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In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs

“The garden of life is strewn with such dormant seeds and so much of art blossoms from their unwilled and unwillable awakenings.”

In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs

And now for something a bit out of the ordinary: When editor Andrew Blauner invited me to contribute to an anthology of essays by some of his favorite writers about their favorite Beatles songs, I did something I rarely do — I accepted, because a particular Beatles song happens to be a significant animating force in my family story.

The anthology is now out as In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs (public library), featuring contributions from wonderful writers like Pico Iyer (“Yesterday”), Rosanne Cash (“No Reply”), Rick Moody (“The End”), Rebecca Mead (“Eleanor Rigby”), Roz Chast (“She Loves You”), Jane Smiley (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”), and Adam Gopnik (“Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”).

Here is my essay, as it appears in the book.

by Maria Popova

My parents fell in love on a train. It was the middle of the Cold War and they were both traveling from their native Bulgaria to Saint Petersburg in Russia, where they were to attend different universities — my father, an introvert of formidable intelligence, was studying computer science; my mother, a poetry-writing (bordering-on-bossy) extrovert , library science.

An otherwise rational man, my father describes the train encounter as love at first sight. Upon arrival, he began courting my mother with such subtlety that it took her two years to realize she was being courted. 

One spring morning, having finally begun to feel like a couple, they were walking across the lawn between the two dorms and decided it was time for them to have a whistle-call. At the time, Bulgarian couples customarily had whistle-calls — distinctive tunes they came up with, usually borrowed from the melody of a favorite song, by which they could find each other in a crowd or summon one another from across the street.

Partway between the primitive and the poetic, between the mating calls of mammals and the sonnets by which Romeo and Juliet beckoned one another, these signals were part of a couple’s shared language, a private code to be performed in public. Both sets of my grandparents had one. My mother’s parents, elementary schoolteachers in rural Bulgaria who tended to an orchard and the occasional farm animal, used a melody of unclear origin but aurally evocative of a Bulgarian folk song; my father’s parents, both civil engineers and city intellectuals, used a fragment from a Schumann waltz. 

That spring morning, knowing that my mother was a Beatles fan, my father suggested “Yellow Submarine.” There was no deliberation, no getting mired in the paradox of choice — just an instinctive offering fetched from some mysterious mental library.

Eventually, my parents got pregnant, got married, had this child. They continued to summon each other, and eventually me, by whistling “Yellow Submarine.” Although I didn’t know at the time that it was originally written as a children’s song, it came to color my childhood. I had always wondered why, of all possible songs saturating their youth, my parents had chosen “Yellow Submarine” — a song released long before they met. My father wasn’t much of a Beatles fan himself, and yet that spring morning, he was able to open the cabinet of his semi-conscious memory, fetch a melody he had heard almost twenty years earlier, and effortlessly whistle it to his beloved. The familial whistle-call became a given in my childhood, like math homework and Beef Stroganoff Sundays, so it wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that it occurred to me to inquire about how “Yellow Submarine” wove itself into the family fabric. The story of how that seemingly random song had implanted itself in my father’s mind is the archetypal story of how popular music, and perhaps all popular art, is metabolized in the body of culture. Once it has entered the crucible of consciousness, a song becomes subject to a peculiar alchemy — the particularities of the listener’s life at that particular moment transmute its objective meaning, if there ever was one at all, into a subjective impression. That impression is what we encode into memory, what we retrieve to whistle twenty years later. The artist’s original intent is melded with the listener’s personal context into an amorphous mass of inexpressible yet unforgettable unity — a dormant seed whose blossoming depends on the myriad factors fertilizing the surrounding soil. That the seed was planted at all may remain unheralded until the moment of its blossoming.

My great-grandfather — my father’s maternal grandfather — was an astronomer and mathematician born at the dawn of the twentieth century, into Bulgaria’s nascent monarchy that followed five hundred years of Ottoman slavery. He lived through two World Wars, then watched his homeland, battered by centuries of oppression and brutalized by decades of war, crumble into communism when the monarchy was overthrown in the 1940s. The pernicious anti-intellectualism of the communist regime took great pains to silence any cultural signal from the other side of the Iron Curtain. On the radio — then the dominant form of mass media — Western broadcasts in translation were banned and their frequencies muffled. But because so few Bulgarians spoke non-Slavic languages, the government didn’t bother to muffle foreign broadcasts in the original — those were just buried on hard-to-find frequencies.

Witnessing the timorous promise of freedom succumb to dictatorship must have been unbearable for my great-grandfather. Somehow, he hacked his transistor radio into the frequency of the BBC World Service and, well into his fifties by that point, set about teaching himself English. He acquired an English dictionary and a few literary classics through some underground channel — from Jane Austen to first-edition Hemingways, which survive to this day in my grandmother’s library — and began underlining words, filling the margins with translations, and code-cracking English grammar. It was a small act of rebellion, but a monumental one. By the 1960s, he had become fluent in English, with the BBC as his sole conduit to the other side — a lifeline of intellectual liberty.

When his nine grandchildren were entrusted in his daytime care, he decided to weave this surreptitious insurgency into his legacy by teaching them English. He would take them to the park and when the time came for their afternoon snack, he wouldn’t feed them until they were able to ask for their sandwiches in proper Queen’s English.

The BBC World Service was always on in the kitchen and in the late summer of 1966, just before my father’s sixth birthday, “Yellow Submarine” was on heavy rotation — it had been released on August 5. One morning, my great-grandfather decided to use the song as an opportunity for another English lesson with the kids. Perhaps because this was in Varna — Bulgaria’s naval capital, where the city’s celebrated Naval Museum is still housed in a giant decommissioned submarine — and perhaps simply because he was a little boy and little boys have such obsessions, my father was enamored of submarines and instantly took the bait. He fell in love with the song, learned its melody, and memorized the lyrics.

He grew up, fluent in English and German (my great-grandfather had also hacked his way into the Deutsche Welle), and although his obsession with the engineering of military vehicles and vessels never left him, the yellow submarine became a distant childhood memory. But it left a vestige, invisible and dormant until it was fertilized by the unlikeliest — or is it the likeliest? — of catalysts: love. The garden of life is strewn with such dormant seeds and so much of art blossoms from their unwilled and unwillable awakenings. In a marvelous yet hardly surprising parallel, the very origin of “Yellow Submarine” intimates such boyhood vestiges.

Paul McCartney wrote the song as a nonsense children’s rhyme to which the Beatles added an irreverent edge.

In the town where I was born
Lived a man who sailed to sea

McCartney’s grandfather, Joseph, grew up near the Liverpool docks and played the E-flat bass, a giant tuba-like brass instrument. Lennon’s grandfather, George, was a lifelong mariner who was aboard one of the first three-masted ships to sail around the world. After he met his wife at the bustling old Roman seaport of Chester, he retired into domesticity by taking a shoreside job recovering wreckage from sunk submarines. McCartney later recounted that he wrote “Yellow Submarine” by making up a melody in his head and letting it carry the story of “an ancient mariner, telling the young kids where he’d lived.” Could this “man who sailed the sea” be an amalgam of these two boyhood vestiges?

It is, of course, a perennial mystery how the innumerable fragments of experience we amass in the course of living come into contact with one another, how they are fused together in the combinatorial process of creativity and transformed into something new. Impatient with mystery, we tend to seek to fill the unknown with easy explanations. When “Yellow Submarine” was released — on the other side of “Eleanor Rigby,” on the same day as Revolver – people rushed to presumptions about the obvious agent of transmutation: This, after all, was the middle of the 1960s and the Beatles had just begun experimenting with psychedelics. But while John and George were busting open the doors of perception with acid, Paul was largely uninterested in such synthetic aids — bursting with creative energy, his spiritual electricity was self-synthesized. Although he insisted over and over on the innocuous origin of the song, throngs of critics both professional and self-appointed continued to interpret the song as an ode to psychedelics.

If psychedelics played a role at all, it was indirect — at most as a cross-pollinating agent of adjacent imaginations. Since the Beatles shared so much of their lives, Paul was inevitably immersed in his bandmates’ newfound wonderland of psychedelia and absorbed its rousing visual language. According to a Beatles intimate quoted in Bob Spitz’s excellent biography of the Fab Four, one of those early acid experiences produced “marvelous visions” of “rainbow-colored submarines” — an image so wild and whimsical that John and George, in their wide-eyed exhilaration, likely enthused about it to the rest. Paul might have folded that image into his mental catalogue of fragments — in fact, his first draft of the lyrics included multiple submarines of various colors before they were distilled into the sole yellow submarine. (Donovan added the line “Sky of blue and sea of green” — a welcome reinjection of color into the final yellow monochrome.)

McCartney had written the song for Ringo Starr, who was “very good with kids,” deliberately keeping it “not too rangey in the vocal range” for Ringo to perform. It was a perfect fit — the song became by far the most successful Beatles track with Ringo as a vocalist. But there was something else, something singularly magical, that lent it timeless luster and increasingly timely allure today. Its recording was a jubilant celebration of phenomena that have since gone just about extinct — the communal element of making art and the messy, hands-on craftsmanship of sound.

On May 26, 1966, the Beatles packed into Studio Two along with a motley cast of Abbey Road regulars and irregulars, spearheaded by legendary producer George Martin.

And our friends are all on board

The gang proceeded to fetch an arsenal of noisemaking tools from the utility closet — chains, whistles, buckets, glasses, wind-makers, thunderstorm machines, wartime hand bells, hooters, ship’s bells — which quickly cluttered the studio’s spacious wooden floor as the cacophonous crew set out to create the song’s weird and wonderful aural atmosphere. The cash register that would later ring up Pink Floyd’s “Money” appeared from somewhere. An old-fashioned metal bath was dragged in and filled; the Beatles’ chauffeur, Alf Bicknell, was assigned a chain to whirl through the water.

And the band begins to play

At the end, the band’s road manager, Mal Evans, grabbed a bass drum and led a conga line around this makeshift wonderland of music-making to the collective incantation:

We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine

There’s a wonderful symmetry here, between the childlike playfulness that filled the studio and the sensibility of the song itself. More than that, the recording session stands as a testament to the song’s true intent — an ode to pure fun, nothing more and nothing less. But while fun — the exultant joy of creation — has always been a major animating force of art, it has never been a sufficient raison d’être for art criticism. In one of his beautiful 1930s essays on music, Aldous Huxley — perhaps the patron saint of psychedelics and a prominent paste-up presence in the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover — remarked on the “absurd multiplicity of attributed ‘meanings’” that music can invoke. “Yellow Submarine,” due to its nonsensical lyrics and its particular placement in the chronology of the Beatles as odd bedfellow to “Eleanor Rigby” and creative counterpoint to Revolver, lent itself to particularly extravagant interpretations, from the sociocultural to the political. One folk magazine took it to be an anti-Vietnam War anthem. The great African American poet, dramatist, and essayist Amiri Baraka saw it as a pathetic paean to white privilege. The English music critic Peter Doggett remarked, “Culturally empty, ‘Yellow Submarine’ became a kind of Rorschach test for radical minds.” (We can put aside for a moment the notion that childlike wonder and sensorial delight amount to cultural emptiness — a lamentable bias that warrants a separate essay.)

This question of the song’s meaning reached a crescendo when it was adapted into an animated feature film two years later. What began as a throwaway licensing deal and a mere afterthought for the Beatles became a messy parable of the rift between culture as creative communion and culture as commodity. Before “Yellow Submarine” conquered the airwaves as the highest-grossing single in the UK the year of its release, the Beatles had agreed — or, rather, their manager Brian Epstein had procured their impetuous agreement — to contribute an original soundtrack and lend their endorsement to a cartoon adaptation by King Features, which had already adapted the life and music of the Beatles into five dozen cartoons. Young painters were recruited from local art schools and an impressive crew of animators, inkers, background artists, and sound engineers was hired from all over the world — Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Scotland, Spain, the U.S. and all over the U.K. As the animation crew worked day and night for eleven months, the Beatles, not quite realizing what they had agreed to, began actively resenting the very idea of the project and treated it like a tedious chore they just had to get out of the way. The film was ultimately finished with very little and very begrudging input from the band.

Its premiere at London Pavilion in July of 1968 sparked a heightened state of Beatlemania. Fans loved it, most commentators loved it, and even the Fab Four had to admit its charm. But amid the flurry of enthusiasm, the few shrieks of criticism became emblematic of the cultural unease which “Yellow Submarine” sparked — a discomfort with an uninterpretable open-endedness that resists the categorization by which we navigate and process cultural material. The irritation of this unease was best captured by Daily Mail entertainment columnist Trudi Pacter, who complained that “the Beatles stubbornly continue to experiment” instead of sticking to the formula that had already proven their music wildly successful. It’s a grievance both utterly ridiculous and utterly human: We yearn for art to surprise us, but we also yearn for the control, for certitude, for knowing what to expect from those we’ve come to trust. But what made the Beatles a cultural force was precisely the stubbornness with which they continued to experiment forward into greatness. “Yellow Submarine” was a particularly successful experiment.
Full speed ahead, Ms. Pacter, full speed ahead!

It is precisely this uncomfortable open-endedness of meaning that drove generations of critics to fill the abyss with manufactured meanings. Interpretation, of course, always reveals far more about the interpreter than it does about the interpreted. Just two years before the release of “Yellow Submarine,” in her terrific treatise “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag bemoaned the reactionary “arrogance of interpretation” and called it “the revenge of the intellect upon art.”

And yet the interpretation of art is inescapable, and this might not be such a bad thing after all. “Yellow Submarine,” more so than the average song due to its nonsensical nature, has meant different things to every person who has ever heard it and filled it with subjective sense. It meant different things to my great-grandfather, to my father, and to myself. For the old mathematician, it signified a vitalizing act of intellectual insurgency; for the little boy, a playful and infectious wink at a childhood obsession; for the young man in love, a thread stretching backward and forward in time, connecting him to his childhood self and to the future wife who would beget his own child. And although I, that future child, never got to meet my intellectual insurrectionist great-grandfather, I am linked to him by DNA and by a song from long ago, embedded in my father’s synapses and worn note-bare by my mother’s lips.

“Once a poem is made available to the public,” teenage Sylvia Plath once wrote to her mother, “the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.” It is by this right of interpretation that popular music, popular culture, and perhaps all culture belongs to us at all. It is by this right that art is always appropriated by life, that a catchy song with no particular meaning, eavesdropped on by a little boy with his ear pressed to the Iron Curtain, can be woven into a family myth across time and space. This is what popular art does at its best — it provides a screen onto which vastly different people in vastly different circumstances can project the singular meaning of their lives.

In Their Lives features twenty-seven more essays on beloved Beatles songs, cross-pollinating personal histories with cultural history in a poetic intersection of memoir, music, and the collective legend-making of great storytelling.


Audre Lorde on the Indivisibility of Identity and the Importance of Arts Education and Arts Funding

“The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’”

Audre Lorde on the Indivisibility of Identity and the Importance of Arts Education and Arts Funding

In the fall of 1970, the Academy of American Poets received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to stage a series of lectures and readings in public parks and libraries. Elizabeth Kray, the Academy’s first Executive Director, was one of poetry’s most spirited advocates in the whole of Western civilization, and she held two things particularly dear — civil rights (she had overseen the remarkable poet-led protest that revoked Amiri Baraka’s wrongful imprisonment) and the life-transforming power of enchanting young minds with poetry (she had founded the Poets-in-the-Schools program, which also received NEA support and which gave us Thom Gunn’s reading list of essential poetry for young readers). Upon receiving the grant, Kray hastened to invite the great Caribbean-American poet, essayist, feminist, lesbian icon, and anti-war, civil rights, and human rights activist Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) to host a series of “poetry readings and rap sessions” at an Upper West Side branch of the New York Public Library in the spring of 1971. (Lorde had benefited from an NEA grant herself the previous spring through the Poets-in-the-Schools program — a modest sum by corporate standards, but a transformative one for any artist, especially for that supreme martyr for creativity amid a culture of commerce, the working poet.)

“The readings will attract a general audience,” Kray wrote in her invitation, “but the bulk would be ‘young adults,’ junior and senior high school aged kids.” Lorde gladly agreed. “As a former Young Adult Librarian,” she replied, “it has always given me great pleasure to work with this age group.” But her impetus was even more personal: Having published her own first poem in Seventeen magazine at the age of fifteen, Lorde had a profound appreciation for the power of finding one’s voice in poetry as a youngster.

Signature from Audre Lorde’s correspondence with the Academy of American Poets

On a recent research visit to the Academy’s ceaselessly rewarding archive, I discovered the short and exquisite piece Lorde had written for the promotional flyer announcing the readings. Printed on the inside of the folded brochure, it is part meditation on the indivisible cohesion of identity, part beautiful manifesto for the importance of arts education and arts funding, and part poetic micro-biography akin to Italo Calvino’s delightful CV and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s playful self-portrait in verse.

Audre Lorde

Lorde writes:

I am Black, Woman, and Poet — fact, and outside the realm of choice. I can choose only to be or not be, and in various combinations of myself. And as my breath is part of my breathing, my eyes of my seeing, all that I am is of who I am, is of what I do. The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word “I.”

Having made homes in most parts of this city, I hang now from the west edge of Manhattan, and at any moment I can cease being a New Yorker, for already my children betray me in television, in plastic, in misplaced angers.

Last spring, under a National Endowment [for] the Arts Grant, I spent some time as Poet in Residence at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, where I became convinced, anti-academic though I am, that poets must teach what they know if we are to continue being.

At The City University of New York, I teach young people.

Program brochure by the Academy of American Poets, 1971

A decade later, Lorde was awarded the NEA’s esteemed Literature Fellowship. She was among three thousand individual writers who have received a total of $46 million from the NEA since the agency’s inception in 1965 — aid without which, it may be safe to say, many of the most beloved artists of the past half-century would have struggled to survive and some may have never brought to life the works for which they are now beloved.

If you are as terrified as I am at the prospect of the NEA’s demise in the hands of a heedless government that cares as little about the arts as it does about science, call your representative today and speak up for the survival of the arts — Lorde’s own powerful words about our responsibility to break our silences are timelier than ever.

Protest sign at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., bearing Audre Lorde’s timeless words: “Your silence will not protect you.” (Photograph: Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty)

Then, complement the work of resistance with the work of persistence by joining me in donating to the Academy of American Poets so they may continue to do their increasingly important mission of buoying the human spirit in this time of dire need.


Young Barack Obama on Identity, the Search for a Coherent Self, and How We Fragment Our Wholeness with Polarizing Identity Politics

“Without power for the group, a group larger, even, than an extended family, our success always threatened to leave others behind.”

Young Barack Obama on Identity, the Search for a Coherent Self, and How We Fragment Our Wholeness with Polarizing Identity Politics

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” young Tolstoy proclaimed in his diary. “A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote as he contemplated what he so poetically called the genes of the soul, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” How we draw and accrue our allegiances as life flows through us and we through it is a centerpiece of our human experience, for we are, in the words of philosopher Amelie Rorty, “the sort of organisms that interpret and modify their agency through their conception of themselves.”

The interplay of identity and agency is what Barack Obama (b. August 4, 1961) explores with uncommon vulnerability and intellectual elegance throughout Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (public library) — the immensely lyrical 1995 memoir that gave us the young future president on what his mother taught him about love.

Barack Obama in his teens
Barack Obama in his teens

Young Obama writes:

The fissures of race that have characterized the American experience, as well as the fluid state of identity — the leaps through time, the collision of cultures — [continue to] mark our modern life.

Looking back to his own youth as a basketball-obsessed teenager, Obama reflects on the culturally inherited norms which freeze that natural and necessary fluidity of identity:

I was living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood. Yet at a time when boys aren’t supposed to want to follow their fathers’ tired footsteps, when the imperatives of harvest or work in the factory aren’t supposed to dictate identity, so that how to live is bought off the rack or found in magazines, the principal difference between me and most of the man-boys around me — the surfers, the football players, the would-be rock-and-roll guitarists — resided in the limited number of options at my disposal. Each of us chose a costume, armor against uncertainty. At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own. It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn’t be a disadvantage. And it was there that I would meet Ray and the other blacks close to my age who had begun to trickle into the islands, teenagers whose confusion and anger would help shape my own.

Stanley Ann Obama with young Barack
Stanley Ann Obama with young Barack

With an eye to his own complicated constellation of identity, as the son of a white mother and black father, he considers how limiting our language becomes as we engage in these costume-identities shielding us against the uncertainty of a more nuanced and dimensional self-definition:

White folks. The term itself was uncomfortable in my mouth at first; I felt like a non-native speaker tripping over a difficult phrase. Sometimes I would find myself talking to [my black friend] Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile, and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false. Or I would be helping Gramps dry the dishes after dinner and Toot would come in to say she was going to sleep, and those same words — white folks — would flash in my head like a bright neon sign, and I would suddenly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep.


I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.

Young Obama intuited poet Elizabeth Alexander’s notion that the self lives in language. (More than a decade later, Alexander would become the fourth poet in American history to read at a presidential inauguration when she welcomed Obama to the presidency with her stunning poem “Praise Song for the Day.”) He recounts searching for the language for his fragmented self in books as a teenager:

I gathered up books from the library — Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois. At night I would close the door to my room, telling my grandparents I had homework to do, and there I would sit and wrestle with words, locked in suddenly desperate argument, trying to reconcile the world as I’d found it with the terms of my birth. But there was no escape to be had. In every page of every book, in Bigger Thomas and invisible men, I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. Even DuBois’s learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s humor eventually succumbed to its corrosive force, each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power, each man finally forced to withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of Harlem, but all of them in the same weary flight, all of them exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels.

Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life. And yet, even as I imagined myself following Malcolm’s call, one line in the book stayed me. He spoke of a wish he’d once had, the wish that the white blood that ran through him, there by an act of violence, might somehow be expunged. I knew that, for Malcolm, that wish would never be incidental. I knew as well that traveling down the road to self-respect my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction. I was left to wonder what else I would be severing if and when I left my mother and my grandparents at some uncharted border.

As he wades his way through this journey of self-discovery and self-definition, young Obama adds:

My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there. At least that’s what I would choose to believe.

But as much as the self might live in language, it also lives and reveals itself in community, be it forced or organic. Obama reflects on the frictions and fissures, both internal and external, that he discovered in college:

The position of most black students in predominantly white colleges was already too tenuous, our identities too scrambled, to admit to ourselves that our black pride remained incomplete. And to admit our doubt and confusion to whites, to open up our psyches to general examination by those who had caused so much of the damage in the first place, seemed ludicrous, itself an expression of self-hatred — for there seemed no reason to expect that whites would look at our private struggles as a mirror into their own souls, rather than yet more evidence of black pathology.

In his quest to find a community that would hold his fragmented self with assuring firmness, Obama meets and forms “an uneasy alliance” with a community leader named Rafiq al-Shabazz — a man who operates from a place of polarity and deep anger, and belongs to “a Hobbesian world where distrust was a given and loyalties extended from family to mosque to the black race.” But Obama eventually comes to see that Rafiq’s extreme is equally unhelpful in healing the fissures of race. He writes:

I wondered … whether a black politics that suppressed rage toward whites generally, or one that failed to elevate race loyalty above all else, was a politics inadequate to the task.

It was a painful thought to consider, as painful now as it had been years ago. It contradicted the morality my mother had taught me, a morality of subtle distinctions — between individuals of goodwill and those who wished me ill, between active malice and ignorance or indifference. I had a personal stake in that moral framework; I’d discovered that I couldn’t escape it if I tried. And yet perhaps it was a framework that blacks in this country could no longer afford; perhaps it weakened black resolve, encouraged confusion within the ranks. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and for many blacks, times were chronically desperate. If nationalism could create a strong and effective insularity, deliver on its promise of self-respect, then the hurt it might cause well-meaning whites, or the inner turmoil it caused people like me, would be of little consequence.

Mostly, he finds that the raw material of the nationalists was “just talk” — the selfsame kind of vacant propagandism to which this ideology was supposed to be a counterpoint:

What concerned me … was the distance between our talk and our action, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as a people. That gap corrupted both language and thought; it made us forgetful and encouraged fabrication; it eventually eroded our ability to hold either ourselves or each other accountable. And while none of this was unique to black politicians or to black nationalists — Ronald Reagan was doing quite well with his brand of verbal legerdemain, and white America seemed ever willing to spend vast sums of money on suburban parcels and private security forces to deny the indissoluble link between black and white — it was blacks who could least afford such make-believe. Black survival in this country had always been premised on a minimum of delusions; it was such an absence of delusions that continued to operate in the daily lives of most black people I met. Instead of adopting such unwavering honesty in our public business, we seemed to be loosening our grip, letting our collective psyche go where it pleased, even as we sank into further despair.

The continuing struggle to align word and action, our heartfelt desires with a workable plan — didn’t self-esteem finally depend on just this? It was that belief which had led me into organizing, and it was that belief which would lead me to conclude, perhaps for the final time, that notions of purity — of race or of culture — could no more serve as the basis for the typical black American’s self-esteem than it could for mine. Our sense of wholeness would have to arise from something more fine than the bloodlines we’d inherited.

Barack Obama as a boy, with his father.
Barack Obama as a boy, with his father.

Obama finds that finer pattern to draw on the drum of identity when he travels to Africa in search of his father’s bloodlines. He writes:

Without power for the group, a group larger, even, than an extended family, our success always threatened to leave others behind. And perhaps it was that fact that left me so unsettled — the fact that even here, in Africa, the same maddening patterns still held sway; that no one here could tell me what my blood ties demanded or how those demands could be reconciled with some larger idea of human association. It was as if [my brothers, sister, and I] were all making it up as we went along. As if the map that might have once measured the direction and force of our love, the code that would unlock our blessings, had been lost long ago, buried with the ancestors beneath a silent earth.

At last, he discovers the beginnings of an answer at the edge of a cornfield in Kenya, between two graves at the foot of a mango tree — one with an unmarked tombstone, belonging to a person whose identity would remain forever lost, and one belonging to his great-great-grandfather. Obama recounts the revelation of that moment:

For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept. When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America — the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago — all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright.

Dreams from My Father remains an immensely powerful and poignant read, radiating ever-new ripples of timeliness more than two decades later. Complement this particular fragment with philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of what makes a person and Walt Whitman on identity and the paradox of the self, then revisit Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s fantastic forgotten conversation about identity and race.


November 9, 1928: The Trial of Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf’s Exquisite Case for the Freedom of Speech

“Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo.”

November 9, 1928: The Trial of Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf’s Exquisite Case for the Freedom of Speech

In July of 1928, three months before the publication of Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel Orlando — a classic celebrated as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which subverted censorship and revolutionized the politics of same-sex love — the English novelist and poet Radclyffe Hall (August 12, 1880–October 7, 1943) set into motion a cultural revolution. With the publication of The Well of Loneliness (public library), the way gender and sexual identities are formulated and articulated was forever changed.

Hall, born Marguerite Radclyffe Hall but known to her loved ones as John, was an out lesbian who dressed in men’s clothes in a society and era when same-sex love was considered not only immoral but legally punishable. In the spring of 1928, encouraged by the success of her previous writings, Hall warned her publisher, Jonathan Cape, that her next book would require a high degree of faith on his behalf, for she was taking a great personal and cultural risk. “I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world,” she wrote to him in a letter cited in Sally Cline’s biography Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John (public library). “So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction,” she added.

Cape, who also published such literary daredevils as Ian Fleming and James Joyce, was willing to take the risk. Hall delivered. The manuscript she turned in was a pioneering inquiry into gender and sexual identity, part social protest against bigotry and part manifesto for equality.

Radclyffe Hall
Radclyffe Hall

She made her heroine, Stephen Gordon, both a lesbian and unambiguously likable: loyal, tenderhearted, often mistreated, and endowed with what Descartes called “nobility of soul,” that most admirable of virtues. Stephen was animated by one central question: “Why am I as I am — and what am I?” It echoed what young Leo Tolstoy in his diary nearly a century earlier: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” For queer people, this question has always been acutely alive, but especially in eras and cultures where not all answers have been acceptable. The devastation of that unacceptability is found in the damning words of Stephen’s mother: “This thing that you are is a sin against creation.” — words strikingly similar to those with which Oliver Sacks’s mother broke her son’s heart. Hall’s intention was that her novel would “speak on behalf of a misunderstood and misjudged minority” — a minority to which she herself belonged, rendering the book both deeply political and deeply personal.

Many initial reviews were favorable. Some lauded Hall’s countercultural bravery. One reviewer, Vera Brittain, wrote that the novel “can only strengthen the belief of all honest and courageous persons that there is no problem which is not better stated frankly than concealed,” and that “persecution and disgusted ostracism have never saved any difficulty in the world.”

Radclyffe Hall by unknown photographer, circa 1930 (National Portrait Gallery)
Radclyffe Hall by unknown photographer, circa 1930 (National Portrait Gallery)

But the vociferous editor of the Sunday Express, a man named James Douglas, did what critics — especially self-satisfied male critics — do to this day upon encountering art they don’t understand or find personally objectionable: He argued that it was not a work of art but immoral propaganda and wrote that he “would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” Douglas launched a concerted campaign to suppress the book, which rose all the way up to Britain’s Home Secretary — a man so conservative that, in addition to attempting to ban alcohol and nightclubs, he had opposed a revised version of The Book of Common Prayer.

Despite an outcry by some of the era’s most venerated writers and intellectuals, Douglas’s tireless bullying pushed matters to court and a trial for obscenity began on November 9, 1928. (Lest we forget the gravity of those charges, a generation earlier Oscar Wilde had been sent to prison for his homosexuality under similar charges of obscenity.)

Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel, 1918 (National Portrait Gallery/)
Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel, 1918 (National Portrait Gallery/)

Hall’s publisher and his team mailed 160 letters to potential witnesses who would be willing to stand against the censorship. Many never responded. Some gave unimaginative pretexts for why they couldn’t help. H.G. Wells declined, saying he was going abroad; he might as well have claimed to be mounting his time machine. In a letter to her nephew penned eight days before the trial, Virginia Woolf lamented the collective cowardice behind the litany of excuses:

Most of our friends are trying to evade the witness box; for reasons you may guess. But they generally put it down to the weak heart of a father, or a cousin who is about to have twins.

Among the courageous were fifty-seven esteemed writers and scientists, many of whom were ready to defend the novel’s social and political function as a call for equality and freedom, despite doubting its literary merit. Vita Sackville-West — Woolf’s longtime lover and the inspiration for her own censorship-subverting queer classic — went to the trial ready to testify. The Bloomsbury set were particularly troubled on creative grounds. Lytton Starchey, one of Woolf’s dearest friends and a queer man himself, agreed to take the witness stand, but not without noting in a letter to E.M. Forster — also a willing witness — that “the book itself is pretty frightful.”

Woolf herself was reluctantly willing to be a witness on account of the novel’s political significance and her contempt for censorship, but dreaded defending what she considered to be a “pale tepid vapid book which lay damp & slab all about the court” — writing, in other words, afflicted with the malady of middlebrow. So when the magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, ruled that writers couldn’t testify as experts on obscenity, only on art, which wasn’t permitted as evidence, she was immensely relieved to be dismissed from witness duty.

Woolf captured the larger significance of the trial in her diary:

What is obscenity? What is literature? What is the difference between the subject & the treatment?

A week later, Sir Biron ruled that the novel was obscene, ordering that it be destroyed and that the defendants pay court costs. The decision was appealed in a second trial — in which Rudyard Kipling was summoned and never actually used as a witness — but after deliberating for only five minutes, the five new magistrates upheld the original decision. Across the Atlantic, Alfred A. Knopf, who had acquired the American rights, cowered from publishing a book censored by its country of origin.

In a letter Woolf co-wrote with to E.M. Forster, she once again captured the grim enormity of the implications:

Novelists in England have now been forbidden to mention [lesbianism]… Although forbidden as a main theme, may it be alluded to, or ascribed to subsidiary characters? … Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo. A novelist may not wish to treat any of the subjects mentioned above but the sense that they are prohibited or prohibitable, that there is a taboo-list, will work on him and will make him alert and cautious instead of surrendering himself to his creative impulses. And he will tend to cling to subjects that are officially acceptable, such as murder and adultery, and to shun anything original lest it lead him into forbidden areas.

And yet The Well of Loneliness made its way into the body of culture. In America, the publishers Pascal Covici (who would later join Viking and become John Steinbeck’s fairy godfather) and Donald Friede took a $10,000 bank loan — around $137,000 in today’s money — in order to purchase the rights from Cape. They enlisted the help of Morris Ernst, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, and set about defending the book against censorship. To protect booksellers from being targeted, Friede reached out to the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and offered to sell him a copy of the book directly. But even before Friede and Covici were taken to court, the book sold more than 100,000 copies in its first year — despite its price point at $5, twofold the average for fiction, proving Neil Gaiman’s insistence that “repressing ideas spreads ideas.”

The logo for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, depicting a book being burned
The logo for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, depicting a book being burned

Eventually, the NYPD invaded the publisher’s New York offices and confiscated 865 copies of the book. But under U.S. federal law, literary merit was allowed as evidence against changes of obscenity, unlike during the U.K. trial, so Covici and Friede assembled a formidable roster of writers to stick up for the novel — including Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Ernst argued for the novel’s value as a protest against intolerance and a tool of social justice. After a series of contentious legal battles, justice prevailed on August 19, 1929: New York’s Court of Special Sessions ruled that Hall dealt with “a delicate social problem,” which in itself didn’t violate the law and therefore merited her novel’s free circulation. All charges were dropped and Radclyffe Hall went on to become a cultural icon.

Radclyffe Hall by Howard Coster, 1932 (National Portrait Gallery
Radclyffe Hall by Howard Coster, 1932 (National Portrait Gallery

As Lillian Faderman writes in her excellent book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (public library), queer women in America came to call Hall “Our Matron Saint” and one mid-century op-ed proposed that the “inelegant word butch” be replaced with clyffe. Today, Hall’s influence can be traced to lesbian icons like Adrienne Rich, Jeanette Winterson, and Audre Lorde, and the cultural significance of her work finds no greater testament than in Lorde’s assertion the “visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”


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