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The Source of Self-Regard: Toni Morrison on Wisdom in the Age of Information

“We move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. And separating one from the other… knowing the limitations and the danger of exercising one without the others, while respecting each category of intelligence, is generally what serious education is about.”

The Source of Self-Regard: Toni Morrison on Wisdom in the Age of Information

“Information will never replace illumination,” Susan Sontag prophesied shortly before her death, before the birth of the social media newsfeed, as she considered the conscience of words and writer’s responsibility to society. A generation earlier, long before we came to confront the untenably urgent predicament of wisdom in the age of information, Walter Benjamin — one of Sontag’s great intellectual heroes — lamented that “the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out” — a death he attributed to the rise of information, plentiful and unconsidered.

This increasingly dangerous obfuscation of information and wisdom is what Toni Morrison (b. February 18, 1931) — one of the deepest seers of our time — examines in an almost-aside, the way only towering intellects can, in a 1992 lecture that lent its title to her altogether fantastic nonfiction collection The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (public library).

Toni Morrison (Courtesy  Alfred A. Knopf)
Toni Morrison (Courtesy Alfred A. Knopf)

Morrison writes:

In all of our education, whether it’s in institutions or not, in homes or streets or wherever, whether it’s scholarly or whether it’s experiential, there is a kind of a progression. We move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. And separating one from the other, being able to distinguish among and between them, that is, knowing the limitations and the danger of exercising one without the others, while respecting each category of intelligence, is generally what serious education is about. And if we agree that purposeful progression exists, then you will see… that it’s easy, and it’s seductive, to assume that data is really knowledge. Or that information is, indeed, wisdom. Or that knowledge can exist without data. And how easy, and how effortlessly, one can parade and disguise itself as another. And how quickly we can forget that wisdom without knowledge, wisdom without any data, is just a hunch.

That Morrison is making this astute observation more than a quarter century ago — before the web as we know it existed, before “fake news” and “alternative facts” and other such misinformation-driven erosions of wisdom, before the golden age of Big Data and its reduction of human lives to marketable data points — only adds to Morrison’s prescience. But while these are serious concerns for the citizen, they are also serious concerns for the creative artist, the storyteller. It is with an eye to her own craft that Morrison examines them — the subject of the talk is her stunning 1987 novel Beloved, which would earn her the Nobel Prize only a year after she delivered this lecture, making Morrison the first black woman to receive the esteemed accolade.

Toni Morrison illustrated by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — a celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

Reflecting on how she too had mistaken information for illumination in her initial approach to her subject — a sort of arrogance she condemns as poison to both wisdom and imagination — she writes:

[I had read] the historical books… I had read the autobiographies of the slaves themselves and therefore had firsthand information from people who were there. You add that to my own intuition, and you can see the shape of my confidence and the trap that it would lead me into, which would be confusing data with information and knowledge with hunches and so on. I thought I knew a great deal about it. And that arrogance was the first obstacle.

What I needed was imagination to shore up the facts, the data, and not be overwhelmed by them. Imagination that personalized information, made it intimate, but didn’t offer itself as a substitute. If imagination could be depended on for that, then there was the possibility of knowledge. Wisdom, of course, I would leave alone, and rely on the readers to produce that.

What a lovely testament to Proust’s insistence that “the end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own.”

Morrison unspools more wisdom in the reader’s mind throughout the remaining meditations collected in The Source of Self-Regard. Complement this particular portion with Pythagoras on the meaning of wisdom and Thomas Merton’s beautiful letter to Rachel Carson about technology, wisdom, and civilizational self-awareness, then revisit Morrison on the artist’s task in troubled times, how to own your story, and her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the power of language.

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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.

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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).

waltwhitman
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:

GOING SOMEWHERE

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.

BP

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.

BP

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