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Langston Hughes’s Ardent Public Fan Letter to the Young Nina Simone

“She is strange. So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet, LeRoi Jones, and Bertholt Brecht. She is far-out, and at the same time common. So are raw eggs in Worcestershire and The Connection.”

Langston Hughes’s Ardent Public Fan Letter to the Young Nina Simone

On February 8, 1949, a week after his forty-eighth birthday, the poet, novelist, activist, and playwright Langston Hughes (February 1, 1901–May 22, 1967) traveled to Asheville to speak at the Allen School — one of a handful of accredited boarding schools for black girls in the South. There, he met sixteen-year-old Eunice Kathleen Waymon, who had helped organize the event as treasurer of the school’s NAACP chapter. Although Eunice was academically formidable — she had skipped the ninth grade and would graduate as valedictorian of her class — her supreme power lay elsewhere: music. Gifted, hard-working, and determined to become a classical pianist, she had been playing at her mother’s church since age four, performed her first concert at twelve, and had landed at the Allen School thanks to a scholarship fund procured by her beloved piano teacher and first great champion, Miss Mazzy — an Englishwoman by the name of Muriel Mazzanovich.

When Hughes met the young Eunice that winter, he could not have known that she would soon revolutionize the music canon under her stage name, Nina Simone. Less than a decade after his Allen School visit, her debut album Little Girl Blue stopped the nation’s breath. Hughes, by then one of the most influential voices in black creative culture, was so stunned that he lauded it with lyrical ardor in “Week by Week” — the newspaper column he had been writing for the Chicago Defender since before he met the young Eunice and would continue writing until his death. Included in Nadine Cohodas’s biography Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (public library), the piece is no common journalistic report on a young artist’s debut but rather a prose poem, a kind of paean for the arrival of a new creative prophet.

Originally published on November 12, 1958, it was quickly syndicated by newspapers around the country and was eventually reprinted as a sort of extended blurb on the back of Simone’s 1965 EP Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, just like Walt Whitman had emblazoned a sentence of Emerson’s electric letter of praise to him on a subsequent edition of Leaves of Grass. Hughes writes:

She is strange. So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet, LeRoi Jones, and Bertholt Brecht.

She is far-out, and at the same time common. So are raw eggs in Worcestershire and The Connection.

She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis, and John Donne. So in Mort Sahl. She is a club member, a coloured girl, an Afro-American, a homey from Down Home. She has hit the Big Town, the big towns, the LP discs and the TV shows — and she is still from down home. She did it mostly all by herself. Her name is Nina Simone.

She has a flair, but no air, she has class but does not wear it on her shoulders. Only chips. She is unique. You either like her or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t. If you do — whee-ouuu-eu! You do!

This short, lovely newspaper serenade marked the beginning of lifelong friendship, mentorship, and artistic collaboration that would last for the remaining years of Hughes’s life. He would send her books he thought would inspire her, invite her to his Manhattan apartment for dinner, and write words for her to set to song. When Hughes died in 1967, a devastated Simone turned her coveted set at the Newport Jazz Festival into a tribute and closed it with an exhortation to the audience: “Keep him with you always. He was beautiful, a beautiful man, and he’s still with us, of course.”

Complement with Hughes’s little-known children’s book about jazz and this rare recording of him reading “We Are the American Heartbreak,” then revisit Nina Simone on time.

BP

Kahlil Gibran on Friendship and the Building Blocks of Meaningful Connection

“In the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”

Kahlil Gibran on Friendship and the Building Blocks of Meaningful Connection

“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” the poet Adrienne Rich observed as she contemplated the art of honorable human relationships on the cusp of the Internet revolution that furnished the commodification of the word friend. “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship,” Seneca counseled two millennia earlier in his meditation on true and false friendship, “but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul.” But how does one refine the ponderation sieve through which one admits into one’s soul the few who count?

Perched in time and sensibility between Seneca and Rich, the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) examined this question in a few short, exquisitely insightful verses from The Prophet (public library) — the 1923 classic that also gave us Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love and what may be the finest advice ever offered on the balance of intimacy and independence in healthy relationships.

Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait

In his narrative poem, when a youth inquires about the essence of friendship, Gibran’s prophet answers:

Your friend is your needs answered.
He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.
And he is your board and your fireside. For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace.
When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the “nay” in your own mind, nor do you withhold the “ay.”
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.

Diagram from my taxonomy of the four levels of platonic relationships.

More than a decade before the brilliant and underappreciated French philosopher Simone Weil considered the paradox of friendship and separation, Gibran offers assurance that absence is only a clarifying and fortifying force for the bond:

When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.

In a sentiment C.S. Lewis would come to echo in his poetic insistence that friendship “has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival,” Gibran adds:

And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.

Gibran ends the fragment on friendship with a vital reminder that the measure of closeness is not the magnitude of intensity and the heaviness two people entrust in one another but the ability to dance across the entire spectrum of being with equal ease:

In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

Complement with trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell on how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves in friendship, her contemporary and almost-friend Ralph Waldo Emerson on the two pillars of friendship, and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of soul friend, then revisit Gibran on authenticity, why we make art, and his gorgeous love letters to and from Mary Haskell, who was his primary financial and spiritual succor as he found his creative voice and without whom The Prophet would not have come alive.

BP

How John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s Pioneering Intimate Partnership of Equals Shaped the Building Blocks of Social Equality and Liberty for the Modern World

“Compromise is not a sign of the collapse of one’s moral conscience. It is a sign of its strength, for there is nothing more necessary to a moral conscience than the recognition that other people have one, too. A compromise is a knot tied tight between competing decencies.”

How John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s Pioneering Intimate Partnership of Equals Shaped the Building Blocks of Social Equality and Liberty for the Modern World

Half a century after the 18th-century political philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin pioneered the marriage of equals, and just as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller were contorting themselves around the parameters of true partnership, another historic power couple modeled for the world the pinnacle of an intimate union that is also an intellectual, creative, and moral partnership nourishing not only to the couple themselves but profoundly influential to their culture, their era, and the moral and political development of the world itself.

In 1851, after a twenty-one-year bond traversing friendship, collaboration, romance, and shared idealism, John Stuart Mill (May 20, 1806–May 8, 1873) and Harriet Taylor (October 8, 1807–November 3, 1858) were married. Mill would come to celebrate Taylor, like Emerson did Fuller, as the most intelligent person he ever knew and his greatest influence. In her titanic mind, he found both a mirror and a whetstone for his own. They co-authored the first serious philosophical and political case against domestic violence. Taylor’s ideas came to shape Mill’s advocacy of women’s rights and the ideological tenor of his landmark book-length essay On Liberty, composed with steady input from her, published shortly after her untimely death, and dedicated lovingly to “the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement.”

John Stuart Mill (National Portrait Gallery)

In his autobiography, Mill painted a stunning portrait of Taylor:

In general spiritual characteristics, as well as in temperament and organization, I have often compared her, as she was at this time, to Shelley: but in thought and intellect, Shelley, so far as his powers were developed in his short life, was but a child compared with what she ultimately became. Alike in the highest regions of speculation and in the smaller practical concerns of daily life, her mind was the same perfect instrument, piercing to the very heart and marrow of the matter; always seizing the essential idea or principle. The same exactness and rapidity of operation, pervading as it did her sensitive as her mental faculties, would, with her gifts of feeling and imagination, have fitted her to be a consummate artist, as her fiery and tender soul and her vigorous eloquence would certainly have made her a great orator, and her profound knowledge of human nature and discernment and sagacity in practical life, would, in times when such a career was open to women, have made her eminent among the rulers of mankind. Her intellectual gifts did but minister to a moral character at once the noblest and the best balanced which I have ever met with in life. Her unselfishness was not that of a taught system of duties, but of a heart which thoroughly identified itself with the feelings of others, and often went to excess in consideration for them by imaginatively investing their feelings with the intensity of its own.

Harriet Taylor (National Portrait Gallery)

In A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (public library) — an elegant, impassioned, and rigorously reasoned effort to re-humanize the most humanistic moral and political philosophy our civilization has produced — Adam Gopnik argues that Mill and Taylor pioneered something even greater than a true marriage of equals on the intimate plane of personal partnership: a vision for the building blocks of equality on the grandest human scale.

Gopnik — a Canadian by birth, a New Yorker (and longtime New Yorker staff writer) by belonging, and one of the most lyrical, lucid thinkers in language I have ever read — recounts trying, and failing, to comfort his intelligent, politically engaged, disconsolate teenage daughter in the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. For consolation and clarity, as much hers as his own, he turns to Taylor and Mill:

My idea of liberalism, while having much to do with individuals and their liberties, has even more to do with couples and communities. We can’t have an idea of individual liberty without an idea of shared values that include it.

A vision of liberalism that doesn’t concentrate too narrowly on individuals and their contracts but instead on loving relationships and living values can give us a better picture of liberal thought as it’s actually evolved than the orthodox picture can.

[…]

Images illuminate ideas, and pictures of people are usually clearer than statements of principle. When I think about the liberal tradition I wanted to show my daughter, my inner vision kept returning to a simple scene, one that had delighted me for a long time. It’s of the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill and his lover, collaborator, and (as he always insisted) his most important teacher, the writer Harriet Taylor. Desperately in love, they were courting clandestinely, and they would meet secretly at the rhino’s cage at the London Zoo. “Our old friend Rhino,” Taylor called him in a note. It was a place where they could safely meet and talk without fear of being seen by too many people, everyone’s attention being engaged by the enormous exotic animal.

They were pained, uncertain, contemplating adultery, if not yet having committed it — opinions vary; they had been to Paris together — and yet in those conversations began the material of “On Liberty,” one of the greatest books of political theory ever written, and “On the Subjection of Women,” one of the first great feminist manifestos and one of the most explosive books ever written. (One of the most successful, too, inasmuch as almost all of its dreams for female equality have been achieved, at least legally, in our lifetime.)

With an eye to the perilous erasures with which history is often rewritten — history, I continue to insist, is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance — Gopnik points to the curious disconnect between Mill’s own repeated affirmations of Taylor’s supreme influence on his ideas, and subsequent warpings and appropriations of their story:

After [Mill’s] life, generations of commentators — including Friedrich Hayek, who unfortunately edited their letters — aggressively Yoko-ed [Taylor], insisting that poor Mill, wildly intelligent in all but this, was so blinded and besotted by love that he vastly exaggerated the woman’s role, which obviously couldn’t have been as significant as his own. Fortunately, newer generations of scholars, less blinded by prejudice, have begun to “recover” Harriet Taylor for us, and her role in the making of modern liberalism seems just as large and her mind as fine as her husband always asserted that it was.

Gopnik reflects on the intellectual and ideological resonance at the heart of Mill and Taylor’s love, which in turn became the pulse-beat of our modern notions of political progress:

What they were was realists — radicals of the real, determined to live in the world even as they altered it. Not reluctant realists, but romantic realists. They were shocked and delighted at how quickly women and men began to meet and organize on the theme of women’s emancipation, but they accepted that progress would be slow and uncertain and sometimes backward facing. They did more than accept this necessity. They rejoiced in it because they understood that without a process of public argument and debate, of social action moved from below, the ground of women’s emancipation would never be fully owned by women nor accepted, even grudgingly, by men.

They had no illusions about their own perfection — they were imperfect, divided people and went on being so for the rest of their lives, with the rueful knowledge of human contradiction that good people always have.

In that singular Gopnik fashion, he then inverts the telescope, turning from the cultural perspective back to the intimate microscopy of this uncommon bond between two uncommon visionaries. Between their ideals and the their vulnerabilities, he locates one of the largest truths about love:

Theirs is one of the most lyrical love stories ever told, for being so tenderly irresolute. Recognizing that intimate life is an accommodation of contradictions, they understood that political and social life must be an accommodation of contradictions too. The accommodation was their romance. That meant that social accommodation could be romantic, too. Love, like liberty, tugs us in different directions as much as it leads us in one. Love, like liberty, asks us to be only ourselves, and it also asks us to find our self in others’ eyes. Compromise is not a sign of the collapse of one’s moral conscience. It is a sign of its strength, for there is nothing more necessary to a moral conscience than the recognition that other people have one, too. A compromise is a knot tied tight between competing decencies.

[…]

The great relationship of [Mill’s] life would be proof of his confidence that true liberty meant love — relationship and connection, not isolation and self-seeking. What we want liberty for is the power to connect with others as we choose. Liberalism is our common practice of connection turned into a principle of pluralism.

When Taylor died of a mysterious malady only seven years into their marriage, and nearly thirty years into their partnership, the devastated Mill erected a monument to her, made of the same Carrara marble as Michelangelo’s David and inscribed with these words:

HER GREAT AND LOVING HEART

HER NOBLE SOUL

HER CLEAR POWERFUL ORIGINAL AND COMPREHENSIVE INTELLECT

MADE HER THE GUIDE AND SUPPORT

THE INSTRUCTOR IN WISDOM

AND THE EXAMPLE IN GOODNESS

AS SHE WAS THE SOLE EARTHLY DELIGHT

OF THOSE WHO HAD THE HAPPINESS TO BELONG TO HER

AS EARNEST FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD

AS SHE WAS GENEROUS AND DEVOTED

TO ALL WHO SURROUNDED HER

HER INFLUENCE HAS BEEN FELT

IN MANY OF THE GREATEST

IMPROVEMENTS OF THE AGE

AND WILL BE IN THOSE STILL TO COME

WERE THERE BUT A FEW HEARTS AND INTELLECTS

LIKE HERS

THIS EARTH WOULD ALREADY BECOME

THE HOPED-FOR HEAVEN

Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities is a worthy read in its entirety, drawing on the personal to illuminate the political, clearing the clouded lens of the past to magnify the most pressing questions of the present in order to answer them with equal parts reasoned realism and largehearted idealism. Couple this particular fragment with Jill Lepore on how Eleanor Roosevelt revolutionized politics, then revisit Henry David Thoreau, writing in Taylor and Mill’s era, on the long cycles of social change and the importance of not mistaking politics for progress and Thomas Mann, writing in humanity’s darkest hour, on justice, human dignity, and the need to continually renew our ideals.

BP

The Lost Words: An Illustrated Dictionary of Poetic Spells Reclaiming the Language of Nature

From acorn to wren, a vibrant encyclopedia of enchantments reweaving our broken web of belonging with the rest of nature.

The Lost Words: An Illustrated Dictionary of Poetic Spells Reclaiming the Language of Nature

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf’s melodious voice unspools in the only surviving recording of her speech — a 1937 love letter to language. “In each word, all words,” the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot writes a generation later as he considers the dual power of language to conceal and to reveal. But because language is our primary sieve of perception, our mightiest means of describing what we apprehend and thus comprehending it, words also belong to that which they describe — or, rather, they are the conduit of belonging between us and the world we perceive. As the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer observed in her poetic meditation on moss, “finding the words is another step in learning to see.” Losing the words, then, is ceasing to see — a peculiar and pervasive form of blindness that dulls the shimmer of the world, a disability particularly dangerous to the young imagination just learning to apprehend the world through language.

In early 2015, when the 10,000-entry Oxford children’s dictionary dropped around fifty words related to nature — words like fern, willow, and starling — in favor of terms like broadband and cut and paste, some of the world’s most prominent authors composed an open letter of protest and alarm at this impoverishment of children’s vocabulary and its consequent diminishment of children’s belonging to and with the natural world. Among them was one of the great nature writers of our time: Robert MacFarlane — a rare descendent from the lyrical tradition of Rachel Carson and Henry Beston, and the visionary who rediscovered and brought to life the stunning forgotten writings of the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd.

Troubled by this loss of vital and vitalizing language, MacFarlane teamed up with illustrator and children’s book author Jackie Morris, who had reached out to him to write an introduction for a sort of “wild dictionary” she wanted to create as a counterpoint to Oxford’s erasure. Instead, MacFarlane envisioned something greater. The Lost Words: A Spell Book (public library) was born — an uncommonly wondrous and beguiling act of resistance to the severance of our relationship with the rest of nature, a rerooting into this living world in which, in the words of the great naturalist John Muir, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” just as each word is hitched to all words and to the entire web of being.

While children’s experience is at the heart of this quiet masterpiece, MacFarlane and Morris intended the large, lavishly illustrated book for “children aged 3 to 100” — a book “to conjure back the common words and species that are steadily disappearing from everyday life — and especially from children’s stories and dreams,” a book “to catch at the beauty and wonder — but also the eeriness and otherness — of the natural world.” What emerges is a lyrical encyclopedia of enchantments, radiating the sensibility of classical natural history illustration but illustrating a more natural future for the generations ahead.

Each word occupies three lavishly illustrated spreads: a poetic “summoning spell” in the form of an acrostic to conjure back the lost word in a rhythmic incantation composed to be read aloud, a wordless visual eulogy for its vanishment, and a typographic botany of letters spelling it “back into language, hearts, minds and landscape.”

Half a century after Rachel Carson painted in the opening of her epoch-making book Silent Spring a dystopian future bereft of birdsong, MacFarlane opens with an image of a world — this world — bereft of the words for birds (and plants, and other beings), and thus bereft of the regard for and concern with them:

Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed — fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker — gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren… all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.

You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words. To read it you will need to seek, find and speak. It deals in things that are missing and things that are hidden, in absences and in appearances. It is told in gold — the gold of the goldfinches that flit through its pages in charms — and it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.

Complement The Lost Words, the splendor and enchantment of which no digital screen can convey, with Susan Sontag on the conscience of words and Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, then revisit the lovely Lost in Translation — an illustrated dictionary of beautifully untranslatable words from around the world.

BP

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