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Astronomy, Race, and the Unwitnessed Radiance Inside History’s Blind Spots

A poetic instrument for observing and redrawing the spectrum of privilege and possibility.

Astronomy, Race, and the Unwitnessed Radiance Inside History’s Blind Spots

In 1977, the poet Adrienne Rich exhorted a graduating class of young women to think of education not as something one receives but as something one claims. But what does an education mean, and what does claiming it look like, for lives and minds animating bodies born into dramatically different points along the vast spectrum of privilege and possibility which human society spans?

This question comes alive in a wonderfully unexpected and necessary way in one of the highlights of the the third annual Universe in Verse by another great poet, essayist, and almost unbearably moving memoirist: Elizabeth Alexander — the fourth poet in history read at an American presidential inauguration (she welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her shimmering poem “Praise Song for the Day”) and the first woman of color to preside over one of the world’s largest philanthropic foundations.

Two years after Alexander illuminated a disquieting shadow-patch excised from the hegemonic history of science with the stunning poem she read at the inaugural Universe in Verse, she returned to the stage to shine a beam of radiance on the beauty hidden in an umbral corner of the selective collective memory we call history. Following astrophysicist Janna Levin’s opening reading of a pair of short poems by two titanic contemporaries who never knew of each other’s existence — a short untitled exultation at the surreality of a solar eclipse by Emily Dickinson and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman — Alexander read a poetic antidote to history’s erasures, celebrating the invisible visionaries who also lived and marveled at the cosmos when Dickinson and Whitman lived and marveled at the cosmos, originally published in her collection American Sublime (public library) and prefaced in the show with some contextual connective tissue by yours truly:

EDUCATION
by Elizabeth Alexander

In 1839, to enter University,
the Yale men already knew Cicero,

Dalzel’s Graeca Minora, then learned more Latin prosody,
Stiles on astronomy, Dana’s mineralogy.

Each year they named a Class Bully
who would butt heads with sailors in town.

“The first foreign heathen ever seen,”
Obookiah, arrived from Hawaii in ’09.

The most powerful telescope in America
was a recent gift to the school

and through it, they were first to see
the blazing return of Halley’s comet.

Ebeneezer Peter Mason
and Hamilton Lanphere Smith

spent all their free time at the instrument
observing the stars, their systems,

their movement and science and magic,
pondering the logic of mysteries that twinkle.

Some forty years before, Banneker’s
eclipse-predicting charts and almanacs

had gone to Thomas Jefferson
to prove “that nature has given our brethren

talents equal to other colors of men.”
Benjamin Banneker, born free,

whose people came from Guinea,
who taught himself at twenty-two (the same age

as the graduates) to carve entirely from wood
a watch which kept exquisite time,

accurate to the blade-sharp second.

Living in the same era as these astronomically enchanted men, whom Alexander so beautifully declipses from history’s shadow, was a young woman who blazed parallel trails for another section of humanity barred from higher education and discounted by the scientific establishment, and who would go on to stake her life on the conviction that equal opportunity for the life of the mind is at the center of social change.

Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — to whom the inaugural Universe in Verse was dedicated and whose life furnished the initial inspiration for Figuring (from which this portion of the essay is adapted) — was twelve when she observed her first solar eclipse through a brass telescope set up in the front parlor of her modest Quaker home on the island of Nantucket. The cosmos, with its mystery governed by immutable laws of poetic precision, staggered her imagination. By fifteen, she had mastered higher mathematics, which she supplemented with an ardent love of poetry. No institution — not on the island, not on the globe — had anything further to offer her in the way of higher education for a woman. And so, at seventeen, she founded a small school of her own.

The first children who approached the teenage teacher for enrollment were three “Portuguese” girls — the era’s slang for immigrants of color, whatever their actual nationality or race. Having just witnessed a vehement outcry when the Nantucket’s public school had attempted integration the previous year, Mitchell knew that admitting students of color would cost her the support of many parents, particularly the wealthy. But when the little girl representing the trio implored for a chance to learn, Mitchell made a decision with a clarity of conviction that would come to mark her life. The three “Portuguese” children became her first scholars, soon joined by others ranging in age from six to fourteen.

The young Maria Mitchell’s telescope. (Maria Mitchell Museum. Photograph by Maria Popova)

In a single large classroom, Mitchell stretched her students’ minds from Shakespeare to spherical geometry. But before she could savor the success of her school, she was offered the head librarianship of the Nantucket Atheneum — a new kind of cultural institution, named after the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, learning, and the arts, designed as a secular gathering place to discover and discuss ideas. She was eighteen. She would not relinquish her librarianship for two decades, despite the international celebrity into which her historic comet discovery catapulted her at the end of her twenties; despite her landmark admission into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as the venerable institution’s first female member; despite becoming the first woman employed by the federal government for a “specialized non-domestic skill” as a “computer of Venus” — a one-person GPS performing complex celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe.

During her tenure at the Atheneum, Mitchell hosted the institution’s regular public lectures by itinerant speakers. Among them was a young man who had escaped slavery three years earlier.

Frederick Douglass

One August day in 1841, a nervous twenty-three-year-old Frederick Douglass — the same age as Mitchell — took the podium at the Atheneum to deliver his very first public address before the mixed-race audience of five hundred gathered at the island’s temple of learning for the first Nantucket Anti-Slavery Convention. “It was with the utmost difficulty,” Douglass would later recount, “that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering. I trembled in every limb.” He proceeded to deliver a speech so electrifying that at its conclusion, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who was waiting to take the platform next, leapt to his feet, turned to the audience, and exclaimed: “Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or a man?” The chamber of the Great Hall bellowed with a resounding “A man! A man!” The man was hired on the spot as full-time lecturer for Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society.

Four years later, by then one of the country’s most prominent public speakers, Douglass would write in his autobiography:

I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace.

Maria Mitchell echoed this sentiment in her own diary as she was doing for women what Douglass was doing for African Americans:

The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.

Mitchell and Douglass cherished their friendship for the remainder of their parallel pioneering lives — both world-famous before they were thirty, both liberators of possibility in their present, both role models of courage and tenacity for generations to come. The year Mitchell made her historic discovery of the world’s first telescopic comet, Douglass — who in that trembling dawn of his career had calmed his nerves by taking in the cosmic perspective through her telescope — began publishing his abolitionist newspaper; he titled it The North Star in homage to the key role astronomy played in the Underground Railroad — traveling at night, slaves were told to keep the river on one side and follow the Drinking Gourd, an African name for the Big Dipper, for if they kept after the pole star, they would keep themselves moving north. In the final year of hers, the ailing Mitchell — whose childhood home had been a stop on the Underground Railroad — exerted herself to travel many miles via ferry, coach, and train for a reception given in her cherished friend’s honor.

Full recordings of the first three seasons of The Universe in Verse — a celebration of the meeting ground between science and the human spirit through the lens of poetry — are freely available to be enjoyed here.

BP

As an Antidote to Fear of Death, I Eat the Stars: Vintage Science Face Masks

Art and science between the practical and the poetic.

A small, coruscating delight: I have made a series of face masks featuring wondrous centuries-old astronomical art and natural history illustrations I have restored and digitized from various archival sources over the years.

Among them are treasures like the Solar System quilt Ella Harding Baker spent seven years crafting in order to teach women astronomy long before they/we had access to formal education; the gorgeous 18th-century illustrations from the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants that the young Elizabeth Blackwell painted to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison; the astonishing drawings of celestial objects and phenomena the 19th-century French artist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot saw through America’s first world-class scientific instrument, Harvard’s Great Refractor Telescope; the trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s stunning illustrations of exotic, endangered, and now-extinct animals; some graphically spectacular depictions of how nature works from a 19th-century French physics textbook; Ernst Haeckel’s heartbreak-fomented drawings of the otherworldly beauty of jellyfish, and of course his classic radiolaria that so inspired Darwin; William Saville Kent’s pioneering artistic-scientific effort to bring the world’s awareness and awe to the creatures of the Great Barrier Reef; and art from the German marine biologist Carl Chun’s epoch-making Cephalopod Atlas — the world’s first encyclopedia of creatures of the deep, which upended the longtime belief that life could not exist below 300 fathoms. (Because as the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks well knew, “Wherever life can grow, it will. It will sprout out, and do the best it can.”)

I originally made these masks just for myself and a handful of beloved humans, but they turned out so unexpectedly lovely that I decided to make them available to all who would delight in them. The manufacturer (society6, over whose production, pricing, and other practical elements I have no control — mine is only the conceptual element, fitted into their standard template; they print the fabrics, sew the masks, sell and ship them) is donating a portion of their proceeds to World Center Kitchen, helping to feed those most in need at times of crisis, and I am donating to The Nature Conservancy, stewarding the long-term sustenance of this entire improbable, irreplaceable planet, and the endeavor to build New York’s most democratic institution of cosmic perspective, the city’s first public observatory.

Because of the mask’s particular folding pattern, some of the artwork came alive in a wholly new and unexpected way. My personal favorite — the original design I made for myself and my most beloved human — is the total solar eclipse mask, evocative of the opening line of astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s magnificent “Antidotes to Fear of Death”:

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

There is also the charmingly shy, sleepy, fold-nesting octopus; Haeckel’s perfectly positioned jellyfish, reminiscent of a plate from artist Judy Chicago’s iconic Dinner Party project; the insurrectionist chameleon, extending a tongue where we may not; the holy coffee plant, daily deity to so many; the chromatically ecstatic spectra of various substances and the glorious double rainbow from the 1868 French gem Les phénomènes de la physique; the extinct poto-roo, reminding us with its sweet nonexistent face atop ours that creatures do perish and are forever erased; and the jubilant meteor shower, for another serving of life-affirming star-eating.

See them all here, and keep an eye on the collection as I might be adding more designs between reading, writing, partaking of protests, and gardening.

BP

Leibniz’s Blades of Grass: The Philosophy of Plants, Difference as the Wellspring of Identity, and How Diversity Gives Meaning to the World

“The world… flourishes only in and as the variance among the beings that comprise it. Difference is at the origin of the world: it ‘worlds.’”

Leibniz’s Blades of Grass: The Philosophy of Plants, Difference as the Wellspring of Identity, and How Diversity Gives Meaning to the World

Nearly a century before Walt Whitman led us to see that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” Immanuel Kant proclaimed that there will never be a Newton for a blade of grass. There may not be a Newton, but there is a Leibniz.

One otherwise ordinary day in 1685, the lavish lawn of Princess Sophia’s palace in Hanover was strewn with the extraordinary sight of frocked, corseted, and coiffed aristocrats bending and kneeling and squinting at the grass, secretly relishing the childlike wonder beneath the grand grownup experiment they were conducting — the quest to find two identical leaves of grass in order to refute one of the seven fundamental ontological principles laid out by the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (July 1, 1646–November 14, 1716): the identity of indescribables, simply known as Leibniz’s Law, stating that there can be no two separate entities that have all their properties in common. A gentleman in the party had taken issue with Leibniz’s principle in the Princess’s presence, upon which she had simply challenged him to refute it by finding two blades of grass exactly alike.

Grass by Maria Popova

Leibniz, who a decade earlier had developed calculus independently from Newton, watched with satisfaction as the gentleman “ran all over the garden for a long time” before finally giving up. This comical collision of empiricism and logic furnished one of the pillars of Western philosophy, fomenting our disquieting sense that however eagerly we may press our minds against physical reality, however eagerly we may lance our fingertips on its blade, we live mostly in a consensual imagined reality of abstractions. A year after the garden experiment, Leibniz himself affirmed this insight in an essay he titled “Primary Truths”:

Never do we find two eggs or two leaves or two blades of grass in a garden that are perfectly similar. And thus, perfect similarity is found only in incomplete and abstract notions.

A decade after philosophers Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman’s excellent inquiry into how we think with animals and a generation after John Berger’s landmark meditation on how looking at animals clarifies us to ourselves, philosopher Michael Marder explores how we clarify our own minds by looking at and thinking with plants in The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (public library). Reaching into the grass to wrest from it Leibniz’s broader “protest against the pretentious universal perspective without perspective that goes under the name of objectivity,” he examines the most elemental questions of individuality, incompleteness, diversity, and difference that color every aspect of our lives:

Only mathematical or geometrical notions differ in magnitude and in no other respect; matter, on the other hand, presupposes a predifferentiation and non-numeric determination well in advance of its concretization in things. At the threshold of the modern era, the garden is converted into the arena of valiant philosophical resistance to the mathematization of the world, where everything can be assigned its corresponding quantitative value on a uniform spatiotemporal grid of coordinates. And plants, despite being historically understood as incomplete or deficient things, are at the forefront of this struggle against the incompleteness of philosophical and mathematical abstractions.

Passionflower from The Moral of Flowers (1833) by poet and painter Rebecca Hey. Available as a print.

Because Leibniz honored the absolute individuality of each blade of grass, and because he recognized that what makes it distinct from every other blade of grass is the particular location and confluence of conditions in which it grew, at the root of his principle is a bold defiance of John Locke’s model of the soul as a blank slate. Marder writes:

Acceptance of the conclusion that “no two individual things could be perfectly alike,” he argues, “puts an end to the blank tablets of the soul, a soul without thought, a substance without action, empty space, atoms, and even to portions of matter which are not actually divided,” among other things. The Leibnizian universe, much like his writing, resembles a Baroque garden or a Baroque painting, wherein space is saturated to the maximum, in an intricate imitation of vegetal excess. Emptiness and nondifferentiation — the mind as a blank slate — have no place there; their true home is the sterile sphere of mathematics and of modernity’s desire to force reality into quantitative molds.

Marder considers the blade of grass as the particular fulcrum for Leibniz’s ideas, its particularity itself significant, and proposes a branch of phenomenology specifically derived from the contemplation of vegetable life: phytophenomenology. In a passage evocative of the late, great physicist Freeman Dyson’s insistence that diversity is the ruling law of the universe, Marder explains:

Phytophenomenology may be encapsulated in the thesis that plants have their own take on life and on the world, their growth and reproduction being the lived and enacted processes of interpretation… Each species has its unique perspective, as does each individual specimen comprising the species and each part of any given plant. The difference between two blades of grass boils down to a divergence, however negligible, between embodied orientations to and lived interpretations of the environment. The world, moreover, is nothing outside of a nonmathematical sum, or a confluence of these differences. Assuming that two blades of grass were completely identical, they would have represented one perspective, one life, one piece of being, one blade of grass… In that case, the world would be poorer — or, better yet, it would not be — since it flourishes only in and as the variance among the beings that comprise it. Difference is at the origin of the world: it “worlds.”

[…]

Even two nearly identical (though not quite!) blades of grass present two faces of the world; they are the actual variations on the theme of a possible blade of grass, which, in and of itself, is abstract and incomplete, lacking in realization. The backbone of Leibniz’s monadology is this wedge of difference, responsible for the separation among perspectives on the world… Each blade of grass has its sufficient reason, elucidating the necessity of its existence just the way it is, despite the inexhaustible array of possibilities for it being otherwise.

Leafing by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

Complement The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, an intellectually coruscating and thoroughly original read in its entirety, with The Moral of Flowers — 19th-century poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s illustrated encyclopedia of poetic philosophies from the garden — then revisit the astonishing contemporary science of what trees feel and how they communicate.

BP

A Poem for Peter: A Lyrical Illustrated Tribute to Ezra Jack Keats and the Making of the First Mainstream Children’s Book Starring a Black Child

“Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white. Bright as the day you came onto the page. From the hand of a man whose life and times, and hardships, and heritage, and heroes, and heart, and soul led him to you.”

A Poem for Peter: A Lyrical Illustrated Tribute to Ezra Jack Keats and the Making of the First Mainstream Children’s Book Starring a Black Child

The year was 1962 — the year The Beatles auditioned for the first major record label and were rejected, the year a NASA probe shot for the Moon and missed it by 22,000 miles, the year my mother was born. That year — a decade after the young Ronald McNair fought segregation at the public library, amid stacks of books with no children who looked like him, before becoming the second black human to launch into the cosmos — Ezra Jack Keats (March 11, 1916–May 6, 1983) published The Snowy Day — the first mainstream children’s book featuring a black child as the protagonist: the almost unbearably adorable, red-hooded, buoyant-spirited Peter, savoring the quintessential joy of a child’s first innocent encounter with snow.

Keats, born Jacob Ezra Katz on American soil at the peak of WWI into a family of immigrant Polish Jews, had changed his name during WWII to apply for jobs when many want ads thundered “No Jews Need Apply.” He had grown up in the poorest parts of Brooklyn, had lost his father the day before his high school graduation, and had spent his life making an improbable, barely sustainable, and, for its time and place, rather countercultural living as an artist: he painted for local businesses in the third grade; he made WPA murals in the wake of the Great Depression; he illustrated Marvel Comics backgrounds. In the gloaming hour of his thirties, when he began illustrating children’s books for other authors, Keats was troubled by how the monochrome imagination of mainstream publishing failed to represent the human panoply that colored the Brooklyn of his own childhood.

When he finally earned the opportunity to write and illustrate a book of his own, he pulled down the LIFE Magazine cutout pinned above his drawing table, which had traveled with him from studio to studio for two decades — a sequence of four photographs depicting a sweet black toddler as he receives a blood test, clad in a miniature coat and scarf, his body emanating that half-impish, half-unsteady loveliness of just learning to master gravity, his radiant face a Shakespearean theater of emotional expressions. That little boy became Keats’s Peter. “I can honestly say that Peter came into being because we wanted him,” Keats later reflected.

Original art by Ezra Jack Keats from The Snowy Day. (Courtesy Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.)

In the process of telling this culturally unexampled story, Keats also invented an artistically unexampled technique, blending painting and mixed-media collage, fusing elements of Japanese, Italian, and Scandinavian traditions with a style all his own, just like the America of his childhood had interleaved such variegated cultures into a shared canopy of possibility.

“As an African American child growing up in the 1960s, at a time when I didn’t see others like me in children’s books, I was profoundly affected by the expressiveness of Keats’s illustrations,” recounts Brooklyn-based author Andrea Davis Pinkney, born the year Keats’s trailblazing masterpiece won the Caldecott Medal — that Nobel Prize of children’s literature, which Keats received with the humble hope that Peter would “show in his own way the wisdom of a pure heart.” Half a century after her own childhood, Pinkney teamed up with Bay Area illustrator duo Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson to pay lyrical tribute to Keats’s courage in A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day (public library) — a lovely addition to these picture-book biographies of visionaries, part tribute poem and part conceptual peek-a-boo game in verse, a kind of imaginative shadow-play telling Klein’s story while addressing the “brown-sugar boy” as he emerges, born and blessed into being, from the snowy swaddle of his author’s imagination.

The story follows Ezra’s life from his hardship-haunted childhood in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn which Alfred Kazin captured so soulfully in his memoir of loneliness and the immigrant experience, to his young adulthood in the postwar years haunted by antisemitism, the unholy ghost prompting Hannah Arendt to observe that “society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” to his eventual entry into the world of children’s literature — the world he soon revolutionized by drawing on his own experience of exclusion to swing open the gates of empathy in the popular imagination and unlatch the bias-bolted human heart into affectionate inclusion.

Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white.
Bright as the day you came onto the page.
From the hand of a man who saw you for you.

We see Ezra emerge and find himself — his parents, Gussie and Benjamin, alighting to America on an immigrant-crowded ship; Mama Gussie painting in secret but not daring to dream of being be a real fine artist (“she was forced to bite down on her dreams. This made her bitter, a way Ezra never wanted to be”); Papa Benjamin concerned about little Ezra’s artistic bend (“an artist was a strange, impractical thing to be”) but eventually letting his love prevail over his pragmatic concerns and chipping from his meager paycheck to buy tubes of paint for the young artist.

And meanwhile, the world around the family goes on being a world. A generation after the pioneering trans writer Jan Morris extolled New York’s summer heat as the ultimate equalizer of society, Pinkney eulogizes the opposite season’s equalizer — the backdrop of Ezra’s Brooklyn childhood and of Peter’s story:

But when it snowed,
oh, when it snowed!
Nature’s glittery hand
painted the world’s walls a brighter shade.

Snow made opportunity and equality
seem right around the corner.
Because, you see, Snow is nature’s we-all blanket.
When snow spreads her sheet, we all glisten.
When Snow paints the streets, we all see her beauty.

Snow doesn’t know who’s needy or dirty
or greedy or nice.
Snow doesn’t choose where to fall.
Snow doesn’t pick a wealthy man’s doorstep
over a poor lady’s stoop.
That’s Snow’s magic.

That is also the public library’s magic. Like the young Patti Smith, who found fuel for her own talent at the local public library of her impoverished childhood, we see Ezra discover art and science books and himself at the reference room of the Brooklyn Public Library — a lovely living testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s wisdom: “Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.”

As Ezra’s life unspools across the tender illustrations and lyrical verses, we begin to feel the sweet ghost of Peter-to-be haunting his creator’s imagination as Pinkney elegantly coaxes the little boy out in a peek-a-boo tease. We see Ezra immerse himself in the delight of making art for children’s books, “but the delight was all white“; we see him calling out for Peter “like a daddy looking for his lost child.” When his chance finally comes to compose and illustrate his own story, the little boy who “had been waiting to be born,” who had been “there all along,” leaps out as “Ezra’s true jubilation.”

Peter emerges in the warm embrace of Pinkney’s verse:

Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white.
Bright as the day you came onto the page.
From the hand of a man
whose life and times,
and hardships,
and heritage,
and heroes,
and heart,
and soul
led him to you.

Yes, you, little boy,
were now in full view.
Peter!
No longer a glint in Ezra’s eye,
but a curious child on a path
to discovery.

Like a snowflake you fell,
right into our hearts.
You arrived.
A little Snowy Day surprise!
Like a crystal flake form the clouds,
you fluttered down
with your own one-of-a-kind
cutie-beauty.

Yes, you, Peter child, bubbled up
in this man,
now free to discover
the truth of your colors:
The here-I-am Red.
The look-at-me Yellow.
The proud-to-be Brown.

In the rhapsodic final pages, Pinkney turns her loving gaze wholly to Peter, to his “black-button eyes and hot-cocoa nose,” to his playful, dreamsome, snow-crunching “path in knee-deep wonder,” before she turns the same loving gaze back to his creator:

Ezra Jack Keats gave all of us a place.
A face.
A voice.

Ezra Jack Keats gave us eyes to see.
Let us celebrate the making
of what it means to be.

He dared to open a door.
He awakened a wonderland.
He brought a world of white
suddenly alive with color.

Brown-sugar child,
when you and your hue
burst onto the scene,
all of us came out to play.
Together,
flapping our wings,
rejoicing in a we-all blanket of wheeee!

Thanks to Ezra Jack Keats,
we all can be.
As bright as Snow’s everlasting wonder.

Couple A Poem for Peter with Life Doesn’t Frighten Me — Maya Angelou’s courageous verses for kids, illustrated by Basquiat — then find more inspiration and courage for young hearts in the picture-book biographies of other trailblazers: Wangari Maathai, Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly.

BP

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