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Do Everything Well: Lord Chesterfield on the Art of Dress

“Be wiser than other people, if you can; but do not tell them so.”

Lord Chesterfield is best-remembered for his witty and wise epistolary legacy, collected in Lord Chesterfield’s Letters (public library; public domain). The letters, penned mostly to his son and godson, cover everything from politics to literature to love and offer an ever-entertaining blend of timeless wisdom, practical tips, and very questionable moral advice. But if there is one thing for which Chesterfield remains particularly known, it is his exceptional sensitivity to societal customs and his finesse in gracefully navigating them for his benefit.

In this letter to his son from November of 1745, for instance, Lord Chesterfield captures in one short passage the essence of fashion, the enormity of its enduring allure as a form of social currency, and why it mesmerizes us so:

Do everything you do well. There is no one thing so trifling, but which (if it is to be done at all) ought to be done well. … For instance, dress is a very foolish thing; and yet it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well dressed, according to his rank and way of life; and it is so far from being a disparagement to any man’s understanding, that it is rather a proof of it, to be as well dressed as those whom he lives with: the difference in this case, between a man of sense and a fop, is, that the fop values himself upon his dress; and the man of sense laughs at it, at the same time that he knows he must not neglect it. There are a thousand foolish customs of this kind, which not being criminal must be complied with, and even cheerfully, by men of sense. Diogenes the Cynic was a wise man for despising them; but a fool for showing it. Be wiser than other people, if you can; but do not tell them so.

Complement with this vintage guide to do’s and don’ts in the art of conversation and history’s finest fatherly advice, including Einstein on the secret to learning anything, John Steinbeck on falling in love, and Sherwood Anderson on the creative life.

BP

A Child’s Calendar: John Updike’s Little-Known Vintage Book, Updated to Celebrate Diversity

Delightful verses for every season and every child.

As a lover of little-known children’s books by famous authors of “adult” literature — such as previously uncovered gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, and Langston Hughes — I was delighted to find out that John Updike, who counted among his accolades such high honors as two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, a National Medal of the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, was never too big to write for children.

In 1965, he penned a lovely volume of children’s verses for every day of the year, the young reader’s poetry equivalent of Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom. Titled A Child’s Calendar (public library), it was originally published with illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert and reissued in 1999 with tender artwork by Trina Schart Hyman. In fact, it was that beautiful later edition that reminded me of this gem, after a recent study found that contemporary children’s literature is sorely lacking in diversity — Hyman’s illustrations, depicting children of various and mixed ethnicities, offer a heartening antidote.

Here is a sample taste of some of the wonderful verses and drawings, starting with a seasonally appropriate choice:

JULY

Bang-bang! Ka-boom!
We celebrate
Our national
Independence date,

The Fourth, with
Firecrackers and
The marching of
The Legion Band

America:
It makes us think
Of hot dogs, fries,
And Coke to drink.

The shade is hot
The little ants
Are busy, but
Poor Fido pants

And Teddy dozes
In a pool
Of fur she sheds
To keep her cool.

AUGUST

The sprinkler twirls.
The summer wanes.
The pavement wears
Popsicle stains.

The playground grass
Is worn to dust.
The weary swings
Creak, creak with rust.

The trees are bored
With being green.
Some people leave
The local scene

And go to seaside
Bungalows
And take off nearly
All their clothes.

JANUARY

The says are short,
The sun a spark
Hung thin between
The dark and dark.

Fat snowy footsteps
Track the floor,
And parkas pile up
Near the door.

The river is
A frozen place
Held still beneath
The trees’ black lace.

The sky is low.
The wind is gray.
The radiator
Purrs all day.

To appreciate the Hyman’s intentional diversity upgrade, here is some of her artwork (top) compared to its counterpart in the Burkert edition (bottom):

Another noteworthy revision in the 1999 edition is that it accommodates a less religious notion of spirituality. The second verse of the April poem in the original edition reads:

Each flower, leaf
And blade of sod —
Small letters sent
To her from God.

In 1999, it becomes:

Each flower, leaf,
And blade of turf —
Small love-notes sent
From air to earth.

Of the five children’s books Updike wrote in his lifetime, A Child’s Calendar is the only one composed entirely of original material. The others — three adaptations of Warren Chappell’s music series, The Magic Flute (1962), The Ring (1964) and Bottom’s Dream (1969), and A Helpful Alphabet of Friendly Objects (1995) — were based on existing work.

To take grown-up delight in Updike, see his meditations on the meaning of life and why the world exists, and his soul-stirring poem on the death of his beloved dog.

BP

Walt Whitman Reads “America”: The Only Surviving Recording of the Beloved Poet’s Voice

36 seconds of timeliness from a rare wax-cylinder capsule of timelessness.

Walt Whitman is celebrated as the father of free verse and revered as one of the most influential voices in American literature. A century after his death, a serendipitous discovery surfaced a tape-recording of what is likely an 1889 or 1890 wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading his late poem “America,” an 1888 addition to his continuously revised 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass (public library; public domain). Though the origin and authenticity of the tape, preserved by The Walt Whitman Archive, has been debated, it is currently believed to be the only surviving recording of the beloved poet’s voice. What makes it all the more special is that the poem itself rings with particularly timely resonance as we celebrate a long overdue step towards equality for all in America. Enjoy:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

For an extra helping of awe, complement with James Earl Jones reading Whitman and a superb homage to the cosmos in a mashup of Whitman and NASA, then pair with the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice.

BP

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