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John Steinbeck on Racism and Bigotry

“I am sad for a time when one must know a man’s race before his work can be approved or disapproved.”

In September of 1936, young John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) witnessed murderous riots in the streets of his Californian hometown — the result of a violent clash between the local lettuce growers and the migrant farm workers who had finally revolted against the inhumane conditions they had long endured. (Decades later, one such laborer would detail these horrific conditions in his conversation with Studs Terkel.) Animated by irrepressible compassion, Steinbeck set out to tell the migrants’ story and spent two years working on a manuscript titled L’Affaire Lettuceberg. But he held himself to so high a standard that he ultimately decided he had failed to live up to his humanistic duty and destroyed the manuscript — one of the most courageous acts for a creative person to perform.

He then started from scratch and embarked upon the most intense writing experience of his life thus far — a quest to give voice to these oppressed laborers, to celebrate the basic goodness and humanity of the so-called common people amid a culture than had tried over and over to dehumanize them. The result was his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (public library), published on April 14 of 1939, in which Steinbeck wrote:

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success … in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

First-edition cover for The Grapes of Wrath, published on April 14, 1939

Both populist and insurrectionist, both protest song and gospel, the book was instantly beloved by those who stood for equality and human rights, and instantly reviled by the Donald Trumps of the day, who saw it as a threat to the power structures that buoyed them.

Steinbeck received a letter from a Reverend L. M. Birkhead, National Director of an organization called “Friends of Democracy,” claiming to combat Antisemitic, pro-Nazi propaganda. But Birkhead’s missive had a troubling undercurrent of bigotry. He asserted that The Grapes of Wrath had been called “Jewish propaganda” and implied that the only way to dispel such accusations would be for Steinbeck to prove that he is not Jewish — an accusation analogous to the conspiracy theories which “birthers” directed at President Barack Obama nearly a century later, stemming from the same soul-malady of which all bigotry is a symptom.

Steinbeck’s response to the Reverend, found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library), is a masterwork of moral wisdom and a sublime stance against bigotry, just as timely and perhaps — such is the tragedy of our time — even timelier today.

Steinbeck writes:

Dear Mr. Birkhead:

I am answering your letter with a good deal of sadness. I am sad for a time when one must know a man’s race before his work can be approved or disapproved. It does not seem important to me whether I am Jewish or not, and I know that a statement of mine is useless if an interested critic wishes to ride a preconceived thesis… It happens that I am not Jewish and have no Jewish blood but it only happens that way. I find that I do not experience any pride that it is so.

If you wish — here is my racial map although you know what an intelligent anthropologist thinks of racial theories. As you will see, I am the typical American Airedale.

After outlining his genealogy, not without sarcastic jabs at the very notion that it is of any significance at all, Steinbeck adds:

Anyway there it is. Use it or don’t use it, print it or not. Those who wish for one reason or another to believe me Jewish will go on believing it while men of good will and good intelligence won’t care one way or another. I can prove these things of course — but when I shall have to — the American democracy will have disappeared.

The Grapes of Wrath was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the following year and became a cornerstone of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize two decades later. It endures as a one of the most significant works of social justice ever written.

Complement the thoroughly fantastic Steinbeck: A Life in Letters — the source of his timeless wisdom on falling in love and the art of the friend breakup — with the story of how the beloved writer used the diary as a tool of discipline and an antidote to self-doubt as he was writing The Grapes of Wrath.

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James Baldwin on the Artist’s Struggle for Integrity and How It Illuminates the Universal Experience of What It Means to Be Human

“Only an artist can tell … what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it. What it is like to die, or to have somebody die; what it is like to be glad.”

James Baldwin on the Artist’s Struggle for Integrity and How It Illuminates the Universal Experience of What It Means to Be Human

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” e.e. cummings wrote in his wonderful forgotten meditation on what he called “the agony of the Artist (with capital A).” No artist — whatever the case — has captured both the agony and the rewards of that unlearning more beautifully than James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987).

In the fall of 1962, shortly after he penned his timelessly terrific essay on the creative process, Baldwin gave a talk at New York City’s Community Church, which was broadcast on WBAI on November 29 under the title “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” — one of the most insightful and rousing reflections on the creative life I’ve ever encountered, later included in the altogether magnificent Baldwin anthology The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (public library).

jamesbaldwin

Baldwin begins by reclaiming words which are absolutely essential to our spiritual and creative survival but which have been emptied of meaning by overuse, misuse, and abuse:

I really don’t like words like “artist” or “integrity” or “courage” or “nobility.” I have a kind of distrust of all those words because I don’t really know what they mean, any more than I really know what such words as “democracy” or “peace” or “peace-loving” or “warlike” or “integration” mean. And yet one is compelled to recognize that all these imprecise words are attempts made by us all to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words. Whether I like it or not, for example, and no matter what I call myself, I suppose the only word for me, when the chips are down, is that I am an artist. There is such a thing. There is such a thing as integrity. Some people are noble. There is such a thing as courage. The terrible thing is that the reality behind these words depends ultimately on what the human being (meaning every single one of us) believes to be real. The terrible thing is that the reality behind all these words depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.

Baldwin’s most electrifying point is that the integrity of the artist is an analogue for the integrity of being human — the choice of the artist is a choice we each must make, in one form or another, by virtue of being alive:

I am not interested really in talking to you as an artist. It seems to me that the artist’s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this globe to get to become human beings. It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write. And I never would come before you in the position of a complainant for doing something that I must do… The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.

[…]

[This is] a time … when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make. Conrad told us a long time ago…: “Woe to that man who does not put his trust in life.” Henry James said, “Live, live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” And Shakespeare said — and this is what I take to be the truth about everybody’s life all of the time — “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion. In this sense, all artists are divorced from and even necessarily opposed to any system whatever.

In a sentiment the poet Mark Strand would come to echo in his beautiful assertion that the artist’s task is to bear witness to our experience, which is “part of the broader responsibility we all have for keeping the universe ordered through our consciousness,” Baldwin considers the singular responsibility and burden of the artist:

The crime of which you discover slowly you are guilty is not so much that you are aware, which is bad enough, but that other people see that you are and cannot bear to watch it, because it testifies to the fact that they are not. You’re bearing witness helplessly to something which everybody knows and nobody wants to face.

Just as his contemporary and intellectual peer Hannah Arendt was exploring the privilege of being a pariah, Baldwin considers the essential survival mechanism by which the artist bears his or her burden of bearing witness to the unnameable:

Well, one survives that, no matter how… You survive this and in some terrible way, which I suppose no one can ever describe, you are compelled, you are corralled, you are bullwhipped into dealing with whatever it is that hurt you. And what is crucial here is that if it hurt you, that is not what’s important. Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive. This is all you have to do it with. You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less. Then, you make — oh, fifteen years later, several thousand drinks later, two or three divorces, God knows how many broken friendships and an exile of one kind or another — some kind of breakthrough, which is your first articulation of who you are: that is to say, your first articulation of who you suspect we all are.

With this, Baldwin turns to what art does for the human spirit — although, to borrow that wonderful phrase from Saul Bellow’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “there is no simple choice between the children of light and the children of darkness,” Baldwin argues that art’s ultimate purpose is to be an equalizer for our suffering:

When I was very young (and I am sure this is true of everybody here), I assumed that no one had ever been born who was only five feet six inches tall, or been born poor, or been born ugly, or masturbated, or done all those things which were my private property when I was fifteen. No one had ever suffered the way I suffered. Then you discover, and I discovered this through Dostoevsky, that it is common. Everybody did it. Not only did everybody do it, everybody’s doing it. And all the time. It’s a fantastic and terrifying liberation. The reason it is terrifying is because it makes you once and for all responsible to no one but yourself. Not to God the Father, not to Satan, not to anybody. Just you. If you think it’s right, then you’ve got to do it. If you think it’s wrong, then you mustn’t do it. And not only do we all know how difficult it is, given what we are, to tell the difference between right and wrong, but the whole nature of life is so terrible that somebody’s right is always somebody else’s wrong. And these are the terrible choices one has always got to make.

And yet alongside the terrible is also the terrific, if sometimes terrifying, beauty of being an artist. Echoing William Faulkner’s assertion that the artist’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart,” Baldwin writes:

Most people live in almost total darkness… people, millions of people whom you will never see, who don’t know you, never will know you, people who may try to kill you in the morning, live in a darkness which — if you have that funny terrible thing which every artist can recognize and no artist can define — you are responsible to those people to lighten, and it does not matter what happens to you. You are being used in the way a crab is useful, the way sand certainly has some function. It is impersonal. This force which you didn’t ask for, and this destiny which you must accept, is also your responsibility. And if you survive it, if you don’t cheat, if you don’t lie, it is not only, you know, your glory, your achievement, it is almost our only hope — because only an artist can tell, and only artists have told since we have heard of man, what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it. What it is like to die, or to have somebody die; what it is like to be glad. Hymns don’t do this, churches really cannot do it. The trouble is that although the artist can do it, the price that he has to pay himself and that you, the audience, must also pay, is a willingness to give up everything, to realize that although you spent twenty-seven years acquiring this house, this furniture, this position, although you spent forty years raising this child, these children, nothing, none of it belongs to you. You can only have it by letting it go. You can only take if you are prepared to give, and giving is not an investment. It is not a day at the bargain counter. It is a total risk of everything, of you and who you think you are, who you think you’d like to be, where you think you’d like to go — everything, and this forever, forever.

Thanks to the Pacifica Radio Archives, this wonderful archival recording of Baldwin’s speech survives:

Complement The Cross of Redemption, a trove of the beloved writer’s genius from cover to cover, with Baldwin on the revelation that taught him to see, his forgotten conversations with Margaret Mead about identity, race, power, and forgiveness and with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, and his advice to aspiring writers, then revisit Georgia O’Keeffe on what it means to be an artist.

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Feathers: A Stunning Photographic Love Letter to Evolution’s Masterpiece and Its Astonishing Array of Beauty

Art meets science in a poetic celebration of Earth’s astonishing diversity.

Feathers: A Stunning Photographic Love Letter to Evolution’s Masterpiece and Its Astonishing Array of Beauty

“Hope is a thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote, unwitting of how wonderfully this artistic truth conveys a fact of science. More than material for metaphor, feathers are one of evolution’s most hopeful creations — a remarkable multipurpose design, which powers everything from warmth to mating to flight and endures as one of very few tangible links our everyday world has to the dinosaurs that walked it millions of years ago.

While working on a National Geographic story about Darwin, award-winning photographer Robert Clark became enchanted with the role of birds and their feathers in the pioneering scientist’s theory of evolution — from the diversity of finch beaks in the Galapagos, which first gave Darwin the idea that spatial isolation and adaptive change over time could give rise to a new species, to the pigeons he began breeding upon returning to Britain in an experiment to accelerate the process of evolution.

Clark, whose childhood love of birds never left him, grew newly bewitched by a scientific curiosity about the feather, that exquisite masterpiece of nature, and its 200-million-year evolutionary history. To exorcise this obsession, he set out to photograph an astonishing array of feathers, from a 125-year-old Chinese fossil predating the death of the dinosaurs to the understated feathery ferocity of the owl to the stunning plumage of the bird-of-paradise. The result is Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage (public library) — an intensely beautiful visual taxonomy and a photographic love letter to this poetic feat of evolution. Each of Clark’s striking photographs, an intersection of art and science, is accompanied by short text illuminating the role of feathers in the life of that bird species, from hunting and camouflage to flight to mating.

King Bird-of-Paradise (Papua New Guinea)Cicinnurus regiusThe King Bird-of-paradise is a bright red bird with oddly shaped wings. The pair of tail wires shown in this photograph serves non-mechanical purposes; like other Birds-of-paradise, the King uses its bizarre feathers in a complex mating ritual.
King Bird-of-Paradise (Papua New Guinea)
Cicinnurus regius
The King Bird-of-paradise is a bright red bird with oddly shaped wings. The pair of tail wires shown in this photograph serves non-mechanical purposes; like other Birds-of-paradise, the King uses its bizarre feathers in a complex mating ritual.
Golden Pheasant (China)Chrysolophus pictusThe male Golden Pheasant—also known as the Chinese Pheasant—is an extravagant creature. Featuring reds and yellows, every section of their plumage is a vibrant color. But despite the male bird’s showy appearance, it is not as visible as one might assume in its dark, coniferous-forested habitat in Central China. The layered distribution of the bird’s feathers obscures the less colorful bases of the crest feathers. A detailed view of the Golden Pheasant’s crest feathers overlaid over one another. Crest feathers such as these are ornamental. But though they serve no flight function, these feathers are crucial to attracting a mate. Males with vibrant colorations and well-preened feathers are the most attractive suitors. The layered distribution of the bird’s feathers obscures the less colorful bases of the crest feathers.
Golden Pheasant (China)
Chrysolophus pictus
The male Golden Pheasant—also known as the Chinese Pheasant—is an extravagant creature. Featuring reds and yellows, every section of their plumage is a vibrant color. But despite the male bird’s showy appearance, it is not as visible as one might assume in its dark, coniferous-forested habitat in Central China. The layered distribution of the bird’s feathers obscures the less colorful bases of the crest feathers. A detailed view of the Golden Pheasant’s crest feathers overlaid over one another. Crest feathers such as these are ornamental. But though they serve no flight function, these feathers are crucial to attracting a mate. Males with vibrant colorations and well-preened feathers are the most attractive suitors. The layered distribution of the bird’s feathers obscures the less colorful bases of the crest feathers.
Victoria Crown Pigeon (New Guinea)Guora victoriaA member of a small genus of ground-dwelling pigeons from the Columbidae family, Victoria Crown Pigeons are known for their loud hooting call, sometimes accompanied by a clapping sound as their oddly shaped wings bat the air. Weighing in at more than seven pounds, they are considered the largest members of the Pigeon family.
Victoria Crown Pigeon (New Guinea)
Guora victoria
A member of a small genus of ground-dwelling pigeons from the Columbidae family, Victoria Crown Pigeons are known for their loud hooting call, sometimes accompanied by a clapping sound as their oddly shaped wings bat the air. Weighing in at more than seven pounds, they are considered the largest members of the Pigeon family.

What emerges is a glorious celebration of the diversity of this planet we call home and a gentle, poetic antidote to our arrogant sense of specialness and supremacy — there are, after all, creatures whose beauty stuns us into humility, into realizing that entire dimensions of wondrousness and whimsy exist on which we can’t even begin to compete. Even the way we name these creatures — lest we forget, naming can confer dignity or take it away — says more about our human hubris than about nature’s humbling magnificence: the species we’ve named with words like common are no less beguiling than those whose names contain words like superb.

Common Flicker (North America)Colaptes auratusWhile most Woodpecker species are tree-bound, the Common Flicker has a tendency to forage near the forest floor. Here is shown a secondary feather with prominent notching on the tip. During flight, air is forced through the gap created by all the notched feathers in alignment, increasing the overall lift.
Common Flicker (North America)
Colaptes auratus
While most Woodpecker species are tree-bound, the Common Flicker has a tendency to forage near the forest floor. Here is shown a secondary feather with prominent notching on the tip. During flight, air is forced through the gap created by all the notched feathers in alignment, increasing the overall lift.
Superb Lyrebird (Eastern Australia)Menura novaehollandiaeFound in the forests of Australia, this species is known for the male’s ability to mimic sounds from their environment, ranging from complex birdsong to the sound of a chainsaw being used in the woods. The male Lyrebird’s feathers, which resemble a lyre when fanned out, are crucial to their courtship.  The mating rituals of a Lyrebird are just as complex as their birdsong. The male birds build a mound of topsoil on which they sing and fan out their feathers in a grand dance to attract a mate. This photo shows a detail of the Lyrebird’s ornamental tail feathers. The tail feather is purely ornamental and not a flight feather.
Superb Lyrebird (Eastern Australia)
Menura novaehollandiae
Found in the forests of Australia, this species is known for the male’s ability to mimic sounds from their environment, ranging from complex birdsong to the sound of a chainsaw being used in the woods. The male Lyrebird’s feathers, which resemble a lyre when fanned out, are crucial to their courtship. The mating rituals of a Lyrebird are just as complex as their birdsong. The male birds build a mound of topsoil on which they sing and fan out their feathers in a grand dance to attract a mate. This photo shows a detail of the Lyrebird’s ornamental tail feathers. The tail feather is purely ornamental and not a flight feather.

Science writer Carl Zimmer, who has previously celebrated feathers as a miraculous “accident of physics,” marvels in the preface:

A bird can use some of its feathers to fly, others to stay warm, and still others to attract a mate. And among the ten thousand species of living birds, evolution has produced a staggering variety of feathers for each of those functions. Penguins, for example, produce tiny, nub-like feathers on their wings that keep them warm in the Antarctic Ocean while also allowing them to, in effect, fly through water. Owls, on the other hand, grow feathers on their wings that muffle the sound of their flight as they swoop in on their victims. The tail feathers of a Lyrebird grow to elegant twisted heights to attract a mate. The Club-winged Manakin has feathers that produce violin-like notes when flapped. The female Club-winged Manakin doesn’t choose a mate based on how his feathers look so much as how they sound.

Bohemian Waxwing (United States–Canada Border) Bombycilla garrulus This exploded view shows all the feathers of the Bohemian Waxwing. With more than 3 million birds, this member of the Passeriformes order makes up one of the largest populations of passerine birds ranging throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The Waxwing is best known for getting drunk—they often eat the fermented rowan berries. Though their bodies are usually able to metabolize the alcohol, occasionally they do get fatally intoxicated.
Bohemian Waxwing (United States–Canada Border)
Bombycilla garrulus
This exploded view shows all the feathers of the Bohemian Waxwing. With more than 3 million birds, this member of the Passeriformes order makes up one of the largest populations of passerine birds ranging throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The Waxwing is best known for getting drunk—they often eat the fermented rowan berries. Though their bodies are usually able to metabolize the alcohol, occasionally they do get fatally intoxicated.
Golden-Breasted Starling (East Africa, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Northern Tanzania)Lamprotornis regiusAlso known as the Royal Starling, Golden-breasted Starlings are social animals that exhibit a behavior known as “cooperative feeding” wherein the larger social group of Starlings collectively nest and feed their young. Male and female birds share the same coloration, and the Starling’s feathers grow more vibrant as the bird ages. The edges of the feather shown here appear iridescent, much like the feathers of a Peacock. Iridescent color is an indication of the feathers’ structural color, which interferes with natural light.
Golden-Breasted Starling (East Africa, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Northern Tanzania)
Lamprotornis regius
Also known as the Royal Starling, Golden-breasted Starlings are social animals that exhibit a behavior known as “cooperative feeding” wherein the larger social group of Starlings collectively nest and feed their young. Male and female birds share the same coloration, and the Starling’s feathers grow more vibrant as the bird ages. The edges of the feather shown here appear iridescent, much like the feathers of a Peacock. Iridescent color is an indication of the feathers’ structural color, which interferes with natural light.
Scarlet Macaw (South America)Ara macaoThe coloration of this Macaw allows it to live in and blend into diverse habitats. While the bird has been subject to habitat loss, so far the species has proved to be widespread and adaptable enough to avoid major threats to population levels.
Scarlet Macaw (South America)
Ara macao
The coloration of this Macaw allows it to live in and blend into diverse habitats. While the bird has been subject to habitat loss, so far the species has proved to be widespread and adaptable enough to avoid major threats to population levels.
Silver Pheasant (Southeast Asia, Mainland China)Lophura nycthemeraJuvenile Silver Pheasants possess brown spots throughout their body. As the male birds age they develop a pure white morph, while the females remain brown. Originally found in Southeast Asia, the Silver Pheasant has gained popularity as a pet because of its calm temperament and nondestructive behavior in gardens.
Silver Pheasant (Southeast Asia, Mainland China)
Lophura nycthemera
Juvenile Silver Pheasants possess brown spots throughout their body. As the male birds age they develop a pure white morph, while the females remain brown. Originally found in Southeast Asia, the Silver Pheasant has gained popularity as a pet because of its calm temperament and nondestructive behavior in gardens.
European Green Woodpecker (Eastern Europe and Westernmost Asia)Picus viridisThough officially a member of the Woodpecker family, this bird doesn’t spend much of its time drumming holes in wood. Rather than finding its food in trees, the bird forages for ants on the ground. Both sexes are greenish yellow with a bright yellow rump and red crown. The secondary feather seen here can barely be seen until the bird opens its wings.
European Green Woodpecker (Eastern Europe and Westernmost Asia)
Picus viridis
Though officially a member of the Woodpecker family, this bird doesn’t spend much of its time drumming holes in wood. Rather than finding its food in trees, the bird forages for ants on the ground. Both sexes are greenish yellow with a bright yellow rump and red crown. The secondary feather seen here can barely be seen until the bird opens its wings.
Indian Peafowl (Native to South Asia, but introduced throughout the world)Pavo cristatusThe male birds—more commonly known as Peacocks—may well be one of the world’s most recognizable birds. Their extravagant tail feathers, made up of elongated upper tail coverts, are some three times longer than the length of the bird itself. Their iridescent plumage is an example of structural color—the feathers are actually brown, but their structure interferes with light, making them appear blue, green, and turquoise.
Indian Peafowl (Native to South Asia, but introduced throughout the world)
Pavo cristatus
The male birds—more commonly known as Peacocks—may well be one of the world’s most recognizable birds. Their extravagant tail feathers, made up of elongated upper tail coverts, are some three times longer than the length of the bird itself. Their iridescent plumage is an example of structural color—the feathers are actually brown, but their structure interferes with light, making them appear blue, green, and turquoise.
Red Bird-of-Paradise (Papua New Guinea)Paradisea rubraThe Red Bird-of-paradise is one of the seven hundred vibrant bird species found on Papua New Guinea. Because New Guinea is an island with few predatory species, local bird species have flourished in the face of little competition.
Red Bird-of-Paradise (Papua New Guinea)
Paradisea rubra
The Red Bird-of-paradise is one of the seven hundred vibrant bird species found on Papua New Guinea. Because New Guinea is an island with few predatory species, local bird species have flourished in the face of little competition.

Complement Feathers with Cedric Pollet’s photographic love letter to tree bark, another breathtaking intersection of art and science, and these gorgeous 19th-century illustrations of birds of prey.

All photographs and caption text © Robert Clark courtesy of Chronicle Books

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