Walt Whitman on Donald Trump, W.E.B. Du Bois's wonderful letter of life-advice to his teenage daughter, Agnes Martin on creativity, Willa Cather on human relationships and how our formative family dynamics imprint us, and more.
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Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Seneca on how to fortify yourself against fear and misfortune, Anna Dostoyevsky on the secret to a happy marriage, Shonda Rhimes on reclaiming who we are from the workaholic grip of what we do, and more – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote in his short, potent meditation on how to love. Developmentally, we humans learn — or mislearn — how to love through our formative attachment patterns, modeled by and cultivated within the family — patterns that imprint our emotional identity and shape the defaults of how we connect, be they wounding or harmonizing. Family dynamics thus become inseparable from our sense of identity, and although we might eventually rewire our attachment patterns through new relationships and ample self-work, we can never fully unmoor ourselves from those formative affections, for they are woven into the mysterious thread that makes us and our childhood selves one person.
That peculiar, inescapable dance between the family and the self is what beloved novelist Willa Cather (December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947) explores in one of the pieces found in her altogether magnificent 1936 nonfiction collection Not Under Forty (public library).
Willa Cather (Library of Congress)
In a beautiful appreciation of Katherine Mansfield’s genius for conveying the complexities of human relationships, Cather writes:
I doubt whether any contemporary writer has made one feel more keenly the many kinds of personal relations which exist in an everyday “happy family” who are merely going on living their daily lives, with no crises or shocks or bewildering complications to try them. Yet every individual in that household (even the children) is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavor. As in most families, the mere struggle to have anything of one’s own, to be one’s self at all, creates an element of strain which keeps everybody almost at the breaking-point.
One realizes that even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbor’s household, and, underneath, another — secret and passionate and intense — which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member of these social units is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them.
Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle, a wordless exploration of human relationships
And yet even amid this glibness, Cather does what she does best — out of the seemingly damning, she wrests the redemptive:
In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters, children and grandmother, there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives day by day, though they are not down in the list of subjects from which the conventional novelist works…
These secret accords and antipathies which lie hidden under our everyday behavior … more than any outward events make our lives happy or unhappy.
In 1855, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) made his debut as a poet and self-published Leaves of Grass. Amid the disheartening initial reception of pervasive indifference pierced by a few shrieks of criticism, the young poet received an extraordinary letter of praise and encouragement from his idol — Ralph Waldo Emerson, the era’s most powerful literary tastemaker. This gesture of tremendous generosity was a creative life-straw for the dispirited artist, who soon became one of the nation’s most celebrated writers and went on to be remembered as America’s greatest poet.
In the late 1860, working as a federal clerk and approaching his fiftieth birthday, Whitman grew increasingly concerned that America’s then-young democracy had grown in danger of belying the existential essentials of the human spirit. He voiced his preoccupations in a masterful and lengthy essay titled Democratic Vistas, later included in the indispensable Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (free ebook | public library).
Both Whitman’s spirited critique of American democracy and his proposed solution — which calls for an original and ennobling national body of literature as the means to cultivating the people’s mentality, character, and ideals — ring remarkably true today, perhaps even truer amid our modern disenchantment and dearth of idealism, accentuated by the spectacle of an election season.
Literature, Whitman argues, constructs the scaffolding of society’s values and “has become the only general means of morally influencing the world” — its archetypal characters shape the moral character and political ideals of a culture. Long after the political structures of the ancient world have crumbled, he reminds us, what remains of Ancient Greece and Rome and the other great civilizations is their literature. He writes:
At all times, perhaps, the central point in any nation, and that whence it is itself really sway’d the most, and whence it sways others, is its national literature, especially its archetypal poems. Above all previous lands, a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance, (in some respects the sole reliance,) of American democracy. Few are aware how the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will.
In the civilization of to-day it is undeniable that, over all the arts, literature dominates, serves beyond all — shapes the character of church and school — or, at any rate, is capable of doing so. Including the literature of science, its scope is indeed unparallel’d.
Lamenting the vacant materialism of consumer society, Whitman writes:
We had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in.
Our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly-deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and esthetic results… In vain have we annex’d Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north for Canada and south for Cuba. It is as if we were somehow being endow’d with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.
To take expression, to incarnate, to endow a literature with grand and archetypal models — to fill with pride and love the utmost capacity, and to achieve spiritual meanings, and suggest the future — these, and these only, satisfy the soul. We must not say one word against real materials; but the wise know that they do not become real till touched by emotions, the mind.
The savior of the nation’s soul, Whitman insists, is not the politician but the artist:
Should some two or three really original American poets, (perhaps artists or lecturers,) arise, mounting the horizon like planets, stars of the first magnitude, that, from their eminence, fusing contributions, races, far localities, &c., together they would give more compaction and more moral identity, (the quality to-day most needed,) to these States, than all its Constitutions, legislative and judicial ties, and all its hitherto political, warlike, or materialistic experiences.
In a sentiment that makes one shudder imagining what the poet would’ve made of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, Whitman writes:
I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election.
America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brain’d nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers. It is the dilettantes, and all who shirk their duty, who are not doing well… America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.
The sole antidote, Whitman reminds us, lies in our own hands and the ballots they hold — in not shirking our duty as voters. He shares his advice to the young:
Enter more strongly yet into politics… Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.
The role of government and those in power, he argues, is not to rule by authority alone — the mark of dictatorship rather than democracy — but “to train communities … beginning with individuals and ending there again, to rule themselves.” Above all, the task of democratic leadership is to bind “all nations, all men, of however various and distant lands, into a brotherhood, a family.” Many decades before women won the right to vote and long before Nikola Tesla’s feminist vision for humanity, Whitman argues that a robust democracy is one in which women are fully empowered and included in that “brotherhood” on equal terms:
I have sometimes thought … that the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman… Great, great, indeed, far greater than they know, is the sphere of women.
Reflecting on the perils of inequality in any guise, for any group, he adds:
Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.
The supreme tool of reconstructing a more equal society, Whitman asserts, is literature — a body of literature that gives voice to the underrepresented, that elevates and expands and invigorates their spirits by mirroring them back to themselves as indelibly worthy of belonging to society. (I’m reminded of a contemporary counterpart: Jacqueline Woodson on why she writes characters of color.)
A new founded literature, not merely to copy and reflect existing surfaces, or pander to what is called taste … but a literature underlying life, religious, consistent with science, handling the elements and forces with competent power, teaching and training men — and, as perhaps the most precious of its results, achieving the entire redemption of woman … and thus insuring to the States a strong and sweet Female Race… — is what is needed.
But Whitman’s most pertinent point is that true dedication to democracy isn’t a mere fleeting fixture of election season. Rather, it permeates the very fabric of society and must be upheld in every aspect of our lives, at every moment — something best effected by literature:
Far, far, indeed, stretch, in distance, our Vistas! How much is still to be disentangled, freed! How long it takes to make this American world see that it is, in itself, the final authority and reliance! Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs — in religion, literature, colleges, and schools — democracy in all public and private life.
The literature, songs, esthetics, &c., of a country are of importance principally because they furnish the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men of that country, and enforce them in a thousand effective ways.
Sociologist and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois (February 23, 1868–August 27, 1963) was the first African American person to receive a doctorate from Harvard — an achievement that both reflected and affirmed his faith in the life-changing power of education. So when his daughter Yolande — his only surviving child — was about to turn fourteen in 1914, Dr. Du Bois decided to enroll her in one of England’s most prestigious and expensive public boarding schools: Bedales, alma mater to such diverse alumni as British racing driver and cryptographer Margaret Allan, poet and artist Frieda Hughes (daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes), singer Lily Allen, and actor Minnie Driver.
At a time when women did not yet have the right to vote, the Civil Rights movement was still half a century away, and most major American universities only admitted women in special annexes, if at all, it was an uncommon privilege for a young woman of color to study at Bedales. It was also an extraordinary opportunity for her to inhabit her highest human agency, do as Nietzsche had counseled young free spirits a generation earlier — “become master over yourself, master of your own good qualities… acquire power over your aye and no and learn to hold and withhold them in accordance with your higher aims…” — and put into practice Seneca’s timeless advice on fortifying one’s soul, penned two millennia earlier.
Shortly after Yolande’s arrival in England, Dr. Du Bois wrote her an extraordinary letter. He wanted to make sure, in words loving and luminous, that his teenage daughter understood both her privilege and her indelible human rights.
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