John Irving, Joan Didion, David Byrne, Rem Koolhaas, Madeleine Albright, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Sullivan, Ed Ruscha, Brian Eno, and more.
By Maria Popova
Since 2005, the LIVE from the NYPL program masterminded and anchored by intellectual impresario Paul Holdengräber — one of the most interesting people to ever encounter, should you be so fortunate — has transformed the New York Public Library into a wonderland of stimulating conversations on literature and life with some of today’s most celebrated writers, scientists, artists, philosophers, musicians, and other luminaries. Among Holdengräber’s signature touches are the 7-word autobiographies he asks each of his prominent guests to provide, to be read as he introduces them. Here is a selection of the best such personal micro-biographies — the literal, the abstract, the sarcastic, the poetic — from the entire run of the series so far:
Granted, the book isn’t actually as much an autobiography so much as it is a biography collaged through interviews with 20 people close to Warhol at the end of the 60’s — from Nico to Taylor Mead to Lou Reed — trying to “explain” and make sense of the pop art icon. Still, it’s a remarkable piece of cultural history offering a rare glimpse of a man full of contradictions.
A lot of people really misunderstood him then and indeed still do, although there’s hardly a day when Andy’s name is not mentioned in the paper. He’s become a kind of icon, kind of representative of what the 60’s were.” ~ John Wilcock
Wilcock is a self-admitted expert on Warhol — he used to go to The Factory, Warhol’s famous studio, two or three times a week during the sixties and early seventies, and accompanied him to the sets of his first films.
Andy taught me an awful lot about life. I learned that artist and poets who hang around together basically tell the future, and even though they maybe explain it in words or in images that you’re not quite clear about, somebody interprets that. And, to some extent, I felt that was my role — to hang around artists and try and explain what I thought was some of the meaning.” ~ John Wilcock
“Love & Hope are so strong in me, my soul’s high aspirations are of such tenacious, passionate intensity… that what would starve them out of any other woman only makes them strike out deeper roots, grow more resolute & sturdy, in me.”
By Maria Popova
“No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently fancying to himself some ideal image of the man and his mind,” Hermann Melville wrote as he began falling under Nathaniel Hawthorne’s spell. “I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett,” Robert Browning exulted in the first of his love letters to Elizabeth Barrett, “and I love you too.” To be a passionate reader is indeed to live with the risk of becoming besotted with the author of a beloved book. No author has cast a wider or deeper enchantment on more varied human hearts than Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892).
At the age of twenty-three, after a two-year engagement, Anne had married a talented art and literary critic of humble means, whose writing would soon earn the friendship of some of Great Britain’s most celebrated authors: Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, John Ruskin, Herbert Spencer, Christina Rossetti. The couple would eventually settle next door to Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh Carlyle. Ten years into the marriage, scarlet fever suddenly widowed Anne and left her to raise her four children as a single mother at thirty-three. Lettered, brilliant, intensely interested in science and philosophy, and enchanted by the channeling of beauty, be it in poetry or in painting, she endeavored to finish the biography of William Blake that her husband had begun, which she published in 1863 to great acclaim with the help of William and Gabriel Rossetti — Christina Rossetti’s brothers.
That is how Walt Whitman came to animate Anne Gilchrist’s life. At the time, William Rossetti was readying to publish the long-belated English edition of Leaves of Grass. Intuiting a kindred sensibility, he gave Gilchrist some of Whitman’s poems. She was instantly besotted. In June of 1869, she exulted in a letter to Rossetti:
Your edition of Walt Whitman’s poems… holds me entirely spellbound, and I go through it again and again with deepening delight and wonder.
On those pages began what would become a rich and unclassifiable bond. “Among the perfect women I have met,” Whitman would later reflect, “I have known none more perfect in every relation, than my dear, dear friend, Anne Gilchrist.” In a conversation with his biographer, he would liken her to Lincoln, whom he considered “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” in America:
Have you noticed that the time to look for the best things in best people is the moment of their greatest need? Look at Lincoln: he is our proudest example: he proved to be big as, bigger than, any emergency — his grasp was a giant’s grasp — made dark things light, made hard things easy…. [Anne] belonged to the same noble breed: seized the reins, was competent; her head was clear, her hand was firm.
Gilchrist’s first love letter to Whitman was not private but public — an essay titled “An Englishwoman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman,” published anonymously in Boston’s Radical a year after she first became enamored of his verses. Whitman was 51 and Gilchrist 42. Lauding the poems’ “penetrating sweetness, set in the midst of rugged grandeur,” she enthused:
For me the reading of his poems is truly a new birth of the soul.
I had not dreamed that words could cease to be words, and become electric streams like these… I am as one hurried through stormy seas, over high mountains, dazed with sunlight, stunned with a crowd and tumult of faces and voices, till I am breathless, bewildered, half dead. Then come parts and whole poems in which there is such calm wisdom and strength of thought, such a cheerful breadth of sunshine, that the soul bathes in them renewed and strengthened. Living impulses flow out of these that make me exult in life, yet look longingly towards “the superb vistas of Death.” … Not, of course, that all the pieces are equal in power and beauty, but that all are vital; they grew — they were not made. We criticise a palace or a cathedral; but what is the good of criticising a forest? … Seeds brought by the winds from north, south, east, and west, lying long in the earth, not resting on it like the stately building, but hid in and assimilating it, shooting upwards to be nourished by the air and the sunshine and the rain which beat idly against that, — each bough and twig and leaf growing in strength and beauty its own way, a law to itself, yet, with all this freedom of spontaneous growth, the result inevitable, unalterable (therefore setting criticism at naught), above all things, vital, — that is, a source of ever-generating vitality: such are these poems.
Whitman, who cherished trees with a love approaching the divine, was in turn vitalized by this uncommon generosity of sentiment. Decades later, he would affectionately remember Gilchrist as “strangely different from the average; entirely herself; as simple as nature; true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.”
After reading her review, not yet knowing the author’s identity, he wrote to Rossetti: “I had hitherto received no eulogium so magnificent.” Having spent a decade learning how not to let criticism sink his confidence — something no artist ever fully learns but we spend a lifetime practicing — Whitman would later reflect on how much Gilchrist’s plaudit meant to him:
Almost everybody was against me — the papers, the preachers, the literary gentlemen — nearly everybody with only here and there a dissenting voice — when it looked on the surface as if my enterprise was bound to fail… then this wonderful woman. Such things stagger a man… I had got so used to being ignored or denounced that the appearance of a friend was always accompanied with a sort of shock… There are shocks that knock you up, shocks that knock you down.
It would be more than two years before Gilchrist summoned the courage to reach out to Whitman directly and reveal her identity as the reviewer whose praise had so salved him. In early September 1871, months before Bram Stoker composed his own exhilarated love letter to the poet, she wrote to him:
The time will come when man will understand that a woman’s soul is as dear and needful to his and as different from his as her body to his body. This was what happened to me when I had read for a few days, nay, hours, in your books. It was the divine soul embracing mine. I never before dreamed what love meant: not what life meant. Never was alive before — no words but those of “new birth” can hint the meaning of what then happened to me.
After recounting to Whitman the shock of bereavement she had experienced with her husband’s sudden death a decade earlier, she writes as a woman already in love with a stranger whose words have reached to her across time, space, and reason to cast the thickest spell:
In May, 1869, came the voice over the Atlantic to me — O, the voice of my Mate: it must be so — my love rises up out of the very depths of the grief & tramples upon despair. I can wait — any time, a lifetime, many lifetimes — I can suffer, I can dare, I can learn, grow, toil, but nothing in life or death can tear out of my heart the passionate belief that one day I shall hear that voice say to me, “My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife, indissoluble eternal!” It is not happiness I plead with God for — it is the very life of my Soul, my love is its life. Dear Walt. It is a sweet & precious thing, this love; it clings so close, so close to the Soul and Body, all so tenderly dear, so beautiful, so sacred; it yearns with such passion to soothe and comfort & fill thee with sweet tender joy; it aspires as grandly as gloriously as thy own soul. Strong to soar—soft & tender to nestle and caress. If God were to say to me, “See — he that you love you shall not be given to in this life — he is going to set sail on the unknown sea — will you go with him?” never yet has bride sprung into her husband’s arms with the joy with which I would take thy hand & spring from the shore.
Addressing as “dear love” and “my darling” this enchanting stranger whose poems felt as intimate and personal as love letters, Gilchrist writes with an unguarded heart:
O dear Walt, did you not feel in every word the breath of a woman’s love? did you not see as through a transparent veil a soul all radiant and trembling with love stretching out its arms towards you? I was so sure you would speak, would send me some sign: that I was to wait — wait. So I fed my heart with sweet hopes: strengthened it with looking into the eyes of thy picture. O surely in the ineffable tenderness of thy look speaks the yearning of thy man-soul towards my woman-soul? But now I will wait no longer. A higher instinct dominates that other, the instinct for perfect truth. I would if I could lay every thought and action and feeling of my whole life open to thee as it lies to the eye of God. But that cannot be all at once. O come. Come, my darling: look into these eyes and see the loving ardent aspiring soul in them. Easily, easily will you learn to love all the rest of me for the sake of that and take me to your breasts for ever and ever. Out of its great anguish my love has risen stronger, more triumphant than ever: it cannot doubt, cannot fear, is strong, divine, immortal, sure of its fruition this side the grave or the other.
Six weeks later, not having received a response — a stretch of silence unfathomable to the modern reader, in an age when a two-hour text response lag can induce nothing less than heartbreak — Gilchrist writes again with explosive candor, beseeching for an acknowledgement of her letter and her love:
Spare me the needless suffering of uncertainty on this point & let me have one line, one word, of assurance that I am no longer hidden from you by a thick cloud — I from thee — not thou from me: for I that have never set eyes upon thee, all the Atlantic flowing between us, yet cleave closer than those that stand nearest & dearest around thee — love thee day & night: — last thoughts, first thoughts, my soul’s passionate yearning toward thy divine Soul, every hour, every deed and thought — my love for my children, my hopes, aspirations for them, all taking new shape, new height through this great love. My Soul has staked all upon it. In dull dark moods when I cannot, as it were, see thee, still, still always a dumb, blind yearning towards thee — still it comforts me to touch, to press to me the beloved books — like a child holding some hand in the dark — it knows not whose — but knows it is enough — knows it is a dear, strong, comforting hand. Do not say I am forward, or that I lack pride because I tell this love to thee who have never sought or made sign of desiring to seek me. Oh, for all that, this love is my pride my glory. Source of sufferings and joys that cannot put themselves into words. Besides, it is not true thou hast not sought or loved me. For when I read the divine poems I feel all folded round in thy love… I know not how to bear the yearning answering tenderness that fills my breast.
At this point, one is tempted to regard Gilchrist with the peculiar fusion of admiration and pity that such unbridled self-prostration inspires in an impartial observer; or, less charitably, to dismiss her as an infatuated fan who has constructed the elaborate scaffolding of a fantasy love around a distant public figure. But just as her despair — and that of any reader of these rending letters — approaches the unbearable, Whitman writes back. Two weeks later — practically instantaneously, given the pace of transatlantic mail — he sends her a short, largehearted letter, emotionally generous yet deliberately reserved by comparison to her effusive outpourings of love:
I have been waiting quite a while for time and the right mood, to answer your letter in a spirit as serious as its own, and in the same unmitigated trust and affection. But more daily work than ever has fallen to me to do the present season, and though I am well and contented, my best moods seem to shun me. I wish to give to it a day, a sort of Sabbath, or holy day, apart to itself, under serene and propitious influences, confident that I could then write you a letter which would do you good, and me too. But I must at least show without further delay that I am not insensible to your love. I too send you my love. And do you feel no disappointment because I now write so briefly. My book is my best letter, my response, my truest explanation of all. In it I have put my body and spirit. You understand this better and fuller and clearer than any one else. And I too fully and clearly understand the loving letter it has evoked. Enough that there surely exists so beautiful and a delicate relation, accepted by both of us with joy.
Willfully unwitting of Whitman’s gentle message that his art is his love, which is not the personal love she craves, Gilchrist responds with the insistence that she only knew what the word “love” meant after she read his poems. Envisioning “the sweetest, noblest, closest, tenderest companionship ever yet tasted by man & woman” as available to them, weaving Whitman’s own words into her plea for requital, she writes:
Your book does indeed say all — book that is not a book, for the first time a man complete, godlike, august, standing revealed the only way possible, through the garment of speech… quickened into life through such love, such sympathy, such resistless attraction.
I know how hard to attain to this greatness, the grandest lot ever aspired to by woman. I know too my own shortcomings, faults, flaws. You might not be able to give me your great love yet — to take me to your breast with joy. But I can wait. I can grow great & beautiful through sorrow & suffering, working, struggling, yearning, loving so, all alone, as I have done now nearly three years… Love & Hope are so strong in me, my soul’s high aspirations are of such tenacious, passionate intensity, are so conscious of their own deathless reality, that what would starve them out of any other woman only makes them strike out deeper roots, grow more resolute & sturdy, in me. I know that “greatness will not ripen for me like a pear.” But I could face, I could joyfully accept, the fiercest anguish, the hardest toil, the longest, sternest probation, to make me fit to be your mate — so that at the last you should say, “This is the woman I have waited for, the woman prepared for me: this is my dear eternal comrade, wife — the one I so much want.” Life has no other meaning for me than that — all things have led up to help prepare me for that. Death is more welcome to me than life if it means that — if thou, dear sailor, thou sailing upon thy endless cruise, takest me on board — me, daring, all with thee, steering for the deep waters, bound where mariner has not yet dared to go: hand in hand with thee, nestled close — one with thee.
Whitman, too, seems willfully unwitting of the discomfiting truth at the heart of her letters — that she loves him with a self-generated ardor he could never return, so vast and all-demanding and uncalibrated to his nature as a queer man. When he responds by saying that he dreams of going to “Old England” one day, and thus seeing her and her children — “but it is a dream only” — he seems not to realize that “only” is so infinite a landscape for fantasy in the mind of the hopelessly infatuated. And yet he does warn her, in his gentle poetic way, that the love she experiences may be a misplaced projection at his private person on the basis of his public art. Gilchrist responds with an impassioned, almost unbearably beautiful and heartbreaking counter-insistence, reasoning against reason:
If it seems to you there must needs be something unreal, illusive, in a love that has grown up entirely without the basis of personal intercourse, dear Friend, then you do not yourself realize your own power nor understand the full meaning of your own words, “whoso touches this, touches a man” — “I have put my Soul & Body into these Poems.” Real effects imply real causes. Do you suppose that an ideal figure conjured up by her own fancy could, in a perfectly sound, healthy woman of my age, so happy in her children, so busy & content, practical, earnest, produce such real & tremendous effect — saturating her whole life, colouring every waking moment — filling her with such joys, such pains that the strain of them has been well nigh too much even for a strong frame, coming as it does, after twenty years of hard work?
Therefore please, dear Friend, do not “warn” me any more — it hurts so, as seeming to distrust my love. Time only can show how needlessly. My love, flowing ever fresh & fresh out of my heart, will go with you in all your wanderings, dear Friend, enfolding you day and night, soul & body, with tenderness that tries so vainly to utter itself in these poor, helpless words, that clings closer than any man’s love can cling.
And yet despite the all-consuming cloud of her infatuation, Gilchrist manages — as we all manage, even in our most enchanted states — to maintain some lucid part of herself, some clear awareness of the asymmetrical intensity of feeling. Eight months into the correspondence, in between effusions, she gives that part a share of voice:
Perhaps the letters that I have sent you since that first, have given you a feeling of constraint towards me because you cannot respond to them. I will not write any more such letters; or, if I write them because my heart is so full it cannot bear it, they shall not find their way to the Post. But do not, because I give you more than friendship, think that it would not be a very dear & happy thing to me to have friendship only from you.
Anyone who has vowed not to text a crush, then watched the resolve melt into permissive rationalizations of why texting is a good idea, knows the polarized place of resignation and electric desire from which Gilchrist is composing these futile words — for, in the very next breath, she uncorks the longing she has just resolved to keep bottled up, imploring him to write and insisting that her love, though it had begun in his poems, is irrepressibly aimed at his person:
I am sure dear friend, if you realize the joy it is to me to receive a few words from you — about anything that is passing in your thoughts & around — how beaming bright & happy the day a letter comes & many days after — how light hearted & alert I set about my daily tasks, it would not seem irksome to you to write. And if you say, “Read my books, & be content — you have me in them,” I say, it is because I read them so that I am not content. It is an effort to me to turn to any other reading… I want nothing else — am fully fed & satisfied there. I sit alone many hours… brooding over the poems, sunning myself in them, pondering the vistas — all the experience of my past life & all its aspirations corroborating them — all my future & so far as in me lies the future of my children to be shaped modified vitalized by & through these — outwardly & inwardly. How can I be content to live wholly isolated from you? I am sure it is not possible for any one, — man or woman, it does not matter which, to receive these books, not merely with the intellect critically admiring their power & beauty, but with an understanding responsive heart, without feeling it drawn out of their breasts so that they must leave all & come to be with you sometimes without a resistless yearning for personal intercourse that will take no denial.
Although the correspondence continued to be staggeringly asymmetrical, with a ten-month silence from Whitman, Gilchrist’s “resistless yearning for personal intercourse” remained undeterred indeed. Whitman was never cool to her. But he met her boundless passion with contained warmth — a tragic asymmetry of affection evocative of Emily Dickinson’s lifelong ardor for Susan Gilbert and Herman Melville’s for Nathaniel Hawthorne. Governed by her devotion and willfully blind to the asymmetry, Gilchrist began dreaming of moving to America to be near her “darling Walt” — dreams that fermented into plans after Whitman’s paralytic stroke in 1873, followed closely by the death of his beloved sister and mother. He wrote to her from the thick fog of these losses:
Since I last wrote, clouds have darkened over me, and still remain.
Do not think hard of me for not writing in reply. If you could look into my spirit & emotion you would be entirely satisfied & at peace… I am at present temporarily here at Camden, on the Delaware river, opposite Philadelphia, at the house of my brother, and I am occupying, as I write, the rooms wherein my mother died… You must not be unhappy about me, as I am as comfortably situated as can be — & many things — indeed every thing — in my case might be so much worse. Though my plans are not definite, my intention as far as anything is on getting stronger.
He then did something astounding — something the effect of which on a lovestruck heart he must not have realized:
The enclosed ring I have just taken from my finger, & send to you, with my love.
How the besotted Gilchrist interpreted the gesture is hardly surprising. Addressing him as “my Beloved,” she gushes:
O the precious letter, bearing to me the living touch of your hand, vibrating through & through me as I feel the pressure of the ring that pressed your flesh — & now will press mine so long as I draw breath. My Darling! take comfort & strength & joy from me that you have made so rich & strong.
When my eyes first open in the morning, often such tender thoughts, yearning ineffably, pitying, sorrowful, sweet thoughts flow into my breast that longs & longs to pillow on itself the suffering head (with white hair more beautiful to me than the silvery clouds which always make me think of it.)
The ring only amplified her longing to be near him, to care for him as part-wife, part-mother, part-comrade — she decided to move to America. Whitman immediately discouraged the plan, perhaps sensing that he could never meet her love in kind. Even if he were not the poet laureate of same-sex love, he must have intuited that she loved a version of him so idealized, so exalted to the point of worship, that his mortal reality could only ever disappoint her to the point of devastation — the pedestal would topple, crushing a tender heart he cared to protect. Nowhere is the collision between the ideal and the real more violent, nor more mutually wounding, than in an asymmetrical love warped by one-sided idealization.
Gilchrist did not heed his deterrence. She had seen her migration to America as her “settled, steady purpose (resting on a deep, strong faith) ever since 1869,” when she first devoured Leaves of Grass. Now she began actively imagining their life together in a mutually enriching partnership:
I turn my face to the westward sky before I lie down to sleep, deep & steadfast within me the silent aspiration that every year, every month & week, may help something to prepare and make fitter me and mine to be your comfort and joy. We are full of imperfections, short-comings but half developed, but half “possessing our own souls.” But we grow, we learn, we strive — that is the best of us. I think in the sunshine of your presence we shall grow fast — I too, my years notwithstanding.
Under this blinding vision, she once again returns to the seedbed of her love for him — his art:
No one hundreds of years hence will find deeper joy in these poems than I — breathe the fresh, sweet, exhilarating air of them, bathe in it, drink in what nourishes & delights the whole being, body, intellect & soul, more than I. Nor could you, when writing them, have desired to come nearer to a human being & be more to them forever & forever than you are & will be to me. O I take the hand you stretch out each day — I put mine into it with a sense of utter fulfilment: I ask nothing more of time and of eternity but to live and grow up to that companionship that includes all.
Her physical presence in his life, she insists, would be nothing less than medicinal. It would be a love that meets every need — the most treacherous promise of our romantic mythology, for no one person could ever meet the tessellated needs of another fully. She writes:
I believe if I could only make you conscious of the love, the enfolding love, my heart breathes out toward you it would do you physical good; many-sided love — Mother’s love that cherishes, that delights so in personal service, that sees in sickness & suffering such dear appeals to an answering, limitless tenderness — wife’s love — ah, you draw that from me too, resistlessly — I have no choice — comrade’s love, so happy in sharing all, pain, sorrow, toil, effort, enjoyments, thoughts, hopes, aims, struggles, disappointment, beliefs, aspirations. Child’s love, too, that trusts utterly, confides unquestioningly.
On August 30, 1876, after a seven-year longing, Gilchrist set sail for America with three of her children. To the reluctant Whitman, who had tried to dissuade her by stressing the perilousness of transatlantic travel and cautioning her that the “crudeness” of Americans might offend her sensibility, she cited her eldest daughter’s future as a primary motivation — Beatrice was determined to become a doctor, but proper medical education was not yet available to women in England, for they were not permitted to enter any hospital for the clinical portion of their studies. A quarter century earlier, Gilchrist’s compatriot Elizabeth Blackwell had traversed the Atlantic to set precedent as the first woman to receive a medical degree in America.
The family settled in Concord, where Gilchrist soon made the acquaintance of Emerson — by that point, America’s most esteemed literary tastemaker, whose extraordinary letter to the young Whitman had pivoted the fate of Leaves of Grass from a derided and dismissed creative experiment to a literary masterpiece on the lips, minds, and shelves of every book-lover in America. In Concord, in “the companionship of very lovable men and women,” Gilchrist began enjoying outdoor pleasures, so dear to Whitman himself and so central to his makeshift physical therapy while recovering from the stroke. She reported to him:
They lead an easy-going life here — seem to spend half their time floating about on the river — or meeting in the evening to talk & read aloud.
We shall never know what was exchanged, thought, felt when Gilchrist and Whitman first met. (The loss of letters, Margaret Fuller had lamented, “makes irreparable gaps in the history of feeling,” and an even vaster abyss gapes across the unrecorded moments that take place in the intimacy of physical proximity and presence — letters, after all, presuppose distance and absence.) What we do know is that, under the hard light of reality, Gilchrist’s idealized romantic love soon melted into a warm and largehearted affection that would bind the two for the remainder of their lives. Whitman dined at her house frequently and her children came to call him “Uncle Walt.” Her artist son painted a portrait of him. The poet would later write of his uncommon and label-defying regard for her:
I have that sort of feeling about her which cannot easily be spoken of — …: love (strong personal love, too), reverence, respect — you see, it won’t go into words: all the words are weak and formal.
Despite being nearly a decade her elder, Whitman would go on to outlive Gilchrist. Upon received word of her death from her son, he could only summon these spare, sundering words:
I have received your letter. Nothing now remains but a sweet and rich memory — none more beautiful all time, all life all the earth — I cannot write anything of a letter to-day. I must sit alone and think.
He would remember her as “a sort of human miracle,” “a supreme character of whom the world knows too little for its own good,” one whose “vision went on and on” and who “belonged to the times yet to come.” He would commemorate her in one of his most beautiful poems:
My science-friend, my noblest woman-friend
(Now buried in an English grave — and this a memory — leaf for her dear sake),
Ended our talk — “The sum, concluding all we know of old or modern learning, intuitions deep,
Of all Geologies — Histories — of all Astronomy — of Evolution, Metaphysics all,
Is, that we all are onward, onward, speeding slowly, surely bettering,
Life, life an endless march, an endless army (no halt, but, it is duly over),
The world, the race, the soul — in space and time the universes,
All bound as is befitting each — all surely going somewhere.”
“How wonderful is the action of the mind upon the body! Of the body upon the mind!”
By Maria Popova
“It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us, however we may be concerned with our society, to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them,” the theologian Thomas Merton wrote to Rachel Carson in his letter of appreciation, commending her for diagnosing one of the most pernicious maladies of our civilization. “Otherwise,” he warned, “our efforts will be directed to purely superficial symptoms only, and perhaps not even at things related directly to the illness.”
Few visionaries have diagnosed more societal ills, more accurately and more presciently, or devised and championed more effective treatments, than Benjamin Rush (January 4, 1746–April 19, 1813).
Half-orphaned at the age of five and raised by his widowed mother, Rush was thirty when he signed the Declaration of Independence. He had graduated from what is now Princeton sixteen years earlier and had been a practicing physician for seven years. He would go on to became George Washington’s Surgeon General and America’s preeminent physician and most influential public health champion. He would advocate for public schooling and for opening education to women, Africans (who, in an era of enslavement and complete political disenfranchisement, were yet to be African American), and immigrants who spoke no English. He would rail against racism and capital punishment, found the nation’s first rural college, and help black clergymen establish two of the nation’s first churches for black congregations. In the final stretch of his life, in his collection of pithy assessments of the founding fathers, he would encapsulate himself in only three words: “He aimed well.”
But Rush’s most profound contribution to progress was arguably something different, springing from this selfsame devotion to equality — the groundwork he laid for modern notions of and practices regarding mental health, or what we now know as psychiatry, clinical psychology, and addiction medicine, based on his then-countercultural insistence that mentally ill people are still, first and foremost, people. A century before Nellie Bly’s paradigm-shifting exposé “Ten Days at the Madhouse,” at a time when mental asylum patients were housed in rat-infested stables, habitually brutalized by guards, and chained to the floor until they “improved,” Rush advocated for honoring their humanity and dignity in treatment, pioneering forms of psychiatric care closely resembling the modern. At the heart of his ethos and its revolutionary enactment in medicine was a fiery rebellion against the Cartesian mind-body divide. A century before William James proclaimed that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity”, a quarter millennium before scientists began understanding now our minds and our bodies converge in the healing of trauma and that mental illnesses like anxiety are deeply embodied experiences, and with the birth of neuroscience still more than half a century away, Rush believed that physical, emotional, mental, moral, spiritual, and political health, as well as public and private health, were interleaved into one indivisible ecosystem of wellbeing.
This was a radical notion, and Rush was a radical man epochs ahead of his time. He knew it, and he was content to pay the price. Two centuries before Bertrand Russell exhorted in the seventh of his ten commandments of critical thinking — “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Rush wrote:
The most acceptable men in practical society, have been those who have never shocked their contemporaries, by opposing popular or common opinions. Men of opposite characters, like objects placed too near the eye, are seldom seen distinctly by the age in which they live. They must content themselves with the prospect of being useful to the distant and more enlightened generations which are to follow them.
More than two centuries later, this extraordinary and underappreciated man is reinstated to his rightful place in the canon of civilizational advancement in Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father (public library) by Stephen Fried — my first and foremost writing mentor, whose research intern I had the pleasure of being long ago, spending countless hours squinting at microfilm of 19th-century newspapers in exchange for two subway tokens a week and his immense wisdom on writing and scholarship.
Fried writes of Rush — a lean, tall, handsome, “promiscuously opinionated young fellow” with lively blue-gray eyes and a blond-brown ponytail trailing his noticeably large head — and the heart of his uncommon genius:
Unlike the pedigreed doctors who had trained him in America, Scotland, England, and France, Dr. Rush was a medical and political prodigy from a middle-class family on the humbler side of Philadelphia. He had lost his father, a gunsmith, at the age of five, leaving him and his five siblings to be raised by their mother, who opened a package goods store and tavern just down the street from Benjamin Franklin’s print shop and post office. But because of young Rush’s astonishing mind — besides total recall, he had what he referred to as the “peculiar happiness” of being able to synthesize and humanize disparate ideas into searing rhetoric — he had finished school at thirteen, graduated from the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton) at fourteen, finished medical training in Edinburgh and London at twenty-two, and begun practicing and teaching medicine at twenty-three. He was still single in his late twenties because his family had convinced him it would be bad for his career to marry before thirty.
Rush seemed to understand people unusually well for a man so young, and his analysis moved easily from politics to religion to medicine to the calculus of liberty.
Rush would go on to churn his country’s revolution, political and social, by diagnosing the gravest ills of his culture — nowhere more astutely than in a landmark speech he delivered before the American Philosophical Society on February 27, 1786, just after his fortieth birthday. Titled “The Influence of Physical Causes Upon the Moral Faculty,” the speech examined the physical basis of what we now call mental illness — a notion foreign in an era when all psychiatric disorders were considered a function of vice, moral weakness, and personal failure. Against the favor of his time, Rush insisted that “melancholy and madness, in all their variety of species, yield with more facility to medicine, than simply to polemical discourses, or to casuistical advice.”
Rush begins with a necessary definition, distinguishing between morality and conscience — a distinction he likens to that between sensation and perception. He writes:
The moral faculty… is quick in its operations, and like the sensitive plant, acts without reflection, while conscience follows with deliberate steps, and measures all her actions by the unerring square of right and wrong.
As I consider virtue and vice to consist in action, and not in opinion, and as this action has its seat in the will, and not in the conscience, I shall confine my inquiries chiefly to the influence of physical causes upon that moral power of the mind, which is connected with volition, although many of these causes act likewise upon the conscience, as I shall show hereafter. The state of the moral faculty is visible in actions, which affect the well-being of society. The state of the conscience is invisible, and therefore removed beyond our investigation.
Noting that medicine has already identified a physical basis of such mental faculties as memory, judgment, and imagination, Rush argues that morality, too, has physical correlates. Aware of just how countercultural this proposition is at the time, he presages:
Men who have been educated in the mechanical habits of adopting popular or established opinions will revolt at the doctrine I am about to deliver, while men of sense and genius will hear my propositions with candour, and if they do not adopt them, will commend that boldness of inquiry, that prompted me to broach them.
Rush goes on to enumerate the effects of various physical conditions and habits — climate, weather, diet, alcohol, exercise, sleep — on mental states. Centuries before our understanding of the gut-brain connection and the advent of what we now call functional medicine, he illustrates his insight into the relationship between food and mood with a charming anecdote:
One of the worthiest men I ever knew, who made his breakfast his principal meal, was peevish and disagreeable to his friends and family, from the time he left his bed till he sat down to his morning repast; after which, cheerfulness sparkled in his countenance, and he became the delight of all around him.
But even more notable is his reach, perhaps inadvertent and intuitive, into the Eastern contemplative traditions of nondualism. Among the various physical habits and faculties he considers essential to moral development, he includes two rather Buddhist concepts: solitude and silence. Long before Hermann Hesse extolled solitude as the forge of destiny, Rush writes:
I hope I shall be excused in placing SOLITUDE among the physical causes which influence the moral faculty, when I add, that I confine its effects to persons who are irreclaimable by rational or moral remedies… Where the benefit of reflection, and instruction from books, can be added to solitude and confinement, their good effects are still more certain… Connected with solitude, as a mechanical means of promoting virtue, SILENCE deserves to be mentioned in this place.
He goes even further in his daring conception of holistic health. Centuries before Oliver Sacks revolutionized medicine by illuminating the powerful effects of music on neurologic function, Rush contributes to the canon of great minds extolling the power of music:
The effects of music, when simply mechanical, upon the passions, are powerful and extensive. But it remains yet to determine the degrees of moral ecstacy, that may be produced by an attack upon the ear, the reason, and the moral principle, at the same time, by the combined powers of music and eloquence.
Observing that in every culture, “the most accomplished orators have generally been the most successful reformers of mankind,” he adds the literary arts to the arsenal of morally beneficial human endeavors:
The language and imagery of a Shakespeare, upon moral and religious subjects, poured upon the passions and the senses, in all the beauty and variety of dramatic representation; who could resist, or describe their effects?
Given this interplay of the physical and the psychic, Rush marvels at the intricately interconnected structure of the human mind and its incessant dialogue with the body:
From a review of our subject, we are led to contemplate with admiration, the curious structure of the human mind. How distinct are the number, and yet how united! How subordinate and yet how coequal are all its faculties! How wonderful is the action of the mind upon the body! Of the body upon the mind!
In this yet-unmined relationship, Rush sees golden potential for improving human flourishing and moral development:
The extent of the moral powers and habits in man is unknown. It is not improbable, but the human mind contains principles of virtue, which have never yet been excited into action. We behold with surprise the versatility of the human body in the exploits of tumblers and rope-dancers… We feel a veneration bordering upon divine homage, in contemplating the stupendous understandings of Lord Verulam and Sir Isaac Newton; and our eyes grow dim, in attempting to pursue Shakespeare and Milton in their immeasurable flights of imagination. And if the history of mankind does not furnish similar instances of the versatility and perfection of our species in virtue, it is because the moral faculty has been the subject of less culture and fewer experiments than the body, and the intellectual powers of the mind.
Noting the advances of medicine in “mitigating the violence of incurable diseases” — from the alleviation of fevers to the proto-vaccination developed to curb smallpox, which had claimed more lives in the preceding century than all wars combined and which has since been completely eradicated — Rush argues that similar advances are to be made in alleviating psychic suffering through moral development:
A physical regimen should as necessarily accompany a moral precept, as directions with respect to the air — exercise — and diet, generally accompany prescriptions for the consumption and the gout… Medicine… has penetrated the deep and gloomy abyss of death, and acquired fresh honours in his cold embraces. — Witness the many hundred people who have lately been brought back to life, by the successful efforts of the humane societies, which are now established in many parts of Europe, and in some parts of America. Should the same industry and ingenuity, which have produced these triumphs of medicine over diseases and death, be applied to the moral science, it is highly probable, that most of those baneful vices, which deform the human breast, and convulse the nations of the earth, might be banished from the world. I am not so sanguine as to suppose, that it is possible for man to acquire so much perfection from science, religion, liberty and good government, as to cease to be mortal; but I am fully persuaded, that from the combined action of causes, which operate at once upon the reason, the moral faculty, the passions, the senses, the brain, the nerves, the blood and the heart, it is possible to produce such a change in his moral character, as shall raise him to a resemblance of angels — nay more, to the likeness of GOD himself.
Rush’s conviction that the mind is manageable and healable through the body would soon be elevated by the mightiest, most intimate motive fulcrum: personal experience. Two decades after delivering his visionary speech, he would watch his eldest child descend into mental illness — a devastation that would inspire him to compose the first American book on “diseases of the mind.” In his superb biography, Fried writes:
Through it all, Benjamin Rush contended openly and engagingly with the same challenge he had put to the new nation: how to be a man of science, a man of liberty, and a man of faith — all while striving to be a good friend, husband, and father of nine children. Rush was a medical pioneer and a political pathfinder, donating his time, his money, even, at times, his sanity for the causes he worried were beyond the reach of laws. His life and writings provide a guided tour through the most public and private moments of the Revolution and the creation of America, seen through the eyes — first awestruck, then frustrated, and finally worldly wise — of a physician and reformer who was, in every sense, revolutionary.
He also understood, as a physician and scientist, how many things he knew for certain would later be proved wrong; how many diseases, medical and social, could appear to be cured but later recur. In this was the “peculiar happiness” of cautious optimism, the comfort and discomfort of the truly long view.
Had I read Fried’s Rush before the year’s end, it would have crowned my favorite books of 2018. Mercifully, a chronicle of a 200-year past so masterly that it will endure for at least 200 years into the future is impervious to the time-strained omissions of any mortal.