a contradiction that is faced leads to true knowledge… Contradictions are on the surface, the symbols of deeper and more fertile forces that can unleash the most marvelous energy when they are embraced. Never try to achieve “order,” sacrifice symmetry — seek to relate all these antagonistic forces, not to let the elimination of one to the other. The idea of “God” as perfect order is perilous to man as an ideal, for us to follow…

"Everything Exists Simultaneously With Its Opposite" by Maria Popova
“Everything Exists Simultaneously With Its Opposite” by Maria Popova

The same perilous resistance to contradiction, Kazin observes in another entry penned the following month, is what undergirds our cult of self-improvement. Half a century before the heyday of self-help books and websites, which commodify human life as a problem to be solved rather than a glorious mystery to be savored, he writes:

The other day … I suddenly realized, with a shudder almost … how easy it is to fall into the other-imposed trap of trying endlessly to correct and reform oneself, in accordance with this and that, one’s idea of the right person to be, when all the time, one is not merely “stuck” with oneself, as one is rightly enough, but one suffers from constrictedness, from reaction, from the million-and-one reasons, so boringly personified around one in one’s contemporaries and half-friends and stupid, genteel colleagues, who are always telling us over again that man is bad and sinful!

Kazin’s journal is strewn with this restless search for self-generated sacredness — for a source of goodness and meaning not imposed from without, be it by spiritual mythology or by secular society, but synthesized from within. It comes most acutely alive in an entry penned earlier that year, in which Kazin reflects on Auden’s notion of “sacred objects” — catalysts for awe, which inspire the basic impulse to make art — and writes:

Without worship, without respect, without wonder, without the great work with which our wonder and awe plunge us, what is there — what?

But the “modern” epoch is precisely that in which each of us must discover our gods for ourselves. This is why so much in our language reverts to the idea of a fall, a descent. As Satan fell, to rise again as a prince of life, so we fall into this maelstrom, this madness — this world in which nothing any longer is given to us — to discover, in pain and awe, our own sacred objects.

"Under the Third Avenue El" by Weegee, 1943-1945 (International Center of Photography)
“Under the Third Avenue El” by Weegee, 1943-1945 (International Center of Photography)

Like those of us who choose to live with what philosopher Erich Fromm termed rational faith in the human spirit, Kazin was a resolute humanist who knew that beauty and goodness don’t merely befall us but come into being in the very act of our looking for them — nowhere more so than when it comes to our fellow human beings. In a diary entry from August of 1957, he contemplates an image by the legendary New York street photographer Weegee — who was doing half a century ago what Humans of New York‘s Brandon Stanton is doing now — and writes:

It is so important to keep the eye glued to the reality of the actual holiness! When I saw those Times Square faces in Weegee’s pictures yesterday, the women with that horrible fat and those indriven eyeglasses, I suddenly saw the beauty of the actual living hour in the human struggle of those faces — and of those faces alone. Somehow only the human being tells the story, only the human breath counts. The honor only the human heart ever knows… And even when the lonely transcendental heart stands poised upon an empty rock looking out to sea, it is this man, this mind, that makes the scene — not the rock and the sea, but the human eye that alone has united them. The human mind alone makes the radius to every point on the circumference, the great wheel on which we ride. The human eye alone unites the world — by perception…

Several weeks later, Kazin revisits the reality-shaping power of perception and suggests that how we choose to perceive the world is a centerpiece of our critical faculty; that a benevolent curiosity about our fellow humans is how we hold on to our own humanity. In an entry from September 28 of 1957, which resounds with remarkable timeliness amid our present cultural and political climate, he writes:

The critical imagination is distinguished by its voracious curiosity.


This retreat from curiosity, from interest in the outside world as continuously interesting, comes from our lack of politics, our lack of faith in the possibility of change.

That possibility, Kazin argues, must “start from the observer” — from the idea that one cannot “pretend [to be] a disembodied intelligence coolly reading the times.” Echoing Susan Sontag’s timeless assertion that in order to be a good writer and a moral human being one must “pay attention to the world,” Kazin considers yet another contradiction:

The problem, of course, is not to go too far the other way into introversion. And probably the safest path is always to think of the observer as a developing, living, growing agent, so that the self that is engaged in thinking out the world will feel itself growing only as the thoughts grow.

But meanwhile, the day, the living day, the actual moment, the pang of real life, — to be faithful to this, one must always pay attention, one must never dismiss anything a priori as too trivial. Nothing is too trivial, for what the writer may make of it.

“Summer on the Lower East Side” by Weegee, 1937 (International Center of Photography)
“Summer on the Lower East Side” by Weegee, 1937 (International Center of Photography)

Exactly two months later, he records his joyful surrender to this living, breathing world in an exultant counterpoint to our urban loneliness:

How alive the city is, how alive, how alive, how alive. Each of those windows has someone behind it, each of these streets is a current under my feet. A network of people, a living field — each grass a soul, each grass alive. So let us give thanks after all, and be glad, and rejoice. To be in life with so many people!

Alfred Kazin’s Journals is a tremendously vitalizing read in its six-decade totality. Complement it with Kazin on loneliness, the immigrant experience, and how reading liberates us, then revisit Emerson on how to live with maximum aliveness.


Alfred Kazin on Loneliness, the Immigrant Experience, the Economics of Love, and How Reading Liberates Us

“Every book I read re-stocked my mind with those great friends… They came into my life proud and compassionate, recognizing me by a secret sign, whispering through subterranean channels of sympathy.”

Alfred Kazin on Loneliness, the Immigrant Experience, the Economics of Love, and How Reading Liberates Us

One beautiful summer evening just before sundown, I was walking along the Brooklyn Promenade with my partner, who comes from a family of Orthodox Jews. We passed two young mothers of the same tradition, one pushing a triple stroller and the other a double, both clad in neat but no doubt sweltering attire, their heads covered in lush wigs. I lamented how sad I felt for them — barely out of their teens and without what one might call a proper secular education, they had already strolled and strollered far down a life path that led in a single predetermined direction. These young mothers were among the countless women in the history of the world who have been denied intellectual achievement and creative self-actualization, reduced instead to one primary existential purpose by their culture — a procreational purpose which, if given more options, some may still have chosen for themselves but many would not have.

My partner countered this lamentation with the more compassionate possibility that they might, quite simply, be happy — a possibility out of which arises a larger and more elemental question: What is happiness, really, and what grants any of us the hubris to judge another’s?

Still, there was something deeply disquieting about the notion of being assigned one’s happiness rather than choosing it freely. Tussling with this seemingly unanswerable perplexity, I was reminded of several passages from A Walker in the City (public library) — the wonderful 1951 memoir by the great Jewish-American writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin (June 5, 1915–June 5, 1998), in which he recounts his boyhood in Brooklyn’s densely Jewish Brownsville neighborhood, a place both in New York and magnitudes away.

Alfred Kazin, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum)
Alfred Kazin, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum)

Kazin paints the vast socioeconomic and cultural divide:

When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world. It was the eternity of the subway ride into the city that first gave me this idea. It took a long time getting to “New York”; it seemed longer getting back.


I saw New York as a foreign city. There, brilliant and unreal, the city had its life, as Brownsville was ours. That the two were joined in me I never knew then… We were the end of the line. We were the children of the immigrants who had camped at the city’s back door, in New York’s rawest, remotest, cheapest ghetto… “New York” was what we put last on our address, but first in thinking of the others around us. They were New York, the Gentiles, America; we were Brownsville — Brunzvil, as the old folks said — the dust of the earth to all Jews with money, and notoriously a place that measured all success by our skill in getting away from it.

But nowhere was the cultural rift more gaping than in Brownsville’s attitude toward love and its role in happiness. Like the rest of the community, Kazin’s parents were hardworking immigrants — his mother was a seamstress in a dressmaking sweatshop and his father a house painter. They had a practical, sensible marriage predicated on survival and bound by tradition. But his mother had a cousin with an outlook so radically different that it sparked in young Alfred the sense that love could be something larger and freer than survivalist pragmatism. Along with two friends of similar disposition, the cousin would visit Kazin’s childhood home on Fridays, importing the promise of a wholly different, more wholehearted and liberated life. He recounts:

Our cousin and her two friends were of my parents’ generation, but I could never believe it — they seemed to enjoy life with such outspokenness. They were the first grown-up people I had ever met who used the word love without embarrassment. “Libbe! Libbe!” my mother would explode whenever one of them protested that she could not, after all, marry a man she did not love. “What is this love you make such a stew about? You do not like the way he holds his cigarette? Marry him first and it will all come out right in the end!” It astonished me to realize there was a world in which even unmarried women no longer young were simply individual human beings with lives of their own.

This formative realization that romantic liberty is an essential form of human agency upended all the givens on which Kazin had been nursed. But it was also, he realized, a luxury reserved for those not toiling for survival. He marvels at the contrast between the three women’s disposition and that of typical Brownsville families:

Our parents, whatever affection might offhandedly be expressed between them, always had the look of being committed to something deeper than mere love. Their marriages were neither happy nor unhappy; they were arrangements. However they had met — whether in Russia or in the steerage or, like my parents, in an East Side boarding house — whatever they still thought of each other, love was not a word they used easily. Marriage was an institution people entered into — for all I could ever tell — only from immigrant loneliness, a need to be with one’s own kind that mechanically resulted in the family. The family was a whole greater than all the individuals who made it up, yet made sense only in their untiring solidarity. I was perfectly sure that in my parents’ minds libbe was something exotic and not wholly legitimate, reserved for “educated” people like their children, who were the sole end of their existence. My father and mother worked in a rage to put us above their level; they had married to make us possible. We were the only conceivable end to all their striving; we were their America.

So far as I knew, love was not an element admissible in my parents’ experience. Any open talk of it between themselves would have seemed ridiculous. It would have suggested a wicked self-indulgence, a preposterous attention to one’s own feelings, possible only to those who were free enough to choose. They did not consider themselves free. They were awed by us, as they were awed by their own imagined unworthiness, and looked on themselves only as instruments toward the ideal “American” future that would be lived by their children. As poor immigrants … in their lives combined to make them look down on love as something they had no time for.


Time, of course, was the currency of survival in working-class life — long hours at the sweatshop were what earned Kazin’s mother the wage with which she fed her children. To invest time in love seemed like a reckless use of resources — a gratuitous warping of priorities that rendered love a luxurious function of economic freedom. Kazin writes of his parents’ attitude:

Love, they could have said, was not serious. Life was a battle to “make sure”; it had no place, as we had no time, for whims.


To my mother riches alone were the gateway to romance, for only those who had money enough could afford the freedom, and the crazy boldness, to give themselves up to love.

In stark contrast to this mindset stood Kazin’s cousin and her two friends, whom he came to admire greatly. These “women, grown-up women … talking openly” impressed upon him the idea that a different kind of life was possible — a life where liberty and love coexisted, where one was free to choose one’s own path, and where the path to happiness and freedom was paved, above all, with a deep love of literature:

They had a great flavor for me, those three women: they were the positive center of that togetherness that always meant so much to me in our dining room on Friday evenings… Those Friday evenings, I suddenly found myself enveloped in some old, primary Socialist idea that [people] could go beyond every barrier of race and nation and language, even of class! into some potential loving union of the whole human race. I was suddenly glad to be a Jew, as these women were Jews — simply and naturally glad of those Jewish dressmakers who spoke with enthusiastic familiarity of Sholem Aleichem and Peretz, Gorky and Tolstoy, who glowed at every reminiscence of Nijinsky, of Nazimova in The Cherry Orchard, of Pavlova in “The Swan.”

Kazin was especially taken with the titans of Russian literature — writers like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, whose works entwined the difficult realities of daily life with a romantic view of the human spirit. He recounts:

The heroes of the Russian novel — our kind of people — would walk the world, and I — still wearing a circle-necked Russian blouse “à la Tolstoy” — would live forever with those I loved in that beautiful Russian country of the mind. Listening to our cousin and her two friends I, who had never seen it, who associated with it nothing but the names of great writers and my father’s saying as we went through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — “Nice! but you should have seen the Czar’s summer palace at Tsarskoye-Selo!” — suddenly saw Russia as the grand antithesis to all bourgeois ideals, the spiritual home of all truly free people. I was perfectly sure that there was no literature in the world like the Russian; that the only warm hearts in the world were Russian, like our cousin and her two friends; that other people were always dully materialist, but that the Russian soul, like Nijinsky’s dream of pure flight, would always leap outward, past all barriers, to a lyric world in which my ideal socialism and the fiery moodiness of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique would be entirely at home with each other… How many millions would be with us! China was in our house those Friday evenings, Africa, the Indian masses. And it was those three unmarried dressmakers from the rank and file who fully wrapped me in that spell, with the worldly clang of their agate beads and the musky fragrance of their face powder and their embroidered Russian blouses, with the great names of Russian writers ringing against the cut-glass bowl under the black lamp. Never did the bowl look so laden, never did apples and tea smell so good, never did the samovar pour out with such steaming bounty, as on those Friday evenings when I tasted in the tea and the talk the evangelical heart of our cousin and her two friends, and realized that it was we — we! — who would someday put the world on its noblest course.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown

Kazin encountered another defiant model of love entwined with literature in his unusual neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Solovey, who were both exceedingly worldly and utterly destitute. The husband was a writer, a man who not only read but created books, and the wife a scientist — occupations equally foreign to the Brownsville community. He writes:

The Soloveys had been very puzzling; from the day they had come to our tenement, taking over the small dark apartment on the ground floor next to his drugstore, no one had been able to make them out at all. Both the Soloveys had had an inaccessible air of culture that to the end had made them seem visitors among us. They had brought into our house and street the breath of another world, where parents read books, discussed ideas at the table, and displayed a quaint, cold politeness addressing each other. The Soloveys had traveled; they had lived in Palestine, France, Italy. They were “professional” people, “enlightened” — she, it was rumored, had even been a physician or “some kind of scientist,” we could never discover which.

The greatest mystery was why they had come to live in Brownsville. We looked down on them for this, and suspected them. To come deliberately to Brownsville, after you had lived in France and Italy! It suggested some moral sickness, apathy, a perversion of all right feelings. The apathy alone had been enough to excite me. They were different!

But what made the couple most intriguing was that the husband and wife were bound by a love they had elected themselves — a passionate, impractical love which magnetized them with a strange and alluring fusion of absolute devotion and absolute despair. Kazin writes:

Whenever I saw the strange couple together, the gold wedding ring on his left hand thick as hers, I felt they were still lovers… And there was that visible tie between them, that wedding ring even a man could wear, some deep consciousness of each other, that excited me, it seemed so illicit.


The lovers, though their love had been spent, still lived only for each other. And it was this that emphasized their strangeness for me — it was as strange as Mr. Solovey’s books, as a Brownsville couple speaking Russian to each other, as strange as Mrs. Solovey’s delightfully shocking blondness and the unfathomable despair that had brought them to us. In this severe dependence on each other for everything, there was a defiance of the family principle, of us, of their own poverty and apathy, that encouraged me to despise our values as crude and provincial. Only in movies and in The Sheik did people abandon the world for love, give themselves up to it — gladly. Yet there was nothing obviously immoral in the conduct of the Soloveys, nothing we could easily describe and condemn. It was merely that they were sufficient to each other; in their disappointment as in their love they were always alone. They left us out, they left Brownsville out; we were nothing to them. In the love despair of the Soloveys something seemed to say that our constant fight “to make sure” was childish, that we looked at life too narrowly, and that in any event, we did not count. Their loneliness went deeper than our solidarity.

And so I loved them.

These encounters with his cousin, her friends, and the Soloveys expanded Kazin’s scope of possibility beyond what his community could imagine and provided the springboard for his leap from the small and separate life that Brownsville had predestine for him to a connected and expansive life as one of the world’s finest literary critics.

But while these insurgent role models had inspired in young Kazin a deep desire to rebel against the norms of his community and transcend its limiting life-possibilities, he had no idea how to build the bridge between his small world and that other, expansive world of love and liberty. There was another essential building block. In a passage that calls to mind the heartening story of how James Baldwin read his way out of Harlem and into literary greatness, Kazin recounts how literature unlocked for him the gates to freedom:

I did not know where or how to begin. I knew only that I could dream all day long while pretending to be in the world, and that my mind was full of visions as intimate with me as loneliness. I felt I was alone, that there were things I had to endure out of loyalty but could never accept, and that whenever I liked, I could swim out from the Brownsville shore to that calm and sunlit sea beyond where great friends came up from the deep. Every book I read re-stocked my mind with those great friends who lived out of Brownsville. They came into my life proud and compassionate, recognizing me by a secret sign, whispering through subterranean channels of sympathy: “Alfred! Old boy! What have they done to you!” Walking about, I learned so well to live with them that I could not always tell whether it was they or I thinking in me… Sometimes I was not sure which character I was on my walks, there were so many in my head at once; or how I could explain one to the other; but after an afternoon’s reading in the “adults’” library on Glenmore Avenue, I would walk past the pushcarts on Belmont Avenue … proud and alien as Othello, or dragging my clubfoot after me like the hero of Of Human Bondage, a book I had read to tatters in my amazement that Mr. W. Somerset Maugham knew me so well.

Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz

Although his dear friend Hannah Arendt would come to write beautifully about outsiderdom as a source of power and privilege, for Kazin the sense of being in America and yet outside it was a source of only loneliness and anguish. It was in books that he found himself and his place in the larger world, a world of which he was a part as equal and deserving as any other. The love of reading was his liberation. It eradicated his sense of separateness and granted him permission to love life rather than merely survive it. He writes:

I read as if books would fill my every gap, legitimize my strange quest for the American past, remedy my every flaw, let me in at last into the great world that was anything just out of Brownsville.

So that when, leaving the library for the best of all walks, to Highland Park, I came out on Bushwick Avenue, with its strange, wide, sun-lit spell, a thankfulness seized me, mixed with envy and bitterness, and I waited against a hydrant for my violence to pass. Why were these people here, and we there? Why had I always to think of insider and outsider, of their belonging and our not belonging, when books had carried me this far, and when, as I could already see, it was myself that would carry me farther — beyond these petty distinctions I had so long made in loneliness?

A Walker in the City is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with Ursula K. Le Guin on how libraries unlock freedom and Rebecca Solnit on the solitary connectedness of reading, and the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska on how books liberate the human spirit.


Loneliness in Time: Physicist Freeman Dyson on Immigration and How Severing Our Connection to the Past Shallows Our Present and Hollows Our History

An antidote to today’s perilous self-expatriation from history.

Loneliness in Time: Physicist Freeman Dyson on Immigration and How Severing Our Connection to the Past Shallows Our Present and Hollows Our History

What a disorienting feeling to wake up one hot early-August morning and realize that exactly fifteen early-August mornings earlier, I had awakened to face my first day on American soil, having arrived alone as a teenage immigrant from Eastern Europe with $800 my parents had cobbled together to last me a year. I thought about how my life might have turned out if immigration policies and attitudes were then what they are now, and about the generations of immigrants who have devoted their lives to making this country what it is. I thought about the great physicist and inventor Michael Pupin, after whom the physics building at Columbia University is named, reflecting on his own improbable path from immigrant to inventor after arriving in America as a penniless teenage boy from Serbia, born across the border from my native Bulgaria. I thought about James Baldwin and Margaret Mead challenging the problematic nature of the melting pot metaphor and Hannah Arendt contemplating the many layers of the immigrant plight for identity. I thought about Alfred Kazin’s bittersweet meditation on the loneliness of the immigrant experience.

It seems to me that in a country so fundamentally shaped by immigrants, a societal sentiment so suddenly unwelcoming to them can only be the product of an absurd narrowing of perspective — an unthinking self-expatriation from history, a willful blindness to the cultural legacy of the past, and an inability to take the telescopic perspective so vital to inhabiting the present with lucidity, integrity, and a deep sense of connection to the whole of humanity.

Somewhere in this cascade of thought and feeling, I was reminded of a brief and beautiful reflection by physicist Freeman Dyson (b. December 15, 1923) from his magnificent epistolary memoir, Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters (public library).

Freeman Dyson, late 1940s (Photograph by Verena Huber-Dyson courtesy of George Dyson)

Dyson writes in a letter from January 2, 1948, shortly after arriving in America as a twenty-four-year-old Englishman, having survived World War II to work on some of the most exciting scientific questions of the twentieth century:

Several of my friends are second-generation Americans, whose parents came over from Germany or Poland or Lithuania or some such place, and I am always curious to ask them questions about their parents’ histories in Europe and their reasons for emigrating and their emotional backgrounds. Always I have been amazed to find that the young people know practically nothing, and apparently care little, about such matters. It is very strange when one thinks how much we have absorbed about the history and society to which our family belonged.

In a sentiment evocative of Hannah Arendt’s insight into how demagogues and dictators use loneliness as a weapon of oppression, Dyson adds a wonderfully generous and optimistic counterpoint:

Not that I dislike the Americans on the whole; it is probably in the long run a good thing that they live so much in the present and the future and so little in the past. The fact that they are more alone in the world than average English people probably accounts for their great spontaneous friendliness. I had heard this friendliness attributed to the size of the country and to people’s loneliness in space, but I think the loneliness in time is more important.

For more of Dyson’s timeless insight into the human experience, savor his vivid recollection of how the unconscious mind ferments creative breakthrough, then revisit Carla Torres’s lovely children’s book about immigration.


From Immigrant to Inventor: The Great Serbian-American Scientist Michael Pupin on the Value of a Penniless Immigrant Boy Full of Promise

“An immigrant can see things which escape the attention of the native.”

From Immigrant to Inventor: The Great Serbian-American Scientist Michael Pupin on the Value of a Penniless Immigrant Boy Full of Promise

“Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her timeless, increasingly timely meditation on the immigrant experience and the meaning of “refugee.” But discrimination is also a self-inflicted wound by which the society perpetrating it bleeds internally — not only because it lacerates the moral fabric of the culture, but because it is a means by which a society cheats itself of the vital polyphony of voices necessary for symphonic polity.

That is what the great Serbian-American physicist and chemist Michael Pupin (October 4, 1858–March 12, 1935) illustrates with his life in his Pulitzer-winning 1923 autobiography From Immigrant to Inventor (public library).

Michael Pupin

Born in a Serbian village so tiny as to be missing from maps, Pupin immigrated to the United States at the age of fifteen. Having sold all of his belongings — his books, his clothes, his watch, his beloved yellow sheepskin coat — to pay for the fare, he made the long journey across the Atlantic aboard an immigrant ship with just the clothes on his back and “a red Turkish fez which nobody would buy.” He landed at Castle Garden — New York’s first immigration station, predating Ellis Island by nearly half a century — on a sunny morning in the first days of spring midway through his fifteenth year.

Pupin recounts the electric elation of his arrival into a new life of possibility:

On the fourteenth day, early in the morning, the flat coast-fine of Long Island hove in sight. Nobody in the motley crowd of excited immigrants was more happy to see the promised land than I was. It was a clear, mild, and sunny March morning, and as we approached New York Harbor the warm sun-rays seemed to thaw out the chilliness which I had accumulated in my body by continuous exposure to the wintry blasts of the North Atlantic. I felt like a new person, and saw in every new scene presented by the New World as the ship moved into it a new promise that I should be welcome.

Nine years later, Emma Lazarus would channel this ethos of unconditional welcome in her iconic sonnet “The New Colossus,” giving voice to the newly erected Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

Nearly a century and a half later, as this country made of and by immigrants suffers a tragic kind of auto-immune policy failure, Pupin’s words burn with searing pertinence:

He who has never crossed the stormy Atlantic during the month of March in the crowded steerage of an immigrant ship does not know what hardships are. I bless the stars that the immigration laws were different then than they are now, otherwise I should not be among the living. To stand the great hardships of a stormy sea when the rosy picture of the promised land is before your mind’s eye is a severe test for any boy’s nerve and physical stamina; but to face the same hardships as a deported and penniless immigrant with no cheering prospect in sight is too much for any person.

Michael Pupin, 1916.

With the hindsight of half a century and a lifetime of uncommon accomplishment, Pupin looks back on that pivotal moment when he arrived to America as a penniless boy full of promise:

I had only five cents in my pocket. Had I brought five hundred dollars, instead of five cents, my immediate career in the new, and to me a perfectly strange, land would have been the same. A young immigrant such as I was then does not begin his career until he has spent all the money which he has brought with him. I brought five cents, and immediately spent it upon a piece of prune pie, which turned out to be a bogus prune pie. It contained nothing but pits of prunes. If I had brought five hundred dollars, it would have taken me a little longer to spend it, mostly upon bogus things, but the struggle which awaited me would have been the same in each case. It is no handicap to a boy immigrant to land here penniless; it is not a handicap to any boy to be penniless when he strikes out for an independent career, provided that he has the stamina to stand the hardships that may be in store for him.

Insisting that immigrants must never lose sight of “their meaning and their vital importance in American life,” he adds another sentiment of harrowing relevance today:

If the present standards had prevailed forty-eight years ago I should have been deported. There are, however, certain things which a young immigrant may bring to this country that are far more precious than any of the things which the present immigration laws prescribe.

The greatest gift a young immigrant confers upon their new home, Pupin argues, is the gift of perspective — of seeing the landscape of culture with new eyes. “An immigrant can see things which escape the attention of the native,” he writes. Our ways of seeing are invariably shaped by our formative experiences, which factor into the combinatorial nature of our creative contribution. Pupin illustrates this by drawing a beautiful coiling line between his formative experience as a peasant boy in the fields of rural Serbia and his field of scientist endeavor:

The light of the stars, the sound of the grazing oxen, and the faint strokes of the distant church-bell were messages of caution which on those dark summer nights guided our vigilance over the precious herd… Enveloped in the darkness of night and surrounded by countless burning stars, we guarded the safety of our oxen. The rest of the world had gone out of existence; it began to reappear in our consciousness when the early dawn announced what we boys felt to be the divine command, “Let there be light,” and the sun heralded by long white streamers began to approach the eastern sky, and the earth gradually appeared as if by an act of creation. Every one of those mornings of fifty years ago appeared to us herdsmen to be witnessing the creation of the world — a world at first of friendly sound and light messages which made us boys feel that a divine power was protecting us and our herd, and then a real terrestrial world, when the rising sun had separated the hostile mysteries of night from the friendly realities of the day.


Sound and light being associated in my young mind of fifty years ago with divine operations by means of which man communicates with man, beast with beast, stars with stars, and man with his Creator, it is obvious that I meditated much about the nature of sound and of light. I still believe that these modes of communication are the fundamental operations in the physical universe and I am still meditating about their nature.

“General View of Apparatus used by Dr. Pupin” (Smithsonian Report, 1901)

Pupin would go on to become one of America’s most prolific inventors. The recipient of eighteen doctorates, he would make significant contributions to early X-ray imaging and would revolutionize telecommunication with his invention of a loading coil that greatly extended the long-distance range of signal transmission across telephone wires. A founding member of NASA predecessor NACA, he would preside over some of the country’s most esteemed scientific institutions, including the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A lunar crater bears his name.

From Immigrant to Inventor (public library), which I discovered through an admiring mention in Freeman Dyson’s letters, is a magnificent read in its totality — one of those rare books, on par with Oliver Sacks’s On the Move and Erwin Chargaff’s Heraclitean Fire, in which a visionary scientist looks back on a life of strife and achievement to emerge with something larger than an autobiography, radiating into philosophy, politics, cultural history, and creative inquiry. Complement this particular portion with Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s fantastic forgotten conversation about the problematic metaphor of the “melting pot” and Alfred Kazin on loneliness and the immigrant experience.


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