Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 7

Elizabeth Barrett Browning on Art as the Crucible of Progress and the Dangerous Cult of Blind Innovation, with Rare Woodcuts by Artist Elfriede Abbe

“The contemplation of excellence produces excellence, if not similar, yet parallel.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning on Art as the Crucible of Progress and the Dangerous Cult of Blind Innovation, with Rare Woodcuts by Artist Elfriede Abbe

In 1856, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6, 1806–June 29, 1861) staggered the world with a sensation best described today as viral: Aurora Leigh — her epic novel in blank verse about a young woman caught in the tension between the life of love and the life of genius, who finds her powerful voice as an artist in a society that seeks to silence it by sublimation to convention. These were dangerous ideas in an era when women could not vote, attend university, or even enter many cultural establishments. Barrett Browning — a key figure in Figuring, from which this piece is adapted — proudly reported that mothers wouldn’t let their daughters read Aurora Leigh, but young women devoured it in secret. It stunned, it shocked, it unsettled the status quo with more than its central claim of women’s intellectual and artistic autonomy, of the right to choose the public sphere and the life of creative work over the domestic sphere and the life of deadening dependence.

Ba — as Elizabeth Barrett was known in childhood — had begun writing poetry before the age of eight, her first known poem protesting compulsory military service. It was in childhood, too, that Ba — the eldest of twelve children — started suffering from the intense spinal headaches and muscle pain that would bedevil her for the remaining four decades of her life, now believed to have been hypokalemic periodic paralysis — a rare disorder that depletes muscles of potassium, effecting extreme weakness and bouts of acute pain. By seventeen, she had published — anonymously — Essay on Mind, and Other Poems, in the preface to which she defined poetry as “the enthusiasm of the understanding,” argued that “thought catches the light reflected from the object of her contemplation,” and divided “the productions of the mind” into two classes: the philosophical and the poetical. Her body of work would rise to the pinnacle of both, rendering her one of the most influential writers of the century. But she was to surmount an uncommon share of adversity before becoming a titan of her time, all the while renouncing the dangerous myth of the suffering artist and insisting that “the worthiest poets have remained uncrowned till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A close succession of tragedies compounded a particularly painful episode of her disease. Just before her thirty-fourth birthday, one of Elizabeth’s brothers died of fever and another — her most beloved sibling — in a sailing accident for which she blamed herself. “That was a very near escape from madness, absolute hopeless madness,” she would later recount. The following year, as her physical symptoms inflicted new heights of anguish, her father took her to London in an invalid carriage. She spent seven years almost continuously bedridden in a darkened upstairs room on Wimpole Street alongside her beloved spaniel Flush, communicating with the outside world only via letters, “as people shut up in dungeons take up with scrawling mottoes on the walls.” Secluded in her sickroom, Barrett counterbalanced her stillness with a ferocious pace of composition that led to her first major literary success and invited the courtship of Robert Browning. “I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett,” Browning — an obscure poet six years her junior — wrote to the stranger whose 1844 poetry collection had enchanted him beyond words. “I love these books with all my heart — and I love you too.”

So began an epistolary courtship — carried out in secret, as Barrett knew her father would condemn the union — that produced some of the most exquisite love letters ever written. Within two years, Barrett and Browning eloped to marry in a small ceremony at a London church around the corner from her sickroom. Her punitively possessive father disinherited her. Poetry became the locus of her self-possession. She began envisioning “a sort of novel-poem… running into the midst of our conventions, and rushing into drawing-rooms… ‘where angels fear to tread’; and so, meeting face to face and without mask the Humanity of the age, and speaking the truth.” She spent the next eleven years conceiving and composing what became Aurora Leigh — the unexampled masterpiece that catapulted her into celebrity, revolutionizing literature and radicalizing society.

The novel-poem’s narrator and protagonist begins life as the daughter of an English father and a Florentine mother, who dies when Aurora is still a small child. When her father also dies, the young Aurora is shipped off to England and raised by a cold, unloving aunt who sees her as a living record of her father’s transgression with a foreigner. As Aurora buries herself in books and gives herself an education, her only companion is her cousin Romney Leigh — a young, idealistic social reformer, who scoffs at Aurora’s aspiration to become a poet, seeing art as too feeble a tool in the campaign of transfiguring the world. Art, he tells her, is inferior to activism, to the hard work of improving life by social reform. At the heart of Aurora’s retort is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s meta-manifesto for how art both reflects life and raises it, for its power to transform and redeem:

What is art,
But life upon the larger scale, the higher,
When, graduating up in a spiral line
Of still expanding and ascending gyres,
It pushes toward the intense significance
Of all things, hungry for the Infinite?
Art’s life, — and where we live, we suffer and toil.

1952 woodcut by artist Elfriede Abbe for Prometheus Bound by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A quarter century earlier, when Barrett was only twenty-seven, she had translated the Ancient Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound, based on the myth of Prometheus and his defiance of the gods, which brought fire to humanity at the cost of perpetual punishment for the hero — a myth in which she must have seen deep resonance to the work of any revolutionary who defies the status quo to bring about a new world order; an allegory in which she must have intuited both the promise and the peril of breaking convention. She would go on to be a modern Prometheus herself, revolutionizing poetry and making a landmark case for women’s right to autonomy in art and life.

1952 woodcut by artist Elfriede Abbe for Prometheus Bound by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
1952 woodcut by artist Elfriede Abbe for Prometheus Bound by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

But for all her revolutionary ideas and impact, Barrett Browning understood the intricate relationship between history and revolution — the latter must not be a renunciation of the former, but must instead improve upon it with an informed intelligence. Innovation unmoored from tradition is an infantile innovation — not originality but hubris.

In her preface to Prometheus Bound, she considers the blind spots of the cult of innovation and what we stand to lose when we so readily and reflexively dismiss the past upon which the future must be built. A century before Susan Sontag considered our ambivalent historical conscience and asserted that “existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future,” Barrett Browning writes:

The present age says… it is, or it would be, and original age… shall dream undreamt of dreams, and glow with an unearthly frenzy. If its dreams be noble dreams, may they be dreamt on; if its frenzy be the evidence of inspiration, “may I,” as Prometheus says, “be mad.” But let the age take heed. — There is one step from dreaming nobly to sleeping inertly; and one, from frenzy to imbecility.

I do not ask, I would not obtain, that our age be severely imitative of any former age. Surely it may think its own thoughts and speak its own words, yet not turn away from those who have thought and spoken well. The contemplation of excellence produces excellence, if not similar, yet parallel.

1952 woodcut by artist Elfriede Abbe for Prometheus Bound by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

This obsession with originality, she argues, is misplaced — at the core of all great art, whatever form it may take, are the most elemental truths of existence, which are inherently timeless, for they arise from nature herself:

We do not turn from green hills and waving forests, because we build and inhabit palaces; nor do we turn towards them, that we may model them in painted wax. We make them subjects of contemplation, in order to abstract form them those ideas of beauty, afterwards embodied in our own productions. —

All beauties, whether in nature or art, in physics or morals, in composition or abstract reasoning, are multiplied reflections, visible in different distances under different positions, of one archetypal beauty.

1952 woodcut by artist Elfriede Abbe for Prometheus Bound by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
1952 woodcut by artist Elfriede Abbe for Prometheus Bound by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Only by contacting these old elemental manifestations of truth and beauty, she would later assert with Aurora Leigh, can art begin to build the world anew. Across the nine books of the novel-poem, across a multitude of trials, her heroine proves this credo with her life. Art, she concludes in the final scene of redemption, is an instrument of truth and transformation — for the human heart and, through it, for the body of the world:

The world’s old;
But the old world waits the hour to be renewed:
Toward which, new hearts in individual growth
Must quicken, and increase to multitude
In new dynasties of the race of men, —
Developed whence, shall grow spontaneously
New churches, new economies, new laws
Admitting freedom, new societies
Excluding falsehood.

Couple with Ursula K. Le Guin on the power of art to transform and redeem, then revisit Elizabeth Barrett Browning on happiness as a moral obligation and what makes life worth living.


Anne Gilchrist’s Beautiful and Heartbreaking Love Letters to Walt Whitman

“Love & Hope are so strong in me, my soul’s high aspirations are of such tenacious, passionate intensity… that what would starve them out of any other woman only makes them strike out deeper roots, grow more resolute & sturdy, in me.”

Anne Gilchrist’s Beautiful and Heartbreaking Love Letters to Walt Whitman

“No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently fancying to himself some ideal image of the man and his mind,” Hermann Melville wrote as he began falling under Nathaniel Hawthorne’s spell. “I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett,” Robert Browning exulted in the first of his love letters to Elizabeth Barrett, “and I love you too.” To be a passionate reader is indeed to live with the risk of becoming besotted with the author of a beloved book. No author has cast a wider or deeper enchantment on more varied human hearts than Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892).

Just before Leaves of Grass stirred the young Bram Stoker to compose his extraordinary stream-of-consciousness love letter to the American poet, Whitman’s verse ignited an even more fervent outpouring of adoration from a compatriot of Stoker’s of the opposite sex: Anne Gilchrist (February 25, 1828–November 29, 1885), whose correspondence with the beloved poet survives in the stunning forsaken volume The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman (free ebook | public library).

Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

At the age of twenty-three, after a two-year engagement, Anne had married a talented art and literary critic of humble means, whose writing would soon earn the friendship of some of Great Britain’s most celebrated authors: Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, John Ruskin, Herbert Spencer, Christina Rossetti. The couple would eventually settle next door to Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh Carlyle. Ten years into the marriage, scarlet fever suddenly widowed Anne and left her to raise her four children as a single mother at thirty-three. Lettered, brilliant, intensely interested in science and philosophy, and enchanted by the channeling of beauty, be it in poetry or in painting, she endeavored to finish the biography of William Blake that her husband had begun, which she published in 1863 to great acclaim with the help of William and Gabriel Rossetti — Christina Rossetti’s brothers.

That is how Walt Whitman came to animate Anne Gilchrist’s life. At the time, William Rossetti was readying to publish the long-belated English edition of Leaves of Grass. Intuiting a kindred sensibility, he gave Gilchrist some of Whitman’s poems. She was instantly besotted. In June of 1869, she exulted in a letter to Rossetti:

Your edition of Walt Whitman’s poems… holds me entirely spellbound, and I go through it again and again with deepening delight and wonder.

On those pages began what would become a rich and unclassifiable bond. “Among the perfect women I have met,” Whitman would later reflect, “I have known none more perfect in every relation, than my dear, dear friend, Anne Gilchrist.” In a conversation with his biographer, he would liken her to Lincoln, whom he considered “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” in America:

Have you noticed that the time to look for the best things in best people is the moment of their greatest need? Look at Lincoln: he is our proudest example: he proved to be big as, bigger than, any emergency — his grasp was a giant’s grasp — made dark things light, made hard things easy…. [Anne] belonged to the same noble breed: seized the reins, was competent; her head was clear, her hand was firm.

Anne Gilchrist

Gilchrist’s first love letter to Whitman was not private but public — an essay titled “An Englishwoman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman,” published anonymously in Boston’s Radical a year after she first became enamored of his verses. Whitman was 51 and Gilchrist 42. Lauding the poems’ “penetrating sweetness, set in the midst of rugged grandeur,” she enthused:

For me the reading of his poems is truly a new birth of the soul.


I had not dreamed that words could cease to be words, and become electric streams like these… I am as one hurried through stormy seas, over high mountains, dazed with sunlight, stunned with a crowd and tumult of faces and voices, till I am breathless, bewildered, half dead. Then come parts and whole poems in which there is such calm wisdom and strength of thought, such a cheerful breadth of sunshine, that the soul bathes in them renewed and strengthened. Living impulses flow out of these that make me exult in life, yet look longingly towards “the superb vistas of Death.” … Not, of course, that all the pieces are equal in power and beauty, but that all are vital; they grew — they were not made. We criticise a palace or a cathedral; but what is the good of criticising a forest? … Seeds brought by the winds from north, south, east, and west, lying long in the earth, not resting on it like the stately building, but hid in and assimilating it, shooting upwards to be nourished by the air and the sunshine and the rain which beat idly against that, — each bough and twig and leaf growing in strength and beauty its own way, a law to itself, yet, with all this freedom of spontaneous growth, the result inevitable, unalterable (therefore setting criticism at naught), above all things, vital, — that is, a source of ever-generating vitality: such are these poems.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Whitman, who cherished trees with a love approaching the divine, was in turn vitalized by this uncommon generosity of sentiment. Decades later, he would affectionately remember Gilchrist as “strangely different from the average; entirely herself; as simple as nature; true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.”

After reading her review, not yet knowing the author’s identity, he wrote to Rossetti: “I had hitherto received no eulogium so magnificent.” Having spent a decade learning how not to let criticism sink his confidence — something no artist ever fully learns but we spend a lifetime practicing — Whitman would later reflect on how much Gilchrist’s plaudit meant to him:

Almost everybody was against me — the papers, the preachers, the literary gentlemen — nearly everybody with only here and there a dissenting voice — when it looked on the surface as if my enterprise was bound to fail… then this wonderful woman. Such things stagger a man… I had got so used to being ignored or denounced that the appearance of a friend was always accompanied with a sort of shock… There are shocks that knock you up, shocks that knock you down.

It would be more than two years before Gilchrist summoned the courage to reach out to Whitman directly and reveal her identity as the reviewer whose praise had so salved him. In early September 1871, months before Bram Stoker composed his own exhilarated love letter to the poet, she wrote to him:

The time will come when man will understand that a woman’s soul is as dear and needful to his and as different from his as her body to his body. This was what happened to me when I had read for a few days, nay, hours, in your books. It was the divine soul embracing mine. I never before dreamed what love meant: not what life meant. Never was alive before — no words but those of “new birth” can hint the meaning of what then happened to me.

After recounting to Whitman the shock of bereavement she had experienced with her husband’s sudden death a decade earlier, she writes as a woman already in love with a stranger whose words have reached to her across time, space, and reason to cast the thickest spell:

In May, 1869, came the voice over the Atlantic to me — O, the voice of my Mate: it must be so — my love rises up out of the very depths of the grief & tramples upon despair. I can wait — any time, a lifetime, many lifetimes — I can suffer, I can dare, I can learn, grow, toil, but nothing in life or death can tear out of my heart the passionate belief that one day I shall hear that voice say to me, “My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife, indissoluble eternal!” It is not happiness I plead with God for — it is the very life of my Soul, my love is its life. Dear Walt. It is a sweet & precious thing, this love; it clings so close, so close to the Soul and Body, all so tenderly dear, so beautiful, so sacred; it yearns with such passion to soothe and comfort & fill thee with sweet tender joy; it aspires as grandly as gloriously as thy own soul. Strong to soar—soft & tender to nestle and caress. If God were to say to me, “See — he that you love you shall not be given to in this life — he is going to set sail on the unknown sea — will you go with him?” never yet has bride sprung into her husband’s arms with the joy with which I would take thy hand & spring from the shore.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Addressing as “dear love” and “my darling” this enchanting stranger whose poems felt as intimate and personal as love letters, Gilchrist writes with an unguarded heart:

O dear Walt, did you not feel in every word the breath of a woman’s love? did you not see as through a transparent veil a soul all radiant and trembling with love stretching out its arms towards you? I was so sure you would speak, would send me some sign: that I was to wait — wait. So I fed my heart with sweet hopes: strengthened it with looking into the eyes of thy picture. O surely in the ineffable tenderness of thy look speaks the yearning of thy man-soul towards my woman-soul? But now I will wait no longer. A higher instinct dominates that other, the instinct for perfect truth. I would if I could lay every thought and action and feeling of my whole life open to thee as it lies to the eye of God. But that cannot be all at once. O come. Come, my darling: look into these eyes and see the loving ardent aspiring soul in them. Easily, easily will you learn to love all the rest of me for the sake of that and take me to your breasts for ever and ever. Out of its great anguish my love has risen stronger, more triumphant than ever: it cannot doubt, cannot fear, is strong, divine, immortal, sure of its fruition this side the grave or the other.

Six weeks later, not having received a response — a stretch of silence unfathomable to the modern reader, in an age when a two-hour text response lag can induce nothing less than heartbreak — Gilchrist writes again with explosive candor, beseeching for an acknowledgement of her letter and her love:

Spare me the needless suffering of uncertainty on this point & let me have one line, one word, of assurance that I am no longer hidden from you by a thick cloud — I from thee — not thou from me: for I that have never set eyes upon thee, all the Atlantic flowing between us, yet cleave closer than those that stand nearest & dearest around thee — love thee day & night: — last thoughts, first thoughts, my soul’s passionate yearning toward thy divine Soul, every hour, every deed and thought — my love for my children, my hopes, aspirations for them, all taking new shape, new height through this great love. My Soul has staked all upon it. In dull dark moods when I cannot, as it were, see thee, still, still always a dumb, blind yearning towards thee — still it comforts me to touch, to press to me the beloved books — like a child holding some hand in the dark — it knows not whose — but knows it is enough — knows it is a dear, strong, comforting hand. Do not say I am forward, or that I lack pride because I tell this love to thee who have never sought or made sign of desiring to seek me. Oh, for all that, this love is my pride my glory. Source of sufferings and joys that cannot put themselves into words. Besides, it is not true thou hast not sought or loved me. For when I read the divine poems I feel all folded round in thy love… I know not how to bear the yearning answering tenderness that fills my breast.

At this point, one is tempted to regard Gilchrist with the peculiar fusion of admiration and pity that such unbridled self-prostration inspires in an impartial observer; or, less charitably, to dismiss her as an infatuated fan who has constructed the elaborate scaffolding of a fantasy love around a distant public figure. But just as her despair — and that of any reader of these rending letters — approaches the unbearable, Whitman writes back. Two weeks later — practically instantaneously, given the pace of transatlantic mail — he sends her a short, largehearted letter, emotionally generous yet deliberately reserved by comparison to her effusive outpourings of love:

I have been waiting quite a while for time and the right mood, to answer your letter in a spirit as serious as its own, and in the same unmitigated trust and affection. But more daily work than ever has fallen to me to do the present season, and though I am well and contented, my best moods seem to shun me. I wish to give to it a day, a sort of Sabbath, or holy day, apart to itself, under serene and propitious influences, confident that I could then write you a letter which would do you good, and me too. But I must at least show without further delay that I am not insensible to your love. I too send you my love. And do you feel no disappointment because I now write so briefly. My book is my best letter, my response, my truest explanation of all. In it I have put my body and spirit. You understand this better and fuller and clearer than any one else. And I too fully and clearly understand the loving letter it has evoked. Enough that there surely exists so beautiful and a delicate relation, accepted by both of us with joy.

Willfully unwitting of Whitman’s gentle message that his art is his love, which is not the personal love she craves, Gilchrist responds with the insistence that she only knew what the word “love” meant after she read his poems. Envisioning “the sweetest, noblest, closest, tenderest companionship ever yet tasted by man & woman” as available to them, weaving Whitman’s own words into her plea for requital, she writes:

Your book does indeed say all — book that is not a book, for the first time a man complete, godlike, august, standing revealed the only way possible, through the garment of speech… quickened into life through such love, such sympathy, such resistless attraction.


I know how hard to attain to this greatness, the grandest lot ever aspired to by woman. I know too my own shortcomings, faults, flaws. You might not be able to give me your great love yet — to take me to your breast with joy. But I can wait. I can grow great & beautiful through sorrow & suffering, working, struggling, yearning, loving so, all alone, as I have done now nearly three years… Love & Hope are so strong in me, my soul’s high aspirations are of such tenacious, passionate intensity, are so conscious of their own deathless reality, that what would starve them out of any other woman only makes them strike out deeper roots, grow more resolute & sturdy, in me. I know that “greatness will not ripen for me like a pear.” But I could face, I could joyfully accept, the fiercest anguish, the hardest toil, the longest, sternest probation, to make me fit to be your mate — so that at the last you should say, “This is the woman I have waited for, the woman prepared for me: this is my dear eternal comrade, wife — the one I so much want.” Life has no other meaning for me than that — all things have led up to help prepare me for that. Death is more welcome to me than life if it means that — if thou, dear sailor, thou sailing upon thy endless cruise, takest me on board — me, daring, all with thee, steering for the deep waters, bound where mariner has not yet dared to go: hand in hand with thee, nestled close — one with thee.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Whitman, too, seems willfully unwitting of the discomfiting truth at the heart of her letters — that she loves him with a self-generated ardor he could never return, so vast and all-demanding and uncalibrated to his nature as a queer man. When he responds by saying that he dreams of going to “Old England” one day, and thus seeing her and her children — “but it is a dream only” — he seems not to realize that “only” is so infinite a landscape for fantasy in the mind of the hopelessly infatuated. And yet he does warn her, in his gentle poetic way, that the love she experiences may be a misplaced projection at his private person on the basis of his public art. Gilchrist responds with an impassioned, almost unbearably beautiful and heartbreaking counter-insistence, reasoning against reason:

If it seems to you there must needs be something unreal, illusive, in a love that has grown up entirely without the basis of personal intercourse, dear Friend, then you do not yourself realize your own power nor understand the full meaning of your own words, “whoso touches this, touches a man” — “I have put my Soul & Body into these Poems.” Real effects imply real causes. Do you suppose that an ideal figure conjured up by her own fancy could, in a perfectly sound, healthy woman of my age, so happy in her children, so busy & content, practical, earnest, produce such real & tremendous effect — saturating her whole life, colouring every waking moment — filling her with such joys, such pains that the strain of them has been well nigh too much even for a strong frame, coming as it does, after twenty years of hard work?

Therefore please, dear Friend, do not “warn” me any more — it hurts so, as seeming to distrust my love. Time only can show how needlessly. My love, flowing ever fresh & fresh out of my heart, will go with you in all your wanderings, dear Friend, enfolding you day and night, soul & body, with tenderness that tries so vainly to utter itself in these poor, helpless words, that clings closer than any man’s love can cling.

And yet despite the all-consuming cloud of her infatuation, Gilchrist manages — as we all manage, even in our most enchanted states — to maintain some lucid part of herself, some clear awareness of the asymmetrical intensity of feeling. Eight months into the correspondence, in between effusions, she gives that part a share of voice:

Perhaps the letters that I have sent you since that first, have given you a feeling of constraint towards me because you cannot respond to them. I will not write any more such letters; or, if I write them because my heart is so full it cannot bear it, they shall not find their way to the Post. But do not, because I give you more than friendship, think that it would not be a very dear & happy thing to me to have friendship only from you.

Anyone who has vowed not to text a crush, then watched the resolve melt into permissive rationalizations of why texting is a good idea, knows the polarized place of resignation and electric desire from which Gilchrist is composing these futile words — for, in the very next breath, she uncorks the longing she has just resolved to keep bottled up, imploring him to write and insisting that her love, though it had begun in his poems, is irrepressibly aimed at his person:

I am sure dear friend, if you realize the joy it is to me to receive a few words from you — about anything that is passing in your thoughts & around — how beaming bright & happy the day a letter comes & many days after — how light hearted & alert I set about my daily tasks, it would not seem irksome to you to write. And if you say, “Read my books, & be content — you have me in them,” I say, it is because I read them so that I am not content. It is an effort to me to turn to any other reading… I want nothing else — am fully fed & satisfied there. I sit alone many hours… brooding over the poems, sunning myself in them, pondering the vistas — all the experience of my past life & all its aspirations corroborating them — all my future & so far as in me lies the future of my children to be shaped modified vitalized by & through these — outwardly & inwardly. How can I be content to live wholly isolated from you? I am sure it is not possible for any one, — man or woman, it does not matter which, to receive these books, not merely with the intellect critically admiring their power & beauty, but with an understanding responsive heart, without feeling it drawn out of their breasts so that they must leave all & come to be with you sometimes without a resistless yearning for personal intercourse that will take no denial.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Although the correspondence continued to be staggeringly asymmetrical, with a ten-month silence from Whitman, Gilchrist’s “resistless yearning for personal intercourse” remained undeterred indeed. Whitman was never cool to her. But he met her boundless passion with contained warmth — a tragic asymmetry of affection evocative of Emily Dickinson’s lifelong ardor for Susan Gilbert and Herman Melville’s for Nathaniel Hawthorne. Governed by her devotion and willfully blind to the asymmetry, Gilchrist began dreaming of moving to America to be near her “darling Walt” — dreams that fermented into plans after Whitman’s paralytic stroke in 1873, followed closely by the death of his beloved sister and mother. He wrote to her from the thick fog of these losses:

Since I last wrote, clouds have darkened over me, and still remain.


Do not think hard of me for not writing in reply. If you could look into my spirit & emotion you would be entirely satisfied & at peace… I am at present temporarily here at Camden, on the Delaware river, opposite Philadelphia, at the house of my brother, and I am occupying, as I write, the rooms wherein my mother died… You must not be unhappy about me, as I am as comfortably situated as can be — & many things — indeed every thing — in my case might be so much worse. Though my plans are not definite, my intention as far as anything is on getting stronger.

He then did something astounding — something the effect of which on a lovestruck heart he must not have realized:

The enclosed ring I have just taken from my finger, & send to you, with my love.

How the besotted Gilchrist interpreted the gesture is hardly surprising. Addressing him as “my Beloved,” she gushes:

O the precious letter, bearing to me the living touch of your hand, vibrating through & through me as I feel the pressure of the ring that pressed your flesh — & now will press mine so long as I draw breath. My Darling! take comfort & strength & joy from me that you have made so rich & strong.


When my eyes first open in the morning, often such tender thoughts, yearning ineffably, pitying, sorrowful, sweet thoughts flow into my breast that longs & longs to pillow on itself the suffering head (with white hair more beautiful to me than the silvery clouds which always make me think of it.)

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

The ring only amplified her longing to be near him, to care for him as part-wife, part-mother, part-comrade — she decided to move to America. Whitman immediately discouraged the plan, perhaps sensing that he could never meet her love in kind. Even if he were not the poet laureate of same-sex love, he must have intuited that she loved a version of him so idealized, so exalted to the point of worship, that his mortal reality could only ever disappoint her to the point of devastation — the pedestal would topple, crushing a tender heart he cared to protect. Nowhere is the collision between the ideal and the real more violent, nor more mutually wounding, than in an asymmetrical love warped by one-sided idealization.

Gilchrist did not heed his deterrence. She had seen her migration to America as her “settled, steady purpose (resting on a deep, strong faith) ever since 1869,” when she first devoured Leaves of Grass. Now she began actively imagining their life together in a mutually enriching partnership:

I turn my face to the westward sky before I lie down to sleep, deep & steadfast within me the silent aspiration that every year, every month & week, may help something to prepare and make fitter me and mine to be your comfort and joy. We are full of imperfections, short-comings but half developed, but half “possessing our own souls.” But we grow, we learn, we strive — that is the best of us. I think in the sunshine of your presence we shall grow fast — I too, my years notwithstanding.

Under this blinding vision, she once again returns to the seedbed of her love for him — his art:

No one hundreds of years hence will find deeper joy in these poems than I — breathe the fresh, sweet, exhilarating air of them, bathe in it, drink in what nourishes & delights the whole being, body, intellect & soul, more than I. Nor could you, when writing them, have desired to come nearer to a human being & be more to them forever & forever than you are & will be to me. O I take the hand you stretch out each day — I put mine into it with a sense of utter fulfilment: I ask nothing more of time and of eternity but to live and grow up to that companionship that includes all.

Her physical presence in his life, she insists, would be nothing less than medicinal. It would be a love that meets every need — the most treacherous promise of our romantic mythology, for no one person could ever meet the tessellated needs of another fully. She writes:

I believe if I could only make you conscious of the love, the enfolding love, my heart breathes out toward you it would do you physical good; many-sided love — Mother’s love that cherishes, that delights so in personal service, that sees in sickness & suffering such dear appeals to an answering, limitless tenderness — wife’s love — ah, you draw that from me too, resistlessly — I have no choice — comrade’s love, so happy in sharing all, pain, sorrow, toil, effort, enjoyments, thoughts, hopes, aims, struggles, disappointment, beliefs, aspirations. Child’s love, too, that trusts utterly, confides unquestioningly.

On August 30, 1876, after a seven-year longing, Gilchrist set sail for America with three of her children. To the reluctant Whitman, who had tried to dissuade her by stressing the perilousness of transatlantic travel and cautioning her that the “crudeness” of Americans might offend her sensibility, she cited her eldest daughter’s future as a primary motivation — Beatrice was determined to become a doctor, but proper medical education was not yet available to women in England, for they were not permitted to enter any hospital for the clinical portion of their studies. A quarter century earlier, Gilchrist’s compatriot Elizabeth Blackwell had traversed the Atlantic to set precedent as the first woman to receive a medical degree in America.

The family settled in Concord, where Gilchrist soon made the acquaintance of Emerson — by that point, America’s most esteemed literary tastemaker, whose extraordinary letter to the young Whitman had pivoted the fate of Leaves of Grass from a derided and dismissed creative experiment to a literary masterpiece on the lips, minds, and shelves of every book-lover in America. In Concord, in “the companionship of very lovable men and women,” Gilchrist began enjoying outdoor pleasures, so dear to Whitman himself and so central to his makeshift physical therapy while recovering from the stroke. She reported to him:

They lead an easy-going life here — seem to spend half their time floating about on the river — or meeting in the evening to talk & read aloud.

Anne Gilchrist. Photogravure of a portrait by her son, Herbert Gilchrist.

We shall never know what was exchanged, thought, felt when Gilchrist and Whitman first met. (The loss of letters, Margaret Fuller had lamented, “makes irreparable gaps in the history of feeling,” and an even vaster abyss gapes across the unrecorded moments that take place in the intimacy of physical proximity and presence — letters, after all, presuppose distance and absence.) What we do know is that, under the hard light of reality, Gilchrist’s idealized romantic love soon melted into a warm and largehearted affection that would bind the two for the remainder of their lives. Whitman dined at her house frequently and her children came to call him “Uncle Walt.” Her artist son painted a portrait of him. The poet would later write of his uncommon and label-defying regard for her:

I have that sort of feeling about her which cannot easily be spoken of — …: love (strong personal love, too), reverence, respect — you see, it won’t go into words: all the words are weak and formal.

Despite being nearly a decade her elder, Whitman would go on to outlive Gilchrist. Upon received word of her death from her son, he could only summon these spare, sundering words:

Dear Herbert:

I have received your letter. Nothing now remains but a sweet and rich memory — none more beautiful all time, all life all the earth — I cannot write anything of a letter to-day. I must sit alone and think.

Walt Whitman.

He would remember her as “a sort of human miracle,” “a supreme character of whom the world knows too little for its own good,” one whose “vision went on and on” and who “belonged to the times yet to come.” He would commemorate her in one of his most beautiful poems:


My science-friend, my noblest woman-friend
(Now buried in an English grave — and this a memory — leaf for her dear sake),
Ended our talk — “The sum, concluding all we know of old or modern learning, intuitions deep,
Of all Geologies — Histories — of all Astronomy — of Evolution, Metaphysics all,
Is, that we all are onward, onward, speeding slowly, surely bettering,
Life, life an endless march, an endless army (no halt, but, it is duly over),
The world, the race, the soul — in space and time the universes,
All bound as is befitting each — all surely going somewhere.”

The whole of The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman is the kind of soulful, heartbreakingly beautiful read that reminds us what we stand to lose with the loss of letter writing — “the humane art,” Virginia Woolf called it. Though bittersweetly dated in their form, these letters speak to and salve the most timeless palpitations of the human heart. Complement them with other uncommonly splendid exemplars of the love letter form: Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert, Kahlil Gibran to Mary Haskell, Vladimir Nabokov to Véra Nabokova, Iris Murdoch to Brigit Brophy, Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, and Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.


15-Year-Old Susan Sontag on the Explosive Elasticity of the Self

“All that animates me and is the original and responsive desire that constitutes my ‘self’ — all this takes on a definite shape and size — far too large to be contained by the structure I call my body.”

“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal,” Walt Whitman wrote as he contemplated identity and the paradox of the self. “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” the young Leo Tolstoy distilled the eternal quest in his diary as he wrestled with moral development and the search for selfhood — a search that begins as soon as we become conscious, reaches a crescendo in the formative years of adolescence and young adulthood, and continues until our last neuron ceases to fire. We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.

A century after Whitman and Tolstoy, Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) — another towering intellect of uncommon insight into the human spirit — examined the perennial preoccupation of consciousness in a cometic passage from the diary of her youth, posthumously published as Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — that spectacular collection of meditations, which also gave us the young Sontag on personal growth, art, marriage, the four people a great writer must be, and her duties for being a twenty-something.

Susan Sontag

In a journal entry from late February 1948, shortly after her fifteenth birthday, Sontag writes:

I must not think of the solar system — of innumerable galaxies spanned by countless light years — of infinities of space — I must not look up at the sky for longer than a moment — I must not think of death, of forever — I must not do all those things so that I will not know these horrible moments when my mind seems a tangible thing — more than my mind — my whole spirit — all that animates me and is the original and responsive desire that constitutes my “self” — all this takes on a definite shape and size — far too large to be contained by the structure I call my body — All this pulls and pushes — years and strains (I feel it now) until I must clench my fists — I rise — who can keep still — every muscle is on a rack — striving to build itself into an immensity — I want to scream — my stomach feels compressed — my legs, feet, toes stretching until they hurt.

Complement this particular passage of the intensely insightful and rewarding Reborn with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being, the power of music, the conscience of words, art as a form of spirituality, and her spectacular Letter to Borges.


Harriet Hosmer on Art and Ambition: The World’s First Successful Woman Sculptor on What It Takes to Be a Great Artist

“If one knew but one-half the difficulties an artist has to surmount… the public would be less ready to censure him for his shortcomings or slow advancement. The only remedy I know is patience with perseverance, and these are always sure, with a real honest love for art, to produce something.”

Harriet Hosmer on Art and Ambition: The World’s First Successful Woman Sculptor on What It Takes to Be a Great Artist

A steamboat is puffing up the Mississippi River, approaching a bluff towering above the shore, not far from where a steamboat pilot named Samuel Clemens would pick up his pen name Mark Twain a decade later. Bored and brazen, the young men aboard boast that they can reach the top of the bluff. One scoffs that if women weren’t such poor climbers, the ladies in the party could join them.

Harriet Hosmer thrusts her hands into her pockets and a mischievous smile lifts her chin as she proposes a foot race, wagering that she can reach the summit before any of the boys. A spectator to the scene would later remember her as “a gay, romping, athletic schoolgirl.” The captain, amused, banks the boat, and off they all go. Harriet — Hatty to those who love her — slices through changing altitudinal zones of vegetation up the five hundred feet of elevation above the river, dashing through the virgin pine forest, charging through the bramble, and scrambling up the jagged rock to triumph first atop the summit, waving a victorious handkerchief.

The captain, with amusement transmuted into astonishment, christens the bluff Mount Hosmer — a name it bears to this day.

This is not Harriet Hosmer’s first triumph against expectation and convention, and it is far from her last.

Harriet Hosmer

At twenty-one, she has given herself the Mississippi River adventure as a small summer reward for having completed her anatomical studies — a centerpiece of her plan, as confident and single of purpose as her climbing wager, to become a sculptor. Packed in her trunk is a diploma from the medical school of St. Louis University. The year is 1851. An American university attended by men is not to officially begin admitting women for decades to come.

Harriet Hosmer (October 9, 1830–February 21, 1908) — one of the key figures in Figuring (public library), from which this essay is adapted — would go on to become the world’s first successful female sculptor and one of the most celebrated sculptors since ancient Greece, a neoalchemist who invents a process for transmuting cheap limestone into precious marble, a Pygmalion of her own destiny. She would break new ground for women, claim a place for American art in the Old World pantheon, model for artists a life of self-made prosperity and uncompromising creative vision, and furnish queer culture with a bold new vocabulary of being.

“Hosmer and Her Men” – a photograph Hosmer and her workmen, which she originally commissioned and titled with the intention of giving it away to friends as a joke.

The autumn after her Mississippi River adventure, as she was growing disillusioned with America’s rampant commercialism so dispiriting to artists and troubled by her culture’s limited opportunities for women, Hosmer met the expatriate Charlotte Cushman — the most prominent American actress of her time — who was visiting Boston as part of her farewell tour of the United States before settling permanently in Italy. Enchanted by Cushman’s tales of Rome, with its thriving creative world and its lively community of expats and queer artists, Hosmer made another radical decision that would shape her life: She would move to Rome to apprentice with one of the great masters.

Four weeks before her departure, she wrote in a letter to her early patron, father of her beloved — Cornelia Carr — and a father figure to Hatty herself:

You do not know how thoroughly dissatisfied I am with my present mode of life. I ought to be accomplishing thrice as much as now, and feel that I am soul-bound and thought-bound in this land of dollars and cents. I take it there is inspiration in the very atmosphere of Italy, and that there, one intuitively becomes artistic in thought. Could the government of this country and its glorious privileges be united with the splendors of art in Italy, that union would produce terrestrial perfection… My motto is going to be, “Live well, do well, and all will be well.”

Just before her twenty-second birthday, Harriet packed the diploma of her anatomical studies and two daguerreotypes of her first acclaimed statue, inspired by a Tennyson poem and modeled on Cornelia — a bust of Hesper, the evening star from Greek mythology — and sailed for Europe with her father, who was to help her settle in. Upon her arrival, Hosmer pursued what she considered “the dearest wish” of her heart: studying with the great English sculptor John Gibson — the unofficial king of Rome’s expatriate artist community, himself trained by the pioneering neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova.

Gibson had many applicants, but had accepted none when another sculptor approached him on Hosmer’s behalf and showed him the daguerreotype of Hesper. Gibson’s oft-cited response might be the ornament of early florid biographies, or it might be the simple fact of the occasion: “Send the young lady to me, — whatever I can teach her, she shall learn.” Whatever Gibson said, what he did remains indisputable: He took on Harriet as his sole student, gave her the room in his studio where Canova had previously worked, and immersed her in attentive mentorship, extolling to anyone who would listen her “vast degree of native genius.” He gave her books, casts, and engravings to study and assigned her sculptures to copy in perfecting her craft. Hosmer took to it all with indefatigable enthusiasm and work ethic. She wrote to Cornelia’s father:

One must have great patience in matters of art, it is so very difficult, and excellence in it is only the result of long time… Oh, if one knew but one-half the difficulties an artist has to surmount, the amount of different kinds of study necessary, before he can see the path even beginning to open before him, the public would be less ready to censure him for his shortcomings or slow advancement. The only remedy I know is patience with perseverance, and these are always sure, with a real honest love for art, to produce something.

Rome became Hosmer’s sandbox of self-invention. It offered the strange alchemy by which we transmute our former selves — barely recognizable in their different bodies and different minds holding different ideas, values, and beliefs — into the fleeting constellation of what we so confidently claim as a solid self at this particular moment. The chain of umbilical cords by which one self gives birth to another again and again at once fetters us to our past and liberates us into a novel future. That chain is invisible, except for the rare moments when we feel it tug on the confident present self with its formidable weight. With an eye to her teenage days near Boston, Hosmer wrote to Cornelia:

My life is so unlike what it was then. I think and feel so differently it seems to me I must have left my former body and found another… These changes make me feel twenty years older.

Meanwhile, her perseverance and devotion paid off. After a year of study with Gibson, she was ready to create her first original sculpture since Hesper — another bust of a woman drawn from ancient Greek mythology, loaded with meaning and layered with questions about women’s status, rights, and fate in a male-dominated society: Medusa.

According to the version of the Greek legend Hosmer chose, the beautiful Medusa was raped by the sea god Poseidon — a crime committed in the temple of Athena, for which the goddess of wisdom decided to dispense punishment. But in a subtle reminder that the writers of these myths were men, the jealous Athena, rather than punishing the rapist, punished Medusa for having attracted Poseidon’s attention — she transformed the lovely maiden into a gorgon so hideous that men turned to stone at the sight of her. In an era when statutory rape was almost impossible to prosecute in Hosmer’s homeland, where wives had no legal right to refuse sex to their husbands and legions of white men were raping black women with complete legal and societal impunity, her depiction of Medusa was a bold and prescient choice commenting on the gruesome deficiencies of a justice system that had failed to protect women since antiquity and a society in which victim-blaming has endured to the present day.

Harriet Hosmer: Medusa (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Medusa was a popular subject with the great masters, but she was customarily rendered in her monstrous form following Athena’s punishment. Hosmer chose to capture the moment of transfiguration — her bust, completed in 1854, depicts a proud and beautiful woman just as her hair is beginning to turn into serpents. She cast Medusa’s hair from a real snake captured in the wilderness outside Rome. But she didn’t have the heart to kill the serpent, so she anesthetized it with chloroform, made a cast by keeping it in plaster for three and a half hours, then released it back into the wild. Hosmer’s Medusa — her choice of subject matter, her atypical depiction, her treatment of the live serpent — embodies the complex relationship between agency, victimhood, and mercy made tangible.

The same year, Hosmer created another original sculpture animated by a similar subject: a bust of Daphne, the beautiful nymph who ran from Apollo’s lust and, in the final moment before being overtaken, was transformed into a laurel tree by her merciful father, the river god Ladon. Here was another woman who had to relinquish her womanhood and her very humanity in order to avoid the assailing ardor of unwanted male attention. In Hosmer’s marmoreal rendering, a Hesper-like Daphne glances downward with a subtle smile as a laurel branch curves beneath her bare breasts.

Harriet Hosmer’s bust of Daphne (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Her sculptures garnered acclaim unprecedented not only for someone so young and so female, but for any artist breaking new ground. Newspapers hailed her busts of Daphne and Medusa as “convincing proof of her genius and success.” The famed English actress Fanny Kemble wrote of Hosmer, whom she had befriended back in Massachusetts:

I think she will distinguish herself greatly, for she not only is gifted with an unusual artistic capacity, but she has energy, perseverance, and industry; attributes often wanting where genius exists…

Meanwhile, Gibson took care to vaccinate her against the inevitable dark side of success — the petty jealousies that always follow genius like a swarm of flies trailing behind an elephant. He gave the young artist advice she encoded into the marrow of her being:

There are many obstacles in the path to fame, but to surmount them, to produce fine works, we must have tranquillity of mind. Those who are envious cannot be happy, nor can the vicious. We must have internal peace, to give birth to beautiful ideas. I am glad that you feel impatient to begin your statue; that impatience is love, the love of the art. The more you feel it, the more is the soul inflamed with ambition, the ambition of excellence.

The statue she could hardly wait to begin would become her great masterpiece: Zenobia in Chains — an homage to another woman who has taken charge of her own destiny, and another poignant meditation on the relationship between victimhood and agency.

Zenobia was the third-century queen of the land that is now Syria — one of antiquity’s two famous female heads of state, far more politically ferocious than Cleopatra and ultimately far more tragic. Many centuries later, Margaret Fuller — who spent her own final and most fertile years in Rome — would write in her epoch-making book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, perhaps with Zenobia in mind:

The presence of a woman on the throne always makes its mark. Life is lived before the eyes of men, by which their imaginations are stimulated as to the possibilities of Woman.

An erudite and intellectually ambitious woman who valued conquests of the mind as much as those of land, Zenobia cultivated a welcome atmosphere for scholars in her court and espoused equality within her dominion, where people of various ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds mingled. In the year 270, Zenobia led an invasion of the Roman Empire. She conquered the majority of the Roman East and annexed Egypt. Over the next two years, she continued extending her empire, which nonetheless remained under the nominal jurisdiction of the Roman Emperor, until she eventually declared complete secession. In the ensuing revolution, the Roman army prevailed after a bloody fight, capturing Zenobia and exiling her to Rome. Playing with the line between homage and refutation, Hosmer’s Zenobia presented an aesthetic parallel and a conceptual mirror image to the celebrated sculptor Hiram Powers’s The Greek Slave, which depicted a feeble young nude about to be sold at auction. Powers’s choice to eroticize and glamorize subjugation is particularly perplexing, given that the sculptor himself was part Native American. His blockbuster statue was not without critics. Chief among them were Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose poem “The Greek Slave” offered a counterpoint to Powers’s depiction of resigned passivity in the face of oppression, and John Tenniel, the original illustrator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who published a cartoon in the famed satirical magazine Puck, depicting a black woman on an auction block in the posture of the Powers statue under the caption “The Virginian Slave, Intended as a Companion to Powers’ Greek Slave.”

Unlike Powers’s helpless nude, Hosmer’s larger-than-life Zenobia — “of a size with which I might be compared as a mouse to a camel,” she wrote to Cornelia — depicts the captive queen, still in her regal robe and crown, as she is being paraded in the streets of Rome. One strong hand is holding up the chain hanging between her shackled wrists, as though willfully refraining from snapping the link and breaking free. Gazing down from her seven-foot stature, Zenobia’s intelligent face radiates complete composure — an unassailable dignity despite defeat, bolstered by the knowledge that she has fought for her values to the hilt.

Harriet Hosmer’s Zenobia in Chains. Photograph by Skip Moss.

Hosmer deliberately subverted other popular depictions of the ancient queen. Five years earlier, just after his intense romance with Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne had woven into his novel The Blithedale Romance a character named Zenobia — an opinionated woman of brilliance and beauty, bedeviled by excessive pride, modeled on Margaret Fuller — a thankless portrayal of the woman who had launched his literary career with her own generous pen. His Zenobia eventually elects her own ruin and drowns herself. A more historically literal interpretation had appeared in another novel published when Hosmer was a child, the year her mother died. In it, the queen is eventually stripped of dignity and reduced to “Zenobia in ruins.”

Hosmer’s Zenobia, while in chains, was a woman of inextinguishable strength and moral triumph. A widely circulated praiseful review of the statue quoted Hosmer: “I have tried to make her too proud to exhibit passion or emotion of any kind; not subdued though a prisoner; but calm, grand, and strong within herself.” She had worked on her masterpiece for nearly three years. (“Nobody asks you how long you have been on a thing but fools,” Gibson had told her at the outset of her career, “and you don’t care what they think.”) But the success of the statue became a focal point of the professional jealousies that had been orbiting Hosmer’s rising star. An anonymous article in a London paper alleged that Zenobia was created by Harriet’s workmen and not by the sculptor herself. Another article insinuated that Gibson had sculpted it and let his pupil claim the credit. Hosmer didn’t hesitate to sue for libel. Corrections were printed. In the course of the lawsuit, it was revealed that the author of the malicious rumor was Joseph Mozier — another expatriate American sculptor, who had long harbored jealousy for the far more successful Hosmer and who had been particularly riled by her recent winning of the commission for a major monument to Thomas Hart Benton, the nation’s longest-serving senator.

“Harriet Hosmer at Work,” with her statue of Thomas Hart Benton.

Later, Hosmer — a prolific lifelong writer of satirical verses — would make light of the incident in a lengthy poem titled “The Doleful Ditty of the Roman Caffe Greco,” which includes these lines spoken by one of the pompous male patrons of the famed artists’ café:

’Tis time, my friends, we cogitate,
And make some desperate stand.
Or else our sister artists here
Will drive us from the land.

It does seem hard that we at last
Have rivals in the clay,
When for so many happy years
We had it all our way.

This dignity of self-possession against the status quo would always animate Hosmer’s work and the personal values from which she mined her marble. During one of her visits to America, campaigning for a memorial of Abraham Lincoln, she went to hear a sermon by Phebe Ann Hanaford — one of the nation’s first women ministers. Moved, Hosmer wrote to Hanaford, whom she saw as a spiritual artist:

I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels her walk lies in another; strength enough to stand up to be laughed at, if necessary. That is the bitter pill we must all swallow in the beginning, but I regard these pills as tonics quite essential to one’s mental salvation.

Harriet Hosmer, studio portrait.

More of Hosmer’s unusual and trailblazing life — her visionary art, her beautiful and countercultural loves, her courage to be her own self in a culture that continually tyrannized with a single correct way of being and loving — unfolds in Figuring. Every woman artist born in the epochs since, every creative person who has carved out a purposeful life amid a culture where they are in any way “other,” every queer person who is comfortably out or benefits from living in a culture where there is hardly anything left to be “in,” is indebted to Harriet Hosmer — the bedrock of our being is marbled with the ancestral genes of hers.


View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated. Privacy policy.