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Ursula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves

“Literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we’re visiting, life.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves

“The imagination,” wrote the trailblazing philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft in a 1794 letter, “is the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture, rendering men social by expanding their hearts, instead of leaving them leisure to calculate how many comforts society affords.” And yet somehow, in the centuries since, we have increasingly lost sight of the imagination’s rapturous rewards and come to see it as a commodity of what we now call “the creative industry” — something calculable and efficient, useful in maximizing society’s comforts and business’s profits. Much as today’s archetypal Silicon Valley characters are pragmatizing Eastern philosophy and ancient meditation practices as tools for “optimizing” their “performance,” the imagination — that pinnacle of our cognitive evolution and seedbed of our core humanity — is being co-opted for purposes that have little to do with animating our sympathies and expanding our hearts.

More than two centuries after Wollstonecraft, Ursula K. Le Guin, another woman of extraordinary intellect and imaginative prowess, sets out to redeem the imagination from the grip of consumerist commodification in a magnificent 2002 lecture titled “Operating Instructions,” later included in Le Guin’s altogether fantastic nonfiction collection Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Le Guin writes:

In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions. I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.

I hear voices agreeing with me. “Yes, yes!” they cry. “The creative imagination is a tremendous plus in business! We value creativity, we reward it!” In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. This reduction has gone on so long that the word creative can hardly be degraded further. I don’t use it any more, yielding it to capitalists and academics to abuse as they like. But they can’t have imagination.

Imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit-making. It is not a weapon, though all weapons originate from it, and their use, or non-use, depends on it, as with all tools and their uses. The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human.

Le Guin observes that like any tool, the imagination requires that we first learn how to use it — or, rather, that we unlearn how to squander it. Storytelling, she argues, is the sandbox in which we learn to use the imagination:

Children have imagination to start with, as they have body, intellect, the capacity for language: things essential to their humanity, things they need to learn how to use, how to use well. Such teaching, training, and practice should begin in infancy and go on throughout life. Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.

When children are taught to hear and learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.

Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts. We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón

Virginia Woolf considered memory the seamstress that threads our lives together, but it is story — our inner storytelling — that orders memory into a coherent thread; it is story that, as Susan Sontag memorably observed, can “reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.” Our life-paths are paved with story — stretching back, the stories we tell ourselves about what happened to us, why it did, and how it made us who we are; stretching forward, the stories we tell ourselves about what is possible, what we want to achieve, and who we want to become.

In consonance with Rebecca West’s assertion that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity… a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Le Guin considers this essential function of story in sculpting our ability to be at home in the world and its formative role in our becoming:

Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people.


A child who doesn’t know where the center is — where home is, what home is — that child is in a very bad way.

Home isn’t Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary.

Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it—whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova for ‘The Jacket’ by Kirsten Hall. Click image for more.

But that self-invention, Le Guin cautions, is not a solitary act — it takes place at the communal campfire where our essential stories of being are co-created and told. Building on the ideas in her exquisite earlier meditation on telling and listening, she writes:

Human beings have always joined in groups to imagine how best to live and help one another carry out the plan. The essential function of human community is to arrive at some agreement on what we need, what life ought to be, what we want our children to learn, and then to collaborate in learning and teaching so that we and they can go on the way we think is the right way.


Nobody can do anything very much, really, alone.

What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow some freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.

Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.

Reading is a means of listening.

Seven decades after Hermann Hesse made his beautiful case for why we read and always will, however technology may evolve, Le Guin adds:

The technology is not what matters. Words are what matter. The sharing of words. The activation of imagination through the reading of words.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we’re visiting, life.

Words Are My Matter is a tremendous read in its totality, exploring questions of art, storytelling, gender, freedom, dignity, and what happens when we go to sleep. Complement this particular portion with William Blake’s searing defense of the imagination and Ada Lovelace on its two core faculties, then revisit Le Guin on being a “man,” the sacredness of public libraries, imaginative storytelling as a force of freedom, what beauty really means, where good ideas come from, and writing as falling in love.


The Dinner Party: Artist Judy Chicago’s Iconic Antidote to the Erasure of Women in the History of Creative Culture

From Hypatia to Susan B. Anthony to Virginia Woolf, a sacrament and an insurrection restoring women’s place in history.

“I spent the morning in needle-work,” pioneering astronomer Caroline Herschel wrote in her journal on an unexceptional July morning in 1786. To persuade her conservative mother to let her leave home and join her brother in his astronomical endeavors, Herschel knitted a year’s worth of stockings for the family. But even as this tiny five-foot woman was gazing at the cosmos by night through her twenty-foot Newtonian telescope, making comet discoveries that paved the way for women in science, by day she remained consistently engaged in craftwork. Just before her seventy-eighth birthday, Herschel became the first woman awarded the prestigious Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. That week, her nephew, the astronomer John Herschel, wrote to congratulate her on the accolade and offered in the same breath: “My mother … begs me to thank you for your kind and beautiful present of needlework (which even I could admire).”

At the age of eighty-one, beloved artist Louise Bourgeois — who came from a long lineage of craftspeople — reflected on her lifelong fascination with “the magic and power of the needle” in her diary: “The needle is used to repair the damage. It’s a claim to forgiveness. It is never aggressive, it’s not a pin.”

Hand-embroidered runner for Caroline Herschel by Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party.
Hand-embroidered runner for Caroline Herschel (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

That redemptive and rebellious aspect of needlework is a centerpiece of The Dinner Party (public library) — the iconic 1979 project by artist Judy Chicago (b. July 20, 1939), celebrating women’s heritage in creative culture.

At once a sacrament and an insurrection, the project was born out of and into the women’s empowerment movement of the 1970s. But any hubristic impulse we may have had, until recently, to dismiss its central point as no longer relevant or needed has been swiftly disarmed by the political situation of our day — a situation that is foisting upon us the unwanted, discomfiting awareness that misogyny and other forms of bigotry are alive and well, that we live in a society not nearly as woke as we may have thought, and that somehow we must break bread with people who have a very different view of the present and of the tapestry of former presents we call history.

Chicago’s words from decades ago stun with their relevance today:

Women had always made a significant contribution to the development of human civilization, but these were consistently ignored, denied, or trivialized.

Caroline Herschel plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Caroline Herschel plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

The monumental installation, every meticulous detail of which is painstakingly crafted by hand, features an open triangular table, each side 46 ½ feet long, covered with fine white cloths embroidered in gold. Thirty-nine place settings grace the table, thirteen per side — a number of deliberate duality, referring to both the thirteen apostles at the Last Supper and the number of witches in a coven, contrasting the holiness of maleness with the demonization of women.

At the center of each place setting is an exquisite hand-painted fourteen-inch china plate, representing a particular period in Western civilization and a particular woman — artist, writer, scientist, saint, mythic figure — who made a powerful mark on that period. Among the women are Susan B. Anthony, Caroline Herschel, Georgia O’Keeffe, Hypatia of Alexandria, Emily Dickinson, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Virginia Woolf. Painted onto each plate is the vibrant, symbolically stylized vulva of each woman.

Mary Wollstonecraft plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Mary Wollstonecraft plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Georgia O'Keeffe plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Georgia O’Keeffe plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hrosvitha plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hrotsvitha plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Susan B. Anthony plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Susan B. Anthony plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

Surrounding each plate are a golden chalice, lustered ceramic flatware, and a gold-embroidered napkin, resting upon a generous runner embroidered in the needlework style specific to the period and region in which the respective woman lived.

Embroidery detail: illuminated capital from Virginia Woolf runner (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Embroidery detail: illuminated capital from Virginia Woolf runner (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Virginia Woolf plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Virginia Woolf plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Elizabeth Blackwell plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Elizabeth Blackwell plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Emily Dickinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Emily Dickinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Amazon plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Amazon plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Anne Hutchinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Anne Hutchinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Ishtar plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Ishtar plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Sappho plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Sappho plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hypatia plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hypatia plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

The table itself stands on an enormous triangular floor covered in 2,300 handcrafted ceramic tiles, inscribed in gold luster with the names of 999 notable women grouped around the women represented at the table — a constellation of influences and affiliations celebrating the long and interwoven history of women’s accomplishment.

Table overview (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979, Brooklyn Museum)
Table overview (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979, Brooklyn Museum)

Chicago details the extraordinary craftsmaship process that brought the project to life in Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework (public library) — from her decision to learn china-painting after becoming enchanted by the quality of color in an antique porcelain plate to her assembly of a diverse team of craftswomen collaborators to learning about the rich cultural history of needlework and ceramics.

Chicago writes:

Studying china-painting exposed me, for the first time, to the world of women’s traditional arts. I learned a great deal from the women with whom I trained — not only about china-painting, but also about a very different way of being an artist. Most china-painters see teaching as part of their work. Their teaching takes a number of forms; they give classes and seminars, but most importantly, at least for me, they teach by example. During exhibitions, they sit in their booths and paint while crowds of people watch them. This act and the public response to it intrigued me; the china-painters’ activity was in stark contrast with the isolated and private act of creation associated with twentieth-century “high art.”

In an homage to these women and their countercultural approach to art, Chicago decided to do same with The Dinner Party — a project that began as a solo endeavor, but after a year and a half of work, made it clear that completion would require a studio of skilled workers.

Woven banners hanging at the entry of the installation, greeting visitors (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Woven banners hanging at the entry of the installation, greeting visitors (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

Four years elapsed between the time Chicago enlisted the help of her team of craftswomen and the time The Dinner Party was completed and exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 1979. Once a week, the bustling rhythm of labor at the studio was halted for an evening of discussion, lectures, and a potluck dinner. The materials and fabrication of the finished project cost more than $250,000 — close to $875,000 in today’s money.

Chicago reflects on the wonderfully emboldening grassroots spirit of the project — the same spirit in which the vast majority of art in human history was made:

We worked as I had worked for fifteen years: without knowing where the money would come from. I’d sell a drawing, we’d get a small grant, someone would make a donation — and we’d have enough money for another month or two.

The installation itself, as powerful today as it was four decades ago and at least as culturally necessary, is currently housed at the Brooklyn Museum and lives on, alongside essays detailing its creative process and exploring its cultural significance, in the commemorative volume The Dinner Party.


An Illustrated Celebration of Jane Austen’s Life

“She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow.”

After visiting my alma mater to deliver a commencement address, the faculty kindly took me out for brunch. Dining with us was also one of the Annenberg School’s star students. Over organic pancakes, she professed an obsession — her word — with Jane Austen (December 16, 1775–July 18, 1817) and proceeded to rhapsodize about how much of herself and her values she saw mirrored in Austen’s heroines. That a highly educated young African-American woman heading into the business world of the twenty-first century should find such besotting resonance with a mostly homeschooled English novelist who died nearly two centuries earlier bespeaks Austen’s incomparable stature as one of the most beloved, psychologically compelling, and timelessly enchanting authors our civilization has produced.

And yet biographical information about Austen’s life is notoriously scarce, most of it reconstructed by historians based on second-hand accounts by family and friends — accounts invariably warped by personal subjectivities and faded by the passage of time. Standing in stark contrast to today’s thriving genre of revelatory memoirs by writers who have made a public craft of their private lives, the paucity of insight into Austen’s inner world only amplifies the aura of almost mystical reverence that surrounds her.

In Jane Austen: An Illustrated Biography (public library), writer Zena Alkayat and artist Nina Cosford draw on Austen’s surviving letters and various existing biographies to paint a compact and charming portrait of her life.




Part of the same Library of Luminaries series that gave us that lovely illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf, the book follows Austen from her childhood surrounded by books to the blossoming of her uncommon literary talent to her untimely death at the age of forty-one from a disease the retrospective diagnosis of which remains disputed. Central to her life is the loving relationship with her sister and dearest friend, Cassandra.



Jane’s father was a parson and a farmer, but to supplement his family’s income, he and Mrs. Austen turned the rectory into a small boys’ boarding school. So Jane was used to being around male company — and lots and lots of books.

As young children, Jane and Cassandra were inseparable. The sisters went to boarding school together, where they learned spelling, French, math, needlework, and dance.




Punctuating the narrative of a life almost entirely confined to her immediate family is Austen’s first and only big love — a romance with a young law student named Tom Lefroy, a neighbor’s nephew, which ended in heartbreak as Tom chose the social ladder over the financially precarious twenty-year-old Jane. (The intense experience no doubt influenced the advice on marriage Austen gave her niece many years later.)


Tom was under pressure to do well in his career and marry advantageously. And Jane was a girl with no fortune. As quickly as she had fallen for him, he disappeared from her life.


But Austen transmuted that heartbreak into fuel for creative work:

By October 1796 she had begun writing First Impressions, which would go on to become Pride and Prejudice. She finished the manuscript in less than a year and returned to Sense and Sensibility to restructure and revise it.



Although every life is largely a function of its time and place, and all art is informed by the artist’s milieu, Austen came of age in a particularly transformative cultural era:

All around Jane, small fissures were appearing in the established social structure. Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (published in 1792) was a controversial indictment of sexual inequality. And Jane was a keen fan of moralist Samuel Johnson, whose essays supported service to one’s fellow man and diligence (not inheritance) as a path to prosperity.


By the time Austen finished Sense and Sensibility, her brother Henry, who acted as her literary agent, found a publisher who agreed to print the book at the author’s expense. The first printing sold out and Austen earned £140 in royalties over the next two years, estimated to equal about £5,000 in today’s money.


Despite the financial and critical success, Austen continued leading an intensely domestic life, one of tea and piano practice amid her family, and went on writing novels that would bewitch critics, royalty, and common readers alike.

But then she fell ill. Despite her obstinate and heroic effort to continue working as usual, her health plummeted into a downward spiral from which she never emerged. In April of 1817, bedridden but still in denial about her illness, she privately made her will. In a letter panned the following month, she wrote:

If I live to be an old woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a family, before I survived either them or their affection.


On July 18, 1817, Jane died peacefully with her head resting on her sister’s lap. She was forty-one.

Later that month, Cassandra wrote:

She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow.



Complement Jane Austen: An Illustrated Biography with Austen on creative integrity, her advice on writing, and the parodic history of England she wrote as a teenager, illustrated by Cassandra, then revisit other wonderful illustrated biographies celebrating Louise Bourgeois, e.e. cummings, Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, and Nellie Bly.

Illustrations © Nina Cosford courtesy of Chronicle Books; photographs by Maria Popova


“Dracula” Author Bram Stoker’s Extraordinary Love Letter to Walt Whitman

“How sweet a thing it is for a strong healthy man with a woman’s eye and a child’s wishes to feel that he can speak to a man who can be if he wishes father, and brother and wife to his soul.”

“Dracula” Author Bram Stoker’s Extraordinary Love Letter to Walt Whitman

A quarter century before his now-classic epistolary novel Dracula catapulted Abraham “Bram” Stoker (November 8, 1847–April 20, 1912) into literary celebrity, the twenty-four-year-old aspiring author used the epistolary form for a masterpiece of a different order. Still months away from his first published short story, he composed a stunning letter of admiration and adoration to his great literary idol: Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892).

Long before William James coined the notion of stream of consciousness, Stoker poured forth a long stream of sentiment cascading through various emotions — surging confidence bordering on hubris, delicate self-doubt, absolute artist-to-artist adoration — channeled with the breathless intensity of a love letter, without interruption. He had fallen under Whitman’s spell when Leaves of Grass made its belated debut in England in 1868, with Whitman’s stunning preface to the 1855 edition. Stoker would later recount that ever since that initial enchantment, he had been wishing to pour out his heart in such a way “but was, somehow, ashamed or diffident — the qualities are much alike.” In February of 1872, the time for this effusion of enchantment seemed to have come.

But it was a fleeting moment of courage — Stoker couldn’t bring himself to mail his extraordinary letter. For four years, it haunted his desk, part muse and part goblin.

Walt Whitman, Bram Stoker

Then, on Valentine’s Day 1876, Stoker finally wrote to Whitman, enclosing with his new letter the unsent outpouring. Both epistles were published for the first time in David J. Skal’s Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula (public library).

Stoker — now twenty-eight and finally a published author of three short stories that had appeared in a couple of English and Irish magazines — writes:

My dear Mr. Whitman.

I hope you will not consider this letter from an utter stranger a liberty. Indeed, I hardly feel a stranger to you, nor is this the first letter that I have written to you. My friend Edward Dowden has told me often that you like new acquaintances or I should rather say friends. And as an old friend I send you an enclosure which may interest you. Four years ago I wrote the enclosed draft of a letter which I intended to copy out and send to you — it has lain in my desk since then — when I heard that you were addressed as Mr. Whitman. It speaks for itself and needs no comment. It is as truly what I wanted to say as that light is light. The four years which have elapsed have made me love your work fourfold, and I can truly say that I have ever spoken as your friend. You know what hostile criticism your work sometimes evokes here, and I wage a perpetual war with many friends on your behalf. But I am glad to say that I have been the means of making your work known to many who were scoffers at first. The years which have passed have not been uneventful to me, and I have felt and thought and suffered much in them, and I can truly say that from you I have had much pleasure and much consolation — and I do believe that your open earnest speech has not been thrown away on me or that my life and thought fail to be marked with its impress. I write this openly because I feel that with you one must be open. We have just had tonight a hot debate on your genius at the Fortnightly Club in which I had the privilege of putting forward my views — I think with success. Do not think me cheeky for writing this. I only hope we may sometime meet and I shall be able perhaps to say what I cannot write. Dowden promised to get me a copy of your new edition and I hope that for any other work which you may have you will let me always be an early subscriber. I am sorry that you’re not strong. Many of us are hoping to see you in Ireland. We had arranged to have a meeting for you. I do not know if you like getting letters. If you do I shall only be too happy to send you news of how thought goes among the men I know. With truest wishes for your health and happiness believe me

Your friend

Bram Stoker.

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning rare edition of Leaves of Grass.

Enclosed is Stoker’s passionate previously unsent effusion, which opens with an abrupt directness unguarded even by a form of address:

If you are the man I take you to be you will like to get this letter. If you are not I don’t care whether you like it or not and only ask that you put it into the fire without reading any farther. But I believe you will like it. I don’t think there is a man living, even you who are above the prejudices of the class of small-minded men, who wouldn’t like to get a letter from a younger man, a stranger, across the world — a man living in an atmosphere prejudiced to the truths you sing and your manner of singing them. The idea that arises in my mind is whether there is a man living who would have the pluck to burn a letter in which he felt the smallest atom of interest without reading it. I believe you would and that you believe you would yourself. You can burn this now and test yourself, and all I will ask for my trouble of writing this letter, which for all I can tell you may light your pipe with or apply to some more ignoble purpose — is that you will in some manner let me know that my words have tested your impatience. Put it in the fire if you like — but if you do you will miss the pleasure of the next sentence which ought to be that you have conquered an unworthy impulse. A man who is certain of his own strength might try to encourage himself a piece of bravo, but a man who can write, as you have written, the most candid words that ever fell from the lips of a mortal man — a man to whose candor Rousseau’s Confessions is reticence — can have no fear for his own strength. If you have gone this far you may read the letter and I feel in writing now that I am talking to you. If I were before your face I would like to shake hands with you, for I feel that I would like you. I would like to call YOU Comrade and to talk to you as men who are not poets do not often talk. I think that at first a man would be ashamed, for a man cannot in a moment break the habit of comparative reticence that has become second nature to him; but I know I would not long be ashamed to be natural before you. You are a true man, and I would like to be one myself, and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master. In this age no man becomes worthy of the name without an effort. You have shaken off the shackles and your wings are free. I have the shackles on my shoulders still — but I have no wings. If you are going to read this letter any further I should tell you that I am not prepared to “give up all else” so far as words go. The only thing I am prepared to give up is prejudice, and before I knew you I had begun to throw overboard my cargo, but it is not all gone yet. I do not know how you will take this letter. I have not addressed you in any form as I hear that you dislike to a certain degree the conventional forms in letters. I am writing to you because you are different from other men. If you were the same as the mass I would not write at all. As it is I must either call you Walt Whitman or not call you at all — and I have chosen the latter course. I do not know whether it is unusual for you to get letters from utter strangers who have not even the claim of literary brotherhood to write you. If it is you must be frightfully tormented with letters and I am sorry to have written this. I have, however, the claim of liking you — for your words are your own soul and even if you do not read my letter it is no less a pleasure to me to write it. Shelley wrote to William Godwin and they became friends. I am not Shelley and you are not Godwin and so I will only hope that sometime I may meet you face to face and perhaps shake hands with you. If I ever do it will be one of the greatest pleasures of my life … The way I came to you was this. A notice of your poems appeared some two years ago or more in Temple Bar magazine. I glanced at it and took its dictum as final, and laughed at you among friends. I say it to my own shame but not to regret for it has taught me a lesson to last my life out — without ever having seen your poems. More than a year after I heard two men in College talking of you. One of them had your book (Rossetti’s edition) and was reading aloud some passages at which both laughed. They chose only those passages which are most foreign to British ears and made fun of them. Something struck me that I had judged you hastily. I took home the volume and read far into the night. Since then I have to thank you for many happy hours, for I have read your poems with my door locked late at night and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea: and here I often found myself waking up from a reverie with the book open before me. I love all poetry, and high generous thoughts make the tears rush to my eyes, but sometimes a word or a phrase of yours takes me away from the world around me and places me in an ideal land surrounded by realities more than any poem I ever read. Last year I was sitting on the beach on a summer’s day reading your preface to the Leaves of Grass as printed in Rossetti’s edition (for Rossetti is all I have got till I get the complete set of your works which I have ordered from America). One thought struck me and I pondered over it for several hours — “the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports,” you who wrote the words know them better than I do: and to you who sing of your land of progress the words have a meaning that I can only imagine. But be assured of this Walt Whitman — that a man of less than half your own age, reared a conservative in a conservative country, and who has always heard your name cried down by the great mass of people who mention it, here felt his heart leap towards you across the Atlantic and his soul swelling at the words or rather the thoughts. It is vain for me to quote an instances of what thoughts of yours I like best — for I like them all and you must feel you are reading the true words of one who feels with you. You see, I have called you by your name. I have been more candid with you — have said more about myself to you than I have said to anyone before. You will not be angry with me if you have read so far. You will not laugh at me for writing this to you. It was no small effort that I began to write and I feel reluctant to stop, but I must not tire you any more. If you would ever care to have more you can imagine, for you have a great heart, how much pleasure it would be to me to write more to you. How sweet a thing it is for a strong healthy man with a woman’s eye and a child’s wishes to feel that he can speak to a man who can be if he wishes father, and brother and wife to his soul. I don’t think you will laugh, Walt Whitman, nor despise me, but at all events I thank you for all the love and sympathy you have given me in common with my kind.

Bram Stoker

It is hard not to wonder what Stoker meant by “my kind.” Surely, those besotted with the poetic and governed by the profoundest truths of nature and the human heart. But, possibly, also those cast out and made invisible by their time and their society for possessing a heart too defiant of convention. Stoker was then working in theater, still single — an old bachelor by the era’s standards. When he did marry in his thirtieth year, he entered into a celibate union with a beauty previously courted by Oscar Wilde, with whom he strongly identified. The rich homoerotic overtones of Leaves of Grass could not have escaped Stoker, whose Dracula reverberates with echoes of such themes. Perhaps the gift of Whitman’s poems for him, beyond the enchantment of beauty and poetic truth, was the supreme gift a work of art can confer upon its beholder — the gift of being seen.

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning rare edition of Leaves of Grass.

Three weeks later — which means immediately, by the transatlantic mail standards of 1876 — Whitman responded from the woods of New Jersey while recovering from the paralytic stroke that had left him severely disabled three years earlier. In a letter from March 6, he writes to his young admirer:


My dear young man, — Your letters have been most welcome to me — welcome to me as a Person and then as Author — I don’t know which most. You did so well to write to me so unconventionally, so fresh, so manly, and affectionately too. I, too, hope (though it is not probable) that we will some day personally meet each other. Meantime, I send my friendship and thanks.

Edward Dowden’s letter containing among others your subscription for a copy of my new edition has just been recd. I shall send the book very soon by express in a package to his address. I have just written to E.D.

My physique is entirely shatter’d — doubtless permanently — from paralysis and other ailments. But I am up and dress’d, and get out every day a little, live here quite lonesome, but hearty, and good spirits. — Write to me again.

How moving it must have been for the young Stoker to hear back from his literary hero — perhaps nearly as moving as it had been for the young Whitman to receive that transformative, career-charging letter from Emerson, his own greatest idol, while struggling with the disheartening initial reception of his self-published Leaves of Grass. But it may be that the correspondence was existential tonic for both. Within a year, Whitman would summon his strength to engage in the singular outdoor workout that would help him unshatter his physique and regain near-complete function of his body as his mind and spirit continued soaring to poetic heights. In a lovely symmetry, Stoker’s letter mirrors Whitman’s own conviction, acquired while working as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War more than a decade earlier that “there is something in personal love, caresses, and the magnetic flood of sympathy and friendship, that does, in its way, more good than all the medicine in the world.”

Complement with the teenage James Joyce’s touching fan letter to his literary idol, Ibsen, then revisit Whitman on creativity, resistance, his advice to the young, and his most direct definition of happiness.


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