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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:

Beloved,

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:

Beloved,

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.

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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.

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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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Ronald McNair’s Civil Disobedience: The Illustrated Story of How a Little Boy Who Grew Up to Be a Trailblazing Astronaut Fought Segregation at the Public Library

A miniature revolutionary with his eyes on the stars, his heart on the ground, and his courage lightyears beyond of his era’s horizons stands up for the future with his only ally.

Ronald McNair’s Civil Disobedience: The Illustrated Story of How a Little Boy Who Grew Up to Be a Trailblazing Astronaut Fought Segregation at the Public Library

“Knowledge sets us free… A great library is freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in contemplating the sacredness of public libraries. “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be,” her contemporary James Baldwin — who had read his way from the Harlem public library to the literary pantheon — insisted in his courageous and countercultural perspective on freedom.

Ronald McNair (October 21, 1950–January 28, 1986) was nine when he took his freedom into his own small hands.

Unlike Maya Angelou, who credited a library with saving her life, McNair’s triumphant and tragic life could not have been saved even by a library — he was the age I am now when he perished aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger before the eyes of a disbelieving nation. But his life was largely made by a library — a life equal parts inspiring and improbable against the cultural constrictions of his time and place; a life of determination that rendered him the second black person to launch into space, a decade and a half after a visionary children’s book first dared imagine the possibility.

A quarter century after McNair’s untimely death, a contemporary children’s book set out to broaden the landscape of possibility for generations to come by celebrating the formative fortitude of his trailblazing life.

Ron’s Big Mission (public library) by lyricist, scriptwriter, and teacher Rose Blue and former U.S. Navy journalist Corinne J. Naden, illustrated by Don Tate — a lovely addition to these emboldening picture-book biographies of cultural heroes — tells the story of a summer day in the segregated South in 1959 when the young Ron, a voracious reader with a passion for airplanes and dreams of becoming a pilot, awakens with the daring determination to bring home a book from the library checked out under his own name. He knows this is not allowed — he has devoured countless books at the library, but he knows that only white people are allowed to check them out. He also knows, with the clarity that children have in seeing into the unalloyed heart of reality, that whatever justification the grownups in power might have for this rule, there is no justice and humanity in it.

On the wings of his purehearted enthusiasm to dismantle the hypocrisies of the system, Ron races past the local baker offering him a fresh-baked donut, past his friend Carl shooting hoops, and into the library as the day’s first visitor.

The head librarian greets him warmly, delighted to see the young reader who has become “her best customer.” Ron waves back and heads straight for the shelves. After the usual disappointment of finding hardly any books with children who look like him, he opts for the impersonal consolation of machines, pulling out a few books about airplanes.

When another regular patron of the library — a kindly older white lady — offers to check the books out for him, Ron thanks her but declines. He heads to the front desk and lays the books on the counter. The desk clerk doesn’t even look at him.

With a child’s benevolence of interpretation, he thinks at first that she simply hasn’t heard him. But when she continues to disregard him, he does the most logical thing, by the undiluted logic we adults have relinquished in favor of the polite pretensions we call propriety: He jumps on the counter, then calmly restates his wish to check out the books.

Everyone is aghast.

Ron is reminded of the rule.

Still polite but still standing on the counter, he simply restates his wish — a small boy’s enormous act that would have made Thoreau proud as America’s premier champion of civil disobedience and ardent lover of public libraries.

Other patrons are staring. The library staff are stumped. Finally, they call the police. Two policemen arrive immediately. “Let someone check out the books for you, son,” one of them pleads with Ron. Ron refuses.

The head librarian then turns to the ultimate authority — Ron’s mother.

When Mrs. McNair arrives, she too reminds Ron of the rule — the rule he has known all along, the rule that is not a matter of reminding but of resisting. When this nine-year-old revolutionary states simply that the rule is wrong and unfair, and asks why he can’t check out books like everyone else, all the adults look at each other and grow silent.

The head librarian stares into the empty space as pandemonium enfolds the empty rule, then looks at Ron — this largehearted, hardheaded, hungry-brained boy, her very best customer. And she knows instantly what she must do.

In a testament to Hannah Arendt’s superb contemporaneous inquiry into the only effective antidote to the normalization of evil and her insistence that “under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not [and] no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation,” the librarian disappears into her office as Mrs. McNair and the policemen continue trying to sway Ron.

When she emerges a few minutes later, she hands Ron a library card with his very own name on it. Beaming with his triumph and with gratitude to his sole ally in this act of resistance on the small scale of the personal, with the colossal stakes of the political, he hands the card to the desk clerk as he politely restates his wish to check out the books.

She stamps it.

The rest is history, and it is the making of a future — Ron’s own future as a trailblazer who devoted his life to the ultimate unifying force, our shared cosmic belonging, and the futures of generations for whom he modeled the courage of rewriting the dominant narrative of permission and possibility. Today, a Space Shuttle graces the mural on the walls of the children’s room at the Lake City public library in South Carolina, where all children are allowed to check out any book they wish, including books starring children who look a lot like them.

Complement Ron’s Big Mission with What Miss Mitchell Saw — a lyrical picture-book about astronomer Maria Mitchell, who blazed the way for women in science — and a moving remembrance of Ronald McNair by his brother, then revisit astronaut Leland Melvin — the thirteenth black astronaut to leave Earth’s atmosphere, and among the fraction of a fraction of one percent of our species to have seen the splendor of our planet’s canopy from space — reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest.

For other picture-book biographies of visionaries who have changed the way we understand and live life, savor the illustrated stories of Wangari Maathai, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, E.E. Cummings, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly.

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