“As the most famous woman journalist of her day, as an early woman industrialist, as a humanitarian… Bly kept the same formula for success: Determine Right. Decide Fast. Apply Energy. Act with Conviction. Fight to the Finish. Accept the Consequences. Move on.”
By Maria Popova
In 1885, at the age of only twenty, Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864–January 27, 1922) composed and published a searing letter of response to a man who, as the father of five girls, cynically questioned what girls are good for. At twenty-two, she risked her life in a groundbreaking exposé of abuses at insane asylums, which led to some of the first legal protections for the mentally ill. At twenty-five, she circumnavigated the globe faster than any human, outpacing Jules Verne’s fictional hero by eight days.
Picking up where the brilliant and tragically short-lived Margaret Fuller had left off nearly half a century earlier as the first female editor for a major New York newspaper, the only woman in the newsroom, and America’s first foreign war correspondent, Bly pioneered the progenitor of investigative journalism and became the first woman to report from the Eastern Front in WWI. In the factories she founded and operated in an era when factory workers — mostly uneducated young women — toiled in gruesome conditions for meager pay, she modeled social welfare by providing honorable wages and a humane environment for her workforce of 1,500. She invented, patented, produced, and taught Americans how to use the nation’s first successful steel barrel. She was, long before most of these terms took root in the modern lexicon, an entrepreneur, feminist, investigative journalist, activist, and philanthropist of unparalleled drive, discipline, and devotion.
Kroeger — who was moved by a biographical sketch of Bly she read when she was ten, then decided to write the first thorough, accurate biography of this inspiring but underappreciated role model when her own daughter turned ten — captures the animating force of Bly’s uncommon character:
Bly’s life… spanned Reconstruction, the Victorian and Progressive eras, the Great War and its aftermath. She grew up without privilege or higher education, knowing that her greatest asset was the force of her own will. Bly executed the extraordinary as a matter of routine… As the most famous woman journalist of her day, as an early woman industrialist, as a humanitarian, even as a beleaguered litigant, Bly kept the same formula for success: Determine Right. Decide Fast. Apply Energy. Act with Conviction. Fight to the Finish. Accept the Consequences. Move on.
A century after Blake, the artist, writer, and activist Arthur Henry “Art” Young (January 14, 1866–December 29, 1943) originated a sumptuous new way of seeing life, looking at trees.
In his forties, Young had risen to prominence with his political cartoons, criticizing capitalism and war, railing against racism, and advocating for women’s suffrage and the abolition of child labor. During World War I, they had rendered him prosecuted on a charge of conspiracy to obstruct recruiting. With some of Thoreau coursing through his veins, Young made his art both an instrument of civil disobedience and a lens for contemplating nature’s transcendent beauty.
In his fifties, Young’s imagination fell upon a subject both wholly natural and wholly original — the expressive humanlike shapes, states, and emotions emanating from the silhouettes of trees at night. He began rendering what he half-saw and half-imagined in pen and ink — haunting black-and-white drawings full of feeling, straddling the playful and the poignant. These visual poems, replete with the strangeness and splendor of nature and human nature, become the kind of Rorschach test one intuitively performs while looking at the sky, but drawn from the canopy rather than the clouds. While the sensibility is faintly reminiscent of Arthur Rackham’s unforgettable trees, the concept is entirely Young’s own — no artist had done anything like this before.
First published as a series in the Saturday Evening Post, Young’s tree silhouettes were soon picked up by mainstream magazines like Collier’s and LIFE. They drew impassioned letters from readers — some sharing poems inspired by his art, some enclosing tree photographs they hoped Young would draw, some simply thanking him for these uncommon portals into an unseen world of beauty and emotion.
In 1927, Young assembled the best of his arborescent silhouettes in the slim, lovely out-of-print treasure Trees at Night (public library). Upon the book’s publication, Brooklyn’s Daily Eagle exulted that it “places Art Young in a class by himself” and Baltimore’s Evening Sun lauded him as “one of the few real native talents that this country has produced in art.”
Printed on the opening page is an excerpt from an early-autumn entry in Young’s diary:
In common with most people of artistic perception, I like trees. While looking out of my window toward the wooded hills one summer night, a caravan of camels seemed to be humping along the sky. They were trees of course but enough like camels to key my imagination up to discover other pictures in the formation of foliage. The rest of the summer nights I enjoyed hunting for tree pictures against the light of the sky or thrown into relief by the glare of automobiles, and drawing them next day. It seemed to me that this silhouette handling of trees at night had never before been done by any artist. I felt that I had discovered something.
After the caravan, I saw “a woman and a fan” and other subjects followed. Any night I could walk or ride along the road and see interesting silhouettes made by tree forms, many of them so clearly defined as to need no improvement on my part. But aside from the appearance of a tree by day or night, is it not kin of the human family with its roots in the earth and its arms stretching toward the sky as if to seek and to know the great mystery?
“It may be that the most defining characteristic of our times is that, again, walls and weapons feature as prominently now as they once did in medieval times.”
By Maria Popova
What does home mean and where do we anchor our belonging in a world of violent alienation and alienating violence? I use “alien” here both in the proper etymological sense rooted in the Latin alienus, “belonging to another,” and in the astrophysical sense of “from another planet,” “not human,” for the combined effect of a dehumanizing assault on belonging for those treated and mistreated as alien to a country or a community.
In a timely piece titled “The Foreigner’s Home,” originally delivered as a lecture at the University of Toronto in 2002, Morrison reflects on the notion of foreignness and the traversing of borders in light of our own disquieting feelings of otherness, whatever our national origin and citizenship, and the tremors of our crumbling belonging in an increasingly chaotic world:
Excluding the height of the slave trade in the nineteenth century, the mass movement of peoples in the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first is greater now than it has ever been. It is a movement of workers, intellectuals, refugees, armies crossing oceans, continents, immigrants through custom offices and hidden routes, speaking multiple languages of trade, of political intervention, of persecution, exile, violence, and poverty.
The spectacle of mass movement draws attention inevitably to the borders, the porous places, the vulnerable points where one’s concept of home is seen as being menaced by foreigners. Much of the alarm hovering at the borders, the gates, is stoked, it seems to me, by (1) both the threat and the promise of globalism and (2) an uneasy relationship with our own foreignness, our own rapidly disintegrating sense of belonging.
With an eye to the central questions of belonging — how we decide where and whether we belong, what convinces us that we do, what constitutes foreignness and why it is so perturbing — she writes:
[There is an] inside/outside blur that can enshrine frontiers, and borders real, metaphorical, and psychological, as we wrestle with definitions of nationalism, citizenship, race, ideology, and the so-called clash of cultures in our search to belong.
African and African American writers are not alone in coming to terms with these problems, but they do have a long and singular history of confronting them. Of not being at home in one’s homeland; of being exiled in the place one belongs.
Morrison takes up the crux of this search for belonging — the meaning of home — in another piece, titled “Home” and originally delivered as a convocation address at Oberlin College in 2009:
What do we mean when we say “home”?
It is a virtual question because the destiny of the twenty-first century will be shaped by the possibility or the collapse of a shareable world. The question of cultural apartheid and/or cultural integration is at the heart of all governments and informs our perception of the ways in which governance and culture compel the exoduses of peoples (voluntarily or driven) and raises complex questions of dispossession, recovery, and the reinforcement of siege mentalities. How do individuals resist or become complicit in the process of alienizing others’ demonization — a process that can infect the foreigner’s geographical sanctuary with the country’s xenophobia? By welcoming immigrants, or importing slaves into their midst for economic reasons and relegating their children to a modern version of the “undead.” Or by reducing an entire native population, some with a history hundreds, even thousands of years long, into despised foreigners in their own country. Or by the privileged indifference of a government watching an almost biblical flood destroy a city because its citizens were surplus black or poor people without transportation, water, food, help and left to their own devices to swim, slog, or die in fetid water, attics, hospitals, jails, boulevards, and holding pens. Such are the consequences of persistent demonization; such is the harvest of shame.
Noting that the violent handling of populations at and across borders is not new, Morrison considers what history so clearly teaches us about the consequence, if only we have the conscience and courage not to turn a blind eye to it:
Forced or eager exodus into strange territory (psychological or geographical) is indelible in the history of every quadrant of the known world, from the trek of Africans into China and Australia; to military interventions by Romans, Ottomans, Europeans; to merchant forays fulfilling the desires of a plethora of regimes, monarchies, and republics. From Venice to Virginia, from Liverpool to Hong Kong. All these and more have transferred the riches and art they found into other realms. And all these left that foreign soil stained with their blood and/or transplanted into the veins of the conquered. While in their wake the languages of conquered and conqueror swell with condemnation of the other.
This slide of people has freighted the concept of citizenship and altered our perceptions of space — public and private. The strain has been marked by a plethora of hyphenated designations of national identity. In press descriptions, place of origin has become more telling than citizenship, and persons are identified as “a German citizen of such and such origin” or “a British citizen of such and such origin.” All this while a new cosmopolitanism, a kind of multilayered cultural citizenship, is simultaneously being hailed. The relocation of peoples has ignited and disrupted the idea of home and expanded the focus of identity beyond definitions of citizenship to clarifications of foreignness. Who is the foreigner? is a question that leads us to the perception of an implicit and heightened threat within “difference.” We see it in the defense of the local against the outsider; personal discomfort with one’s own sense of belonging (Am I the foreigner in my own home?); of unwanted intimacy instead of safe distance.
In a sentiment of chilling of prescience, offered a decade before her own homeland barbed its borders with unprecedented violence, racism, and inhumanity, Morrison adds a sobering admonition:
It may be that the most defining characteristic of our times is that, again, walls and weapons feature as prominently now as they once did in medieval times. Porous borders are understood in some quarters to be areas of threat and certain chaos, and whether real or imagined, enforced separation is posited as the solution. Walls, ammunition — they do work. For a while. But they are major failures over time, as the occupants of casual, unmarked, and mass grave sites haunt the entire history of civilization.
“My poems: a handful of dust trying to get back to supernova. Like every longing, everything alive.”
By Maria Popova
“It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,” the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson wrote in her spare, lovely poem celebrating the genius of Einstein’s theory of relativity — genius at the heart of which was his bold and, at the time, countercultural decision to fix the speed of light as an immutable constant around which all the other variables converged to construct his groundbreaking model of spacetime, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe.
The speed of light and the vibrating mesh of our understanding and misunderstanding of the nature of reality come alive with uncommon originality of thought and feeling in the title poem from Marilyn Nelson’s 2012 poetry collection Faster Than Light (public library), which she read at the third annual Universe in Verse. It is a long poem, a beautiful and poignant poem, a soaring, meandering meditation on the nature of reality, the purpose of our existence, the way in which our impermanence both frustrates and fuels our creative drive. Enjoy:
My poems: a handful of dust
trying to get back to supernova.
Like every longing, everything alive.
How lovely, too, that Nelson’s altogether magnificent Faster Than Light opens with the perfect tryptic of epigraphs, straddling two and a half millennia of culture at the boundaries of science, philosophy, art, and activism: