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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harriet Hosmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harriet Hosmer: Medusa (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harriet Hosmer, studio portrait.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the many famous visitors who flocked to her studio in Rome, captured Hosmer’s bold deviation from the beaten path and her defiant devotion to simply being herself:

She was very peculiar, but she seemed to be her actual self, and nothing affected or made up; so that, for my part, I gave her full leave to wear what may suit her best, and to behave as her inner woman prompts.

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


George Sand’s Only Children’s Book: A Touching Parable of Choosing Kindness and Generosity Over Cynicism and Greed, with Stunning Illustrations by Russian Artist Gennady Spirin

“It is written in the book of destiny that any mortal who dedicates himself to doing good must risk everything, including life itself.”

George Sand’s Only Children’s Book: A Touching Parable of Choosing Kindness and Generosity Over Cynicism and Greed, with Stunning Illustrations by Russian Artist Gennady Spirin

“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,” Maya Angelou wrote in contemplating courage in the face of evil. Sometimes, evil comes in one of its deceptively benignant guises — everyday smallnesses of spirit like cynicism and the particularly virulent strain of unkindness disguised as cleverizing, which the golden age of social media has so readily and recklessly fomented.

In youth, when our solidity of soul is most precarious, when we most hunger for peer approval and are most susceptible to cultural reinforcement, we are most vulnerable to the easy payoff of being cynical or clever over the deep, often difficult rewards of being kind.

The great French novelist, memoirist, and playwright Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand (July 1, 1804–June 8, 1876), set out to model a prescient antidote to a culture that rewards cynicism and selfishness over kindness and largeness of heart in her only children’s book, originally composed in 1851 but published in English for the first time in 1988, with stunning illustrations by the then-Soviet artist Gennady Spirin.

George Sand by Gennady Spirin

The author of some eighty novels and numerous plays, stories, and essays animated by her love of nature and her devotion to social change, Sand supported herself and her children by her pen in an era when women were rarely financially independent by their own work and hardly any were professional writers. During the 1848 uprising in France, she started her own liberal newspaper. She attracted great controversy with her outspoken advocacy of women’s rights, her habit of wearing men’s clothing and smoking large cigars, and her passionate convention-defying relationships with both men and women, most famously with the composer Frédéric Chopin. Dostoyevsky revered her as “one of the most clairvoyant foreseers” and one of his greatest influences. Margaret Fuller — who catalyzed American feminism and who appears as a central figure in Figuring — greatly admired Sand’s writing and the way she lived her values, and when they finally met in Paris, Fuller found in her “goodness, nobleness, and power that pervaded the whole — the truly human heart and nature that shone in the eyes.”

Sand’s forgotten children’s novel, The Mysterious Tale of Gentle Jack and Lord Bumblebee (public library), joins the canon of little-known and lovely children’s books by celebrated authors of literature for grownups, including Sylvia Plath’s The Bed Book, Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Aldous Huxley’s The Crows of Pearblossom, Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round, William Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree, and James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man.

We meet Gentle Jack — the youngest of seven children, born to unkind, unscrupulous, and greedy parents who have managed to convert all the other children to their cynical worldview, except him. Instead, Gentle Jack has become the laughingstock of the family — his parents scorn him as too stupid, for he wouldn’t follow in their wicked ways, and his siblings tease and bully him, taking his boundless kindness for weakness.

Gentle Jack bears the abuse stoically. But he wishes from the bottom of his large, aching heart that his parents would love him as much as he loves them. Often, he takes his great sadness into the forest to find refuge by his favorite tree — an old, hollow oak hidden away by rocks and brambles.

One day, after particularly brutal abuse at home, Gentle Jack lies weeping beneath his oak when something stings his arm. Sand writes:

He looked up and saw a huge bumblebee, which sat there without moving and stared at him in a most insolent fashion.

Jack took hold of the bee by its wings and gently placed it on the palm of his hand.

“Why did you hurt me, when I have done nothing to hurt you?” he asked. “Go on, fly away and be happy.”

After releasing the bee, Jack tends to his sting with some forest herbs and dozes off, only to awaken and discover in astonishment “a tall, fat gentleman dressed in black from head to toe, standing in front of him.”

The gentleman stared at Jack with enormous round eyes and said in a loud booming voice, “You have done me a service I shall never forget. Come, child, ask for whatever you most desire.”

When Gentle Jack responds that there is nothing he longs for more than for his parents to love him, the mysterious man replies that it is “a very difficult wish to grant” but that he would do his best. He declares that Gentle Jack is kind, but he must become clever in order for his parents to love him, and he will make him clever. The boy responds true to his nature:

“Oh, Sir!” exclaimed Jack. “If, in order to become clever, I must also become wicked, then please don’t make me clever. I would rather remain stupid and continue to be kind.”

“And what do you expect to achieve by being kind in a world full of wicked people?” asked the gentleman.

“Alas, Sir, I don’t know how to answer your question,” said Jack, who was becoming more and more frightened. “I’m not clever enough for that. But I have never done anyone any harm. Please don’t make me want to, or give me the means of doing so.”

After proclaiming him a fool, the fat man sweeps his great black velvet cloak and disappears into the forest, promising to make the boy clever the next time they meet. Still jolted by the encounter, Gentle Jack reluctantly heads home, dreading another beating for being out so long. Upon his return, his mother scolds him, then tells him that he is the luckiest boy in the world, for a nobleman by the name of Lord Bumblebee had just stopped by the house. After eating an enormous jar of honey, for which he had paid handsomely, he had asked after the family’s youngest child. Upon hearing Gentle Jack’s name, he had exclaimed that this was the very child he had been looking for and that he would make his fortune. Then he had vanished without another word.

Gentle Jack’s mother, greedy for the nobleman’s riches, promptly shoves her son out the door, instructing him to find Lord Bumblebee’s castle.

And so the two meet again. This time, in addition to all his riches, Lord Bumblebee offers to make him clever by teaching him the “sciences” of magic and witchcraft if he would be his son. But Gentle Jack remains true to his nature:

“You are most kind, Sir,” said Jack, “but I have parents already, and although they have other children they love more than me, they might need me some day and it would be wrong of me to leave them.”

When Gentle Jack returns home, convinced that his loving loyalty would make his parents love him in turn, his mother roughly jilts his embrace, asking instead what bounty he has brought back from the nobleman’s castle. Upon discovering that not only has Gentle Jack brought nothing back, but he had refused to become “the heir of a man who was richer than the king himself,” his parents begin to beat him, then dress him in rags and send him back to the nobleman.

Woven of equal measures sweetness and severity, the story builds into an ever-accelerating test of character.

When Jack turns fifteen and Lord Bumblebee comes to terms with the disappointment that he would not have children from his own marriage, he offers once again to adopt the boy, but at a Faustian cost — Jack would inherit all the Lord’s riches, but he would have to fight endless, ruthless battles to keep them.

The evil nobleman sets out to instill in the boy his own cynical and selfish credo. After showing him the merciless combat and cunning by which those in power maintain their position, he tells him:

In this world, you must rob or be robbed, murder or be murdered, be a tyrant or a slave. It is up to you to choose: Do you wish to conserve wealth like the bees, amass it like the ants, or steal it like the hornets? The surest way, I believe, is to let others do the work and then take from them. Take, take, my boy, by force or by cunning; it’s the only way to achieve happiness.

If Jack were to choose to be a bumblebee like him, he too would be inducted into the order of magicians like Lord Bumblebee, but he would have to swear a terrible oath: “to abandon compassion and that virtue which men call honesty.” Incredulous of the proposition, the gentle boy inquires whether all magicians must take this oath.

“There are those,” replied Lord Bumblebee, “who swear to exactly the opposite and who make it their business to serve, protect, and love all living creatures. But they are just fools.”

“Well, Lord Bumblebee,” replied Jack, “you haven’t succeeded in making me clever, because I prefer those spirits to yours, and I have no desire whatsoever to learn how to plunder and to kill. I thank you for your good intentions, but I request your permission to return home to my parents.”

“Fool,” replied Lord Bumblebee. “Your parents are hornets who have forgotten their origins.”

“Well, then,” replied Jack, “I will go into the wilderness and join the good spirits.”

Enraged by the boy’s unrelenting goodness, Lord Bumblebee declares that he would not let him — he would sting him to death. At this utterance, he transforms into a hideous insect and begins chasing Gentle Jack through the forest. The terrified boy, leaping headlong into a brook for cover, begins calling on the “good spirits” for help.

Suddenly, a great blue dragonfly appears and, flying in front of him, beckons the boy to follow her. The skies open into a heavy downpour, impeding Lord Bumblebee’s pursuit.

But this is not salvation. Part II of the story, titled “How Gentle Jack Reached the Enchanted Island at Last and Why He Could Not Stay There,” presents the ultimate test of character.

Gentle Jack finds himself in a heavenly, sweet-scented fairyland — an idyllic world where “there were children, as sweet as cherubs, who chased each other and turned somersaults, and lovely maidens who sat plaiting flowers into each other’s hair,” a place where “young folk made music and danced while old folk sat and watched.”

He discovers that the blue dragonfly had been his fairy godmother in disguise — the queen of the good spirits. She had happened to be passing through the land of his birth — “a land like any other, a mixture of goodness and evil, of good and bad people” — at the very moment he was born and she had blessed him at birth with gentleness, honesty, and kindness.

Long ago, she tells him, Lord Bumblebee had ruled and ravaged Gentle Jack’s homeland by corrupting its inhabitants with greed. In punishment for his evil deeds, the godmother-queen had turned him into a common bumblebee, “condemned to crawling, hiding himself away, and buzzing around an old oak tree in the forest which he had originally planted with his own hands when he was master and tyrant of the country” — a punishment that could only be lifted by Gentle Jack’s hand, on the day he says to the bumblebee, “Fly away and be happy.” Only then would Lord Bumblebee regain his human incarnation, and only if he promised to make Jack very happy.

Jack also learns that one day on the enchanted island is equivalent to a hundred years in his homeland, and in the day since his arrival, Lord Bumblebee had once again corrupted his compatriots, turning them into thieves and hoarders — affirmation for the real-world sentiment John Steinbeck would articulate from the peak of World War II two centuries later: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.” The queen tells her godson:

The spirit of greed and theft has stifled the spirit of kindness and generosity in every heart and has driven into oblivion the great knowledge which you alone, of all who were born on this unhappy earth, now possess.

Upon hearing this, Gentle Jack realizes that he is not stupid after all and that his loving kindness is the only cure for the small-spirited suffering of his people. (“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Tolstoy — who also admired and was influenced by Sand — would write to Gandhi half a century later.) But when the queen tells him that he must not worry about it any longer, for on the enchanted island he is immortal, impervious to sorrow, and protected from all evil, Gentle Jack can’t find contentment in this privileged comfort. He throws his arms around his godmother and speaks from his large heart:

Smile on me, dear godmother, so that I may not die of grief when I leave you — because leave you I must. No matter that I have neither parents nor friends left in my homeland, I feel that I am the child of that country and must serve it. Since I am the possessor of the most beautiful secret in the world, I must share it with those poor people who hate each other and who are to be pitied. No matter, also, that I’m as happy as the good spirits, thanks to your kindness. I am, nonetheless, a mere mortal, and I want to share my knowledge with other mortals. You have taught me how to love. Well, I feel that I love those evil, mad people who will probably hate me, and I ask you to lead me back among them.

With a kiss, the queen tells Jack that while her heart is breaking to see him go, she loves him all the more for having understood his duty:

The knowledge I have given you has borne fruit in your soul. I will give you neither a lucky charm, nor a magic wand to protect you against the wiles of the evil bumblebees, because it is written in the book of destiny that any mortal who dedicates himself to doing good must risk everything, including life itself.

Instead, she allows him to pick as many flowers from her meadow as he wishes — magical flowers that make every person who inhales their scent gentler, kinder, and more beneficent, flowers he could hand out in his country to aid him in what the queen knows will be “a terrible and dangerous struggle” against evil.

And so, stepping onto a rose petal boat, Gentle Jack returns to his land as a prophet of love, goodness, generosity, and beauty. When he is assaulted by angry, avaricious mobs, he waves his fragrant flowers at them until the entire population is “miraculously calmed.”

Lord Bumblebee eventually gets wind of Gentle Jack’s miracles and sends an ambassador to invite him to his court. Despite his new friends’ admonitions that the tyrant could be up to no good, Gentle Jack accepts the invitation, eager to convert even the evilest man in the land.

There is no sugary happy ending to the story, no lulling assurance that good always prevails over evil. Perhaps because Sand’s own country was still haunted by the grim specter of the French Revolution, she composes a sad, beautiful, cautionary ending — a realist’s reminder that good only prevails when we put all of our might and our ethic of love and our unflinching commitment to kindness behind it, for, as Zadie Smith would write nearly two centuries later in her spectacular meditation on optimism and despair, “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

The Mysterious Tale of Gentle Jack and Lord Bumblebee is out of print but well worth the used-book hunt. Complement it with Voltaire’s trailblazing sci-fi philosophical meditation on the human condition, adapted in a lovely illustrated vintage children’s book, then revisit other works by great writers scrumptiously illustrated by great artists: Tolstoy illustrated by Maurice Sendak, Mark Twain illustrated by Norman Rockwell, Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Brothers Grimm illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti, George Orwell’s Animal Farm illustrated by Ralph Steadman, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by Salvador Dalí, and Goethe’s Faust illustrated by Harry Clarke.


Stephen Hawking’s Mother on Her Son’s Singular Genius and How We Expand the Boundaries of Human Knowledge

“People must think, they must go on thinking, they must try to extend the boundaries of knowledge; yet they don’t sometimes even know where to start. You don’t know where the boundaries are, do you?”

Stephen Hawking’s Mother on Her Son’s Singular Genius and How We Expand the Boundaries of Human Knowledge

“Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman,” the pioneering psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote in his manifesto for the mother’s contribution to society. Winnicott placed the concept of the “good-enough mother” at the heart of a healthy individual, and it is hardly coincidental that more often than not, great individuals have benefitted from the formative value system and unconditional love of a great mother — from Mark Twain, whose mother modeled for him what it means to have compassion for otherness, to Barack Obama, whose mother shaped his understanding of love.

Among these culture-shifting mothers is Isobel Hawking, mother of the great physicist Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) — a formidable mind whose work revolutionized our understanding of the universe and whose far-reaching legacy inspires poems.

Stephen and Isobel Hawking

The second oldest of seven children in a family of modest means, Isobel was among the few women to attend university in the 1930s. Less than a decade after the esteemed institution had begun granting degrees to women, her parents strained their finances to send her to Oxford, where Isobel studied philosophy, economics, and politics. It was in Oxford that she gave birth to Stephen in 1942 as air raids terrorized London nightly — in exchange for the British promise not to bomb the famed university towns Heidelberg and Göttingen, Germany had abstained from bombing Cambridge and Oxford. Nine months pregnant, Isobel journeyed to her formative intellectual grounds to deliver her son in safety. On one of her walks through town just before giving birth, she bought an astronomical atlas from the local bookshop — a purchase she would come to consider a sort of omen as her son ascended into astrophysical celebrity.

Isobel and Frank Hawking went on to raise their son in accordance with their strong belief in the value of education, filling his childhood with frequent museum trips and astronomical adventures, and imbuing him with a daring curiosity that would come to change the way we think about time, black holes, and the universe itself.

In her ninety-eight years, Isobel saw her son outlive by decades the ALS prognosis he had been given in his youth and steer the course of modern science with his defiant genius. From the fortunate platform of her tenth decade, she reflects on her son’s singular gift in a sentiment quoted in Kitty Ferguson’s excellent biography, Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind (public library):

Not all the things Stephen says probably are to be taken as gospel truth. He’s a searcher, he is looking for things. And if sometimes he may talk nonsense, well, don’t we all? The point is, people must think, they must go on thinking, they must try to extend the boundaries of knowledge; yet they don’t sometimes even know where to start. You don’t know where the boundaries are, do you?

Complement with poet Marie Howe’s sublime tribute to Stephen Hawking, this 150-second animated adaptation of his search for a theory of everything, and the lovely children’s book about time travel that he co-wrote with his daughter, then revisit astrophysicist Janna Levin — one of the world’s foremost authorities on black holes, the subject of Hawking’s most seminal work — on the human element in the scientific climb toward truth.


Anna Deavere Smith on the Importance of Bringing Light to History’s Shadows and Resisting the Destructive Patterns Handed Down to Us by Our Invisible Pasts

“A beating — even a public beating — could happen without anyone so much as striking a blow.”

“Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Hannah Arendt wrote in reflecting on Jewishness, the immigrant plight for identity, and the meaning of “refugee.” A refusal to perpetrate such social murder is what led Leonard Cohen to leave out the verse about the relationship between Blacks and Jews from his now-iconic song “Democracy.” When asked about the decision, he offered: “I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.”

The everyday bloodless murders that stand in the way of such revelations in the heart are what Anna Deavere Smith limns in a few stirring passages from Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines (public library) — her remarkable memoir exploring the relationship between the personal and the political through the art of listening in a culture of speaking.

Anna Deavere Smith (Photograph: Mary Ellen Mark)

In consonance with poet Elizabeth Alexander’s assertion that “we live in the word,” Smith locates the seedbed of prejudice in the unwillingness to hear each other’s stories:

It may be that cultures with fewer words are in less danger than we are. So many of our words are being contorted, mangled, stretched, distorted in public life. I’m surprised they survive. I’m surprised they mean anything.

So suspicious is the ear. Its structure has changed. We sit with only one ear toward the speaker, and the other is tuned to the nonexistent next beat.

A self-described “Negro girl from Baltimore raised in segregation,” Smith lived through integration at the age of eleven and attended a predominantly Jewish school in an era of raging antisemitism, in a culture she recalls as one with “no boyfriends and girlfriends across racial lines, or religious lines.” In a sentiment Zadie Smith would come to echo a generation later in observing that “things have changed, but history is not erased by change,” Anna Deavere Smith writes:

History always lurks, changing reality into shadowed moments that are haunted by a past.

Art by Margaret Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

She shines a disquieting beam of awareness on the lattice of shadows lurking in her own childhood:

Whites didn’t play with blacks, or Jews, for that matter, and Reform Jews didn’t play with Orthodox Jews, and Orthodox Jews didn’t play with Jews fresh from Europe who didn’t speak English. Even Jews made fun of a Jewish girl with a Russian accent who brought sandwiches made of meat with a strong smell and purple horseradish, despised her for being so not “of it.”

Children breathing in that cultural atmosphere came to understand, as the young Smith did, that bullying can take many forms — that the archetypal bullies who wield fists are not the only ones who “exploit our unspoken hostility for us.” Reflecting on the less obvious but often more pernicious forms of bullying, Smith recounts the story of a little Jewish girl from her class named Lila:

Perhaps beatings are subverted when “shoulds” appear in a group. Those subverted headings transform into another type of hostility… Lila was beat up with humiliation.


Our homeroom teacher was a black woman who was not particularly popular. She was also our science teacher. She had to fight to get control of the room. I can only imagine what it was for her, too, to be in integration for the first time, probably having been educated in segregation (I know, for example, that she had gone to a black college) and now having to teach in this “loaded” integrated school. By Christmastime, we calmed down. She “proved” herself to us and we actually felt warmly toward her. The class decided to buy her a Christmas present. A rumor started that Lila, who was the quietest person in the room, Lila, who never ever had to be told to sit down, to be quiet, to do anything, Lila, who simply came to school and went home, who never seemed to socialize with anyone . . . Lila was not going to chip in for the Christmas present. Her parents wouldn’t allow it. This became our headline for two weeks or so: what we were going to do about it, how we were going to vote in terms of ostracizing Lila.

A tall, beautiful black girl (who was pregnant and would soon be forced to leave school) began some of the mockery toward Lila. I remember that it pained me. I also remember how surprised I was that the Jewish kids (again, the predominant population) began to turn against Lila too. What had started as a sort of 50–50 vote about whether to buy a Christmas present at all, now turned into 99 percent for the present, and Lila on her own. No one took her to the schoolyard and threatened to beat her up, no one stuck her head down the toilet, but the daily vote would be taken, the vote toward unanimous for buying the present or not, and as the days went on Lila became stronger and stronger in her position. The teacher would be out of the room. The tall, beautiful black girl would take the vote.

Every day Lila would sit with no expression on her face as we lifted our hands. Her hands stayed firmly planted on the desk. Her parents did not celebrate Christmas, and they would not allow her to buy a present for the teacher. I did not know if the fact of the teacher being black complicated it on another level. Lila never cried, she simply sat quietly as all kinds of things were said, and she never explained anything further. In fact, I don’t remember her ever saying anything — it was simply known she would not be chipping in for the gift.

Finally, the teacher got wind of the whole thing and shamed us all by saying, as she should have, that in this spirit she didn’t really want a Christmas present, and that Lila should not be forced to participate if her religion wouldn’t allow it. I remember this story because it was the first time I saw that a beating — even a public beating — could happen without anyone so much as striking a blow.

Smith’s Talk to Me is a fantastic read in its entirety, mapping through the stories of people she talked to over the course of twenty-five years — people ranging from a YMCA lifeguard to an inmate in a women’s prison to Christopher Hitchens — the possible paths before us as we work to unstrike those history-shadowed blows. Complement it with Mark Twain on compassion and how religion is used to justify injustice, Albert Einstein on the interconnectedness of our fates, and Elie Wiesel’s superb Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech about our shared duty in ending injustice, then revisit Anna Deavere Smith on the discipline of not letting others define you.


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