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What Makes a Hero and the True Measure of the Human Spirit: Walter Lippmann’s Stunning Tribute to Amelia Earhart

“The world is a better place to live in because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing.”

What Makes a Hero and the True Measure of the Human Spirit: Walter Lippmann’s Stunning Tribute to Amelia Earhart

What is it that gives the human spirit wings to soar above the trenches of tradition, above the flatlands of convention, above even the highest peaks of the probable into ever-greater altitudes of possibility?

That’s what the great journalist and essayist Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889–December 14, 1974) explores in a beautiful piece published in his New York Herald Tribune column, Today and Tomorrow, on July 8, 1937 — six days after Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, leaving behind a decades-long comet tail of courage that has since inspired generations.

Lippmann’s requiem, eventually included in The Essential Lippmann: A Political Philosophy for Liberal Democracy (public library), stands as a counterpart, perhaps even a precondition, to Alexander Flexner’s wonderful defense of “the usefulness of useless knowledge.” What Lippmann crafts is a beautiful case for the usefulness of useless curiosity and courage, through the sieve of which all truly useful knowledge and human achievement must pass.

Walter Lippmann
Walter Lippmann

Half a century before Joseph Campbell conceived of his eleven stages of the hero’s journey and before pioneering biochemist lamented how how the excessive pragmatization of science is sapping its courage and poetic curiosity, Lippmann considers the heroism of unbridled curiosity:

I cannot quite remember whether Miss Earhart undertook her flight with some practical purpose in mind, say, to demonstrate something or other about aviation which will make it a little easier for commercial passengers to move more quickly around the world. There are those who seem to think that an enterprise like hers must have some such justification, that without it there was no good reason for taking such grave risks.

But in truth Miss Earhart needs no such justification. The world is a better place to live in because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing. They help to offset the much larger numbers who are ready to sacrifice the ease and the security and the very lives of others in order to do what they want done.

Writing on the cusp of World War II, Lippmann admonishes against mistaking force for fortitude and argues that “synthetic heroes” and “men in bulletproof vests surrounded by squads of armed guards” are the measure not of humanity’s strength but of our weakness. Heroes like Amelia Earhart offer a different, truer conception of courage. He writes:

It is somehow reassuring to think that there are also men and women who take the risks themselves, who pit themselves not against their fellow beings but against the immensity and the violence of the natural world, who are brave without cruelty to others and impassioned with an idea that dignifies all who contemplate it.

Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart

Lippmann ends with a sentiment that transcends Earhart’s particular feat and extends to triumphs of the human spirit as diverse as the invention of the world’s first computer, the first polar expeditions, and the century-long quest to hear the sound of spacetime:

The best things of mankind are as useless as Amelia Earhart’s adventure. They are the things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. In such persons mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves.

Such energy cannot be planned and managed and made purposeful, or weighted by the standards of utility or judged by its social consequences. It is wild and it is free. But all the heroes, the saints, the seers, the explorers and the creators partake of it. They do not know what they discover. They do not know where their impulse is taking them. They can give no account in advance of where they are going or explain completely where they have been. They have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion which is unintelligible in ordinary terms.

No preconceived theory fits them. No material purpose actuates them. They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky.

All of Lippmann’s cultural observations gathered in The Essential Lippmann emanate these transcendent overtones of lyrical and lucid idealism. Complement this particular portion with this modern manifesto for nurturing tomorrow’s Amelias and Earhart herself on marriage, motivation and human nature, and sticking up for yourself.

For a contemporary embodiment of Lippmann’s “useless, brave, noble… divinely foolish… very wisest” pursuits, devour the exhilarating story of LIGO and the quest to detect gravitational waves.

Thanks, Dawn

BP

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

“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.

BP

Amelia Earhart on Motivation, Education, and Human Nature in Letters to Her Mother

“The more one does the more one can do.”

When Amelia Earhart, born on July 24, 1897, disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937, she left behind a legacy shrouded in legend, glory, and modern-day mythmaking. But whatever Amelia the public icon may have imparted, Amelia the private person brimmed with far more dimensional insight on life — on determination, on education, on religion, on human nature — which spills open in Letters from Amelia: An Intimate Portrait of Amelia Earhart (public library), the same fantastic volume that gave us her remarkably forward-thinking views on marriage.

Though she grew up in a troubled home, financially strained and with an alcoholic father, Amelia’s determination and independence were evident from an early age: In March of 1914, aged 17, she wrote in a letter to a school friend:

Of course I’m going to [Bryn Mawr] if I have to drive a grocery wagon to accumulate the cash.

Amelia Earhart, St. Paul, 1914.

Though she didn’t end up going to Bryn Mawr, Amelia was firmly set on getting an education and entered the Ogontz School, a junior college in Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1916. In October the following year, twenty-year-old Amelia writes her mother about having taken on an extraordinary amount of academic and extracurricular work — something she found stimulating rather than stressful, per her already typical determination:

I am taking Modern Drama Literature, German and German Literature outside. French three and five in which latter we are reading Eugénie Grandet. And Senior arithmetic and logic if I can. Besides reading a good deal and art, Bible, etc. etc.

I am elected to write the senior song, but you know the more one does the more one can do.

A few days later, she adds in another letter:

Despite my unusual activity I am very well organized to do more the more I do. You know what I mean. … I am not overdoing and all that is needed to bouncing health is plenty to eat and happiness. Consider me bursting, please.

In the fall of 1919, Amelia enrolled in Columbia University as a premed student. In a letter to her mother she sent from New York that year, Amelia expresses her views on the disconnect between religion and spirituality in a simple yet enormously eloquent way:

Don’t think for an instant I would ever become an atheist or even a doubter nor lose faith in the [Episcopalian] church’s teachings as a whole. That is impossible. But you must admit there is a great deal radically wrong in methods and teachings and results to-day. Probably no more than yesterday, but the present stands up and waves its paws at me and I see — can’t help it. It is not the clergy nor the church itself nor the people that are narrow, but the outside pressure that squeezes them into a routine.

But Amelia soon found her faith in the skies. In 1920, she fell in love with flying and the rest, as they say, is history. Eight years later, in June of 1928, as she was about to make her first transatlantic flight as a passenger, she wrote her mother in a telegram:

DONT WORRY STOP NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS IT WILL HAVE BEEN WORTH THE TRYING STOP LOVE-A

Orville Wright and Amelia Earhart at Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, 1936

But despite her passion for the skies, Amelia always kept education, especially the education of women, a primary focus of her relentless dedication, lecturing in universities around the world and even inspiring a course in “household engineering” at Purdue University, where 1,000 of the 6,000 students were women. She also counseled young women on their careers. At Purdue, she advised graduating girls to try a certain job but not be afraid to make a change if they found something better, adding:

And if you should find that you are the first woman to feel an urge in that direction, what does it matter? Feel it and act on it just the same. It may turn out to be fun. And to me fun is the indispensable part of work.

(Appropriately, she titled her memoir The Fun of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation.)

Arrival after solo transatlantic flight, Culmore, Ireland, 1932

A few months later, during her second attempt to fly around the world, Amelia disappeared over Howland Island in the central Pacific, never to be seen again.

Amelia Earhart. Self-portrait. Date uncertain.

In the afterword to Letters from Amelia, which is sadly out-of-print but luckily still available used and an absolute treasure in its entirety, editor Jean L. Backus captures the singular expansiveness of Amelia’s spirit with a few brilliantly chosen words:

Amelia Earhart was clear as glass and cloudy as milk at the same time, and she was marked for greatness. She rarely failed either in public or in private to live up to what she demanded of herself. She would not compromise with integrity, she did not quail before danger, and she brought honor by word and deed to her sex, her country, her kin, and herself.

BP

Amelia Earhart on Marriage

“I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage.”

Charles Darwin gleefully weighed the pros and cons of marriage, ultimately deciding in its favor, while Susan Sontag called it “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings.” But marriage, of course, is like most things in life — all else being equal, you get out of it exactly what you put in.

Amelia Earhart (July 24, 1897–disappeared July 2, 1937) — pioneering aviator, bestselling author, and one altogether fierce lady — must have known that when she sat down on the morning of February 7th, 1931, and penned this exacting, resolute letter to her publicist and future husband, George Putnam. Found in the out-of-print volume Letters from Amelia, 1901–1937 (public library), it spells out (typo notwithstanding) exactly what Earhart wanted — and didn’t want — in a marriage, a bold testament to her independent spirit and liberal mindset just before the golden age of the housewife and shortly after the era of Victorian sexism.

Noank
Connecticut

The Square House
Church Street

Dear GPP

There are some things which should be writ before we are married — things we have talked over before — most of them.

You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means most to me. I feel the move just now as foolish as anything I could do. I know there may be compensations but have no heart to look ahead.

On our life together I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly. If we can be honest I think the difficulties which arise may best be avoided should you or I become interested deeply (or in passing) in anyone else.

Please let us not interfere with the others’ work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements. In this connection I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage.

I must exact a cruel promise and that is you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together.

I will try to do my best in every way and give you that part of me you know and seem to want.

A.E.

The two married that afternoon. Putnam had proposed six times before Earhart finally said her highly conditional “yes.” She kept her last name and refused to be called Mrs. Putnam, even against The New York Times’ insistence. They remained together until Earhart’s tragic disappearance in 1937.

Also from Letters from Amelia, see Earhart on sticking up for yourself and education, motivation, and human nature.

Feministing @dearsarah

BP

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