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Literary Landmarks: A History of American Women Writers

Smithsonian Magazine

Literary historian and scholar Elaine Showalter has recently published a sweeping and insightful survey of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (Knopf). She is the first person to attempt this all-encompassing project.

Why do you think that no one before you has attempted to write a literary history of American women writers?

There really wasn’t a sense until the late 1970s or even the 1980s that women writers actually had a history and that it was something worth investigating. For a long time it just didn’t exist as a subject in people’s minds. And then, after that, it came up against a lot of different ideological shifts among scholars that made it seem like a really problematic thing to do. In order to write a literary history you have to make distinctions. You have to make selections. You include some writers and you exclude others. You say that some are more important than others. There was a real wave of feeling against that kind of hierarchy, against the literary cannon. Everybody began to move away from literary history to something more like an encyclopedia, where you wouldn’t make any distinctions, and you wouldn’t create any hierarchy, you would just try to list everybody separately.

My own feeling is that this is the 21st century; it’s time to move on from that. There’s no reason to be concerned about making distinctions with women writers. There are many of them; they are important, and they can withstand that type of judging…. If you don’t have a literary history, if you are really dependent on something like an encyclopedia—individual by individual—it’s very hard for women writers to be recognized in terms of their overall contribution to the American tradition. You’re taking them one at a time; you’re not making an overall argument about how American women have really shaped American culture. For teaching, there isn’t the sense: how do they fit in? How do they change the overall picture? It’s time for that argument to be made. We need a literary history and we need one for the 21st century.

How did you steel yourself for such a monumental project? What motivated you?

It was a big step. I have been wanting to do it for decades, since I wrote my first book on English women writers. But it’s obviously an enormous task. Generally, it’s not a task that’s undertaken by one person. If you look at women’s history now, they tend to be written by huge committees with huge editorial boards [and] many, many contributors, each of whom takes on a small part, and even then a lot of these projects take decades to finish. I wanted to do it alone because I thought, there has to be a “the buck stops here” sense of responsibility. A single person is much more likely to have a strong opinion than a committee. What we need now is somebody willing to say: this is an important writer, this is not such an important writer, and that is something a committee will never do.

Image by Library of Congress. Harriet Beecher Stowe published 30 books over a writing career that spanned 51 years. (original image)

Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis. Gertrude Stein is an American writer who made her home in Paris, France. Her first book was published in 1909 but her autobiography, titled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, was the only one to reach a wide audience. (original image)

Image by © Bettmann / Corbis. Louisa May Alcott is best known for Little Women, which is based on her life growing up with three other sisters. (original image)

Image by © Bettmann / Corbis. Sylvia Plath's autobiography was published under the name Victoria Lucas on January 14, 1963. Nearly a month later she took her own life. In 1981, Plath's Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize. (original image)

Did you discover any writers in the course of researching and writing this book?

There were many—so many. And in fact, I’m still finding them even though the book is done! Probably the biggest surprise, and the one that I found most moving, was Julia Ward Howe, the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She published this anonymous book Passion Flowers in 1853, which was about her marriage and [then] her husband threatened that he would divorce her and take the children, which he could have done! [After the disclosure that she was the author, Howe’s husband refused to speak to her for three months.] That was stunning. I was tremendously impressed by the poems and by the whole life of Julia Ward Howe.

Were there writers you felt you had to include, but who disappointed you when you went back to evaluate their work?

Everybody mentions Gertrude Stein. She is always the one who makes it into the literary history. She was an incredible self-promoter, endlessly self-important. And I just think that her work is unreadable—absolutely unreadable. I don’t know anybody, except academics, who reads Stein. Which is not to say that there aren’t interesting bits and pieces—her play The Mother of US All [is worthwhile]. But I think she’s overrated in terms of the attention that she gets and in terms of her influence on American literature.

You write about early American writers turning to Europe for inspiration. George Sand, Maria Edgeworth, and of course George Eliot all seemed particularly influential in the nineteenth century. Did European writers ever turn to American writers for inspiration?

Harriet Beecher Stowe is at the top of the list. You have Stowe, and then you have a huge gap before you get to anybody else [who influenced European audiences]. It wouldn’t be until the end of the century, when you have a lot of Americans going over to Europe. Stowe was read all over the world. She was reviewed by Tolstoy. She was reviewed by George Sand. You really cannot find an American writer whose influence was more profound. And of course Stowe had this correspondence with George Eliot that I think is very delightful. She’s always writing to George Eliot, “my darling” and “my dear”—nobody talks to George Eliot like that. I just love it. Stowe is one of the women I wish I could have known.

I was struck by the extent to which American women writers—from Louisa May Alcott to Sylvia Plath—recurrently referred to The Tempest. Why?

The Tempest was the Shakespearean play that spoke to them most directly. If you say to people, “which play do you think influenced women writers?” I think people would probably say Romeo and Juliet, or something like that. But no, it was The Tempest. As far as I know, each woman writer who used it found it for herself. Because there was no literary history, there was not really any way for women writers to know what other women writers had done. They were drawn to The Tempest first of all because it is a myth of a new world, and it is a myth of starting over again in a new place. They powerfully identified with the figure of Miranda…. Miranda is a woman who grows up in a totally male world. She is a woman who is educated by her father, is tremendously intelligent, never sees another woman, and has to define what it means to be a woman for herself.

You write that Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening was the first novel by an American woman that was completely successful in aesthetic terms” What did you mean by this?

Moby Dick is a masterpiece, but I don’t know that people would say that it’s completely aesthetically successful. There are a lot of parts of Moby Dick that people skip if they read it now. I happen to love Moby Dick, but we Moby Dick fanatics are the ones that read everything about whaling. The Awakening is a real work of art, completely satisfying—in that sense more like a European novel of the time… So I wanted to put that [statement] in. You can’t fault The Awakening on any grounds whatsoever. I think [Harriet Beecher] Stowe is still the most underestimated American novelist. But I would have to say that there are things you can criticize in terms of structure.

Read Elaine Showalter's list of Top 10 Books by American Woman Authors That You Haven’t Read (But Should).

Literary Gathering

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The literary Luisa Moreno

National Museum of American History

Curators at the National Museum of American History often rely on scholars in the field to illuminate new areas of collection and research. In order to examine the intersections of Labor History and Latina History, I turned to historian Dr. Vicki L. Ruiz. Dr. Ruiz is a Distinguished Professor in History and Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently working on a biography of labor organizer Luisa Moreno (1907-1992), which will recognize Moreno's lasting legacy in the area of civil rights and union organizing, but also Moreno's life as feminist poet. Ruiz has previously published about Moreno's poetry in Women's Labor in the Global Economy: Speaking in Multiple Voices, published by Rutgers University Press.

Through her research Dr. Ruiz developed a friendship with Moreno, who had changed her name from Rosa Rodríguez López to mark her break with her privileged past as she made her way as a trade union organizer in the United States. While many activists and organizers recognized the work of Luisa Moreno, those who knew her more intimately called her Rosa. -Mireya Loza, Curator

An open page of a book with the following text, "Cuando estemos lejos y se alcen de invisibles pebeteros los dorados espirales del recuerdo. . ."When we are far apart/ and from invisible censers there lift/ the golden spirals/ of memory
-"La ausencia" in El Vendedor de Cucuyos

On a summer day in 1978, I knocked on the door of a small apartment in Guadalajara, Mexico, the home of Luisa Moreno, in my eyes a larger-than-life labor legend. Clutching a sheaf of transcript notes from her earlier interviews with my graduate advisor Albert Camarillo, I felt like a kid who had a note from home pinned to her blouse. Coming to the door, she eyed me suspiciously, but after an awkward moment, she must have decided I was harmless enough and invited me into her apartment and into her world. Thus began a relationship that has touched my scholarship at every turn over the past four decades.

A black and white photograph of a woman leaning out a windowLuisa Moreno in Mexico City in 1927. Gift of Vicki L. Ruiz.

In my early interviews with Moreno, I focused on her life as a labor leader, particularly her mobilization of California cannery workers, the subject of my dissertation and first book. Filling in the details of her life in the United States as it related to her union work dominated these conversations. However, she gradually allowed me access to her world as Rosa Rodríguez López, the well-heeled teenage feminist intellectual and poet who lived in the capital cities of Guatemala and Mexico in the 1910s and 1920s, a full decade before she began her career as a professional labor organizer among cigar rollers in Florida.

A part of a piece of notebook paper with writing on it.Draft of a poem penned by Rosa Rodríguez López. Gift of Vicki L. Ruiz.

Daughters of the powerful coffee grower Ernesto Rodríguez Robles and his socialite wife Alicia López y Gonzalez de Saravia, López and older sister Graciela organized their elite peers into La Sociedad Gabriela Mistral. Named for the poet Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, La Sociedad was a feminist literary society focused on women's education and advocacy. López explained its purpose as follows: "…the woman continues to be attached to ignorance; her emancipation is necessary. Feminism will make her become Conscious…and…by obtaining an adequate education, she will be prepared [for]…a much more ambitious future." Sociedad members penned essays critiquing U.S. popular culture (e.g. "westerner's opium") as well as women of their own class (gossipy, "useless women"). As Guatemala's first feminist organization, La Sociedad brought issues of women's rights, economic disparities, and racial prejudice to the pages of the national newspaper. Through petitions and informal lobbying, its adolescent members played a part in opening, albeit ever so slightly, educational opportunities for women, with López herself scheduled to enter Guatemala's only university. However, she had other plans.

Chafing at the social conventions expected of a woman of her station, López abruptly departed Guatemala in 1926 (without a chaperone, I might add, truly a radical act) for the allure of Mexico City. Enrolling as a student at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and working as a journalist for a Guatemalan daily, she participated in a burgeoning cultural renaissance taking place in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. One admirer considered her a bright light in women's literature both in her home country and throughout Latin America, even comparing her with famed poet Gabriela Mistral. In 1927, López published a book of poetry El Vendedor de Cocuyos (Seller of Fireflies). Barely 20 when her book appeared in print, Rosa Rodríguez López conveyed in her poetry youthful abandon, passion, and desire without artifice or pretense.

Decades later, I knew that we had reached a new level of trust when she pulled out her treasured copy of El Vendedor de Cocuyos (Seller of Fireflies) and shared its contents.

A book cover with fireflies on it.Poetry book published by Rosa Rodríguez López 1927. Gift of Vicki L. Ruiz.

Indeed, my last contact with López revolved around her poetry. Through her close friend and union colleague Elizabeth Eudey, I had received from her a gift: El Vendedor de Cocuyos. A few months later Eudey forwarded to me a copy of the poems in English translated by Abbott Small, a Spanish teacher and published poet who had spent his boyhood in Mexico as part of the American expatriate community. His parents Berthe and Charles Small had known Rosa Rodríguez López since her organizing days in Florida. María Lucia Gómez, a poet from Columbia, also took a turn at translating the verses. In 1991 López's daughter Mytyl Glomboske carried both sets of translations along with a copy of the original poems to her mother then living in Guatemala. Although debilitated by a stroke, she asked her daughter to read each version aloud and then, after examining each text, she asked her daughter to write simply "Rosa" by the translation she preferred.

An illustration of Moreno in the fieldsAn illustration of Moreno as a labor leader, part of the pamphlet "The Case of Luisa Moreno Bemis."

According to her daughter, López was thoroughly engaged in selecting the translations, although it required a great deal of stamina from an 84-year-old woman in failing health. She may have felt a sense of closure, of her life coming full circle or flowing within the "golden spirals of memory." In retrospect, she had chosen politics over poetry, considering the latter a luxury she could no longer afford as a labor leader. Yet, it is precisely through her poetry that one can catch a glimpse of her passion, intellect, and spirit, hints of the woman she would become.

Dr. Vicki L. Ruiz is a Distinguished Professor in History and Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Ruiz has also published about Moreno's poetry in Women's Labor in the Global Economy: Speaking in Multiple Voices, published by Rutgers University Press. The blog above contains excperts from her article "Of Poetics and Politics: The Border Journeys of Luisa Moreno," published in In Women's Labor in the Global Economy: Speaking in Multiple Voices, edited by Sharon Harley, 28-45. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007. They have been reproduced with permission from the publisher.

Find out more about Luisa Moreno in the New Perspectives case in American Enterprise from July through December 2018.

Vicki L. Ruiz
Posted Date: 
Friday, September 21, 2018 - 04:30
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Transactions of the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society

Smithsonian Libraries
Title from cover.

No more published; society was disbanded in 1907.

Also available online.


Irving and his Literary Friends

National Portrait Gallery

Ten Famed Literary Figures Based on Real-Life People

Smithsonian Magazine

Writers are often told to write what they know, so it should come as no surprise that many of the most famous characters in literary history are based on real people. Whether drawing inspiration from their spouses, friends and family, or finally, after decades worth of work, inserting themselves into the text, authors pull nearly every word and sentence from some element of reality, and most often, that element is people. Many characters, like Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (based on real-life beatnik Neal Cassady), come to mind as obvious, but this list is for the real-life literary characters that do not get recognized enough, and who deserve as much credit as their fictional counterparts.

1. Prospero (The Tempest, 1611)/William Shakespeare

Considered Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest is the artist’s farewell to the theater. Prospero is the island’s great magician, and with his powers he controls the tortoise-like character of Caliban and the sprite, spry Ariel. Prospero’s magic is in his books, and he decides when the Tempest should arrive, and who should come along with it. Sounds an awful lot like a playwright, doesn’t it? Prospero writes the script and wonders, like Shakespeare understandably would, what the future will be without him and his power. With frequent allusions to “the Globe” (the world, but also the name of Shakespeare’s theater), it is difficult to miss Prospero’s likeness to his great creator. Shakespeare critic and scholar Stephen Greenblatt says that the play brings up all of the “issues that haunted Shakespeare’s imagination throughout his career.” By writing himself into his final play, Shakespeare reminded the world of his own immortality as a public literary figure.

2. Robinson Crusoe (Robinson Crusoe, 1719)/Alexander Selkirk

The real Robinson Crusoe, whose memoir Daniel Defoe adapted for his own novel, was the original “bad seed” of the modern nuclear family. After his brother forced him to drink seawater, Selkirk started a fight, and was summoned by the Kirk Session in Scotland to explain himself. Fearing he would not be granted clemency, Selkirk ran away to the sea and fought against the Spanish as a privateer. A brilliant navigator, Selkirk was eventually made sailing master. The captain of his ship, however, was a tyrant, and after many close calls with the Spanish, Selkirk feared that the ship would sink and decided to call it quits, demanding to be dropped off at the nearest piece of land. Unfortunately for Selkirk (but fortunately for Defoe), the nearest piece of land was the desert island 400 miles off the coast of Chile called Más a Tierra, and now referred to as Robinson Crusoe Island. After four years and four months with nothing but a musket, a Bible, a few articles of clothing and some tobacco, Selkirk was rescued. It turns out he was right to have fled his troubled ship; it sunk shortly after he abandoned it, with only one survivor. Selkirk made a fortune privateering before eventually returning home to England, dressed in silk and lace, but he could never get used to land and yearned for the open sea. He published a memoir of his adventures, but died on a privateering mission before he could read Defoe’s adaption of his little-noticed book.

3. Dorian Gray (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890)/ John Gray

A member of Oscar Wilde’s lively literary circle, John Gray was a lovely, boyish poet who could pass for a 15-year-old at age 25. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde describes the youth as a “young Adonis,” and judging by a black-and-white photo of John Gray, we can only suggest that he was not far off. Wilde met Gray in London at the home of a fellow artist, and, for a while was one of the author's many romantic affairs. The similarities between Gray the character and Gray the poet were striking. Like Dorian, John Gray found himself easily corrupted by the city and the title character’s first name came from an ancient Greek tribe, the Dorians, who were famous for perpetuating love among men.  After the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray people began to call John Gray Dorian, which made him so uncomfortable that he went so far as to sue a London publication for libel for making the association. The fate of this real-life hero was more dramatic than Wilde could have ever written: John Gray moved to Rome and studied for the priesthood.

4. Antonia (My Ántonia, 1918)/ Annie Sadilek Pavelka

“Every story I have ever written,” said Willa Cather “… has been the recollection of some childhood experience, of something that touched me as a youngster.” My Ántonia, Cather's bildungsroman masterpiece, embodies that sentiment, detailing a young boy’s relationship with Bohemian immigrant Antonia Shimerdas and her acclimation to life on the western plains of the United States. Like her narrator in My Ántonia, Jim Burden, Willa Cather was born in Virginia. Then, like Jim Burden, at age 9 she moved with her family to the untamed plains of Red Cloud, Nebraska. In Red Cloud, Cather became friends with Annie Pavelka, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants recently transplanted there. Many years after leaving, Cather returned to Red Cloud and renewed her friendship with Annie in 1916. She published My Ántonia just two years later. Of her childhood acquaintance, Cather said, “One of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains.”

5. Molly Bloom (Ulysses, 1922)/Nora Barnacle

When asked if she was, in fact, the inspiration for the character of Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s first wife, answered simply, “No. She was much fatter.” Joyce eyed the tall brunette in the street one afternoon, and set all of Ulysses to take place on the same date as his first date with Nora. Molly Bloom is a sensual, unfaithful woman in the novel, a part that Nora pretended to play more than she actually carried out. She and Joyce wrote intensely longing letters to one another when they were apart, and often she mentioned the attractions of various other men, though she never indulged in them. Joyce stuck to Barnacle, writing one of his most memorable characters after her, although his father warned him that the opposite would happen, given his daughter-in-law’s extraordinary name.

6. Emily Grierson (A Rose for Emily, 1930)/ Maud Faulkner

Although “Miss Maud” Faulkner did not dress and primp the corpse of her deceased betrothed from day to day, it is quite clear that William Faulkner’s mother did share much common ground with Miss Emily, the protagonist of the author’s eerie A Rose for Emily. The story is based on a young girl who, in Faulkner’s words, “just wanted to be loved and to love and to have a husband and a family.” Besides these aspirations, however, Miss Emily took after Miss Maud in an even more compelling way: As an artist. Emily’s living room displays a crayon portrait of her father, just as Maud’s home displayed original portraits of family members, both living and deceased. Miss Maud fancied herself a realist, and Miss Emily could be called that (preserving a dead body does seem like a facet of realism, after all). In New Albany, Mississippi, William Faulkner’s birthplace, Miss Maud was considered standoffish and guarded by the neighbors, just as Emily is spoken of by the close-knit, gossip-ridden fictional town of Jefferson.

7. Willie Stark (All the King's Men, 1946)/ Huey P. Long

Huey P. Long, Louisiana governor and senator, famously declared after the gunshot that fatally wounded him, “Lord don’t let me die. I have too much left to do.” Whether he meant shaking Ramos gin fizzes or securing the future for the everyman, Robert Penn Warren was impressed. The author based his masterpiece on Long, also known as “The Kingfish.” Willie Stark may now be one of the most famous characters in American literary history, but his many eccentricities will never outshine the legacy of his real-life counterpart. Long could not live without that favorite cocktail and, taxpayers be damned, he flew the top bartender from the New Orleans Hotel Roosevelt wherever he went so that he would have the drink on hand at any moment. Willie Stark may be a bit less formal, but the sentiment is the same: Political corruption and unnecessary government spending are fine as long as you’re a man of the people.

8 & 9. Dill Harris (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960/ Truman Capote and Idabel Tompkins (Other Voices, Other Rooms, 1948)/ Harper Lee

"I’m Charles Baker Harris. I can read. I can read anything you’ve got.” Dill Harris’s introduction in To Kill a Mockingbird is true to the character of his real-life inspiration, Truman Capote, who taught himself to read when he was just 5 years old. Capote, who lived next door to Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, and was her best childhood friend, first put Lee into two of his own novels before becoming the inspiration for Dill Harris, Scout’s precocious, wise-beyond-his-years best friend and neighbor. Capote’s most notable Lee stand-in was Idabel Tompkins in Other Voices, Other Rooms. We can only guess that Lee the tomboy lived up to her Idabel’s crackling dialogue: “Son,” she said, and spit between her fingers, “what you’ve got in your britches is no news to me, and no concern of mine: Hell, I’ve fooled around with nobody but boys since first grade. I never think like I’m a girl; you’ve got to remember that, or we can’t never be friends.”

 10. Gary Lambert (The Corrections, 2001)/Bob Franzen

Before Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published, the author called his brother, Bob, to give him fair warning: “You might hate the book,” he said. “You might hate me.” Bob Franzen, with the unconditional love of any good big brother, responded, “Hating you is not an option.” Any writer with good sense would have been wise to warn him; Gary Lambert, whose character is based on Jonathan Franzen’s brother, is the only character in the book who never seems to learn anything. He is money-crazed and insensitive, with all the arrogance of the oldest family member and little of that position’s requisite compassion.

Two New Books of Literary Interest

National Museum of American History

The Literary and Scientific Class Book

National Museum of American History

The Literary Salon That Made Ayn Rand Famous

Smithsonian Magazine

For 19-year-old Nathan Blumenthal, reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead for the first time was nothing short of an epiphany. Published several years earlier, in 1943, Blumenthal wrote of finding the book in his memoir, My Years with Ayn Rand. “There are extraordinary experiences in life that remain permanently engraved in memory. Moments, hours, or days after which nothing is ever the same again. Reading this book was such an experience.”

Little could the Canadian teen have imagined that within the next 10 years he would, with Rand’s approval, change his name to Nathaniel Branden; become one of Rand’s most important confidantes—as well as her lover; and lead a group of thinkers on a mission to spread the philosophy of Objectivism far and wide.

At 19, Branden was only a teenager obsessed by the words of this Russian-born writer—until March 1950, when Rand responded to the letter he’d sent and invited him to visit her. That meeting was the start of a partnership that would last for nearly two decades, and the catalyst for the creation a group she dubbed “The Class of ’43,” for the year The Fountainhead was published. Later, they knowingly gave themselves the ironic name “The Collective.” And although 75 years have passed since The Fountainhead was first published, the impact of that book—and the people who gathered around Rand because of it—still play an important role in American political thinking.

Leading Republicans today, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have spoken publicly of her influence. In 2005, he told members of the Rand-loving Atlas Group that the author’s books were “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large.” Mick Mulvaney, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus and current director of the Office of Management and Budget, spoke in 2011 of his fondness for Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: “It's almost frightening how accurate a prediction of the future the book was,” he told NPR. Other self-described Rand acolytes who have served in the Trump Administration include former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (“Favorite Book: Atlas Shrugged”) and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (Atlas Shrugged “really had an impact on me”).

Initially, Branden was responsible for bringing new members into the “Class of ‘43” and mostly recruited family and friends who were equally riveted by The Fountainhead so that they could listen to Rand’s philosophy. Without him, the group may never have formed; as Rand herself said, “I’ve always seen [the Collective] as a kind of comet, with Nathan as the star and the rest as his tail.” Branden brought his soon-to-be-wife, Barbara, as well as siblings and cousins. Soon the core group included psychiatrist Allan Blumenthal, philosopher Leonard Peikoff, art historian Mary Ann Sures and economist Alan Greenspan. Every Saturday evening, during the years in which Rand was engaged writing Atlas Shrugged, the Collective gathered in Rand’s apartment and listened to her expound on the Objectivist philosophy or read the newest pages of her manuscript.

“Even more than her fiction or the chance to befriend a famous author, Rand’s philosophy bound the Collective to her. She struck them all as a genius without compare,” writes historian Jennifer Burns in Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. As for Rand, she “saw nothing unusual in the desire of her students to spend each Saturday night with her, despite being more than twenty years her junior. The collective put Rand in the position of authority she had always craved.”

Rand’s fiction and her philosophy butted up against conservatism of the era (which saw inherent value in the federal government even as it opposed social programs like the New Deal) and then split from it entirely. She was less interested in reshaping her adoptive country’s democratic government than in upending it completely. While politicians of the 1950s were rocked by McCarthyism and a new concern for traditional values and the nuclear family, Rand took it upon herself to forge a new path into libertarianism—a system being developed by various economists of the period that argued against any government influence at all.

According to Rand’s philosophy, as espoused by the characters in her novels, the most ethical purpose for any human is the pursuit of happiness for one’s self. The only social system in which this morality can survive is completely unfettered capitalism, where to be selfish is to be good. Rand believed this so fervently that she extended the philosophy to all aspects of life, instructing her followers on job decisions (including advising Greenspan to become an economic consultant), the proper taste in art (abstract art is “an enormous fraud”), and how they should behave.

Branden built upon Rand’s ideas with his own pop psychology, which he termed “social metaphysics.” The basic principle was that concern over the thoughts and opinions of others was pathological. Or, as Rand more bluntly phrased it while extolling the benefits of competence and selfishness, “I don’t give a damn about kindness, charity, or any of the other so-called virtues.”

These concepts were debated from sunset to sunrise every Saturday at Rand’s apartment, where she lived with her husband, Frank O’Connor. While Rand kept herself going through the use of amphetamines, her followers seemed invigorated merely by her presence. “The Rand circle’s beginnings are reminiscent of Rajneesh’s—informal, exciting, enthusiastic, and a bit chaotic,” writes journalist Jeff Walker in The Ayn Rand Cult.

But if the Saturday salons were exciting, they could also be alienating for outsiders. Economist Murray Rothbard, also responsible for contributing to the ideals of libertarianism, brought several of his students to meet Rand in 1954 and watched in horror as they submitted to vitriol from Rand whenever they said anything that displeased her. The members of the Collective seemed “almost lifeless, devoid of enthusiasm or spark, and almost completely dependent on Ayn for intellectual sustenance,” Rothbard later said. “Their whole manner bears out my thesis that the adoption of her total system is a soul-shattering calamity.”

Branden only fanned the flames by requiring members to subject themselves to psychotherapy sessions with him, despite his lack of training, and took it upon himself to punish anyone who espoused opinions that varied with Rand’s by humiliating them in front of the group. “To disparage feelings was a favorite activity of virtually everyone in our circle, as if that were a means of establishing one’s rationality,” Branden said.

According to journalist Gary Weiss, the author of Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul, all of these elements made the Collective a cult. “It had an unquestioned leader, it demanded absolute loyalty, it intruded into the personal lives of its members, it had its own rote expressions and catchphrases, it expelled transgressors for deviation from accepted norms, and expellees were ‘fair game’ for vicious personal attacks,” Weiss writes.

But Branden wasn’t satisfied with simply parroting Rand’s beliefs to those who were already converted; he wanted to share the message even more clearly than Rand did with her fiction. In 1958, a year after Atlas Shrugged was published (it was a best-seller, but failed to earn Rand the critical acclaim she craved), Branden started the Nathaniel Branden Lectures. In them, he discussed principles of Objectivism and the morality of selfishness. Within three years, he incorporated the lecture series as the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), and by 1964 the taped lectures played regularly in 54 cities across Canada and the United States.

“Rand became a genuine public phenomenon, particularly on college campuses, where in the 1960s she was as much a part of the cultural landscape as Tolkien, Salinger, or Vonnegut,” writes Brian Doherty in Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. “NBI’s lectures and advice on all aspects of life, as befits the totalistic nature of Objectivism, added to the cult-like atmosphere.”

Meanwhile, as her books sold hundreds of thousands of copies, Rand continued amassing disciples. Fan mail continued to pour in as new readers discovered The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and these letters were sometimes a useful recruiting tool. Writers who seemed particularly well-informed were given assignments to prove themselves before being invited to the group, writes Anne C. Heller in Ayn Rand and the World She Made. “In this way, a Junior Collective grew up.”

The Collective continued as an ever-expanding but tight-knit group until 1968. It was then that Branden, who had already divorced his wife, chose to reveal he was having an affair with a younger woman. Rand responded by excoriating him, his ex-wife Barbara, and the work that Branden had done to expand the reach of Objectivism. While members of the group like Greenspan and Peikoff remained loyal, the Collective was essentially disbanded; the Randians were left to follow their own paths.

Despite the dissolution of the group, Rand had left an indelible mark on her followers and the culture at-large. Greenspan would go on to serve as Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, while Branden continued working at his institute, though with a slightly tempered message about Objectivism and without any relationship with Rand. In 1998, Modern Library compiled a readers' list of the 20th century’s greatest 100 books that placed Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead in the first and second spots, respectively; both continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

The irony of her free-thinking followers naming themselves “The Collective” seems similar to the techniques she used in her writing, often reminiscent of Soviet propaganda, says literary critic Gene H. Bell-Villada. “In a perverse way, Rand’s orthodoxies and the Randian personality cult present a mirror image of Soviet dogmas and practices,” Bell-Villada writes. “Her hard-line opposition to all state intervention in the economy is a stance as absolute and unforgiving as was the Stalinist program of government planning and control.”

The Eighteen Scholars at a Literary Gathering

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Washington Irving and his Literary Friends at Sunnyside

National Portrait Gallery
The artists Christian Schussele and Felix Darley created this apocryphal gathering of leading writers at Sunnyside, Washington Irving's Hudson River home, to honor the literary culture created by America's founding generation of writers. By making Irving the center of the image, the artists both glorify his career and at the same time celebrate the national culture. But in doing so, they made the writers too much alike. As a New York critic wrote, "If [Irving] could have caught a glimpse of such a gathering . . . [he] would have dashed out of doors." Nonetheless, the group portrait is an important summing up of an era in which American literature found its voice and created a vigorous national culture that a new generation-Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane-would later enhance.

The Irish literary tradition [sound recording] / by Frank O'Connor

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Notes with text of recording and readings in booklet (8 p. : ill.) inserted in original container.

Cover design by Ronald Clyne.

Read by Frank O'Connor.

Related materials may be found in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection, also held by this repository. Related materials may include correspondence between the studio, producers, and/or performers; original cover art designs; original production materials; business records; and audiotapes from studio production.

Photographic History Collection: Carl Mydans

National Museum of American History
The Carl Mydans Collection at the National Museum of American History consists of 166 photographs that span the years from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s, and two Halliburton camera cases that contain all his photographic equipment. The photographs include the rural images created as part of his work for the Farm Secretary Administration and those taken while on assignment for LIFE magazine. In the mid-1930s, one of his photo essays sent him to Texas, where he covered cattle drives in the Big Bend, the oil boomtown of Freer and “brushhogs,” migratory workers who lived by the side of the road. A few years later, he completed the series on “sandhogs,” construction workers who built the Midtown Tunnel under the East River in New York City. During the 1940s, he recorded the events of the Second World War, mainly in the Pacific theater. Once the war ended, he was sent to Bikini Island Atoll, an island chain in the Pacific that is part of the Marshall Islands chain. There he documented the evacuation of the people of Bikini from their home island in order to clear the way for major atomic testing, and the Bikinians' exodus to nearby Rongerik. The rest of the collection includes portraits of major political, military, and literary figures, such as Winston Churchill, General MacArthur and William Faulkner. Carl Mydans was a storyteller. Always seeking the drama and history of a moment, his pictures are meant to recount a story with no words. Carl Mydans was born in Boston on May 20, 1907. He graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism, after which he went on to work as a free-lance writer for the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe. While a staff writer for the American Banker, Mydans began to carry a miniature camera on his assignments. In 1935, he carried a camera full time, joining the photographic unit of the Resettlement Administration, which merged into the Farm Security Administration in 1937. Under the supervision of Roy Stryker, a group of photographers—composed of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evens, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein and Carl Mydans, among others—was sent on assignment to make a difference by reporting and documenting the plight of the poor farmer. Their task was to create a “pictorial history” of agriculture and focus on those most affected by the Great Depression. The photographers would tour the nation and interpret it through the shape of the land and the faces of the unemployed, the migrant farmers, and the sharecroppers. During this time, Mydans documented cotton production in the southeastern states, the impoverished dwellings of New England, and the creation of new “greenbelt towns” or government-sponsored planned communities. In 1936, Mydans left the FSA and was hired by the newly established LIFE magazine. One of his first assignments for LIFE was a photo essay on Texas, focusing mainly on the oil boomtown of Freer. It was also at this time that he met Shelley Smith, a LIFE researcher and journalist whom he married the following year. Once World War II broke out, the couple was sent to Europe as a reporter-photographer team. At first they went to England, covering London under siege, then to Sweden, and then to Finland, where Mydans had his first combat experience. The couple later traveled to Italy to cover Fascism, to France to witness its defeat, to Pearl Harbor to photograph American naval operations, and then to China. When the attack on Pearl Harbor occured, Carl and his wife were in Manila, the Philippines. Early in 1942, the Philippines were invaded by the Japanese and the couple was imprisoned. After almost nine months of captivity, they were moved from Santo Tomas University—an internment camp for civilians—to Shanghai. On December 1943, the couple, along with 1,400 American and Canadian citizens, was repatriated. Although Mydans was unable to cover the war, he was grateful to have survived and continue to watch and photograph all the events that encompassed his life. Soon after his return to the States, he was sent back to the European front. In 1944, he accompanied Allied forces to Italy where he covered the campaigns in Monte Cassino and Rome. After Italy, Mydans traveled to Marseilles to cover the fighting in southern France. Following the liberation of France, he was rushed back to the South Pacific to rejoin Gen. Douglas MacArthur for his triumphant return to the Philippines. Three weeks after the invasion of Luzon, Mydans took part in the charge into Manila—which concluded with the liberation of the remaining 4,000 civilian captives in Santo Tomas—alongside the 8th Cavalry Regiment. Months later, on September 2, 1945, Mydans was one of the few privileged photojournalists to be present at the site of the official Japanese surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri. After the Second World War, the Mydans took up residence in Tokyo, where he worked as chief editor of the TIME-LIFE news bureau. During those years, he captured the earthquake at Fukui, the Communist Revolution in China, and the war in Korea. In 1950, while on a trip to New York, Mydans received word of the outbreak of the Korean war. It only took him ten days to get himself shipped back into battle. Later that year, he received a Gold Achievement Award from U.S. Camera for his coverage of the Korean conflict. After the war, Mydans completed assignments in England, Berlin, and Russia, and traveled to Vietnam in 1968 to do a story on refugees. After the closing of LIFE, he continued to work as a photojournalist with TIME magazine, and wrote books based on his experiences at war. Mydans died on August 16, 2004.

Finding the Humor in History

Smithsonian Magazine

In just four years, Kate Beaton has made a name for herself as a cartoonist. She launched her webcomic “Hark! A Vagrant” in 2007 and has since published two books. Her strips, which look like doodles a student might draw in the margins of her notebook, read as endearing spoofs on historical and literary characters. In one, Joseph Kennedy overzealously goads his sons’ aspirations for presidency, and in another, the Brontë sisters go dude watchin’.

Beaton, 28, started penning comics while studying history and anthropology at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada. Her cartoons, about the campus and its professors at first, ran in the school newspaper. “I don’t know how well I ingratiated myself among the faculty,” she says. But now the New York City-based cartoonist hears of educators who serve up her witty comics as aperitifs to what might otherwise be dry lessons.

Just a few months after the release of her latest book Hark! A Vagrant, Beaton took a break from sketching Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights fame to discuss her work with us.

What do you look for in a subject? Are there certain character traits or plotlines you look for?

A certain amount of conflict makes it easier. But there are no red flags really. In general, you just sort of become very familiar with the subject and then you poke fun at it like you would a friend of yours that you know very well.

You once said that your approach is directly related to the old Gaelic-style humor of Nova Scotia. How so?

My hometown [of Mabou, Nova Scotia] is very small. It is 1,200 people or so, and it is really well known for its Scottish heritage. It was so culturally singular in a way. That culture grew because it was so isolated there for such a long time. There is just a certain sense of humor. They talk about it like it’s a thing. I read once in a book that it was a knowing wink to the human foibles of the people that you know. Usually someone is just sort of being a little hard on you or someone else, but in a friendly way. You have to live with these people. No one is a jerk about it. But it is jokes at the expense of everyone’s general humanity. You could call it small-town humor.

So what kind of research does it take to attain a friendly enough rapport with figures in history and literature to mock them in your comics?

For every character it is totally different. It is not just a character. It is the world around the character or the book or the historical thing. People take history very personally, so an event might have a second or third life depending on who is reading about it and who is writing about it and who cares about it. It is fascinating. I don’t really have a particular process. I just try to find the most credible and interesting sources that I can to read about things and I go from there.

Before you went full steam as a cartoonist, you worked in museums, including the Mabou Gaelic and Historical Society, the Shearwater Aviation Museum and the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. Do you visit museums or nose through their digital collections for inspiration?

Yeah. I recently went to the Museum of the Moving Image to see the Jim Henson exhibit here in New York. I like museums a lot. I like visiting them, more to see how they present information than the information inside. That is usually the most interesting part. What do you choose to leave in? What do you leave out? I think the idea of public history is really interesting. What people know about and what they don’t. What is part of the story publicly? Who do you make a statue of and where do you put it and why?

The bulk of my research is online, although I have quite a few books of my own. You learn how to Google the right things, I guess, either a phrase that you think will work or any kind of key words that will bring you to an essay someone wrote or to Google Books. has all kinds of books as well. You can find a lot of university syllabi. You can find so much. Go to the Victoria and Albert Museum website. They have all kinds of costuming stuff there. I needed to find a flintlock pistol recently for a strip about pirates, and there was this person’s website. He has one for sale and has pictures of it from all angles for some collector. It was great. The Internet is pretty wonderful for that kind of thing.

Image by Courtesy of Kate Beaton, When coming up with a subject, cartoonist Kate Beaton looks for a certain amount of conflict and then pokes fun at it like you would a friend you know very well. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Kate Beaton, Based in New York City, Beaton has her witty comics presented by educators as aperitifs to what might otherwise be dry lessons. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Kate Beaton, At age 10, Beaton read all of the Nancy Drew books in two weeks during a stay in the hospital. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Kate Beaton, Beaton remembers the Nancy Drew books in a "weird haze" and assumes that is what turned Nancy into kind of a strange character in her comic. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Kate Beaton, In doing research for her comics, Beaton finds the most credible and interesting sources and goes from there. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Kate Beaton, Beaton, 28, started penning comics while studying history and anthropology at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada. (original image)

How do you make a comic appeal to both someone who has never heard of the figure you are lampooning and someone who is that figure’s biggest fan?

You try and present figures as plainly as you can, I suppose. That’s why my comics got bigger than just a six-panel comic about one subject. It became six smaller comics about one subject or something like that because there is too much information to put in. Maybe the first couple might have a bit more exposition in them so that by the time you get to the bottom, you are familiar with the characters even if you don’t know them from a book or from studying them. If I did a breakdown, you could see that maybe one comic especially will hit it big with someone who doesn’t really know much about it. It might be a sight gag or something, a face or a gesture, and then one will really hopefully pay some kind of tribute to somebody who knows a bit more about it. It would still be funny but it would have a more knowledgeable joke that goes over some people’s heads, and that would be fine.

Is there someone you really want to make a comic about but haven’t figured out the hook?

Yeah. I have been reading a lot about Catherine the Great lately. But she is so larger-than-life; it is difficult to take in all of that information. In some ways, you think it would make it easier, because she is somebody that everybody knows. But she is liked by some people, disliked by others. She had some good qualities and some bad qualities. What do you pick? What do you go with? If I made, say, six comics, what would they be, from a life this large?

What has been the most surprising response from readers?

Emotional responses, definitely. I think that one of the most emotional responses was in doing one about Rosalind Franklin, the DNA research scientist whose work was stolen by James Watson and Francis Crick and put in their Nobel Prize-winning book. That was just a huge deal in the beginnings of DNA research. They didn’t give her credit for her photographs that they took of the double helix. They won Nobel Prizes, and she died. It is so tragic and awful and people really responded to it, because she is just representative of so many people you read about and you can’t believe were overlooked. The joke is respectful to her. It is not the most hilarious comic. But it does give Watson and Crick kind of a villainous role, and her sort of the noble heroine role. It is nice to see people really respond to history that way. It is nice to touch a nerve.

I especially like when you use Nancy Drew covers as springboards for comic strips. How did you get started with that?

I started with Edward Gorey covers. I was trying to think of a comic idea one day, and I was going nowhere. I was so frustrated, and someone on Twitter was like, check out all these Gorey covers, a collection on a website. I looked at them and thought you really could extrapolate from this theme that is on the cover and make a comic about it. So I did, and they went over really well. I started to look for some other book covers that had an action scene on the front that were available in a set. I read all of the Nancy Drew books in two weeks when I was 10 because I was in the hospital and that is the only thing that they had. I read the heck out of those books and probably remember them in a weird haze of a two-week megathon Nancy Drew reading while being sick. Perhaps that weird memory turned Nancy into kind of a weirdo in my comic.

What is on the cover is like, “Here is what’s inside.” Be excited about this. There is no abstract stuff, because kids would be like who cares. There are people doing things and that is why you pick it up. You are like, I like the look of this one. Nancy looks like she is in a real pickle.

Have you ever felt that you went too far in your reinterpretation of history or literature?

Not really. I think I toe a safe line. I don’t really get hate mail. I respect the things that I poke fun at and hopefully that shows. Earlier on, I suppose I went for the more crude humor because you are just trying to figure out your own sense of humor and what your strengths are. It takes a long time to figure out comedy, to figure out what it is that you are capable of in it and what your particular voice is in humor and comedy.

Who do you find funny?

Oh, a lot of people. The same Tina Fey, Amy Poehler crowd that everybody seems to like nowadays. But I also really enjoy the old-style humor. Stephen Leacock is one of my favorites. He was a Canadian humorist around the turn of the century. And Dorothy Parker’s poems are so good and funny. It is hard to be funny. I like to take influences from all over the board. Visually, I have a lot of collections from Punch magazine and that type of stuff, where the visual gags are so good. I respect that level of cartooning.

When you do public readings of your comics, obviously, you are in control of how they are read, where the dramatic pauses are and everything. Do you ever worry about leaving that up to the readers?

You try to engineer it in a certain way. People are going to read it the way they do. My sister reads the end of the book as soon as she starts one. It drives me crazy. Why would you read the last chapter? She can’t stand waiting for the joke or waiting for the end. I try to construct my comics in a way that no one can do that. A joke hits them in the face before they can get to the end.

The Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History

Smithsonian Libraries
Title from caption.

Vols. 3-4 include four reports on archaeological explorations near Madisonville, O., conducted under the direction of the Literary and Scientific Society of Madisonville. (Also issued separately).

The Spirited History of the American Bar

Smithsonian Magazine

Is happy hour a cornerstone of democracy? Yes, because chatting over a beer has often led to dramatic change, says Christine Sismondo, humanities lecturer at Toronto’s York University. Her new book, America Walks into a Bar, contends that local dives deserve more credit in history than they receive; they are where conversations get started. contributor Rebecca Dalzell spoke with Sismondo about her book.

How did you get interested in bars?
I used to travel around America a lot, and wherever I went it seemed that bars were important historic markers. On the Freedom Trail in Boston they talk about the Green Dragon Tavern, and in New York, George Washington said farewell to his troops at Fraunces Tavern. The American Revolution, Whisky Rebellion and Stonewall riots all came out of bars. Plus, I’ve worked in a neighborhood bar, so its function as a community center became clear to me.

What makes bars unique in American culture?
Taverns produced a particular type of public sphere in colonial America. Without them I don’t think you would have had exactly the same political landscape. Many people compare it to the coffeehouse in London or Paris salons, but those were bourgeois meeting-places. In taverns people could mix together: you see men drinking alongside the people they work for. Early laws fixed the price that tavern-keepers could charge for a drink, so they couldn’t cater to wealthy patrons. And once you add alcohol in there, it changes the way everyone relates to each other. You end up with accelerated relationships—and occasionally cantankerous ones. People become more willing to go out and raise hell over things that they might have let go when sober.

Are there any constants that run through our bar history?
Bars have always been where people share news and discuss it. And there’s an unwritten code in most neighborhood bars that people are supposed to check their degrees at the door. You can find a lawyer, university professor, taxi driver and dishwasher all talking about politics, and nobody’s supposed to pull rank.

How have bars evolved over time?
From colonial times to the mid-19th century you had taverns, which provided food and lodging. They had a tapster in a cage—as opposed to at a long bar—and it was open to all members of the community, including women and children. Then you start to see the dedicated saloon, which didn’t necessarily serve food, and mixed cordials and spirits at a long bar. Women were rarely allowed. Hotel bars existed on the high end, catering to business travelers. During Prohibition there were speakeasies, and after that people went back to the term tavern, though it was more like the old saloon. Now of course we call bars all of the above.

Image by Courtesy of Oxford University Press. In Christine Sismondo's new book, America Walks into a Bar, she contends that local dives deserve more credit in history than they receive. (original image)

Image by Museum of the City of New York / The Granger Collection, NYC. According to Sismondo, taverns, such as the one shown here in New York City, produced a particular type of public sphere in colonial America. (original image)

Image by The Granger Collection, New York. The Whiskey Rebellion, American Revolution and Stonewall riots all came out of bars. Pictured is tarring and feathering that was typical during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. (original image)

Image by Library of Congress. Advertisement for Lager Bier. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Oxford University Press. Sismondo is a humanities lecturer at Toronto's York University. (original image)

What’s an event that could only have happened in a bar?
New York’s Stonewall riots in 1969. They didn’t come out of nowhere as people often think. Since bars were the only places where gay people could congregate, everyone got to know each other. During the McCarthy era the police regularly shut the bars down, denying gays of their fundamental right to associate. When they’d had enough and it came time to organize, the networks were already in place through the bars.

Have reformers always tried to control drinking in America?
Alcohol was accepted for a long time—actually considered a panacea, what you drank if you were sick or didn’t have bread. You were a well-behaved Puritan if you had a drink at breakfast. It only became identified as a problem, something you should give up to save your soul, in the mid-19th century, with reformers like Lyman Beecher and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

And this led to Prohibition?
I actually don’t think that moral questions had much to do with the passage of Prohibition. It seemed to be largely about criminalizing the saloon as opposed to alcohol, indicated by the fact that it was still legal to possess alcohol. You just couldn’t sell or distribute it. The most powerful group in the 40 years before Prohibition wasn’t the WCTU but the Anti-Saloon League, which made the saloon the main culprit, not alcohol. Industrialists followed, saying yes, if we control the saloon we’ll have fewer people agitating for labor, campaigning for social reform and coming in to work hung over. While the WCTU was important for getting the movement started, it was run by women, who didn’t have a lot of power. People didn’t jump on board with Prohibition until they saw the saloon as a dangerous, radical political space.

Was there a double standard by which bars were policed?
Absolutely. A lot of racial and religious intolerance played into it. Laws shutting taverns on Sunday in the 1850s are the worst example, because they targeted immigrants. Taverns were the only recreational space they had access to and Sunday was the only day they had off. But city governments, especially in Chicago, wanted to stifle the machine politics of the immigrant taverns. During Prohibition, the chasm between working-class and respectable drinking places was even clearer—the law wasn’t enforced equally.

Watch this video in the original article

What was speakeasy culture like during Prohibition?
There were fewer people visiting speakeasies than is commonly believed. Going out was equivalent to bottle clubs now, where people pay $600 for a liter of vodka—it was a high-end, sophisticated culture. If you could afford it, it was fun and interesting, especially because women started mixing in. But the majority just couldn’t pay the inflated price of alcohol. They either couldn’t afford to drink at all or could only afford to drink very dangerous forms of alcohol. Yes, there were those who drank as though there was no Prohibition, but that’s a smaller segment of the population than people think.

Is there anyone who deserves the most credit in history for defending bar culture?
In terms of bar history, we don’t think of Clarence Darrow as much of a character, but he was really important in trying to defend the saloon from its detractors in the years around Prohibition. H.L. Mencken gets all the credit, but Darrow was an important part of that. Mencken defends it primarily on libertarian grounds, in terms of personal freedom. Darrow pointed out that the Anti-Saloon League had racist and class motives. He defended the saloon as a gathering place for minorities and people with radical ideas. He has a great quote that not every Anti-Saloon Leaguer is a Ku Klux Klanner, but every Ku Klux Klanner is an Anti-Saloon Leaguer.

What are some surprising things that used to happen in bars?
In some bars on the Bowery in New York City, they did away with glassware and for three cents you were allowed to drink all you could through a tube until you took a breath. So people would be outside practicing holding their breath. There was also dodgy entertainment. Freak shows traveled through in the 18th century, with animals preserved in formaldehyde, and later they’d have sports like wrestling or watching terriers kill rats.

Who’s your favorite bartender?
I like Orsamus Willard, who worked at New York’s City Hotel in the 1840s. He was famous for his peach brandy punch, and was the first bartender to get mentioned in newspapers. He had a tireless devotion to service and an incredible memory, never forgetting anyone’s name or favorite room. Once there was a guest who left abruptly because his son was ill. When he returned five years later, Willard asked after his son’s health and gave him his old room.

Can you recommend some memorable bars?
A fantastic one in New Orleans is the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar, because the bar really rotates. It used to be a literary hangout—Tennessee Williams went there. Henry Clay introduced the mint julep at the Willard [Hotel]’s Round Robin Bar in Washington, which has always been important in politics. In New York, I love the King Cole Bar in New York’s St. Regis Hotel. It’s hard not to think of that immediately because of the sheer beauty of the bar, which has a Maxfield Parrish mural, and the incredibly expensive cocktails. Downtown, McSorley’s Old Ale House is great because it hasn’t really changed in over 100 years.

The History of First Ladies’ Memoirs

Smithsonian Magazine

The release this week of Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, in which the former First Lady shares her personal stories, including some from her time in the White House, continues a decades-long tradition. Beginning with Betty Ford in 1978, the six First Ladies who preceded Obama each published their own unique versions of an autobiography sometime during their first few years out of office.

These offerings grant American citizens unrivaled access to the human lives inside the country’s highest office, often in ways more genuine and compelling than other histories or biographies on their husbands. What unites the books are that these impressive women unveil personal challenges and political motivations, all while writing American history from inside the White House.

“When First Ladies are liberated from their public role and can operate much more as a private citizen, they simply have more scope for what they talk about and how they can behave,” says Lisa Kathleen Graddy, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “They’re not representing, at all times, the United States of America.”

Nellie Taft, the smoking, prohibition-hating, car driving and suffragist-supporting wife of President William Howard Taft was the first First Lady to publish a memoir during her lifetime. In Recollections of Full Years, Taft shared her pride at becoming the first First Lady to ride alongside her husband down Pennsylvania Avenue on the day of his inauguration. She wrote, “perhaps I had a little secret elation in thinking I was doing something which no woman had ever done before.” In total, 11 of America’s 42 official First Ladies, not including those whose personal correspondence was published following their deaths, have authored personal memoirs during their lifetime, often outselling their husbands.

“First ladies still tend to be more mysterious than the presidents,” Graddy says. “We’re always hoping once the First Lady is out of office she’s going to let us in a little more.”

Here’s a taste of the most fascinating and honest stories from these memoirs:

United States First Lady Michelle Obama with former First Ladies Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, and Rosalynn Carter. (White House/Lawrence Jackson)

Michelle Obama’s Word for Women on Fertility

In Becoming, Michelle for the first time shares the difficulty she and President Obama faced conceiving their two daughters, Malia and Sasha. Michelle writes candidly about the failure she felt following a miscarriage and her discomfort with self-administering IVF shots while Barack was off at work as a state legislator. As Michelle told ABC’s Robin Roberts, “I think it's the worst thing that we do to each other as women, not share the truth about our bodies and how they work, and how they don’t work.”

Laura Bush’s Car Accident Confession

The 2010 autobiography Spoken From the Heart by Laura Bush revealed more detail about her involvement in a tragic car accident. On November 6, 1963, two days after her 17th birthday, Bush and her friend Judy made plans to head over to the local drive-in theater. Bush, driving her father’s Chevy Impala, became distracted as she spoke with her friend. She drove through an unnoticed stop sign and crashed into the less sturdy car of classmate and close friend, Mike Douglas. He was killed, and for years Laura Bush was wracked with guilt. In the memoir, Bush writes about how that tragedy uprooted her life-long faith, something that took years to gain back.

Hillary Clinton and Chinese Censorship

“If there be one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all,” Hillary Clinton told an appreciative crowd at the September 1995 Fourth Women’s Conference in Beijing. Throughout that same speech, Clinton threw jab after jab at the Chinese government for their policies that discriminated against women and girls. The Chinese government blocked the broadcast.

To date, Clinton has written three memoirs. Her first, Living History, published in 2003, caused mass uproar in China. In the officially licensed Chinese edition of Living History, nearly all of Clinton’s disapproving references to the country were cut or otherwise cleansed of any biting criticism. Clinton’s 2014 memoir Hard Choices on her time as Secretary of State includes similarly negative opinions of China. As Hillary’s U.S. publisher put it Hard Choices is “effectively banned” by the People’s Republic.

Barbara Bush on her Mental Health and Abortion Policy

In her eponymous memoir, Barbara Bush wrote candidly about her battle with mental health and personal political opinions. She shared that her bouts with depression in the 1970s would push her to park on the highway’s shoulder, terrified she would purposefully put herself in harm’s way. At the time, she sought no medication and no help, beside from her husband, President George H.W. Bush. Barbara wrote “I almost wonder why he didn’t leave me.”

In a noticeable departure from her husband’s abortion policies, Barbara wrote “let me say again. I hate abortions, but just could not make that choice for anybody else.”

“First ladies tend to stay in line with the administration, they bolster the administration,” Graddy says. “Everyone is always wondering if that’s what they’re really thinking. So, when you get a glimpse at something that says that it wasn’t, it’s interesting.”

First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan, Pat Nixon, Barbara Bush, Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford (©Diana Walker/gift of Diana Walker, NMAH)

Nancy Reagan’s Vindication

Sally Quinn of the Washington Post wrote in 1989 that, “First Lady books should be primarily anthropological. They don't need to be literary, historical or political, although that would be fine too. What they should tell you is what it's like to live in the White House, what it's like to be First Lady. If that is the case then Nancy Reagan has failed: My Turn tells you what it's like to be Nancy Reagan.”

And, being Nancy Reagan was not always, or even often, pretty.

My Turn, Reagan’s 1989 memoir, was met with little to no fanfare. Nearly every reviewer was turned off by the unapologetic anger and frustration Reagan openly vented. Chief amongst Nancy’s targets was Donald T. Regan, her husband’s Treasury Secretary. One critic went so far as to say My Turn is, “in fact, a book with nothing to commend it.” In addition to going after critics, in the book Reagan defended her fondness for astrology and addressed the assassination attempt against her husband. She wrote that while the near fatal gun-shot wound had no effect on Mr. Reagan’s gun policy it left her “not sure” she agreed with him.

Rosalynn Carter’s Unapologetic Influence

As First Lady, Rosalynn Carter viewed herself as a political partner and equal to her husband, President Jimmy Carter. She took more than 200 pages of personal notes at the Camp David summit, which brokered a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel and garnered the President the Nobel Peace Prize. In her 1984 memoir, First Lady from Plains, Rosalynn explains how history would have been different had Jimmy only listened to her advice and reconsidered the 1980 grain embargo against the U.S.S.R, a policy that devastated American agriculturalists and likely contributed to Carter’s failed second-term bid. The American public and press had been critical of Rosalynn’s direct influence on her husband’s policy, yet in her memoir Rosalynn gave no indication that she cared.

Betty Ford on Addiction

During her tenure as First Lady, Betty Ford was known to be unapologetic. In 1975, during an interview with CBS’s Morley Safer, Ford spoke openly about her pro-choice political stance, her time seeing a psychiatrist and whether she would or would not try marijuana. Protestors took to the streets, calling her “No Lady.” Yet, soon public opinion flipped as Americans began praising her breath-of-fresh-air honesty, particular in regards to the mastectomy she underwent a year prior. Betty’s memoir The Times of My Life was as telling, raw and engaging as expected.

“When she was out of office, Ford was very forthcoming about her battle with prescription drugs,” Graddy says. In The Times of My Life, Mrs. Ford details the intervention her family held in 1978 to help curb her dependence on pills and alcohol.

“Not being in that public eye in the same way anymore, not being official,”Graddy says, “gave her a freedom to talk about things like that.” The Times of My Life was meet with esteem. Betty followed it up with two more memoirs.

Lady Bird Johnson and JFK’s Assassination

“It all began so beautifully,” reads Lady Bird Johnson’s diary entry from the November 22, 1963, the day of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The words open her memoir, A White House Diary, and before you could turn the first page, the shots ring out. “I cast one last look over my shoulder and saw in the President’s car a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying on the back seat. It was Mrs. Kennedy lying over the President’s body,” she wrote. Just a few hours later, she would become the First Lady.

In the same entry, Johnson recalls Jackie Kennedy’s famous words, “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.” In later entries, she takes the reader inside the silent limousine ride to President Kennedy’s funeral, where she and now-President Lyndon Johnson sat beside Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy and her children. Mrs. Johnson wrote, “the feeling persisted that I was moving, step by step, through a Greek tragedy.”

Jackie Kennedy never authored a memoir, neither did Lyndon B. Johnson or Bobby Kennedy, Lady Bird’s diaries of the assassination’s aftermath offered reader’s the earliest and most riveting retelling published in print.

The History of the Humble Suitcase

Smithsonian Magazine

When Phileas Fogg decides to circle the globe in Around the World in 80 Days, the 1873 novel by Jules Verne, he doesn't take a suitcase. “We'll have no trunks,” he says to his servant Passepartout, “only a carpet bag, with two shirts and three pairs of stockings for me, and the same for you. We'll buy our clothes on the way.”

At the time, the suitcase as we know it today hardly existed. In Verne's day, proper travel required a hefty trunk built of wood, leather, and often a heavy iron base. The best trunks were waterproofed with canvas or tree sap, as steamships were a reigning mode of travel. Without this protection, a suitcase in the hold of a heaving, leaky ship would probably have been wet within a few hours, and crushed by sliding trunks within a few more.

When the suitcase finally did catch on at the end of the 19th century, it was quite literally a case for suits. A typical suitcase came equipped with an inner sleeve for storing shirts, and sometimes a little hat box on the side. But even in the early 20th century, the “dress-suit case” was only one of countless styles of container that travelers could buy, from steamer trunks to club bags to Eveready portable wardrobes. These were boom times for the baggage business.

Which, of course, probably seems like an utterly useless fact. Most people care about containers much less than they care about the things containers contain—the pairs of pants, the paperback books, the miniature bottles of shampoo. But the history of the suitcase spans every major transportation revolution since the steamship. And this means that suitcases carry a lot more than spare socks and underwear—they carry in their design a subtle history of human movement.

Pullman porters carry suitcases off a train in 1946. (Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art)

It's a good thing Phileas Fogg didn't take a trunk, because dragging one from steamship to railroad to carriage to hot air balloon would have ruined his rapid pace. Trunk-laden travel was becoming increasingly illogical as long-distance transportation grew more common and diverse. Up to that point, tourism had begun a decidedly upper-class phenomenon, and the rich could rely on an army of hired hands to carry luggage. In the 18th century, young European elites on the Grand Tour had often traveled with several servants in a coach filled with trunks and furniture. There wasn't sufficient incentive to revise an inconvenient design while rich travelers simply relied on railway porters and hotel bellhops. (Indeed, when Fogg meets an Indian princess along the way, he buys luggage for her, and the pair is soon carried to their steamship by palanquin—basically a chair with handles that's lifted with human labor—with “their luggage brought up after on a wheelbarrow.”)

But the late 19th century marked a pivot point in the history of transportation: it was the beginning of mass tourism, of travel for travel's sake (as opposed to, say,  pilgrimages to Jerusalem or migration to industrial mill towns.) Humans had long traveled for the sake of curiosity and exploration, of course, but by 1900 or so, hotels in Switzerland were recording millions of overnight stays per year, and a summer day could draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to British beaches. Travel wasn't just for the wealthy anymore.

An early "suit case," as pictured in a 1911 United Watch and Jewelry Company catalog. (Internet Archive)

Suitcases began as an afterthought in the luggage and leather goods business, but they soon became the very symbol of travel. An 1897 wholesale price list included the words “suit case” only twice in a 20-page list of luggage types. In a 1907 T. Eaton & Co. catalog, trunks took up a full page while suitcases share a page with club bags and valises. In a 1911 United Company catalog, however, around 40 percent of the advertisements were for suitcases. (It's worth pointing out that these catalogs were from North America, where migration required people—and not just the wealthy—to carry their own belongings far and often).

Early suitcases (usually called “suit cases” or “suit-cases”) were lighter and more portable than trunks, but they were still bulky by today's standards. Leather, wicker or thick rubbery cloth was stretched over a rigid wood or steel frame. Corners were rounded out using brass or leather caps. Such suitcases tended to have roughly the proportions of a hardback book: flattened and easy to carry, with a handle on the long side. Until steamship travel declined during the mid-20th century, many were advertised as waterproof. Lightweight models were often marketed specifically to women.

As trunks went out of style, suitcases took on not just practical but also cultural significance. By the 1920s, suitcases featured in books such as The Hardy Boys and such films as The Woman in the Suitcase, as a literary symbol for both mobility and mystery—perhaps filled with gold, photographs, or simply a stranger's possessions. During the Great Depression, farmers who worked fields away from home were called “suitcase farmers.”

Suitcases still had a ways to go before achieving their present form, though. With the rapid expansion in automobile travel during in the 1920s, and a more gradual expansion of air travel a couple decades later, suitcases found new applications but also new kinds of competition. A 1933 business report written to President Franklin Roosevelt by Hugh S. Johnson, an administrator in the National Recovery Administration, put it this way: “With the increase in the use of automobiles, it has become easy to utilize simple cardboard containers secured at little or no cost, in the back of the automobile in lieu of luggage.” Suitcases, in other words, had to get lighter and cheaper if they wanted to compete. The robust wood, steel, and heavy leather suitcase gave way to cardboard and plastic models that emphasized “modern” materials and convenience.

Think back now to the suitcases you can buy today. Many feature large pieces of rounded hard plastic (a practice which seems to have started in the 1960s), or are built with synthetic fabrics stretched over minimalist alloy frames. Zippers have largely replaced clasps, and few suitcases are specifically waterproof. Perhaps most importantly, suitcases come in two distinct sizes—“carry-on” or “check-in”—both of which tend to come with wheels.

Various traveling luggage. (Image by © Jun-won Seo/Sung-Il Kim/Corbis)

Essentially all these developments came in the last half-century or so, particularly with the onset of mass aviation. Unlike transportation by automobile, which takes a traveler from door to door, a long flight can require half a mile of walking during check-in, layovers, and arrival. And while a ship's hold or luggage car could store large amounts of luggage regardless of shape, an airplane's stowage areas have specific proportions and size limits. The suitcase had to adapt, as a 1970 patent by Bernard Sadow explained:

Whereas formerly luggage would be handled by porters and be loaded or unloaded at points convenient to the street, the large terminals of today, particularly air terminals, have increased the difficulty of baggage handling. Thus, it is often necessary for a passenger to handle his own baggage in an air, rail, or bus terminal. Further, where the passenger does handle his own luggage, he is often required to walk very great distances.

Illustration from a patent of the wheeled suitcase, as popularized by Bernard Sadow. (Google Patent Search)

Sadow's patent, as you might have guessed, was the crucial innovation of the wheeled suitcase. 1970 may seem remarkably recent for such a useful development. (A wheeled trunk was patented in 1887, and a wheeled suitcase in 1945—those initial models simply didn't catch on). We have to remember that aviation had only recently become truly widespread, though: in the two decades before the patent, flights had increased their passenger totals by ten times, from 17 million in 1949 to 172 million in 1969. That was also the year that set records for the most hijackings in a year, with an astonishing 82—a fact which contributed to increasingly strict baggage checks that funneled passengers through longer lines on the way to centralized security checkpoints.

Luggage design remains tightly linked to aviation. Carry-on luggage (which, by the way, was transformed in 1987 with the wheeled “Rollaboard” bag and its now-ubiquitous collapsible handle) conforms to the dimensions of the airlines with the smallest storage area. When new weight restrictions for checked bags kicked in during the 2000s, meanwhile, practically every luggage manufacturer released new lightweight models to stay competitive. These suitcases tend to be vertical instead of horizontal, because of their wheels, and relatively stout and thick, because of airline restrictions on suitcase dimensions.

There's an irony to the shape of these modern suitcases. They've come a long way from the flat and stackable “dress-suit case,” shaped like a big hardback book. Today's luggage instead fits the rough proportions of a big shoe box—and this gives it almost the same shape as those unwieldy trunks that Phileas Fogg preferred to leave at home. A century of revolution in transportation, in other words, seems to have brought us back to the hefty trunk shape that the first suitcases replaced. Just as we might pack and re-pack our belongings to fit our luggage, we make and re-make our luggage to fit our built world.

Rick Perlstein on "Parties to History"

Smithsonian Magazine

Rick Perlstein is mainly known for his books, his latest being Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. But he also blogs for the Washington, DC—based progressive Web site Campaign for America's Future and has recently written for the New York Times Magazine, The Nation, the Washington Post—and Smithsonian. In the September issue's "Parties to History," a roundup of commentaries on four political conventions that changed America, Perlstein takes on the 1964 Republican National Convention, calling it the "ugliest of Republican conventions since 1912." I caught up with Rick to talk about his retrospective look at the revolution of the right.

What drew you to this particular story about the 1964 Republican National Convention?
The convention is central to the narrative of my first book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001). I researched it quite deeply; I own a copy of the Republican National Convention's published convention proceedings, and even walked the site to get a literary feel for the event.

Was there something that you learned about the convention by researching and writing this piece that you didn't know going in to the assignment? Perhaps something that surprised you?
I did gain a newfound appreciation of an insight of the historian Alan Brinkley that the party conventions were especially dramatic in 1964 because they were caught between two political worlds: the old era of backroom wheeler-dealing, and the new one of spectacles staged for television.

How do you think the effects of the 1964 Republican National Convention are made manifest in the party today?
Barry Goldwater's platform points that were so radical they made the pundits' heads spin in 1964 are taken for granted in Republican platforms nowadays. It was a key moment in the successful conservative takeover of the party from within.

Brain Pickings' Top 11 History Books of the Year

Smithsonian Magazine

After the year’s best children’s books, art and design books, photography books, and science books, the 2011 best-of series continues with a look at the most fascinating history books featured on Brain Pickings this years, tomes that unearth unknown treasures from the annals of yesteryear or offer an unusual lens on a familiar piece of our cultural past.


The Information coverThe future of information can’t be complete without a full understanding of its past. That, in the context of so much more, is exactly what iconic science writer James Gleick explores in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood — the book you’d have to read if you only read one book this year. Flowing from tonal languages to early communication technology to self-replicating memes, Gleick delivers an astonishing 360-degree view of the vast and opportune playground for us modern “creatures of the information,” to borrow vocabulary from Jorge Luis Borges’ much more dystopian take on information in the 1941 classic, “The Library of Babel,” which casts a library’s endless labyrinth of books and shelves as a metaphor for the universe.

Gleick illustrates the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency.

We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there.” ~ James Gleick

But what makes the book most compelling is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.

Gleick concludes The Information with Borges’ classic portrait of the human condition:

We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.”

Originally featured on Brain Pickings in March and excerpted in Smithsonian magazine’s May issue.


Poggio Bracciolini is the most important man you’ve never heard of.

The Swerve coverOne cold winter night in 1417, the clean-shaven, slender young man pulled a manuscript off a dusty library shelf and could barely believe his eyes. In his hands was a thousand-year-old text that changed the course of human thought — the last surviving manuscript of On the Nature of Things, a seminal poem by Roman philosopher Lucretius, full of radical ideas about a universe operating without gods and that matter made up of minuscule particles in perpetual motion, colliding and swerving in ever-changing directions. With Bracciolini’s discovery began the copying and translation of this powerful ancient text, which in turn fueled the Renaissance and inspired minds as diverse as Shakespeare, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein and Freud.

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, acclaimed Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of Bracciolini’s landmark discovery and its impact on centuries of human intellectual life, laying the foundations for nearly everything we take as a cultural given today.

“This is a story [of] how the world swerved in a new direction. The agent of change was not a revolution, an implacable army at the gates, or landfall of an unknown continent. […] The epochal change with which this book is concerned — though it has affected all our lives — is not so easily associated with a dramatic image.”

Central to the Lucretian worldview was the idea that beauty and pleasure were worthwhile pursuits, a notion that permeated every aspect of culture during the Renaissance and has since found its way to everything from design to literature to political strategy — a worldview in stark contrast with the culture of religious fear and superstitions pragmatism that braced pre-Renaissance Europe. And, as if to remind us of the serendipitous shift that underpins our present reality, Greenblatt writes in the book’s preface:

“It is not surprising that the philosophical tradition from which Lucretius’ poem derived, so incompatible with the cult of the gods and the cult of the state, struck some, even in the tolerant culture of the Mediterranean, as scandalous […] What is astonishing is that one magnificent articulation of the whole philosophy — the poem whose recovery is the subject of this book — should have survived. Apart from a few odds and ends and secondhand reports, all that was left of the whole rich tradition was contained in that single work. A random fire, an act of vandalism, a decision to snuff out the last trace of views judged to be heretical, and the course of modernity would have been different.”

Illuminating and utterly absorbing, The Swerve is as much a precious piece of history as it is a timeless testament to the power of curiosity and rediscovery. In a world dominated by the newsification of culture where the great gets quickly buried beneath the latest, it’s a reminder that some of the most monumental ideas might lurk in a forgotten archive and today’s content curators might just be the Bracciolinis of our time, bridging the ever-widening gap between accessibility and access.


Radioactive coverWait, how can a book be among the year’s best art and design books, best science books, and best history books? Well, if it’s Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, it can. In this cross-disciplinary gem, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Marie Curie — one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science, a pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, and not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences — through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: radioactivity and love. Granted, the book was also atop my omnibus of the year’s best art and design books — but that’s because it’s truly extraordinary — a remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision.

Marie Curie book

To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep shade of blue. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

Radioactive book

Redniss tells a turbulent story — a passionate romance with Pierre Curie (honeymoon on bicycles!), the epic discovery of radium and polonium, Pierre’s sudden death in a freak accident in 1906, Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, her coveted second Noble Prize — under which lie poignant reflections on the implications of Curie’s work more than a century later as we face ethically polarized issues like nuclear energy, radiation therapy in medicine, nuclear weapons and more.

Full review, with more images and Redniss’s TEDxEast talk, here.


Hedy LamarrHedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World tells the fascinating story of a Hollywood-starlet-turned-inventor whose radio system for remote-controlling torpedoes laid the foundations for technologies like wifi and Bluetooth. But her story is also one of breaking free of society’s expectations for what inventors should be and look like. After our recent review, reader Carmelo “Nino” Amarena, an inventor himself, who interviewed Lamarr in 1997 shortly before her death, captures this friction in an email:

“Ever since I found out back in 1989 that Hedy had invented Spread Spectrum (Frequency Hopping type only), I followed her career historically until her death. My interview with her is one of the most notable memories I have of speaking with an inventor, and as luck would have it, she was underestimated for nearly 60 years on the smarts behind her beauty. One of the things she said to me in our 1997 talk was, ‘my beauty was my curse, so-to-speak, it created an impenetrable shield between people and who I really was’. I believe we all have our own version of Hedy’s curse and trying to overcome it could take a lifetime.”

In 1937, the dinner table of Fritz Mandl — an arms dealer who sold to both sides during the Spanish Civil War and the third richest man in Austria — entertained high-ranking Nazi officials who chatted about the newest munitions technologies. Mandl’s wife, a twenty-four-year-old former movie star, whom he respected but also claimed “didn’t know A from Z,” sat quietly listening. Hedy Kiestler, whose parents were assimilated Jews, and who would be rechristened by Louis B. Meyer as Hedy Lamarr, wanted to escape to Hollywood and return to the screen. From these dinner parties, she knew about about submarines and wire-guided torpedoes, about the multiple frequencies used to guide bombs. She knew that she had present herself as the glamorous wife of an arms dealer. And she knew that in order to leave her husband, she would have to take a good amount of this information with her.

Hedy Lamarr Studio Shot

Hedy’s story is intertwined with that of American composer George Antheil, who lived during the 1920s with his wife in Paris above the newly opened Shakespeare and Company, and who could count among his friends Man Ray, Ezra Pound, Louise Bryant, and Igor Stravinsky. When Antheil attended the premiere of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, the composer invited him afterward to a player piano factory, where he wished to have his work punched out for posterity. There, Antheil conceived of a grand composition for sixteen player pianos, bells, sirens, and several airplane propellers, which he called his Ballet mecanique. When he premiered the work in the US, the avant-garde composition proved a disaster.

Antheil and his wife decamped for Hollywood, where he attempted to write for the screen. When Antheil met Hedy, now bona fide movie star, in the summer of 1940 at a dinner held by costume designer Adrian, they began talking about their interests in the war and their backgrounds in munitions (Antheil had been a young inspector in a Pennsylvania munitions plant during World War I.) Hedy had been horrified by the German torpedoing of two ships carrying British children to Canada to avoid the Blitz, and she had begun to think about a way to control a torpedo remotely, without detection.

Hedy had the idea for a radio that hopped frequencies and Antheil had the idea of achieving this with a coded ribbon, similar to a player piano strip. A year of phone calls, drawings on envelopes, and fiddling with models on Hedy’s living room floor produced a patent for a radio system that was virtually jam-proof, constantly skipping signals.

Antheil responded to Hedy’s enthusiasm, although he thought her sometimes scatterbrained, and Hedy to Antheil’s mechanical focus as a composer. The two were always just friends and respected one another’s quirks. Antheil wrote to a friend about a new scheme Hedy was planning with Howard Hughes:

“Hedy is a quite nice, but mad, girl who besides being very beautiful indeed spends most of her spare time inventing things—she’s just invented a new ‘soda pop’ which she’s patenting—of all things!”

Hedy’s Folly isn’t the story of a science prodigy or a movie star with a few hobbies, it’s a star-studded picaresque about two undeniably creative people whose interests and backgrounds unlocked the best in one another — the mark of true inventors.

Adapted from Michelle Legro’s fantastic full review.


In the PlexEarlier this year, we looked at 7 essential books on the future of the Internet, how the iPhone changed everything and why Google’s algorithms might be stunting our intellectual growth. But there’s hardly a better way to understand the future of information and the web than by understanding how Google — the algorithm, the company, the ethos — changed everything. That’s exactly what acclaimed technology writer Steven Levy, he of Hackers fame, does in In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives — a sweeping look at how Google went from a startup headquartered above a Palo Alto bike shop to a global brand bigger than GE.

Levy, who has been covering the computing revolution for the past 30 years for titles like Newsweek and Wired, had developed a personal relationship with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which granted him unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Big G, a company notorious for its caution with journalists. The result is a fascinating journey into the soul, culture and technology of our silent second brain, from Page and Brin’s legendary eccentricities that shaped the company’s creative culture to the uncompromising engineering genius that underpins its services. But most fascinating of all is the grace and insight with which Levy examines not only how Google has changed, but also how it has changed us and how, in the face of all these interconnected metamorphoses, it hopes to preserve its soul — all the while touching on timely topics like privacy, copyright law and censorship.

Levy, who calls himself “an outsider with an insider’s view,” recounts the mysteries he saw in Google, despite a decade of covering the company, which inspired his book:

Google was a company built on the values of its founders, who harbored ambitions to build a powerful corporation that would impact the entire world, at the same time loathing the bureaucracy and commitments that running such a company would entail. Google professed a sense of moral purity — as exemplified by its informal motto, ‘Don’t be evil’ — but it seemed to have a blind spot regarding the consequences of its own technology on privacy and property rights. A bedrock principle of Google was serving its users — but a goal was building a giant artificial intelligence learning machine that would bring uncertain consequences to the way all of us live. From the very beginning, its founders said that they wanted to change the world. But who were they, and what did they envision this new world order to be?” ~ Steven Levy

Levy’s intimate account of Google’s inner tensions offers a sober look delivered with a kind of stern fatherly tenderness, brimming with its own opposing forces of his clear affection for Page and Brin coupled with his, at times begrudging, fairness in writing about Google’s shortcomings.

What I discovered was a company exulting in creative disorganization, even if the creativity was not always as substantial as hoped for. Google had massive goals, and the entire company channeled its values from the founders. Its mission was collecting and organizing all the world’s information — and that’s only the beginning. From the very start, its founders saw Google as a vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence in augmenting humanity. To realize their dreams, Page an Brin had to build a huge company. At the same time, they attempted to maintain as much as possible the nimble, irreverent, answer-to-no-one freedom of a small start-up. In the two years I researched this book, the clash between those goals reached a peak, as David had become a Goliath.” ~ Steven Levy

Besides the uncommon history of Google, Levy reveals a parallel history of the evolution of information technology itself, a sobering invitation to look at the many technologies we’ve come to take for granted with new eyes. (Do you remember the days when you plugged a word into your search engine and it spat back a wildly unordered selection of results, most of which completely irrelevant to your query? Or when the most generous free web mail offered you the magnanimous storage space of four megabytes?)

Originally featured, with video, in August.


Books HistoryWhat is an omnibus about history books without a book about the history of books? We’ve previously explored how books have been made from the Middle Ages to today, what the future might have in store for them, and why analog books still enchant us. In Books: A Living History, Australian historian Martyn Lyons (of A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World fame) explores how books became one of the most efficient and enduring information technologies ever invented — something we seem to forget in an era plagued by techno-dystopian alarmism about the death of books. Both a cultural time-capsule and an encyclopedia of bibliophilia, Lyons offers an invaluable record of our collective intellectual and informational journey across two millennia of written language and a profound peer into its future.

“It is difficult now to imagine how some of the great turning points in Western history could have been achieved without [the book]. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment all relied on the printed word for their spread and permanent influence. For two and a half millennia, humanity used the book, in its manuscript or printed form, to record, to administer, to worship and to educate.” ~ Martyn Lyon

“Defining the book itself is a risky operation. I prefer to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and so I offer a very loose definition. The book, for example, does not simply exist as a bound text of sheets of printed paper — the traditional codex with which we are most familiar today. Such a definition forgets two millennia of books before print, and the various forms that textual communication took before the codex was invented.

“A traditional definition based only on the codex would also exclude hypertext and the virtual book, which have done away with the book’s conventional material support. I prefer to embrace all these forms, from cuneiform script to the printed codex to the digitized electronic book, and to trace the history of the book as far back as the invention of writing systems themselves. The term ‘book’, then, is a kind of shorthand that stands for many forms of written textual communication adopted in past societies, using a wide variety of materials.” ~ Martyn Lyons

From the first papyrus scrolls to the painstakingly made illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages to today’s ebooks and the iPad, Lyons distills the history and evolution of books in the context of a parallel cultural evolution and, as in the case of Gutenberg’s printing press, revolution.Book printing

Navigating through 2,000 gloriously illustrated years of literary milestones, genres, and groundswells, from serial and dime novels to paperbacks to manga, Lyons ends with a bittersweet contemplation of the fate of the book and the bibliophile after the turn of the digital century.

Originally reviewed, with more images, here.

7. 1493

In 2005, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann came to be regarded as the most ambitious and sweeping look at pre-Columbus North and South America ever published. This year, Mann came back with 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created — a fascinating look at one of the lesser-known, lesser-considered aspects of what happened when Columbus and his crew set foot on American soil: the environmental upheaval that began as they brought plants, animals and diseases that forever changed the local biosphere, both in America and in Europe once the explorers returned to the Old World. Known as The Columbian Exchange, this process is considered the most important ecological event since the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the paradoxes at its heart echo today’s polarized views of globalization as either a great cross-pollinator or a great contaminator of cultures.

“From the outset globalization brought enormous economic gains and ecological and social tumult that threatened to offset those gains. It is true that our times are different from the past. Our ancestors did not have the Internet, air travel, genetically modified crops, or computerized international stock exchanges. Still, reading the accounts of the creation of the world market one cannot help hearing echoes — some muted, some thunderously loud — of the disputes now on the television news. Events four centuries ago set a template for events we are living through today.”

Mann illustrates the fascinating interplay of organisms within ecological systems and the intricate yet powerful ways in which it impacts human civilization. For instance, when the Spaniards brought plantains to South America, they also brought the tiny scaling insects that live in their roots, which turned out to be delicious new food for the local fire ants. This led to a plague-sized explosion in fire ant population, which forced the terrified Spaniards to live on the roofs of their ant-infested houses and eventually drove them off the islands.

The most striking impact of The Columbian Exchange, however, comes from epidemiology. Because pre-Columbus America had no domesticated animals, it also had no animal-borne diseases. But when the Europeans came over, they brought with them enough disease to wipe out between two thirds and 90% of people in the Americas over the next 150 years — the worst demographic catastrophe in history by a long stretch. While early diaries mentioned these epidemics in describing life in the 1500s and 1600, it wasn’t until the 1960s that epidemiologists and historians realized the true scale of the death toll in the decades following Columbus’s arrival.

NPR’s Fresh Air has an excellent interview with Mann.

From how tobacco became the world’s first global commodity to how forests were transformed by a new earthworm, 1493 will change the way you look at ecology, economy and epidemiology, and radically shift how you think about “local” and “global.”

Originally featured here in August and excerpted in Smithsonian magazine’s November 2011 issue.


National Geographic’s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way), which also happens to be one of the year’s best photography, tells the riveting story of how the two-wheel wonder pedaled forward the emancipation of women in late-nineteenth-century America and radically redefined the normative conventions of femininity. (Not to be confused with another excellent tome that came out this year, It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels, which offers a more general chronicle of the bike’s story, from its cultural history to its technical innovation to the fascinating, colorful stories of the people who ride it.)

To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” ~ Munsey’s Magazine, 1896

A follow-up to Sue Macy’s excellent Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports, published nearly 15 years ago, the book weaves together fascinating research, rare archival images, and historical quotes that bespeak the era’s near-comic fear of the cycling revolution. (“The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.”)

(Image: © Beth Emery Collection | via Sarah Goodyear /

From allowing young people to socialize without the chaperoning of clergymen and other merchants of morality to finally liberating women from the constraints of corsets and giant skirts (the “rational dress” pioneered by bike-riding women cut the weight of their undergarments to a “mere” 7 pounds), the velocipede made possible previously unthinkable actions and interactions that we now for granted to the point of forgetting the turbulence they once incited.

“Success in life depends as much upon a vigorous and healthy body as upon a clear and active mind.” ~ Elsa von Blumen, American racer, 1881

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” ~ Susan B. Anthony, 1896

Many [female cyclists on cigar box labels] were shown as decidedly masculine, with hair cut short or pulled back, and smoking cigars, then an almost exclusively male pursuit. This portrayal reflected the old fears that women in pants would somehow supplement men as breadwinners and decision-makers.” ~ Sue Macy

Originally featured here in March and discussed in Smithsonian’s Off the Road blog in December.


History doesn’t have to always take itself seriously. From New Yorker cartoonist Kate Beaton comes Hark! A Vagrant — a witty and wonderful collection of comics about historical and literary figures and events, based on her popular web comic of the same name. Scientists and artists, revolutionaries and superheroes, suffragists and presidents — they’re all there, as antique hipsters, and they’re all skewered with equal parts comedic and cerebral prod.

Beaton, whose background is in history and anthropology, has a remarkable penchant for conveying the momentous through the inane, aided by a truly special gift for simple, subtle, incredibly expressive caricature. From dude spotting with the Brontë Sisters to Nikola Tesla and Jane Austen dodging groupies, the six-panel vignettes will make you laugh out loud and slip you a dose of education while you aren’t paying attention.

I think comics about topics like history or literature can be amazing educational tools, even at their silliest. So if you learn or look up a thing or two after reading these comics, and you’ve enjoyed them, then I will be more than pleased! If you’re just in it for the silly stuff, then there is plenty of that to go around, too.” ~ Kate Beaton

Beaton is also a masterful writer, her dialogue and captions adding depth to what’s already an absolute delight.

Handsome and hilarious, the six-panel stories in Hark! A Vagrant will undo all the uptightness about history instilled in you by academia, leaving you instead with a hearty laugh and some great lines for dinner party banter.


Imagine a day without numbers — how would you know when to wake up, how to call your mother, how the stock market is doing, or even how old you are? We live our lives by numbers. So fundamental are they to our understanding of the world that we’ve grown to take them for granted. And yet it wasn’t always so. Until the 13th century, even simple arithmetic was accessible almost exclusively to European scholars. Merchants kept track of quantifiables using Roman numerals, performing calculations either by an elaborate yet widespread fingers procedure or with a clumsy mechanical abacus. But in 1202, a young Italian man named Leonardo da Pisa — known today as Fibonacci — changed everything when he wrote Liber Abbaci, Latin for Book of Calculation, the first arithmetic textbook of the West.

Keith Devlin tells his incredible and important story in The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution, also one of the year’s best science books, tracing how Fibonacci revolutionized everything from education to economics by making arithmetic available to the masses. If you think the personal computing revolution of the 1980s was a milestone of our civilization, consider the personal computation revolution. And yet, de Pisa’s cultural contribution is hardly common knowledge.

The change in society brought about by the teaching of modern arithmetic was so pervasive and all-powerful that within a few generations people simply took it for granted. There was no longer any recognition of the magnitude of the revolution that took the subject from an obscure object of scholarly interest to an everyday mental tool. Compared with Copernicus’s conclusions about the position of Earth in the solar system and Galileo’s discovery of the pendulum as a basis for telling time, Leonardo’s showing people how to multiply 193 by 27 simply lacks drama.” ~ Keith Devlin

Though “about” mathematics, Fibonacci’s story is really about a great number of remarkably timely topics: gamification for good (Liber abbaci brimmed with puzzles and riddles like the rabbit problem to alleviate the tedium of calculation and engage readers with learning); modern finance (Fibonacci was the first to develop an early form of present-value analysis, a method for calculating the time value of money perfected by iconic economist Irving Fisher in the 1930s); publishing entrepreneurship (the first edition of Liber Abbaci was too dense for the average person to grasp, so da Pisa released — bear in mind, before the invention of the printing press — a simplified version accessible to the ordinary traders of Pisa, which allowed the text to spread around the world); abstract symbolism (because numbers, as objective as we’ve come to perceive them as, are actually mere commonly agreed upon abstractions); and even remix culture (Liber Abbaci was assumed to be the initial source for a great deal of arithmetic bestsellers released after the invention of the printing press.)

Above all, however, Fibonacci’s feat was one of storytelling — much like TED, he took existing ideas that were far above the average person’s competence and grasp, and used his remarkable expository skills to make them accessible and attractive to the common man, allowing these ideas to spread far beyond the small and self-selected circles of the scholarly elite.

A book about Leonardo must focus on his great contribution and his intellectual legacy. Having recognized that numbers, and in particular powerful and efficient ways to compute with them, could change the world, he set about making that happen at a time when Europe was poised for major advances in science, technology, and commercial practice. Through Liber Abbaci he showed that an abstract symbolism and a collection of seemingly obscure procedures for manipulating those symbols had huge practical applications.” ~ Keith Devlin

For an added layer of fascinating, there’s also a complementary ebook titled Leonardo and Steve, drawing a curious parallel between Fibonacci and Steve Jobs.

Originally featured, with a Kindle preview, in July.


As far as unlikely friendships go, it hardly gets any unlikelier than that between Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and legendary illusionist Harry Houdini. Born fifteen years apart into dramatically different families, one the educated product of a proper Scottish upbringing and the other the self-made son of a Hungarian immigrant, the two even stood in stark physical contrast, once likened by a journalist to Pooh and Piglet.

But when they met in 1920, something extraordinary began. In Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, acclaimed pop culture biographer Christopher Sandford tells the story of the pair’s unique friendship, sometimes macabre, sometimes comic, and fundamentally human, underpinned by their shared longing for lost loved ones and their adventures in the world of Spiritualism — at the time, a world with unmatched popular allure.

From Queen Victoria to W. B. Yeats to Charles Dickens to Abraham Lincoln, even the era’s political, scientific, and artistic elite engaged in efforts to reach departed loved ones in worlds unseen. By the time Houdini arrived in America in 1878, more than 11 million people admitted to being Spiritualists. Spiritualism, of course, wasn’t a new idea at the time. The notion that the soul survives intact after physical death and lives on on another plane, Sandford reminds us, could be traced back at least as far back as the writings of Swedish mystic-philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg in the mid-18th century. His Arcana Coelestia (“Heavenly Secrets”) made an eight-volume case for the supernatural and provoked a published retort from Immanuel Kant, who pronounced Swedenborg’s opinions “nothing but illusions.”

This notion of illusion as a central part of Spiritualism turned out to be a central binding element for Houdini and Conan Doyle — one bringing to it the skepticism of a man making a living out of illusions and the other finding in it a saving grace of sorts.

Spiritualism is nothing more or less than mental intoxication; Intoxication of any sort when it becomes a habit is injurious to the body, but intoxication of the mind is always fatal to the mind.” ~ Harry Houdini

Houdini even called for a law that would “prevent these human leeches from sucking every bit of reason and common sense from their victims.” Still, when his father died, the 18-year-old Houdini sold his own watch to pay for a “professional psychic reunion” with the departed. In 1920, Houdini went on a six-month tour in Europe, attending more than a hundred séances. He wanted, desperately, to believe — but, himself professional skeptic in the business of fooling people, he never quite managed to suspend his disbelief. In fact, he became the Penn & Teller of his day, seeing it as his duty to myth-bust psychics and other prophets of Spiritualism.

Conan Doyle, at first, seemed only interested in Spiritualism for its narrative potential, rather than “to change people’s hearts and minds,” as Sandford puts it. But after his father died when the author was only 34 and, mere months later, his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis and given only a few months to live, Conan Doyle fell into a deep depression. Shortly thereafter, in 1893, he applied to join the Society for Psychical Research, a committee of academics aiming to study Spiritualism “without prejudice or prepossession.” Eventually, he gave up his lucrative literary career, killed off Sherlock Holmes, and dedicated himself wholly to his obsession with Spiritualism with, as we’ve already seen in this rare footage from 1930, reached a manically obsessive proportion by his old age.

Yet, despite their passionate and diametrically opposed views on Spiritualism, the Conan Doyle and Houdini had something intangible but powerful in common. Walter Prince, an ordained minister and a member of the SPR in the 1920s, put it this way:

The more I reflect on Houdini [and] Doyle, the more it seems that the two men resembled each other. Each was a fascinating companion, each big-hearted and generous, yet each was capable of bitter and emotional denunciation, each was devoted to his home and family, each felt himself an apostle of good to men, the one to rid them of certain beliefs, the other to inculcate in them those beliefs.”

Originally featured here earlier this month.

This post appears courtesy of Brain Pickings, where it was originally published.

A Woman Writ Large in Our History and Hearts

Smithsonian Magazine

Visitors still flock to Nohant, the serene chateau in central France that was writer George Sand's family manse. The estate, recently subject to a loving and careful restoration, remains a shrine to one of the most accomplished, and memorable, women of the 19th century.

Writer Robert Wernick traveled to Nohant to begin his quest in search of the historical figure behind the legend. It is a story of high drama and soaring ambition: Sand left her oafish husband to seek out the life of literary Paris in 1830. She was soon immersed in heady company, in a world that included Delacroix, Balzac and Liszt and of course, Sand's great love, Frédéric Chopin.

She was a woman of prodigious energies, managing to produce 70 novels, 24 plays, 40,000 letters and more. But her real legacy lies in her own force of personality and her passionate search for a new way of being for women.

Across the centuries, her voice will not be stilled: "I ask the support of no one, neither to kill someone for me, gather a bouquet, correct a proof, nor to go with me to the theater. I go there on my own, as a man, by choice; and when I want flowers, I go on foot, by myself, to the Alps."

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