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Beloved Writers on Nature as an Antidote to Depression

On the consolations of monarchs and of stars.

Beloved Writers on Nature as an Antidote to Depression

“It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in his deepest-feeling, furthest-seeing poem. When the dark patches fall on me also, I stand with Whitman in turning to the most reliable wellspring of light — the natural world, or what he so soulfully termed “the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life” — the Moon seen through a telescope, so proximate and unassailable, this radiant orb of primeval scar tissue; the mossy trunk of a centuries-old cedar, ringed with the survival of wars and famines, a silent witness to countless human heartaches; the song of the thrush and the bloom of the magnolia and the lush optimism of that first blade of grass through the frosty soil — these bewilderments of beauty do not dissipate the depression, but they do dissipate the self-involvement with which we humans live through our sorrows, and in so unselfing us, they give us back to ourselves.

The Bearable Lightness of Being by Maria Popova. (Available as a print benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

Here are several beloved writers from the past quarter millennium who have known the dark patches intimately and have written beautifully about this abiding antidote to the inner gloom, beginning, as we must, with the poet laureate of Nature himself.


Even as he was composing Leaves of Grass — that timeless gift of light — Whitman was wormed by the darkest self-doubt: “Every thing I have done seems to me blank and suspicious,” he anguished in his diary. “I doubt whether my greatest thoughts…. are not shallow — and people will most likely laugh at me.” But on some elemental level, he knew that those capable of reaching “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights” are equally apt “to dwell on the bare spots and darknesses.” He believed “that no artist or work of the very first class may be or can be without them.” It is a notion entirely different from the dangerous myth of the suffering artist — rather, it is the bold acknowledgement that in order for one to make works of irrepressible truth and beauty, one ought to feel fully, to draw on the entire spectrum of being without repressing the darkest emotions.

In Whitman’s fifty-third year, life tested his credo — a paralytic stroke left him severely disabled. Under his brother’s care in the woods of New Jersey, he set about the slow, painstaking process of recovery. As he began regaining use of his body, he attributed the small, hard-earned triumphs to being “daily in the open air,” among the trees and under the stars. He eventually recovered almost completely, having turned the woods into an outdoor gym, but the cataclysm left him existentially shaken into considering the most elemental questions: Where does one find meaning amid the precarious uncertainty of being? How does one maximize those little pockets of gladness that make it possible to go on living and making art through acute suffering? What, ultimately, makes life worth living?

His resulting meditations appear in Specimen Days (public library) — the altogether indispensable collection of his prose fragments, letters, and journal entries that also gave us Whitman’s reflections on the spiritual power of music, optimism as a force of political resistance, and how to keep criticism from sinking your creative confidence.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

A decade after his stroke, Whitman looked back on what saved him — body and soul — and writes:

The trick is, I find, to tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.


After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.

In another entry, he considers the essence of happiness, locating it in absolute presence with nature and unalloyed attention with the rhythms of the Earth:

I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mostly owing to these skies, (every now and then I think, while I have of course seen them every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before,) I have had this autumn some wondrously contented hours — may I not say perfectly happy ones? As I’ve read, Byron just before his death told a friend that he had known but three happy hours during his whole existence. Then there is the old German legend of the king’s bell, to the same point. While I was out there by the wood, that beautiful sunset through the trees, I thought of Byron’s and the bell story, and the notion started in me that I was having a happy hour. (Though perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda. I just abandon myself to the mood, and let it float on, carrying me in its placid extasy.)


“Life must be undergone,” John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) wrote to his closest friend, “and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases.” Keats’s brief life was savaged by periodic onslaughts of depression. In another fragment of his excellent in his Selected Letters (public library), he writes: “I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence.”

Keats found only two remedies for the soul-stifling numbness: the love of his friends (“I could not live without the love of my friends”) and the love of nature. Another letter to his dearest friend stands as a beautiful, bittersweet testament to both:

You perhaps at one time thought there was such a thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out — you have of necessity from your disposition been thus led away — I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights — or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.


It is impressive enough that Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965) — whom James Baldwin adored and described as “a small, shy, determined person… not trying to ‘make it’ [but just] trying to keep the faith” — revolutionized our cultural landscape of possibility by becoming the first black playwright performed on Broadway and going on to furnish civil rights with a whole new vocabulary of action. It is triply impressive that she did so while the grey nimbus of depression hung low and heavy over vast swaths of her life. Hansberry kept the faith largely by turning to nature for its irrepressible light.

In a diary entry quoted in Imani Perry’s altogether magnificent biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library), Hansberry observes with dispassionate remove that her unhappiness has taken on the shape of “a steady, calm quiet sort of misery”; sitting in a place she had once adored, now feeling “feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired” there, she turns her weary gaze toward the only salve she knows:

Hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries… even in its astounding imperfection this earth of ours is magnificent.


To those superficially acquainted with his life and work, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) might appear as a rosy-lensed optimist drunk on transcendentalist delusion, living in self-elected exile from the darker realities of the world. Such an estimation of his inner world — of anyone’s inner world — is not only impoverished of nuance, but orthogonal to the complex full-spectrum human begin who rises from the pages of The Journal of Henry David Thoreau (public library) — that timeless fount of truth bathing us across the centuries in Thoreau’s wisdom on such varied aspects of aliveness as knowing versus seeing, the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success.

To be sure, living in such intimate proximity with nature, Thoreau was given to elations that evade the modern civilization-stifled mind. In an entry penned two days after his thirty-third birthday, he exults:

What sweet and tender, the most innocent and divinely encouraging society there is in every natural object, and so in universal nature, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man! There can be no really black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has still his senses.

But his existential radiance was abruptly blackened when his best and at times only friend — his brother John — died of tetanus from a shaving cut when Thoreau was twenty-five. He watched in helpless horror as lockjaw warped his brother’s face and spasms contorted his body before the deadly bacterium claimed his life. He then sank into a deep depression that never fully receded, lapping at him in lifelong waves.

Again and again, Thoreau took solace in nature. In the high summer of 1852, a decade after his brother’s death and a decade before his own, Thoreau draws in the margin of his journal a sketch of the local hill crests, dotted with the tops of trees, then considers this natural vista as a life-saving calibration of perspective for the sorrow-blinded heart:

Even on the low principle that misery loves company and is relieved by the consciousness that it is shared by many, and therefore is not so insignificant and trivial, after all, this blue mountain outline is valuable. In many moods it is cheering to look across hence to that blue rim of the earth, and be reminded of the invisible towns and communities, for the most part also unremembered, which lie in the further and deeper hollows between me and those hills. Towns of sturdy uplandish fame, where some of the morning and primal vigor still lingers… it is cheering to think that it is with such communities that we survive or perish… The melancholy man who had come forth to commit suicide on this hill might be saved by being thus reminded how many brave and contented lives are lived between him and the horizon. Those hills extend our plot of earth; they make our native valley or indentation in the earth so much the larger.

In another entry penned in autumn — which, long before the diagnostic notion of seasonal affective disorder, Thoreau noted as a season when the human spirit tends to take a marked downturn — he draws from a particular creation of nature a living metaphor for how to move through the darkest seasons of the heart:

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ’em,” “Give it to ’em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” — these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with the skunk-cabbage. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot!… See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.


“Last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her soul mate, Dorothy Freeman, of that symphonic moment when she turned in the manuscript of Silent Spring — the courageous exposé that catalyzed the environmental movement, which had taken Carson a decade of incubation and four years of rigorous research to bring to life as she was dying of cancer. Dorothy had been her pillar throughout both of these superhuman parallel journeys — the only person in whom this brilliant, stoical woman confided the complexity of her inner world, her writing process and the loneliness of creative work, her silent battles. (Their tender relationship and how it shored up Carson’s scientific work and far-reaching cultural legacy animate the last two hundred pages of Figuring, from which this miniature essay is adapted.)

In early June 1963, a year after the release of Silent Spring, Carson climbed into the passenger seat of her Oldsmobile and had her assistant take her from her home in Maryland to Capitol Hill — the pain in her back, spine, shoulder, and neck was by now too unbearable for Carson to drive even this short distance herself — to appear before a congressional committee on pesticides, summoned as a consequence of Silent Spring. Under the bright television lights, all traces of physical agony fled from the authoritative presence that took the witness stand in the windowless, wood-paneled Room 102 of the Senate building. 101 years after Abraham Lincoln greeted Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe with the words “This is the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” the presiding Senator greeted Carson: “Miss Carson… we welcome you here. You are the lady who started all this. Will you please proceed.”

Speaking calmly into the press posy of six microphones before her, Carson proceeded to deliver a stunning forty-minute testimony predicated on revealing the delicate interconnectedness of nature and tracing the far-reaching devastation inflicted by poisonous chemicals once they enter an ecosystem. She called for a “strong and unremitting effort” to reduce and eventually eliminate pesticides. While her testimony was strewn with facts, it was palpably poetic in its elegy for ecology. She gave her strong recommendation for establishing an agency tasked with safeguarding nature — a landmark development that would take the government another seven years to institute. Carson would never live to see the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, nor its ban of DDT, both the direct result of her work.

Her congressional testimony, after which she was flooded by letters from citizens thanking her for having spoken inconvenient truth to power, was a crowning moment for the sense of duty that had propelled Carson through the arduous years leading up to Silent Spring. Having executed her responsibility as a citizen, scientist, and steward of life, she was free and restless to return to the sea, to her summer cabin on Southport Island in Maine, to Dorothy.

No record survives of the weeks containing Rachel and Dorothy’s last summer hours together — the absence of letters suggesting that they spent every precious moment in each other’s presence. Tide pool excursions were now a thing of the past — compression fractures in Carson’s spine made it difficult to walk, painful even to stand. Dorothy thought she looked like alabaster. They spent afternoons together in a little clearing in the woods near Carson’s cottage, watching the clouds float across the sky, listening to the avian orchestra in the trees, and reading to each other from their favorite books.

One shimmering day in early September, Dorothy took Rachel to their favorite spot on the tip of the island, where they had once watched meteors blaze ephemeral bridges of light across the riverine haze of the Milky Way. With their arms around each other, they slowly made the short, aching walk to the wooden benches perched atop the shore and sat under the blue late morning skies. Above the crashing waves, under the wind-strummed spruces, Dorothy and Rachel sat in intimate silence and watched a majestic procession of monarch butterflies flit toward the southern horizon on their annual migration — living meteors of black and gold. Half a century later, monarchs would take flight aboard the International Space Station, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, where Carson had begun her career, would call for their inclusion in the protections of the Endangered Species Act — one of several dozen environmental protection laws passed in the 1970s as direct and indirect consequences of Silent Spring.

That afternoon, Rachel sent Dorothy a lyrical “postscript” to their morning. Detailing the splendors that had etched themselves onto her memory — the particular hue of the sky, the particular score of the surf — she wrote:

Most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.

But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.

For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.

That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you.


I want to live on in your memories of happiness. I shall write more of those things. But tonight I’m weary and must put out the light. Meanwhile, there is this word — and my love will always live.


I Long to Read More in the Book of You: Moomins Creator Tove Jansson’s Tender and Passionate Letters to the Love of Her Life

“I’m so unused to being happy that I haven’t really come to terms with what it involves… I feel like a garden that’s finally been watered, so my flowers can bloom.”

I Long to Read More in the Book of You: Moomins Creator Tove Jansson’s Tender and Passionate Letters to the Love of Her Life

“All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured,” says Too-ticky, trying to comfort the lost and frightened Moomintroll under the otherworldly light of the aurora borealis.

A decade after Tove Jansson (August 9, 1914–June 27, 2001) dreamt up her iconic Moomin series — one of those works of philosophy disguised as children’s books, populated by characters with the soulful wisdom of The Little Prince, the genial sincerity of Winnie-the-Pooh, and the irreverent curiosity of the Peanuts — she dreamt up Too-ticky, the sage of Moominvalley, warmhearted and eccentric and almost unbearably lovable.

Too-ticky came aglow in Jansson’s artistic imagination from the same spark that galvanized Emily Dickinson’s poetry — her adoration of the woman who was already becoming the love of her life.

Tove Jansson, 1956 (Tove Janssons arkiv / University of Minnesota Press)

At the 1955 Christmas party of Helsinki’s Artists’ Guild, Jansson found herself drawn to the record player, impelled to take over the evening’s music. Another artist — the Seattle-born Finnish engraver, printmaker, and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä — was impelled to do the same. They shared the jubilant duty. I picture the two of them at the turntable, sipping spiced wine in rapt, bobbing deliberation over which of the year’s hits to put on next — the year when rock and roll had just been coined, the year of Nat King Cole’s “If I May,” Elvis’s “Baby Let’s Play House,” and Doris Day’s “Love Me or Leave Me.” I picture them glancing at each other with the thrill of that peculiar furtive curiosity edged with longing, having not a glimmering sense — for we only ever recognize the most life-altering moments in hindsight — that they were in the presence of great love, a love that would last a lifetime. Tove was forty-one, Tooti thirty-eight. They would remain together for the next half century, until death did them part.

The tender delirium of their early love and the magmatic core of their lifelong devotion emanate from the pages of Letters from Tove (public library) — the altogether wonderful collection of Jansson’s correspondence with friends, family, and other artists, spanning her meditations on the creative process, her exuberant cherishment of the natural world and of what is best in human beings, her unfaltering love for Tooti. What emerges, above all, is the radiant warmth of her personhood — this person of such uncommon imagination, warmhearted humor, and stubborn buoyancy of spirit, always so thoroughly herself, who as a young woman had declared to her mother:

I’ve got to become free myself if I’m to be free in my painting.

Tove Janson: Smoking Girl. Self-portrait, 1940. (National Galley Finland / private collection)

In a soaring letter penned in the first days of their first summer together, while Tooti was on mainland Finland for a residency and Tove was home on the small island in the Borgå archipelago where she spent her summers, she writes:


I miss you so dreadfully. Not in a desperate or melancholy way, because I know we shall soon be with each other again, but I feel at such a loss and just can’t get it into my head that you’re not around any more. This morning, half awake, I put a hand out to feel for you, then remembered you weren’t there, so I got up very quickly to escape the emptiness. And worked all day.

After sharing the mundanities that make a shared life — mundanities radiating her sweetness of spirit: reports of bringing home some mud for the swallows from the nearby bay, reports of using up all the raisins, “all our raisins,” on a batch of the home-brewed Finnish kilju — she loops back to the bittersweetness of Tooti’s absence:

It was a fine night, calm and quiet, and I still couldn’t take it in that you weren’t here, kept half turning round to see what you were doing or to say something to you.


Wherever I go on the island, you’re with me as my security and stimulation, your happiness and vitality are still here, everywhere. And if I left here, you would go with me. You see, I love you as if bewitched, yet at the same time with profound calm, and I’m not afraid of anything life has in store for us.

Tove Jansson (University of Minnesota Press)

The following day — a gloomy, rainy day, with the encircling sea “grey and austere” — Tove tells Tooti that while hauling stones to build a fire terrace, she began conceiving of a new Moomin story — “a story about the sea and different sorts of solitude.” A decade later, that idea would become Pappan och havet, literally translated as “the father and the sea,” but published in English as Moominpappa at Sea — the most soulful and contemplative of the Moomin stories. (How much of the history of art and science is strewn with the private storms and solitudes of its creators, invisible to the eye that beholds the resulting creation — the echoes of Herman Melville’s unrequited love in Moby-Dick, the shadows of Ernst Haeckel’s staggering loss in his scientific obsession and its artistic halo, the ruddering role of Rachel Carson’s love for Dorothy in the making of the environmental movement.)

Moominpappa at Sea, 1965

But even this grey solitude is aglow with Tove’s love for Tooti. In a passage from the same letter that begins with a poetic piece of koan-like logic, she writes:

It always tends to be easier to go than to stay — even if you’re happy being with the one you are leaving.


Waiting is a sheer pleasure when it’s for you — and the calm awareness that all I have to do is add together a number of days, and we’ll see each other again.

After a disarming veer into the pragmatic thoughtfulnesses that sweeten a shared life — “Thank you for the fly swatter my darling, it seems extremely effective.” — she adds:

I’m so unused to being happy that I haven’t really come to terms with what it involves. Suddenly my arms are heaped full of new opportunities, new harmony, new expectations. I feel like a garden that’s finally been watered, so my flowers can bloom.

A week later, as Tove patiently awaits her beloved but misses her more and more achingly, she echoes philosopher Simone Weil’s observation that “those who do not love each other are not separated” and writes:

Summer is moving on through its stages and sometimes I feel so melancholy that you aren’t here. But perhaps it’s good to have a bit of distance between us. I know now that I couldn’t possibly be more attached to you, in a harmonious and happy way that can only grow stronger and more tender.

But I’ve known that all along.

The following week, she composes a gorgeous letter aglow with the sentiment at the heart of every marital vow:


Now my adored relations have finally gone to sleep, strewn about in the most unlikely sleeping places, the chatter has died down, the storm too, and I can talk to you.

Thank you for your letter, which felt like a happy hug. Oh yes, my Tuulikki, you have never given me anything but warmth, love and good cheer.

Isn’t it remarkable, and seriously wonderful, that there’s still not a single shadow between us? And you know what, the best thing of all is that I’m not afraid of the shadows. When they come (as I suppose they must, for all those who care for one another), I think we can maneuver our way through them.

And then, in one of those touching Toveisms, she pivots on a happy heel from the breathtakingly romantic to the pragmatically, affectionately blunt:

If you write in Finnish, please could you be a dear and use the typewriter; your handwriting’s a bit tricky sometimes.

Then, just as nimbly and joyously, she pivots right back to the romantic:

I miss those quiet June days when you were piecing together your mosaic or whittling away at some knotty bit of wood and it was possible to listen, contemplate and explore how we felt.


Tuulikki, I long to read more in the book of you. I long for you in every way, and I’m more alone with all these people around me than when I was wandering about on my own, thinking of you.

She ends the letter with the first tentative drawing of Too-ticky, which she describes to Tooti as “a new little creature that isn’t quite sure if it’s allowed to come in!” before signing the letter “Your Tove.” The strange and wondrous creature did come in — into Tove’s heart, into the Moomin universe — and never left.

Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä, later in life, near their island home. (Tove Janssons arkiv)

Complement this fragment of the thoroughly delightful Letters from Tove with other masterpieces from the canon of great love letters by luminaries of creative culture: Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert, Vladimir Nabokov to Véra Nabokova, Iris Murdoch to Brigit Brophy, Hannah Arendt to Martin Heidegger, John Cage to Merce Cunningham, Kahlil Gibran to Mary Haskell, Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Oscar Wilde to Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.


Unforgetting a Forgotten Pioneer: How the 19th-Century Sculptor Edmonia Lewis Blazed the Path for Women of Color in the Fine Arts

On talent, violence, visibility, and the world-shifting power of women helping women.

This essay is excerpted from Figuring.

When the nineteenth-century sculptor Harriet Hosmer was blazing the way for women in art while living as an openly queer person in Rome, she took special care to use her visibility as a platform for making others visible, her success as an opportunity-broadening instrument for the success of others. The pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, who was doing for women in science what Hosmer was doing in art and who met the sculptor while visiting Rome as America’s first international scientific celebrity, recounted that “if there came to any struggling artist in Rome the need of a friend, — and of the thousand artists in Rome very few are successful, — Harriet Hosmer was that friend.”

One of the young artists Hosmer took under her friendly wing was the sculptor Edmonia Lewis (July 4, 1844–September 17, 1907) — the daughter of a Cherokee mother and a black father.

Edmonia Lewis

After growing up among Native Americans, Lewis had attended Oberlin College — not only the first university to admit women, but the first to admit women of ethnic minorities. But the university was no unbigoted idyll — when two white classmates became ill after sharing spiced wine served by Lewis, they accused her of poisoning them, even though she herself had drunk the wine without harm. Word spread beyond the liberal Oberlin campus. One evening, as Lewis was walking home from class by herself, she was attacked and forced into an open field, where she was brutally beaten and left for dead. Having barely survived, she — rather than her assailants — was arrested, an analog across the centuries to the same warping of justice that had befallen Medusa and Beatrice Cenci, the mytho-historical figures which Hosmer had sculpted into the masterpieces that made her famous.

Lewis was charged with poisoning her classmates on evidence as logically consistent and factually compelling as that on which Johannes Kepler’s mother had been tried for witchcraft. A prominent black lawyer, himself an Oberlin alumnus, defended her successfully—she was exonerated and eventually moved to Boston, where she studied with a successful sculptor before following in Hosmer’s footsteps and moving to Rome in her early thirties, at the same age that Hosmer had migrated there fifteen years earlier.

From Rome, Lewis wrote to her friend Lydia Maria Child — one of the era’s most politically wakeful public voices, who had championed the young Hosmer when she had been Lewis’s age:

A Boston lady took me to Miss Hosmer’s studio. It would have done your heart good to see what a welcome I received. She took my hand cordially, and said, “Oh, Miss Lewis, I am glad to see you here!” and then, while she still held my hand, there flowed such a neat little speech from her true lips!… Miss Hosmer has since called on me, and we often meet.

Lewis went on to become the nineteenth century’s only African American artist of mainstream recognition. In 1876, her 3,015- pound marble sculpture The Death of Cleopatra — a pinnacle of beauty and tragedy in a daring direct portrayal of unglamorized death — became a crowning curio at the first official World’s Fair in America, lauded as the most remarkable piece in the American section of the exhibition.

Edmonia Lewis: Death of Cleopatra (Smithsonian Institution)

Complement with Gwendolyn Brooks — the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, at the age Lewis was when she moved to Rome — on vulnerability as strength, then revisit the wondrous illustrated story of Wangari Maathai — the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize for her courageous endeavor to plant a million trees as an act of resistance and empowerment.


Poet, Philosopher, and Pioneering LGBT Rights Advocate Edward Carpenter’s Moving Love Letter of Gratitude to Walt Whitman

“You have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature.”

Poet, Philosopher, and Pioneering LGBT Rights Advocate Edward Carpenter’s Moving Love Letter of Gratitude to Walt Whitman

“Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility,” James Baldwin observed as he reflected on same-sex love and the courage to “go the way your blood beats” in his most personal interview. The danger, of course, is exponentially greater for those of us whose loves live outside the heteronormative mold, and it increases exponentially as we turn history’s dial back toward the countless generations who paid for our freedom with theirs — tried like Radclyffe Hall or jailed like Oscar Wilde or assassinated like Harvey Milk or obliquely murdered by the government like Alan Turing or, like Emily Dickinson, like Hans Christian Andersen, dying the slow death of living without the possibility of making their deepest love known in anything less coded than fairy tales and verse.

In the epochs before the term “LGBT” came into use, before the radical notion that taking “Pride” in it could replace living with shame about it, hardly any public voice has emboldened more hearts to love whom they love than Walt Whitman in his courageous, uncoded verses celebrating the freedom of the heart.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

One dawning July morning in 1870, at the insomniac peal of 4 A.M. — which Baldwin considered the hour of despair, reckoning, and self-redemption — a young English man who would become the philosopher, poet, and early LGBT rights activist Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844–June 28, 1929) picked up his pen and his courage, and composed an extraordinary letter to Walt Whitman. Carpenter was twenty-five, Whitman fifty-one.

By then, a decade after the release of his epoch-making Leaves of Grass, the American poet was accustomed to adoring letters from strangers — none more beautiful than Anne Gilchrist’s love letters to him, none more surprising than Bram Stoker’s. Though Carpenter’s was laced with genuine artistic admiration and kinship of spirit, it was not a love letter — it was a letter of gratitude, stirring for its splendor of expression and doubly stirring for the palpable soul-depth of its sentiment.

Whitman found the letter, later quoted in Sheila Rowbotham’s excellent biography Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (public library), to be “beautiful, like a confession.” It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and fellowship.

At the time, Carpenter was working as a curate for the Church of England after graduating as a theologian from Trinity Hall two years earlier. After telling Whitman that he is leaving the stagnancy of Cambridge to travel north and lecture to working-class men and women, driven by the sense that they are longing “to lay hold of something with a real grasp,” Carpenter commends the poet for his unselfconscious celebration of working-class masculinity. He then relays that the day before, “a young workman with the old divine light in his eyes” had come to his door, and Carpenter had allowed himself to feel overcome by unselfconscious desire; the encounter had inspired him to thank Whitman for the courage to fully inhabit his love of other men. He writes:

You have, as it were, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart. (—And others thank you though they do not say so). For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature. Women are beautiful; but to some, there is that which passes the love of women.

Writing in an era when same-sex love was not only rejected but criminalized, Carpenter adds ruefully:

It is enough to live wherever the divine beauty of love may flash on men; but indeed its real and enduring light seems infinitely far from us in this our day… At the last, it is enough to know that the longed-for realization is possible — will be, has been, is even now somewhere — even though we find it not.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

Across the Atlantic, across the cultural and generational abyss, Carpenter and Whitman met seven years later and remained in lifelong correspondence. Carpenter left the church to become a lecturer in astronomy and the music of ancient Greece, a pioneering LGBT rights activist, a correspondent of Gandhi’s, and a close friend of the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, who believed that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance.” After returning from India in 1891, Carpenter met the love of his life — a younger working-class man, who became his partner for the rest of his life. The relationship inspired Carpenter to write beautiful works of uncommon insight into the dangers and triumphs of the heart, any heart — what he called “the drama of love and death.”

Complement with Albert Camus’s magnificent letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher, penned shortly after winning the Nobel Prize, then revisit Carpenter on how freedom strengthens togetherness in long-term relationships and Whitman’s deepest-feeling, furthest-seeing poem.


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