History – Literary Hub https://lithub.com The best of the literary web Thu, 14 Sep 2023 13:02:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=6.3.1 80495929 First Lady of Space: How Sally Ride Became A Household Name Overnight https://lithub.com/first-lady-of-space-how-sally-ride-became-a-household-name-overnight/ https://lithub.com/first-lady-of-space-how-sally-ride-became-a-household-name-overnight/#respond Thu, 14 Sep 2023 08:55:37 +0000 https://lithub.com/?p=226372

“Challenger, this is Houston,” astronaut Mary Cleave called up from the ground in Mission Control. “How do you read?” Mary was one of NASA’s newest astronauts, who’d been selected in a fresh batch of recruits picked in 1980. The latest group had included another woman, too: Bonnie Dunbar, who’d been an engineer at JSC before her selection. Now, with their addition, there were eight women in the astronaut corps.

“I can hear you, Mary,” Sally Ride responded from space.

“Good evening, Sally. Sorry to wake you up,” Mary said. She proceeded to give Sally instructions for making a small adjustment to the Shuttle’s onboard computer. It was a completely normal conversation—fairly boring to listen to—but the substance wasn’t what mattered. It was the first time that a woman on Earth had spoken to a woman in space. Mary and Sally didn’t even recognize the moment at all. They were just having a conversation. A reporter later lamented to Mary how “disappointing” the conversation was for such a special occasion.

But that was how Sally operated. For the six days that she was in space she simply did her job, trying her best to ignore any history that was being made. She couldn’t help it that STS-7 was simply bursting with historic “firsts.” Even its landing was supposed to make a statement. Their mission was slated to perform the first Shuttle landing in Florida. All previous Shuttle missions had landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. But NASA had been working on a fancy new runway at Kennedy Space Center, and the concrete was finally ready to feel the Shuttle’s massive tires touch down.

Kathy Sullivan and Dave Leestma perform the Orbital Refueling System experiment during a spacewalk on STS-41-G.

On the day of reentry, however, that historic plan was thwarted. A thick fog bank had rolled over the landing strip, completely obscuring the landscape. Slightly bummed, the astronauts made plans to divert to Edwards. After cleaning their equipment and strapping back into their seats, Robert “Crip” L. Crippen and Frederick “Rick” H. Hauck steered the Shuttle out of orbit, sending the vehicle on its dive toward Earth. Out the window, Sally watched the bright glow of the atmospheric plasma, heating up and enveloping the Shuttle as it sliced through the thick air surrounding Earth.

For Sally, the detour turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As she walked down the stairs leading out of the crew cabin and onto solid ground, only a small crowd of air force personnel and their families were on hand to greet her and the incoming crew. She was 2,500 miles from the thousands who’d gathered at Cape Canaveral, all clamoring to see her arrive. After a quick phone call with President Reagan, who joked that the crew had forgotten to pick him up in D.C. on their way home, Sally addressed the crowd out in the California heat.

“The thing that I’ll remember most about that flight is that it was fun,” Sally told the crowd. “And in fact, I’m sure it’s the most fun I’ll ever have in my life.”


That fun that Sally had in orbit would soon be eclipsed by what was waiting in her new reality.

Flying home on a NASA jet, she and the rest of the crew arrived in Houston, and her husband, Steve, was there on the runway to see her. With a big smile, Sally wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug, happy to be reunited. After the rest of the crew had embraced their spouses, they all made their way to limousines that would take them to JSC for one final presentation to an adoring crowd. While at the airport, someone handed Sally a giant bouquet of white roses, adorned with an ostentatious cream bow. She wasn’t the only one to get flowers, either. All the wives of the male crewmates had each been given a red rose, though Steve hadn’t been given anything. Sally carried the massive bouquet with her until they all reached JSC.

It was then that Rosegate occurred.

A large crowd had gathered on the JSC campus, awaiting the STS-7 crew. As the five crewmates and their spouses stepped out of Building 1 to address this latest group of fans, Sally quickly turned and gave the bouquet to a NASA protocol officer. The motive was plain: she just wanted her hands free. Without the bouquet, she stood with her arm around Steve, before speaking to the crowd who cheered her on. Once the presentation was over, the officer who’d taken the flowers returned, trying to give them back. Sally, with Steve next to her, declined to take them, instead turning to talk with George Abbey.

She had no idea the controversy she just ignited.

The next day, a newspaper writer interpreted the act as some feminist statement—a way for Sally to establish equality with her male crewmates. Soon afterward, the letters began pouring in. She’d later write, “That one little action—giving back the flowers—probably touched off more mail to me than anything I ever did or said as an astronaut.”

For the six days that she was in space she simply did her job, trying her best to ignore any history that was being made.

That moment was a harbinger of what was to come. All eyes were on Sally now. Back in the gravity-filled environment of Earth and without a mission to train for, she was now almost completely exposed to the adoring public who wanted to witness her every move. It began the day she came back to Houston, as crowds of neighbors and news crews gathered outside her and Steve’s home, tying yellow ribbons around the trees in her yard and holding up a banner that said, “WELCOME SALLY!”

But Sally and Steve had long planned to escape their abode that night by booking a nearby hotel room. That plan fizzled when Steve went to check in and spotted a reporter he knew hanging around. Instead, the couple went to Dan Brandenstein’s house to spend the night, leading the press to note Sally’s absence at her own home.

It was only a small glimpse at the road ahead.

In just the first month back, Sally and her fellow crew members found themselves speeding through eight different states. They traveled to New York, where they received a key to the city from Mayor Ed Koch. They attended an opulent reception at the National Air and Space Museum with five hundred attendees, plenty of whom asked for Sally’s picture and autograph. There was an intricate military ball at the Dunes Hotel & Country Club in Las Vegas. Again, Sally and the STS-7 crew found themselves at the White House, dining with President Reagan. Sally sat between Reagan and the prime minister of Bahrain, with whom she discussed the feeling of being weightless.

And the whoosh of attention showed no signs of abating. Requests were streaming into NASA to book Sally for every minuscule event. Less than a week after she returned from her flight, the agency received more than a thousand media appearance requests for her. At one point, calls into NASA’s press office asking for Sally peaked at twenty-three an hour.

With the shield of training gone, Sally’s crewmates tried to become her new shield. They made an effort to go with her to as many events as possible—to serve as a buffer between their colleague and the press. “We would minimize those appearances before the flight as much as possible,” Crip said. “And we did that. But she still had a lot of it, and after the flight, some of that protection wasn’t there.” Norm Thagard unfortunately served as a literal buffer during one press event in D.C., when hordes of TV news crews shoved him against the wall as they clamored to get the perfect shot of Sally.

Worse, the requests were starting to get bizarre, like the artist who wanted Sally to sit for a portrait created out of jellybeans. Or the production company that wanted her to act in a comedy where a child dreamt he met Sally Ride while traveling in space. As the requests continued to mount, Sally started to feel more and more out of control of her life. She was an introvert at heart, not one to seek the spotlight willingly. And here she was, seemingly meeting everyone on the planet.

One day, NASA received an invitation for Sally to visit the newly minted Sally K. Ride Elementary School located an hour north of JSC in Conroe, Texas. When Sally received word, she made it clear she did not want to go. But the school desperately wanted her, even calling the director of JSC to secure Sally’s booking. Realizing she couldn’t get out of it, she made a demand that she’d only go if Carolyn Huntoon came with her.

So the two embarked on the short road trip north, getting slightly lost along the way. Once they finally found the school, they drove up and made their way in, only to start hearing a children’s choir start singing as they walked through the front doors.

“We are proud of our school, Sally K. Ride! We will always take a challenge and always do our best…”

Panicking, Sally turned to Carolyn. “I don’t think I can do this.”

“Yes, you can, go on,” Carolyn replied. She took Sally by the arm and walked her into the school, where she was reluctantly showered with gifts and subjected to a few more verses of the school’s new song.

As the requests mounted, Sally pulled away more and more. It all came to a head when she got a request straight from NASA Headquarters’ public affairs to go on a new Bob Hope special. The popular comedian was hosting a special tribute to NASA called Bob Hope’s Salute to NASA: 25 Years of Reaching for the Stars, and some famous astronauts including Neil Armstrong had agreed to be interviewed. The production team also wanted Sally. NASA was told that this wouldn’t be a regular comedy show, but a serious discussion with Sally about her thoughts on the world and what her time was like in space. It didn’t matter. Sally turned it down.

Kathy Sullivan in her flight suit, undergoing pre-flight checks.

Reluctant to take no for an answer, headquarters enlisted JSC director Gerry Griffin to try to persuade Sally to change her mind. He found her at work, sat her down, and asked if she’d heard about the request. She said that she had. And she wasn’t going to do it.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because he’s a sexist,” Sally replied. Sally brought up Bob Hope’s USO tour during World War II, which involved parading women in scantily clad attire to entertain the troops. It didn’t matter that she was promised a “serious” show—she didn’t like this man’s reputation.

Gerry continued pressing but Sally stood firm. Soon after that, she just vanished.

She didn’t tell anyone where she was going, not even Steve. But that wasn’t particularly abnormal for her. She’d done this disappearing act before. Steve understood her desire to escape, though he didn’t think it was particularly responsible in these circumstances. Finally, after a week of absence, she called Steve to tell him she was okay and that she had skipped off to California, as he had suspected. She’d taken refuge with Molly Tyson and Molly’s partner in Menlo Park, making sure that an appearance on the Bob Hope special wouldn’t be imposed on her.

It was beginning to dawn on Sally that she needed some help. All her life she’d been a happy individual, excited to wake up and start each day. Now, she realized she wasn’t that same happy person. She woke up nervous, filled with anxiety about what each day might bring.

“Swarms of people surrounding her and people wanting to touch her, take her photograph, invite her to things—she slowly realized it was really getting to her,” Tam said.

In a moment of clarity, she turned to therapy. It’s unclear who exactly she spoke with, though Steve heard later that she supposedly talked to Terry McGuire, the good cop psychiatrist whom they’d all met during the selection process. Either way, Sally knew she needed an empathetic listener who could help her through this unusual time.

For the most part, Sally viewed her press odyssey as a nightmare. But scattered amid the dizzying array of speeches and networking events, there were special moments she came to cherish. She made multiple appearances on Sesame Street, where she loved meeting with the science-curious children. They asked the fun questions, such as what it was like to go to the bathroom in space. And of course, she got to meet some of the people she most idolized. Through her fame, she met Betty Friedan and reconnected with Billie Jean King, whom she’d hit balls with as a young tennis player.

But perhaps the most intriguing person Sally met was one she hadn’t expected to ever meet. At a reception in Hungary where Sally and Steve were attending a meeting of the International Astronautical Federation, Sally felt a tap on her elbow. She turned to find Svetlana Savitskaya, the cosmonaut who’d become the second Soviet woman to fly to space in 1982.

“Sally,” Svetlana acknowledged.

“Hello,” Sally said, cautious.

“Congratulations on your flight.”

“Congratulations to you, too,” Sally replied.

Their conversation didn’t last long—relations between the US and the Soviet Union had been exceedingly chilly in prior months— but later that day Sally heard Svetlana talk and decided she was a genuinely good person. Somewhat surreptitiously, Sally contrived to arrange a more confidential meeting.

Sally started to feel more and more out of control of her life. She was an introvert at heart, not one to seek the spotlight willingly.

Using as an intermediary a Hungarian physicist she knew, she expressed an interest in meeting Svetlana again. Thanks to some behind-the-scenes machinations, Sally wound up being invited to meet a small group of Soviet cosmonauts at the apartment of Hungarian cosmonaut Bertalan Farkas. Steve disapproved of the meetup, conscious of NASA’s dim view of American astronauts mingling with Soviet cosmonauts, so he hung back at a coffee shop. Sally, though, was determined.

The mood at first was tense, with neither party knowing quite how to comport themselves. Sally tried smiling to put everyone at ease. The cosmonauts immediately made a joke about “no press,” which eased everyone’s anxieties. Svetlana then walked over to Sally and sat in a big armchair, right next to hers.

From that moment, the women instantly connected. Svetlana peppered Sally with questions, asking her how long she’d trained and about her flying experience. They swapped stories about the respective spacecraft they flew, with Svetlana fascinated by how the Space Shuttle landed on a runway. At one point, they all devolved into laughter about how they slept in space, with one of the cosmonauts demonstrating by floating his arms into the air.

As they spoke, Sally found that she really enjoyed talking with Svetlana. “I felt closer to her than I felt to anyone in a very long time,” she said. “And it was partly just that I understood a lot of what she had been through.”

Sally thought to herself that Svetlana would have easily made the astronaut corps in the US. In fact, she might have even beaten Sally in the race to be the first American woman to orbit if the two had been pitted against each other, she thought. Ultimately, Sally saw a lot of similarities between her and Svetlana, thinking that the cosmonaut reminded her of her colleague Shannon Lucid most of all.

Sally enjoyed her time at the gathering so much that she stayed for six hours. Long after midnight, she and Svetlana exchanged a few final words and hugged goodbye before their staggered departures.

“I left with the feeling that we would probably meet again,” Sally said. “And if we did, we would be just as close as we were at that moment.”

The whirlwind press tour had brought unbelievable highs and remarkable lows. In the middle of it all, Sally sat down with Gloria Steinem, agreeing to an interview to talk about the surreal few months she’d been experiencing. Sally discussed all aspects of her flight, placing particular emphasis on the SPAS-01 demonstration and the pictures they were able to take while in space.

“That’s probably what our flight will be remembered for, I think, is those pictures,” Sally said.

“Want to bet?” Gloria replied.

Featured image: Sally Ride and Anna Fisher work together at Kennedy Space Center on the payloads for Sally’s flight, STS-7. Anna, who was the lead Cape Crusader for STS-7, is pregnant with her first daughter, Kristin.


Excerpted from The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts by Loren Grush. Copyright © 2023. Available from Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

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How the Humble Pocket Came to Signify Feminist Liberation https://lithub.com/how-the-humble-pocket-came-to-signify-feminist-liberation/ https://lithub.com/how-the-humble-pocket-came-to-signify-feminist-liberation/#comments Tue, 12 Sep 2023 08:40:40 +0000 https://lithub.com/?p=226260

The early nineteenth-century press offered readers dismissive accounts of new fashions, specifically scolding women for their “silliness” in acquiescing to “the very inconvenient custom of being without pockets.” Women were more willing to relinquish their free agency as consumers than to challenge fashion, so the charge went. Reporting on the tribulations of one such follower of fashion in 1806, the Weekly Visitor ran a story about a young woman intrigued by the sight of a peddler’s wares. She was hoping to make a purchase but had to admit she couldn’t because she didn’t have any money. The reason? She hadn’t worn a pocket. Desperate for a customer, the peddler was forced to follow the unprepared woman home to collect his payment. A 1789 sketch was less indulgent and forgiving in tone. Titled Fashionable Convenience!!, it depicts a young child asking for money to buy cakes. Mamma replies, “How can you be so vulgar, child, have not I told you a hundred times I never wear pockets!” Women conformed to fashion’s dictates at the expense of convenience, sacrificing even those little but meaningful things like treating their youngsters to sweets.

The mockery got no better for women when they sought a practical alternative in reticules. In carrying reticules, women were essentially exposing their pockets, a once-private accessory. Pockets were previously classified as undergarments, so these displays were an unseemly spectacle to many. An illustration from 1800 makes that connection apparent while ridiculing women for their impractical dress choices. Fashionable ladies are shown in their winter dress wearing floral hats that impede their sight, transparent dresses that show off their nakedness and hardly protect from the cold, and reticules that swing lower and lower down their stockingless legs. The English promptly chose to mispronounce the French word for the fashion accessory and referred to it as a “ridicule,” or, perhaps further punning on its tiny, impractical size, an “indispensable.”

Tie-on pockets came to be associated with the habits of more traditional women, industrious housewives, and “old ladies.” In them housewives carried everything they needed. They were an “honest” and useful receptacle, according to various laments on their demise. A 1796 letter from a mother to her son indicates the politics involved: don’t marry one of those reticule-carrying women, a so-called “Anti-Pocketist,” warns the prominent Mrs. Ridgely of Delaware. To make her case she compares the young man’s sisters with an attractive, “simpering” young visitor who professed herself astonished to find the Ridgely sisters busy sewing. The simpering visitor self-righteously claimed that she never carried scissors, thimble, needle, or thread about her, “for it was terrible in a Lady to wear a pair of Pockets—the French Ladies never did such a thing.” The disuse of tie-on pockets by fashionable women constituted a disavowal of traditional women’s crafts and, for Mrs. Ridgely, a strike against any young woman hoping to marry into her family.

A number of women had begun to “agitate with much earnestness in behalf of the right of women to have and enjoy pockets,” fervently believing that a woman was “undoubtedly made to be a pocket-wearing person.”

The infatuation with narrow goddess dresses was brief, however, and women’s skirts widened by the 1820s. Some women returned to wearing tie-on pockets (which happily fit again), but many women began to experiment with integrated, masculine-style pockets sewn into dresses at side seams on the hips. For a time, inset pockets fit under the voluminous skirts of the 1850s and 1860s. But this tentative exploration did not gain traction. When bell-shape hoop skirts went out of style, women’s pockets migrated in haphazard and unexpected ways. By the 1870s and 1880s, dresses flattened in the front and skirts were pushed to the back, forming an enormous bustle at the rump. Dressmakers did the best they could and, seeking the area of greatest volume, placed a lone pocket in the folds of the cantilevered bustle.

Artfully tucked under all that drapery, pockets seemed to be buried “in some innermost recess” of one’s being, complained one writer. They were more difficult to locate than “paradise.” One woman reported salvaging material from one of her used gowns: to her surprise, she discovered an entirely unworn pocket so cunningly hidden away that she had never known it was there. Reaching such pockets involved struggle and contortion. Pockets were “practically inextricable” when needed, observed the writer T. W. H. in Harper’s Bazaar in 1893. She reported an exasperating experience involving an impatient horsecar conductor waiting to take her fare. As she twisted around, fumbling at her bustle, trying to locate her money, he and a lengthening line of waiting passengers demanded that she accelerate her search. “How can I possibly hurry up when my pocket is in South Boston?” she indignantly retorted.

T. W. H. further wondered whether contemporary clothing limited the mobility of an entire sex: What if one were to undertake a “statistical inquiry” comparing the pockets of men and women and boys and girls? What would one find? An 1899 New York Times article confirmed the writer’s hypothesis: the “world’s use of pockets” was strikingly uneven. The headline made the situation clear: “Men’s Clothes Full of Them, While Women Have But Few.” The article notes while men’s pockets had “developed, increased and improved,” women were actually “losing ground” after having jettisoned tie-on pockets.

The effects of this lost ground were sketched with more detail in popular fiction. In one of his many adventures in the 1908 book The Wind in the Willows (now considered a children’s tale, although Kenneth Grahame meant it for adults), Toad dresses up as a washerwoman to escape from jail after stealing a motor car. His experience cross-dressing is a “nightmare” because he misses the vest pocket “eternally situated” over his left breast. Unable to access his wallet and thus the money he needs to make his escape, he finds his options severely limited when it matters most. Wearing women’s clothes, Toad observes with surprising frankness, leaves him “unequipped for the real contest.”


In the meantime, a number of women had begun to “agitate with much earnestness in behalf of the right of women to have and enjoy pockets,” fervently believing, unlike Toad, that a woman was “undoubtedly made to be a pocket-wearing person.” The most sustained attention came from women’s rights activists, who made women’s clothes in general—particularly unwieldy skirts and debilitating corsets, as well as pockets—a political issue. With barely contained irritation, activists published cogent analyses of sartorial inequity. Their demands for “equality in pockets” sound disconcertingly familiar, just like the demands made in the present day.

Wearing women’s clothes, Toad observes with surprising frankness, leaves him “unequipped for the real contest.”

Women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton was incensed by the contrast between the utterly encumbered woman walking down the street—one hand holding up a majestically sweeping skirt, the other clutching an umbrella, pocketbook, and other small necessaries—and the man who charged down the same street “free as a lark.” A dearth of pockets was one of the “unrecognized disabilities of women,” claimed other progressive women commenting at the turn of the century. It was her “greatest lack.” Feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman pointed out that the design of the material world had marked social implications. Ready access to tools and devices enhanced one’s practical and psychological “preparedness,” giving one the confidence “to meet all emergencies.” Without pockets, women really were “unequipped for the real contest,” as Toad had opined.

In her 1915 sociological study, The Dress of Women, Gilman observed that the pocketless, cheap calico housedresses worn by the majority of housewives and women laboring in other people’s homes neither prepared them nor protected them from wet, dirt, grime, or the fire hazards of the pre-electrified kitchen. Under these conditions, what women should really have been wearing was a protective “leather apron” or a waterproof “oilskin cloak,” she argued. That housewives did not shored up the fiction of happy domesticity while it denied that women were performing actual work. Gilman made a point of outfitting the characters who inhabit her all-female utopia, Herland, in costumes that readied the wearer for any kind of work, including the important business of administering a nation. Emphasizing the wearer’s personhood above their gender, Gilman stepped away from the trouser and skirt binary to propose a garment stripped down to the essentials: a bodysuit “fairly quilted in pockets.” These pockets “were most ingeniously arranged, so as to be convenient to the hand and not inconvenient to the body, and were so placed as at once to strengthen the garment and add decorative lines of stitching.” Gilman’s fiction was not widely recognized in her time, but in it exists a challenge that remains relevant: pockets could be integral to anyone’s clothes in ways that served structural, aesthetic, and practical ends.

Conservative commentators for the most part scoffed at the notion that pockets made a difference, that but for lack of pockets women would be the titans of Wall Street. Such arguments were easily brushed off as so much nonsense, and as one reporter wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1913, suffragists were “now dragging the pocket into the female emancipation problem.” According to these mostly anti-suffragist critics, it seemed as though women had been easily lead astray by an unimportant, irrelevant side issue. Some hoped that women would remain lost in the weeds. Perhaps all those upstart suffragists who “clamor” for the vote should just demand pockets instead—that was the “real grievance,” according to one cynic.

But in the midst of making major social and political advances, women also wanted the flexibility and assurance pockets provided, and they worried about the dangers of acquiescing to the no-pocket tradition in women’s clothes. “By-m-bye, no pockets for the female sect will settle down into hard and fast law,” warned a contributor to a domestic magazine in 1907. The worry seems well-placed: several social traditions were being reconceived as natural by conservative forces opposed to change, from the notion that mothers were not fit for careers to the design of clothes. In a lighthearted but insightful satire, the suffragist Alice Duer Miller pointed out the circular reasoning involved in invoking either tradition or biology to reaffirm the status quo. If women really wanted pockets, they would already have them! Ergo, suffragists must not “fly in the face of nature” by demanding pockets, Miller wrote in her 1915 poem “Why We Oppose Pockets for Women.” If you could claim tailor-made pockets as a natural right, you could do so for just about anything, including the right to vote.

Miller’s humor was lost on all those detractors who felt acute anxiety about maintaining traditional gender roles. Conservative voices tended to identify all suffragists as gender-nonconforming, singling out queer female suffragists in particular as deviant. The lawyer, activist, and president of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, Gail Laughlin, for example, was chided in the St. Louis Star for her refusal to appear in a dress that lacked pockets. “Only on rare occasions does Miss Laughlin take off the mannish garb that she usually wears,” the reporter noted. The journalist mocks Laughlin for being arrayed in a brand-new gown for a federation event and having made it to that point in her life without realizing that such “creations” typically did not offer them. Pointing out her intransigence, the journalist wrote: “Miss Laughlin declined to wear the thing until a pocket was sewed on.”

Anti-suffrage cartoons and propaganda were just as negative, representing suffragists as starkly unattractive. The plot of Charles Hoyt’s 1899 musical comedy, The Contented Woman, involves a wife who runs for mayor against her husband as comeuppance after he rudely tears off a button she has diligently sewn onto his suit, if in the wrong color. The wife’s impulsive retribution, satisfying in the moment, has lasting consequences, according to Hoyt’s play; the image on the cover of the playbill alludes to the changed demeanor of any woman engaged in the “vulgar clamor for rights.” Among the many “horrid” habits she might pick up, the “speechifying” suffragette would need someplace to stash her hands “like a man,” adopting one of his worst mannerisms. But for the suffragette, “pockets mean business,” from being “equipped for the street” to enjoying a gesture considered a bad habit that, because it was defiant, just so happened to be authoritative as well. As one lawyer lamented, she could not approach the jury with the same commanding nonchalance as did her lawyer husband. “Is anything so convincing as that easy attitude a man takes when he plunges his hand deep in his pocket and says, Now, gentlemen of the jury?—”


From Pockets: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close © 2023 by Hannah Carlson. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books.

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The Remarkable Story of the Horsewomen Warriors of Afghanistan https://lithub.com/the-remarkable-story-of-the-horsewomen-warriors-of-afghanistan/ https://lithub.com/the-remarkable-story-of-the-horsewomen-warriors-of-afghanistan/#respond Mon, 11 Sep 2023 08:30:19 +0000 https://lithub.com/?p=226214

A few years ago, while sorting through old papers in my parents’ storage unit, I discovered a diary written by an old friend. Louise Firouz was an American horsewoman and breeder who moved to Iran in the 1960s, married a Qajar prince, and became entranced by the Caspian horses of her adopted homeland. Her memories and the experiences she wrote about led me to unearth a story of survival—women saving a rare breed of horse, a way of life, the lives of US Green Berets, women saving each other and themselves. It is a remarkable story that is very close to my heart, because the female horse warriors Louise befriended and collaborated with for decades were members of my very own family, my aunts and my grandmother.

Louise and my grandmother worked in harmony with an ancient breed of horses called the Caspian horse to support a growing all-female army of horsewomen warriors in Afghanistan. These women, led by a general named Mina, successfully defended their homelands, horses, and families from some of the world’s most elusive enemies—the Taliban, Russian invading armies, warlords, and opium cartels. Inspired by thousands of years of horsewomen warriors dating all the way back to the Persian empire, these women will inspire generations to come.


Boom! Boom! Two more explosions snapped Mina out of her reverie. She stood tall and remembered the sperm bag. In one smooth motion, Mina grabbed the bag and then remounted her mare, Banu. She had a gun and two bandoliers stocked with bullets slung in an X formation across her chest. Her mother told her that she reminded her of Maryam: small in stature but one of the largest women she had ever met. Fearless.

“We need to get out of here,” Louise shouted in Farsi. Though different in rhythm and intonation, Farsi and Dari were closely related enough that Louise and Mina could communicate with the help of frequent hand motions and the shared language of horses. Mina could sense the urgency in Louise’s voice.

Mina squinted her mischievous brown eyes and shook her turbulent curls. She was one of the few women who rode without a makeshift helmet of any kind. Banu reared up on her hind legs, and Mina let out a warm laugh, as if she had not a care in the world.

“Louise, if we thought like you, we wouldn’t be who we are. We don’t leave our lands, our homes. No. We make them leave,” she said, pointing across the ridge at the men launching grenades, firing guns, and riding ever closer. “They will never take the land that is ours. Never.”

“But, Mina, we’re outnumbered.”

“The Taliban always outnumber us. But we outsmart them.”

Banu reared, and Mina roared forward. Their army of women thundered past Louise and out of the caves, trilling their tongues in battle cry. They wore bandoliers slung over traditional dress, and their heads were wrapped in checkered scarves that blew in the wind. Their scarves were not for modesty, but for keeping their hair off their faces and necks. They were for shielding their eyes and mouths from dirt.

The pink-sherbet sunrise faded into orange as dirt rained down around them. Mina had grown accustomed to a thin layer of grime coating her eyebrows and lashes from the wind, but the clumps tearing through the air from the explosions obscured her vision almost entirely. She sent a silent prayer of gratitude to her mother in heaven. She was grateful that Ghashang had trained her and the other women to fight blindfolded. Mina knew exactly what to do, and she knew she could trust her horse to lead the way while she sharpened her hearing and took shots at enemies by sound.

“Louise, if we thought like you, we wouldn’t be who we are. We don’t leave our lands, our homes. No. We make them leave.”

“Yallah yallah, let’s go!” Mina shouted, cutting to the right alongside four of her soldiers. Five other women rode left. Five more rode straight, while the last five made kissing noises to halt their horses. Louise, disoriented and frightened, remained at the cave entrance halfway down the hill and watched the women surround the men.

Mina clucked her tongue, and her soldiers broke out into a high-pitched hiiiiiliii liiiiiii liiiiii as they rode around the Taliban in a choreographed dance.

“Khanoumha?!” shouted one of the youngest men, who had only just registered that he and his companions were being attacked by a group of women. Mina used that brief moment of confusion to pull a knife from her boot and fling it at the man’s chest. In less than a second, he was on the ground, gushing blood. His mount, the first of the enemy horses to defect, came running out of the circle toward where Louise and Khosrow II were waiting. With trembling hands, Louise coaxed the wild- eyed animal to stand next to her horse, whose calm presence worked to still the new member of the herd.

The Taliban were well armed but not well trained. None of the men looked nearly as comfortable on horseback as the women. Mina knew she, her soldiers, and her horses could outsmart them. The trick would be minimizing casualties.

Meanwhile, the Taliban couldn’t control their now panicking horses, who weren’t adapting well to the tight quarters. When the Arabians bucked, the men fell to the ground, and the women fired.

Rattle, snap, rat- a- tat- tat, boom!

Ghashang had prepared them well. Mina and her warrior women were relentless. They encircled the men again, firing until every last man had either fled or crumpled to the ground.

Mina let out another high-pitched trill. “Women gather around,” she ordered. “Survey the damage. Take the injured women and horses up to the caves. Alert the nurses.”

Mina swung Banu around with the squeeze of her right foot. The horses pounded in and out of the wreckage. Several dead horses and a half-dozen dead men. Mercifully, none of her women had died, but some were wounded. Mina fought a tear, though she wasn’t sure if it was relief or the release of adrenaline pouring out of her.


Excerpted from Book of Queens: The True Story of the Middle Eastern Horsewomen Who Fought the War on Terror by Pardis Mahdavi. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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“Out of Time’s Monotone”: The Literary Life of the French Riviera https://lithub.com/out-of-times-monotone-the-literary-life-of-the-french-riviera/ https://lithub.com/out-of-times-monotone-the-literary-life-of-the-french-riviera/#respond Wed, 06 Sep 2023 08:20:01 +0000 https://lithub.com/?p=226014

A secret for centuries, the south-eastern coast of France became the Riviera. It brazenly created and recreated itself in the image of successive visitors attracted by its sun, sea and fragrant air. To become so famous, so desired, and yet prove incapable of satisfying everybody’s dreams, is a tough destiny. Paradise was threatened—but there was much passion, wit, intrigue and splendor along the way. This strip of land hosted cultural phenomena well in excess of its tiny size. A mere handful of towns and villages transformed by foreigners enticed the talented, rich and famous—as well as those who wanted to be. For two centuries of opulence, scandal, war and corruption, the Riviera was a temptation. Nineteenth-century visitors came south to keep themselves alive or to die on a temperate coast that one Belle Époque writer called “an outdoor hospital.” These winter residents were often overbearing. Foreigners with spending power, they imposed their will and their languages. There was palpable xenophobia on all fronts. The English mocked their hosts, while the French were amused by English self-importance, German pedanticism and Russian bombast. By 1870, Nice—a medium-sized town of 50,000 plus—hosted consulates and therefore visitors from countries as widespread as Turkey, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay. The list grew. The early quest for self-preservation was succeeded by a drive for dangerous living that reverberated through the first decades of the twentieth century. High-octane, the Riviera was spurred by hedonism and cultural frenzy as the English and American impact on the region made waves across the world.

The territory had been frequently contested. The French and Italians had been bickering over the frontier for centuries. When Antonio de Beatis visited in 1517, he recorded the prevailing wisdom that Nice, being on the border, was so-called because it was “neither here nor there”—“ni ici, ni là.” The claim has been questioned, but it is significant that, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Nice coat of arms displayed an eagle whose raised claws seemed undecided about what to clutch.

The area’s motley and squabble-ridden past is echoed by its medley of voices. Before the French Revolution, the astronomer Jérôme Lalande observed Nice’s linguistic indecision. Polite society spoke French, the laws were in Italian, and the ordinary people spoke a verbal salmagundi. The larger Provençal dialect has been described as “French rubbed with garlic,” whereas the local lingo—Nissart—derives from almost any language but French. If “laundry” is lessive in French, in Nissart it is bugada—as it is in Catalan. The Niçois use cabossa for “head”—close to the Spanish cabeza. Spanish agua for “water” is corrupted into daigua, and so it goes on. The philosopher and art critic John Ruskin, visiting briefly in 1845, heard the Greek ara for “now” and Aspai ma picciota?—“Where are you going, my little girl?”—in which he considered aspai to be a corruption of aperçevoir, and picciota from the Italian picciola. There were also borrowings from Arabic, the Provençal langue d’oc and a slow corruption of Latin. As foreigners came south, the babble of sounds became even more diverse. Travelling to Genoa in 1878, the French writer Laurent Germain’s train stopped in Nice to pick up gamblers bound for Monte Carlo. His compartment was invaded by a gaggle of aristocratic gentlemen who rattled away in English, German, Russian, Spanish—even French. No matter which language they used, their discourse was predictable. “Did you win yesterday?” “No, I lost a lot of money.”

In autumn 1922, James Joyce—about to have leeches applied to drain the pressure of his glaucoma—took a room at Nice’s Hôtel Suisse and began to assemble ideas for what became his huge and forbidding multilingual pun, Finnegans Wake. He took inspiration from a polyglot city which, throughout its checkered history, hosted languages that came and went according to political circumstance. Russian diminished after the 1917 Revolution only to reappear on restaurant menus in the 1990s. German vanished after the Second World War and came back in the early 1970s, as hordes of West Germans came south to grill themselves lobster orange.

Earlier ages largely ignored the potential of the southern French coast. It took the British desire for a sympathetic climate for bronchitis and the Romantic attraction to untamed nature to make the Riviera a destination. The British saw paradise in a wilderness and created a pleasure ground. Over the decades, other nations followed and turned this thin strip of Shangri-La—snow-capped mountains towering on one side, the azure Mediterranean on the other—into a singular treasure. The Aga Khan spoke of meeting members of the aristocracy and plutocracy “over and over again” in London, Rome, Berlin, Monte Carlo, Cannes and Nice—three capitals widely separated and three resorts only miles apart.

There was an Anglo-Saxon land grab aided and abetted by the Russians, Germans, Belgians, Americans and a scatter of Scandinavians. The Parisian French also colonized the coast—seeking either commercial opportunity or enjoyment in resorts that boasted a wonderful winter climate and an international reputation. They found no indigenous high-cultural tradition—just a convivial lifestyle and a landscape in which to create a modern paradise; one full of temptations in which those who fell were rarely doomed to expulsion. As entrepreneurs recognized the commercial scope of the Riviera, they built restaurants and hotels in the grand French style while cunningly making strategic concessions to foreign tastes. Later, American improvisations on the themes of Gallic style and bohemianism modified the character of the coast. Later still, all levels of the French population grew to love and hate the Côte d’Azur.

As the “outdoor hospital” became a pleasure ground, it grew famous for its frivolity. The Riviera was a world of indolent aristocracy and Noël Coward’s poor little rich girls. It was also an attractive destination, where important decisions could be taken by powerful people relaxing at a remove and out of context—Winston Churchill was addicted. The Riviera provided a haven where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor went to escape reality. The landscape and the influx of international visitors made for a potent cultural cocktail that worked its magic on the likes of Hector Berlioz, Friedrich Nietzsche, Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, Katherine Mansfield, Jean-Paul Sartre, Igor Stravinsky and the Rolling Stones—to name but a few. Colors and forms cut by the strong Mediterranean light were inspirational to modern painters. The Riviera hosted the exceptional. “Out of time’s monotone,” recorded the American writer Allen Tate in a poem honoring a picnic at which 16 adults—in an act of intoxicated inversion—downed 61 bottles of wine. Tate and friends put into a small cove full of “amethyst fishes and octopuses darting, like closed parasols.” Over a driftwood fire, they started to cook a bouillabaisse—its ingredients lately caught. Lurching down the craggy goat track of the red cliff came an eighty-two-year-old peasant on a horse carrying all those bottles.

Drink has always been a feature of this festive enclave. Celebrated lush F. Scott Fitzgerald arrived hours late for a dinner with the writer Michael Arlen. The delay had been caused by Fitzgerald’s inability to pull himself away from a bottle. He sat down and declared, “This is how I want to live… This is how I want to live,” laid his head on the table and fell asleep.

This wayward coast—once a temptation for pirates and brigands—has attracted profiteers, corrupt politicians and the mafia—Italian and Russian. David Dodge’s book To Catch a Thief, which inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name, demonstrated that wealth lavishly displayed provided great opportunities for crime. The coast, wrote Dodge elsewhere, was “lousy with situations and characters.” Among these were notable crooks, from the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo to the famously corrupt mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin, and the underworld that sustained him. Somerset Maugham’s celebrated quip “a sunny place for shady people,” believed to have targeted Monte Carlo but perhaps provoked by the unsavoury quarters of wartime Marseille—or by his disreputable lover Gerald Haxton—has become the motto for a dark yet sparkling coast.

Ford Madox Ford thought the south of France was Eden whereas the north meant Brussels sprouts.

The locals were swept up into the international scene that engulfed them. The 1960s École de Nice was a group of artists inhabiting the worlds of Pop Art and Conceptualism. In one of Nice’s most surprising hotels, some rooms are decorated by local artists. I remember standing in the foyer, listening to an American guest despair about the room she had been given. In true Pop style, the walls were covered with American license plates. “That’s what I came away to escape,” the guest groaned. “Perhaps the Louis XIV room would suit Madame better?” Indeed. I also overheard a couple of traveling companions suggest that having the bathroom facilities creatively exposed in the middle of their room was a teensy bit too “modern.”

This sunny coast lifts the spirit. Picasso found that Antibes and Golfe-Juan rekindled his delight in the joyous visual pun which had lain largely dormant during the years of the Second World War. Marc Chagall let his antic spirit loose in the installations he made for the Musée National Message Biblique. Yves Klein of the École de Nice signed the air above the Mediterranean, calling it a work of art.

Verbal wit has also embellished most aspects of life on the Côte d’Azur. Charlotte Dempster, who lived near Cannes in the second half of the nineteenth century, mocked the energetic attempts of Protestants to establish their own churches: “At Nice and Monte Carlo I dare say there are not many persons as devout as the Praying Mantis.” Even when they were ill, visitors could be witty. The ailing author of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote to an old friend from Hyères in March 1884: “Dover sounds somewhat shiveringly in my ears. You should see the weather I have—cloudless, clear as crystal… aromatic air, all pine and gum tree. You would be ashamed of Dover; you would scruple to refer, sir, to a spot so paltry… pray, how do you warm yourself?” Comparisons of southern sun and northern chilliness are legion. Vita Sackville-West suggested that “her lover, violet Trefusis, was the Mediterranean while her husband, Harold Nicolson, was Kent.” Ford Madox Ford thought the south of France was Eden whereas the north meant Brussels sprouts.

Social observation was spiked. The French writer and archaeologist Prosper Mérimée spoke of the arrival in Nice of a certain Madame de Vogué, “who left her husband somewhere en route but who has replaced him with impressive specimens from here or there.” Etiquette often gave rise to risible situations. A shabbily dressed, socially diffident and absent-minded Englishman attempted to enter the Casino in Monte Carlo. He was asked for his passport. “A passport? I’m sorry but I haven’t got one.” “No passport! Then you cannot enter.” “You see, I am the man who issues them.” “You! That’s a good one.” The Englishman left. When it was discovered that the thwarted visitor was Lord Salisbury, thrice prime minister and—at the time of the incident—Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the fear of bad publicity sent a frock-coated, top-hatted deputation from the Casino administration to Salisbury’s villa in nearby Beaulieu to apologize. The Foreign Secretary had merely been amused by the rebuff.

As performers began to adorn the coast in the 1920s and ’30s, the homosexual contingent—often fleeing from the stringent laws that pertained in England—prompted the actress Maxine Elliott to refer to the coast as an “Adamless Eden.” She sometimes found it refreshing to invite heterosexuals like Douglas Fairbanks Sr or Johnny ‘Tarzan’ Weissmuller. True to character, Tarzan dived from her top terrace, over the dining patio, into her huge pool.

A legend about the lemon-scented border town of Menton claimed that its citrus trees were a gift from Eve. Expelled from paradise for eating the forbidden apple, the mother of us all grabbed a lemon and—wandering over the earth—threw it down in the countryside near Menton, where it created a new Eden. Unlike Eve, many later visitors arrived not with lemons, but with oodles of their own forbidden fruit.


Excerpted from The Once Upon a Time World: The Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera by Jonathan Miles Copyright © 2023. Available from Pegasus Books.

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Notions of “Wilderness:” Nine Essential Books About the American Frontier https://lithub.com/notions-of-wilderness-nine-essential-books-about-the-american-frontier/ https://lithub.com/notions-of-wilderness-nine-essential-books-about-the-american-frontier/#respond Tue, 05 Sep 2023 09:30:37 +0000 https://lithub.com/?p=225863

Like “The Wilderness,” whatever exactly constitutes “The Frontier” depends largely on where you stand in relation to it. Beginning with the Jamestown arrivals in 1607 in what’s now Virginia, America’s British colonizers regarded most everything west of them as “the wilderness”—or, as William Bradford, the Puritan leader aboard the Mayflower in 1620 put it, “what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.” Many newcomers believed that Satan lurked out there, too.

From the European colonizers perspective, “The Frontier” became the forefront of white settlement in the wilderness—one that supposedly brought Christianity and civilization to these pagan realms. If you were a member of a Native tribe in North America, however, what the Puritans called a wilderness was your home that the Great Spirit had provided with all the abundance you needed. The tribes continually were forced to escape the settler’s “Frontier”—the edge of a wave of land grabs, extermination, and cultural destruction driving Indigenous people westward like the burning edge of a prairie fire. After three centuries of this, the settlers had claimed 95 percent of the lands once belonging to Native peoples.

In the same way, depending on one’s perspective, any list of “essential” books about the American frontier is highly subjective, and so is this. For an overview, I recommend Roderick Frazier Nash’s seminal Wilderness and the American Mind (originally published in 1967). A professor of history and environmental studies, in addition to having worked as a whitewater raft guide and in other outdoor pursuits, Nash traces how Euro-American notions of “wilderness” have evolved since those first Puritan landings. Since Nash’s 1967 publication, the concept of wilderness has been further explored by other thinkers, including by Native writers, but his book provides a foundational perspective on what constitutes “The American Frontier.”

More briefly, and in somewhat chronological and geographical order (East to West), here is more of my essential reading about the Frontier:


Gabriel Franchère, Narrative of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast, 1811-1814

This is one of my all-time favorite frontier narratives by someone who was there, observant, educated, and eloquent (even in translation). It is also an example of why some of the earliest and best frontier narratives were written by educated foreigners, as the great majority of American frontier settlers wrote poorly, if at all. In 1810, as a young Montrealer, Franchère signed on with the vast expedition New York fur baron John Jacob Astor sent to establish the first American colony on the West Coast. Historically significant, the expedition was a vast disaster at the time but for later generations yielded a trove of eyewitness accounts and amazing survival stories, of which Franchère’s is one. My own book about Astor’s grand, globe-circling trade scheme, Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire (2014), owes much to Franchère’s and other personal accounts. Another favorite “Astorians” memoir is one by a young, wealthy Columbia University dropout who thought a frontier adventure might offer an amusing break from city life. He was so wrong. If you want to hear a would-be frontiersman whine about frigid toes and ferocious mosquitos—not to mention the risk of imminent death around every bend—Alfred Seton’s journal will boost your tender-foot spirits.

James Smith. An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Colonel James Smith during his Captivity with the Indians, in the Years 1755, ’56, ’57, ’58, & ’59

What has become mythologized in American history as “The Wild West” actually had its origins in “The Wild East.” This was the country beyond the Appalachians in the Ohio Valley. My essential frontier reading list includes a riveting first-person account of a young man’s capture by Native warriors during the French and Indian War (1755-63), much of which centered on the Ohio Valley. An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Colonel James Smith during his Captivity with the Indians, in the Years 1755, ’56, ’57, ’58, & ’59 will surprise American readers steeped in the notion of the frontier’s “fierce Indians.” After a harrowing introduction to the tribe by “running the gauntlet,” Smith is lovingly adopted to replace a young, fallen warrior. My favorite anecdote occurs when an elder Native hunter chastises Smith for his stinginess in neglecting to offer a visiting hunter the best victuals that they have in their camp (meaning bear’s oil and maple sugar, rather than a simple roast venison). “You have behaved just like a Dutchman,” the elder rebukes him, meaning a white settler. “Do you not know that when strangers come to our camp, we ought always to give them the best that we have?” The elder said he could excuse Smith, because he was still young. “But,” recounted Smith, “I must learn to behave like a warrior, and do great things, and never be found in any such little actions.”

John H. Kinzie (Juliette M. Kinzie), Wau-Bun: The “Early Day” in the North West

Moving with the frontier westward to the Upper Great Lakes, one encounters the writings of Mrs. John H. Kinzie (aka Juliette M. Kinzie) and her autobiographical, Wau-Bun: The “Early Day” in the North West. As the well-educated and Connecticut-born wife of a white fur trader and Indian agent, Kinzie carefully observed life and events in the early 1830s at today’s Portage, Wisconsin among the Winnebago (or Ho-Chunk) nation. She sympathized with the plight of Indigenous people as their land was wrenched away. Another work of hers based on her relatives’ eyewitness accounts, Narrative of the Massacre at Chicago, August 15, 1812, and of Some Preceding Events, contains a vivid image that resonates strangely today—the white ladies at the Chicago portage fur post (Fort Dearborn) obliviously playing badminton as white-Native tensions soar around them in the run-up to the War of 1812.

Willa Cather, My Ántonia

After Native tribes in the Midwest had been mostly vanquished, vast lands opened to farming. One of Willa Cather’s most acclaimed novels, My Ántonia (1918), portrays the life of white settlers—”pioneers,” as known in American frontier mythology—on the Nebraska plains. Ántonia’s family of Bohemian immigrants arrives in the late 1800s to find that the homestead they purchased offers no home in the usual sense but rather the common pioneer shelter known as a “dugout” or “sod house”—built of blocks of prairie sod or simply an earthen cellar roofed over.

James Welch, Fools Crow 

As a counterpoint to this world of struggling white “sodbusters” on the Great Plains that recently had supported millions of buffalos and tribes who hunted them, one could read James Welch’s novel Fools Crow (1986). As a member of the Blackfeet Nation (located in today’s Montana), Welch immerses the reader in the world of a young Blackfeet male coming of age in the years around the Civil War as white hunters, soldiers, and settlers press in around his traditional way of life. The late Welch’s work generally, and his Fools Crow in particular, have inspired a new generation of younger Native writers.

The Lost Journals of Sacajewea

Debra Magpie Earling, The Lost Journals of Sacajewea

Among this generation is Debra Magpie Earling, of Salish heritage, whose recent novel The Lost Journals of Sacajewea, is a lyrical vision of the familiar story of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery reimagined from the perspective of the young Lemhi Shoshone woman who served as their guide.

S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History

Much has been written about the Plains Indian Wars, an era that Hollywood found visually compelling (and ready-made for dramatic manipulation) with its wide horizons and charging horses and its doomed U.S. Calvary officer, George Armstrong Custer. Some of the more recent bestsellers from this era include Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne and The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. Author Michael Punke, who wrote The Revenant on which the Leonardo DiCaprio film was based, recently published another historical novel, The Ridgeline, about a fateful encounter in 1866 in Wyoming’s Powder River Valley between U.S. Army Colonel Henry Carrington and Red Cloud and Crazy Horse. Punke’s work gives fascinating insights into the thinking and strategy on both sides of the conflict.

William Kittredge, Hole in the Sky

Finally, my list about “The Frontier” would include something by the late William Kittredge, a personal friend who inspired many younger writers to write about the American West. Several generations of the Kittredge family in eastern Oregon had carved out a ranch the size of Delaware by fencing its ranges and draining its wetlands to carry more and more cattle. Ultimately, instead of embracing the great family spread, Kittredge, in books like Hole in the Sky and Owning It All, faces up to the environmental and emotional trauma this pioneering spirit wrought. As Hole in the Sky’s jacket copy succinctly puts it, Kittredge gives “an honest reckoning of the American myth that drove generations of Americans westward—and what became of their dream after they reached the edge.”


Gallop Toward the Sun: Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison’s Struggle for the Destiny of a Nation by Peter Stark is available from Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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How The Odyssey Helped My Father and Me to Grow https://lithub.com/how-the-odyssey-helped-my-father-and-i-to-grow/ https://lithub.com/how-the-odyssey-helped-my-father-and-i-to-grow/#respond Fri, 01 Sep 2023 09:40:46 +0000 https://lithub.com/?p=225690

Excerpted from An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and An Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

One of the strange things about teaching is that you can never know what your effect will be on others; can never know, if you have something to teach, who your real students will be, the ones who will take what you have to give and make it their own—“what you have to give” being, in no small part, what you yourself learned from some other teacher, someone who wondered whether you would absorb what she had to give, someone who is, by the time you’re old enough to write about the experience, as old as your parents, perhaps even dead—can never really know which of the young people clustered around the seminar table is someone whom the teacher or the text has touched so deeply, for whatever reason, that the lesson will live beyond the classroom, beyond you.

But then, the process of education, of pedagogy, of leading a child into knowledge, is a delicate and unpredictable one, its mechanisms and effects often mysterious to student and teacher alike.

For instance:

On the mild day in mid-May when Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer ended, I was convinced that this experiment—having my father sit in on the seminar, an idea that so many of my and my parents’ friends had found so charming, so amusing—had borne no fruit. By the time we got to that fine spring day, so long after the January morning on which my father pulled up to my house in the snow, grimacing, after the bitter month of February in which we talked about the Telemachy and what it told us about the “harmonious molding” of that young character’s soul, after the wet month of March when we talked about Odysseus’ sojourn among the Phaeacians, filled as it is with stories and lies, with the hero’s narration of his fabulous adventures, the Apologoi; after that freakishly cold April when we analyzed the series of recognitions that marked the hero’s return to his home and his true identity—by then, I’d become convinced that I had failed to teach my father. I had never found a way to persuade him of the beauty and usefulness of this great work, whose hero he still didn’t find very heroic, whose structural ingenuities left him cold, whose famously fascinating protagonist had failed to fascinate him.

And indeed, at a certain point after that semester ended I forced myself to acknowledge that, in precisely the way that I had been mortified many years earlier by my father’s rough table manners, had felt the complicated shame that eventually pushed me when I was a teenager toward all those mentors, some of whom were exemplary teachers and some of whom were not, I had been slightly embarrassed by my father.

I worried that my students had, in the end, been put off by his gruff attitude toward the text and confused by his evident disdain for my teaching of it. I squirmed inwardly when I thought of what they must have made of the bald and withered old man hunched in the corner each week, his baggy white sweater only emphasizing how shrunken his limbs were, as he grumbled and argued and contested the points I was eager for them to absorb.

During the course of the semester, there had been only one occasion on which my father had charmed the class in the way that, so effortlessly and surprisingly, he would charm the passengers on the Odyssey cruise just weeks after the course ended; only one moment between January and May when he revealed one of those sudden and unexpected softenings that, when I was a child, I used to wish would come more frequently—as on those nights when, instead of staying bent over the small wooden desk in the hours after dinner, muttering at the bills, he would stand up with a sigh and walk across the narrow hallway into my room and then, after doing a super-duper-tucker-inner, would sit at the edge of the sturdy wooden bed that he had built and read Winnie-the-Pooh aloud to me. I would lie there in bliss, cocooned like a mummy, unable to move my arms but nonetheless feeling safe, as his high nasal baritone wrapped itself around the short, straightforward sentences that, many years later, he would try and fail to pick his way through during one of his periodic attempts to revive the Latin he had once forsaken.

Winnie ille Pu.

There was only one time during the spring semester of 2011 when my father revealed this other face, which I would see so much more often, so unexpectedly, during the Odyssey cruise. This strange moment occurred on the second Friday in Ma—the final meeting of the seminar, when we were talking about the culminating reunion between Odysseus and Penelope, which takes place immediately after his vengeful slaughter of the Suitors.

For weeks I had been preparing the students for this climax, which is also the climax of the epic’s ongoing preoccupation with identity and recognition. The Greek word for “recognition” is anagnorisis, I’d told them, explaining that this is a key term in the vocabulary classicists use when talking about how plot works. Aristotle in his Poetics, for instance, says that certain plots in tragic drama pivot on a moment of anagnorisis, and others pivot on a sudden and total change of fortune, or metabasis; but the best kind of plot, Aristotle says, is the kind in which the moment of recognition is also, simultaneously, the moment of reversal of fortune. For Aristotle, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is the ideal play in part because it effects this double plot: Oedipus’ recognition that his wife is really his mother is also the moment of his downfall.

But this twinning of recognition and reversal happens in the Odyssey, too, although there the outcome is a happy one: the moment when Odysseus’ true identity is recognized is also when his fortunes are restored and he wins back his wife, his family, his household, his kingdom.

The recognition scene between Odysseus and Penelope is also the culmination of another of the epic’s ongoing themes. I reminded them of all the other females who had enticed Odysseus during the course of his long journey home, mortal and immortal: of Calypso and Nausicaa and Circe, all of whom were alluring alternatives to Penelope, alternatives that, in the end, he rejected.

Those transformations, metamorphoses that, whatever their charm or their value for the plot, force the reader of the Odyssey, in the end, to wrestle with the question of just how it is we know who someone is when outward appearances can no longer be relied on.

I had reminded them of Odysseus’ pointed use of the word homophrosynê, the “like-mindedness” that he recommends in Book 6 to the Phaeacian princess as the hallmark of an authentic relationship, a true marriage, the very quality that was lacking in his entanglements with the goddesses with whose beauty Penelope could never hope to compete.

I reminded them of the many physical transformations that had been effected throughout the poem, starting with Athena’s transformations, first into Mentes and then into Mentor, continuing with the disguise that Odysseus uses to sneak into Troy during the escapade that Helen recalls in Book 4, going on to include the way that Athena beautifies Odysseus in order to impress the Phaeacians in Book 6 and the way in which she makes him wizened and ugly once he returns to Ithaca, in Book 13, the better to deceive the Suitors, who are indeed fooled by the appearance of the bald, shriveled old man in their midst, a great hero in disguise.

I had reminded them of all those transformations, metamorphoses that, whatever their charm or their value for the plot, force the reader of the Odyssey, in the end, to wrestle with the question of just how it is we know who someone is when outward appearances can no longer be relied on.

And now here we were, in May, at the end of the semester, discussing the long-awaited reunion between the husband and the wife. This tender scene follows, with almost jarring swiftness, the slaughter of the Suitors, the two moments grotesquely twined into a double climax reflecting the poem’s ongoing, paired concerns, the ethical and the emotional, the
public and the personal: the Suitors’ blasphemous insult to the laws of hospitality, on the one hand, and the status of Odysseus’ marriage, on the other, the question of whether husband and wife will be able to know each other again.

The close relationship between the vengeance narrative and the recognition theme is evident in the fact that the slaughter of the Suitors results from an idea that Penelope comes up with. At the end of Book 19, following the queen’s long and emotional conversation with the beggar and after Eurycleia’s recognition of Odysseus’ scar (the old nurse wants to alert Penelope, but Odysseus swears her to silence), Penelope declares that the next day will decide her fate at last. For on that day she will set a contest for the Suitors—a test of skill whose winner, she says, she will be happy to marry.

The contest is in fact designed to ensure that whoever wins will have at least some of her husband’s remarkable qualities, since it involves accomplishing a tricky feat that Odysseus liked to perform in days gone by: to shoot an arrow through a series of twelve ax-heads lined up in a row.

Since merely to string the mighty horn bow requires enormous physical strength, Penelope’s future husband will not, at least, be a weakling. Penelope announces the contest to the Suitors in Book 21, and it soon becomes clear that, whether consciously or unconsciously, she has devised a way to put a weapon into the real Odysseus’ hand. Odysseus, for his part, has been conniving to better his chances against the Suitors for some time now, seeing how vastly outnumbered he and his son and their pathetically few allies are—the loyal Eumaeus, to whom he at last reveals himself, another old farmhand, a cowherd named Philoetius, and of course the devoted Eurycleia.

Soon after his reunion with Telemachus, he orders his son to lock away the Suitors’ weapons in an upper storeroom while keeping his own arms at the ready; now, as the time for Penelope’s contest draws near, he instructs Eurycleia to lock herself and the other womenfolk in their quarters and tells the cowherd to slip outside and bolt the palace gates so no one can get in or out. But how to get weapons into his own hands? The contest of the bow at last provides a pretext.

Like Cinderella’s sisters trying on the glass slipper, one Suitor after another tries to string the bow and fails. Finally, the “beggar” offers to have a try, much to the derision of the Suitors. Antinoüs wheels on him: how outrageous for someone as lowly as he to insert himself into the proceedings! Here Penelope herself slyly intervenes—suggesting, at least to some readers, that she has known all along that the beggar is her husband.

Does Antinoüs really think, she laughingly declares, that she’d marry the old drifter if he wins? Certainly not. But since everyone else has failed, could it really hurt to let the old man have a go? Despite the mutterings and imprecations of the disgruntled Suitors, loyal Eumaeus takes the great weapon and carries it across the crowded room to the beggar, into whose hands he places it.

Odysseus picks up the weapon, testing it to see whether “the worms have been at the horn in its master’s absence.” Then, finding it sound, in one fluid motion—as graceful, Homer says, as a bard stringing his lyre—he strings it. At which point,

from the Suitors there rose up a mighty groan, their skin
turned white; and Zeus let crash a mighty thunder-sign,
while much-enduring, godlike Odysseus rejoiced
that wily Cronus’ child had sent this portent.
An arrow lay there on the table—he took and let it fly;
the others, still within the quiver,
the Achaeans soon would taste.

And then the mayhem begins.

The jarring reference to the Suitors as “Achaeans”—the word Homer uses to refer to the Greek allies in the Iliad—prepares us for the fact that, however much the Odyssey has been preoccupied till now with its hero’s ability to use his wits to conquer his enemies, the climactic act of vengeance for which he has waited so long will be characterized by the kind of violence we associate with this poem’s great predecessor.

After stripping off his rags and declaring to the astonished Suitors his true identity, he takes aim first at the loathsome Antinoüs; the arrow he shoots catches the leader of the Suitors in the throat just as he’s downing a cup of wine—a fitting ending to the character who, more than any other, emblematized the Suitors’ arrogance and impiety in defying the laws of hospitality. “You dogs,” Odysseus explodes at last,

you never thought that I’d be home again
from Troy! And so you ate my household up,
forced yourself upon the servant girls,
courted the wife of a man who was still alive,
outraging the gods who hold up the wide heavens
as if no one would ever take revenge:
now dire destruction waits for all of you!

Eurymachus dies next, after trying to smooth-talk his way out of his predicament (he blames everything on Antinoüs), and then poor Amphinomus, speared through the back by Telemachus as he tries to flee the hall. But the vengeance that ensues doesn’t, at fi rst, go quite as Odysseus had planned. In a final nod to the theme of Telemachus’ education, Homer tells us that the youth has made a near-fatal mistake at this critical moment: he’s left the door to the storeroom where he’d stashed away the Suitors’ arms wide open, and for this reason they eventually manage to don their armor and defend themselves from Odysseus’ onslaught.

When Odysseus learns of this deadly error, he assumes he has been betrayed by one of the Suitors’ allies among the servants; but Telemachus admits that the mistake was his. Interestingly, Homer cuts away at this moment, and so we never know what his father’s reaction to the news of his son’s error is.

On the first Friday in May, when we discussed this passage in class, my father raised his hand.

So Telemachus nearly ruins it all, he began.

Oh, God, I thought, here it comes.

But then he said, It’s very impressive that he admits it was his fault. He could have gotten out of it and let his father think it was the servants’ fault, but he owned it. So maybe this is really the culmination of the theme of his education. He proves he’s a grown-up by taking responsibility.

Tommy cut in before I could reply.

Well, he said, I think it’s just as interesting that Odysseus seems to let him off the hook—he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t scold him. So maybe he’s learned something, too.

Whatever its significance for the father-son theme, Telemachus’ mistake makes possible a genuine battle scene straight out of the Iliad; the bloodshed continues for the next two hundred lines, with a few key interventions by Athena to keep the odds on her favorite mortal’s side. (You see? my father cried for the last time that semester. He only wins because he gets help from the gods!)

Finally, Odysseus scans the carnage to see whether any Suitors are left breathing. But no; all are dead, lying in the gore like

            fishes that the fishermen have hauled
from the iron-gray sea onto the winding shore
meshed in the intricate nets; and they, the fish,
lie there on the sand, croaking for the salty waves,
but the blazing Sun beats the life from them …

An undignified simile for an unworthy group of men.

It is only after the gore has been cleaned up and the palace ritually purified that Odysseus encounters his wife once more and finally reveals his identity to her.

And yet, as with the scene in Book 16 that reunites the father and his son, the reunion between husband and wife in Book 23 starts off with a disconcerting anticlimax. Penelope, we are told, has slept through the mayhem; now she is waked by Eurycleia, who announces the great news to her mistress—Odysseus has returned and killed the Suitors! But to the nurse’s bewilderment and to the stupefaction of Telemachus, the queen doesn’t believe a word of it. Indeed, she turns out to be as suspicious and wary now as her husband has been throughout the poem.

Her cautiousness in this scene, so like Odysseus’, is simultaneously a marker of the couple’s genuine like-mindedness, homophrosynê, and a frustration for Odysseus, that notorious deceiver and trickster, who finds himself in the odd position of not being believed when he finally wants to be—when he is finally telling the truth.


An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic

An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and An Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn was shortlisted for the 2017 Bailie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction. Used with permission for the publisher, Vintage in the US and William Collins. 

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How Complex Math and Human Innovation Created the Calculator https://lithub.com/how-complex-math-and-human-innovation-created-the-calculator/ https://lithub.com/how-complex-math-and-human-innovation-created-the-calculator/#respond Thu, 31 Aug 2023 09:40:20 +0000 https://lithub.com/?p=225615

It would not fit. Late in 1957, as Tadao and Toshio Kashio waited to load their desk-​sized calculator onto a plane at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, they were told they would have to dismantle it first. If you can just remove this top part here, an attendant told them, gesturing to the keyboard and display, it will fit on the airplane. If we do that, the Kashios pleaded, it may break. And so it did. When they arrived at Taiyo Sales in Sapporo to demonstrate their reassembled machine, it refused to work, and the brothers had to fall back on a slideshow. The future of their calculator, and that of the Kashio family business, seemed to hang in the balance.

The Kashio brothers—Tadao, Toshio, Kazuo, and Yukio—​were quite different from the inventors and engineers who had gone before them. They did not have Blaise Pascal’s mathematical prowess, or Samuel Morland’s royal connections. They did not have Charles Xavier Thomas’s considerable income, or Curt Herz­stark’s family tradition of engineering. What they did have was a finger-​mounted cigarette holder that let Japan’s workers get their nicotine fix both on and off the job.

The Kashios hailed from a village on Japan’s southern island of Shikoku, where their parents farmed rice paddies. In 1923, however, in the aftermath of an earthquake that flattened Tokyo and Yokohama and left an estimated 140,000 dead, Shigeru Kashio moved his young family to the country’s capital to help rebuild it. To save money on the commute to his construction job, Shigeru walked for up to five hours each day rather than take public transport.

Manufacturing would build an electric calculator, economy be damned, and that it would do so in a completely new way.

Tadao, Shigeru’s eldest son, grew up to become a metalworker and machinist. Although he was too sickly to join the military when the Second World War intruded, Tadao joined the war effort by making airplane parts on a lathe in the family’s garden shed. That enterprise came to a crashing halt when the Kashio house was destroyed by American bombers. Japan’s surrender, after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, seemingly dampened any hopes of a revival. And yet, shortly after the war, Tadao was offered a milling machine located some three hundred kilometers from Tokyo, and he grabbed the chance to resuscitate the family firm. His father hitched a handcart to his bicycle and spent several weeks dragging the machine back home. Kashio Manufacturing was born.

At first, Kashio’s product line was decidedly eclectic: now joined by his younger brother Toshio, Tadao made gears, parts for microscopes, and hot plates for cooking. Toshio, on the other hand, who idolized Thomas Edison and who had learned his way around electrical circuitry at Japan’s Ministry of Communication, had bigger ideas. Even so, Toshio’s first hit product was far removed from electrical wizardry: the so-​called yubiwa, or “ring pipe” was nothing more than a chromed finger ring with a cigarette holder soldered to it. And yet it was a runaway success. Japan’s workers could smoke their unfiltered cigarettes all the way to the end while working, then enjoy a relaxing puff afterward in the sentō, or bathhouse, without getting their tobacco wet.

The profits from the yubiwa pipe gave the Kashios room to breathe, and Toshio room to think. Back in 1946, he had read a newspaper article that chronicled the battle of wits between Kiyoshi Matsuzaki on his abacus and Tom Wood of the U.S. Army on his electric calculator. The West had been captivated by Matsuzaki’s victory, but Toshio was more intrigued by the losing machine. His interest was piqued again three years later at a business expo in Ginza, Tokyo, where Tadao and Toshio saw a clutch of similar machines in person. All had been imported, since impoverished postwar Japan lacked the industrial base to manufacture motor-​driven calculators. (That would not change for another decade.) Toshio decided then that Kashio Manufacturing would build an electric calculator, economy be damned, and that it would do so in a completely new way.

Four years and ten prototypes later, Toshio and Tadao finished their calculator. Figuratively speaking, it was revolutionary; in literal terms, it was the opposite, since this was the first automatic calculator anywhere in the world that was not driven by rotating gears or motors but rather a kind of electromagnet called a solenoid. Familiar to Toshio from his days at the Ministry of Communication, a solenoid is a cylindrical coil of wire that, when energized by an electrical current, propels a metal “plunger” along its length. The plunger, in turn, can be used to trigger an external system: to open a valve controlling the flow of a fluid, for example, or to lock a door, or to start a car. Or indeed, in Toshio’s case, to trip another electrical switch. The Kashios’ calculator was a symphony of solenoids and switches, wired together in series and in parallel to create circuits of ever-​increasing complexity. There was not a gear or a motor to be seen.

In 1955, the Kashio brothers demonstrated their calculator at Bunshodo Corporation, a Tokyo office supply company. It worked perfectly, and quietly, too, lacking the obtrusive racket generated by most electric calculators. But their potential customer had a question: why, having completed a multiplication, could one not simply multiply the result a second time, and a third, and so on? This had been a feature of mechanical calculators since Pascal’s time and yet the Kashios’ machine had to be reset after each arithmetical operation. Reworking the calculator to satisfy Bunshodo’s request cost the Kashios another year of development—​and then, with the machine almost ready to go, Toshio declared that he wanted to throw it out and start over. Solenoids and switches, he declared, were too fiddly for mass production. Relays were the future.

In tearing down his solenoid calculator, Toshio Kashio was unwittingly joining a much larger movement in the design and development of computers. The roots of that movement, in turn, lay all the way back in the age of the telegraph—​the first communication system that relied not on line of sight or a horse and rider to convey information but rather on the new wonder of electricity.

First, a point of etymology. The word “telegraph” means to write at a distance, and, although the term is synonymous with the dits and dahs of the electrical telegraph, humanity had been telegraphing since long before that device was ever conceived. Humans have been using smoke signals since prehistoric times, for example, and flags, it turns out, are even better. The use of flags to exchange messages between ships is well known, but land-​based flag networks were also found in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. At one point during the early nineteenth century, France, the erstwhile leader in such things, hosted more than five hundred “optical telegraph” stations within its borders.

Then came electricity. The first suggestion that a wire could carry not just a current but a message was published in the pages of Scot Magazine as early as 1753, but the lack of reliable power sources stymied that and many later proposals. It was only in the early years of the nineteenth century, when one Samuel Morse combined a simple electrical circuit with an ingenious coding scheme, that the electrical telegraph came of age. With a switch at one end of the line and an electromagnet at the other, Morse’s telegraph turned a series of on-​off pulses into a dot-​dashed line drawn by a pencil, which could then be decrypted by a reader familiar with Morse’s eponymous code. Later, the pencil and paper tape would be replaced by a “sounder” that emitted a tapping noise.

The problem that Morse and others faced was that of range. All wires dissipate current to a greater or lesser degree, so that after a certain distance the receiving mechanism will stop working. Lightbulbs will flicker and dim; telegraph sounders will stop tapping. What was needed was a way to transform a weak incoming signal into a strong outgoing one so that a series of telegraph lines could be daisy-​chained together over long distances. What was needed was the relay.

Both Edward Davy, an English inventor, and an American named Joseph Henry, later to be the Smithsonian’s first secretary, have convincing claims to the earliest working relays. Their respective devices were conceptually identical too. Like Morse’s telegraph, a switch at one end of a telegraph circuit controlled an electromagnet at the other. But rather than pushing a pencil onto a moving tape, or tapping out an audible rhythm, that electromagnet was in turn connected to another switch—​a switch that operated a second telegraph circuit with its own dedicated power source. As the telegraphist tapped out a message on the first switch, the electromagnet opened and closed in sympathy, actuating the switch at the start of the second circuit, so that the dots and dashes of their message were transmitted onward, at full power, on the new circuit. Nor was there any reason to stop there. Additional circuits, or relays, could be added as often as necessary for a telegraph line to cross a county, a state, or a country. It was the final part of the telegraph puzzle.

But the relay had another use, too, one that neither Henry, Davy, nor Morse had anticipated. Consider this: sending any sufficiently strong input signal to a relay results in a closed-​output circuit, while any sufficiently weak input signal results in an open circuit. If we label the closed case as “0” and the open case as “1,” it becomes apparent that the humble relay can bend messy, entropic reality to the service of pristine binary logic.

“Mabell,” the hulking American Telephone and Telegraph Company, was the product of Alexander Graham Bell’s quest to build an improved telegraph. The Scotsman, who, in the 1870s, had immigrated to Canada and then to the United States, had the idea that it might be possible to connect multiple telegraph senders and receivers over a single line. Instead of simply making and breaking the circuit, Bell proposed instead to send audible tones, converted into oscillating electric currents, along the wire. Each telegraph key would emit a particular musical note, and a receiver tuned to that same frequency would pick up only the dots and dashes sent by the associated key.

Bell’s “harmonic telegraph” has been largely lost to history, but the lessons he learned while working on it led him to patent the first practical telephone system. Now, Bell’s instrument was neither the first working telephone nor even, possibly, the first to be patented, but he was the first to build a viable enterprise from his invention. And it was in the bowels of AT&T, the resulting corporate behemoth, that the life of the relay would enter its second act.

In 1925, AT&T centralized its research staff under the banner of Bell Telephone Laboratories. It was there, twelve years later, that an engineer named George Stibitz rescued a pair of relays, still used widely in telephone exchanges, from the Bell Labs scrap heap and took them home to his kitchen. There, for reasons that even Stibitz, interviewed many times about his work, seemed to have forgotten, he wired the relays together with a pair of flashlight bulbs and some batteries to make a circuit that could add one and one to make two. His wife, Dorothea, later dubbed it the “Model K,” for “kitchen.”

Shannon’s insight was that relays were the perfect building blocks to bring Boolean logic into the real world.

Soon after, Stibitz’s boss, Thornton Fry, asked him if the Model K could be made to work with complex numbers. Fry did not mean numbers bigger than two, the limit of the Model K’s circuitry, but rather a very specific and lushly exotic species of number made up of separate “real” and “imaginary” components. Written as x + iy, where x is the real component and y is the imaginary one, the complexity of the complex number lies in the fact that i is equal to the square root of negative one—​which, in standard arithmetic, has no real value. Complex numbers do have applications in physics and engineering, but even simple operations such as multiplication are more time-​consuming than for regular, “real” numbers. Fry needed between five and ten human computers to keep up with his engineers’ demands for complex-​number arithmetic.

Stibitz obliged, building a relay-​based calculator that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide complex numbers. Completed late in 1939, the machine contained more than four hundred relays and took around a minute to multiply a pair of complex numbers—​which was slow, but still many times faster than a human. And as Stibitz and Fry demonstrated in September 1940 at the American Mathematical Society in New York, the “Complex Number Calculator” could also be hooked up to a telephone line and driven using a kind of electric typewriter called a teletype. It was the first ever public demonstration of remote computing.

In designing the Complex Number Calculator, Stibitz may have been inspired by the work of Claude Shannon, a math student at the time, who would later marry a Bell Labs computer named Mary Elizabeth Moore. Shannon’s master’s thesis, published in 1938, described how relays could be used to solve any problem described in terms of Boolean algebra. In that statement lies a rabbit hole of considerable depth: Boolean algebra was the invention of a nineteenth-​century English mathematician named George Boole, and it provided a formal way to write down and manipulate if-​then statements such as “if x and y are true, then z is true” or “if a or b is true, then c is false.” It is, essentially, a kind of math dedicated to only two values—​0, meaning false, and 1, meaning true—​but, as Gottfried Leibniz had realized two centuries earlier, those two values can be combined to represent any other kind of number one might need. Here, for example, are binary counterparts of the decimal numbers from 0 to 8:

Binary Decimal
0000 0
0001 1
0010 2
0011 3
0100 4
0101 5
0110 6
0111 7
1000 8

By combining Leibniz’s binary numbers and Boole’s binary algebra, it becomes possible to construct expressions that will add, subtract, multiply, or divide any kind of number at all: whole numbers; fractions; complex numbers. And if we consider that we can map numbers onto letters—​imagine that 0 corresponds to “A,” 1 corresponds to “B,” 2 corresponds to “C,” and so on—​then we can break out from the mathematical realm and start to manipulate letters, words, and language. Shannon’s insight was that relays were the perfect building blocks to bring Boolean logic into the real world. His thesis, which has been called “possibly the most important, and also the most famous, master’s thesis of the century,” was nothing less than a road map for building computers. Or, indeed, for building calculators.


Excerpted from Empire of the Sum: The Rise and Reign of the Pocket Calculator by Keith Houston. Copyright © 2023. Available from W.W. Norton & Company.

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Beyond Tortured Genius: Science and Conscience in Two Rediscovered Oppenheimer Films https://lithub.com/beyond-tortured-genius-science-and-conscience-in-two-rediscovered-oppenheimer-films/ https://lithub.com/beyond-tortured-genius-science-and-conscience-in-two-rediscovered-oppenheimer-films/#respond Thu, 31 Aug 2023 09:20:37 +0000 https://lithub.com/?p=225893

“Genius is no guarantee of wisdom,” says government official Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. It could be the blockbuster’s banner statement. Since the release of Nolan’s thrilling, bombastic film, the culture has been caught in the firestorm about how to explain the personality of the eloquent, esoteric J. Robert Oppenheimer and his creation of the first and only people-destroying atomic weapon to be used against civilians. Where Hollywood traffics in Oppenheimer’s ambiguity as a historical character, two small but potent nonfiction forebears ask a more pointed question: what is the responsibility of scientists to their societies?

The Day After Trinity (1981) and The Strangest Dream (2008) evacuate the mythical tropes of the tortured genius biopic that Hollywood loves to rehearse in films like The Imitation Game, Hawking, and A Beautiful Mind. Now enjoying a renaissance, the films are neither unforgiving nor hardline, but offer sharper moral clarity to the Oppenheimer dilemma, presenting a more complex (and condemning) portrait of the father of the atomic bomb: a patriot, philosopher-king, skilled public administrator, scientific collaborator with military and government, emotional naif, egotist, and polyglot.

Nolan’s story arcs towards Oppenheimer losing his naivete upon realizing that he has given humanity the power to destroy itself. Designed to wrap around each filmgoer’s own worldview and politics, the film is as politically open-ended as you might expect from a major blockbuster. In his press tour, Nolan articulated a more explicitly conservative stance that chimes both with the Great Man theory of history (another biopic favorite) and the Cold War military doctrine that justified the development and use of atomic arsenals against civilians.

“Is there a parallel universe in which it wasn’t him, but it was somebody else and that would’ve happened?” Nolan said in the New York Times. “Quite possibly. That’s the argument for diminishing his importance in history. But that’s an assumption that history is made simply by movements of society and not by individuals. It’s a very philosophical debate…. he’s still the most important man because the bomb would’ve stopped war forever. We haven’t had a world war since 1945 based on the threat of mutual assured destruction.”

That’s also the idea behind the official policy of the nuclear superpowers: deterrence. Horror, in other words, was necessary to prevent even greater horror. The very same doublethink led to Harry Truman’s honorary degree, conferred for ending the war.

How reluctant was Oppie? In Jon Else’s The Day After Trinity, a documentary originally made for public television in 1980, Oppenheimer’s collaborators deliver ambivalent, guilty testimony to a static, non-judgmental camera. Screening on the Criterion Channel, Else’s doc points to the great pleasure its subject took in being appointed the leader of the grandiose bomb project, with the cosmic job title of “Coordinator of Rapid Rupture.” The lens pans patiently across grainy, grayscale photographs that have the natural air of science fiction; the film feels more of a piece with Chris Marker’s La Jetee (1962) than a typical historical documentary. After all, Oppenheimer was not just the enabler of the weapons that could annihilate us all, but of the high-stakes hallmarks of modern spectacle itself. The awe-inspiring images of mushroom clouds over Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki are now instantly recognizable in the core visual grammar of contemporary entertainment and media. It’s hard to imagine an idea better suited to Nolan’s exalted, maximalist esthetic and his stories of obsessive male protagonists pressurized within towering patriarchal systems of power.

Oppenheimer positions the atomic bomb as the creation of a brilliant, creative personality. But The Day After Trinity revels in the administrative scale of the Los Alamos project necessary to make a mechanism to trigger, in a millionth of a second, a violent chain reaction with a flare brighter than a hundred suns. A walled city of six thousand staff, at a cost of $56 million. Seven scientific divisions: theoretical physics, experimental physics, ordinance, explosives, bomb physics, chemistry, and metallurgy. All of America’s industrial might and scientific innovation connected in this secret lab with its billions of dollars of military investment.

The Day After Trinity and The Strangest Dream evacuate the mythical tropes of the tortured genius biopic that Hollywood loves to rehearse.

“Somehow Oppenheimer put this thing together. He was the conductor of this orchestra. Somehow he created this fantastic esprit. It was just the most marvelous time of their lives,” says Freeman Dyson, a rather eccentric theoretical physicist who became Oppie’s colleague at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. “That was the time when the big change in his life occurred. It must have been during that time that the dream somehow got hold of him, of really producing a nuclear weapon.”

In this vision of the A-bomb narrative, Dyson posits that Oppie’s aims switched from finding out “the deep secrets of nature” to producing “a mechanism that works. It was a different problem, and he completely changed to fit the new role.” We begin to see more clearly a portrait of an outsider with a wild desire to be at the center. All the work the whiz kids were doing over the years was always designed to contribute to the war. (All the films remove Oppie’s more demonstrably radical tendencies, his belief in a world government, for instance, which he mentioned offhandedly in the New York Review of Books in 1966.)

The closest we get to Oppenheimer himself is his pale-eyed, doppelganger brother, Frank, who gives the impression of a visionary living in a purely abstract realm. He stammers a little when he speaks of the moment when he and Oppie heard on the radio of their great bomb in action. “Thank God it wasn’t a dud… thank God it worked… Up to then, I don’t think we’d really, I’d really, thought about all those flattened people.” He still seems stunned. If nothing else, Frank gives weight to the storytelling trope of scientists as hyperintelligent but flakey space cadets at a remove from the humanity of it all. “Treating humans as matter,” as Los Alamos collaborator Hans Bethe puts it appallingly. Another contributing scientist says he vomited and lay down in depression. “I remember being just ill,” he says. “Just sick.”

The doc swirls with clips accumulated from Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories, National Atomic Museum, American Institute of Physics, and Fox and NBC newsreels, while Paul Free’s authoritative narration hovers like an omniscient voice from the depths of the Cold War itself. Then, there is Oppie: a figure of stricken elegance in his rakish pork pie hat. Typical of documentaries constructed in a postmodern style, what it all means is never explicated. Ambiguity presides over clarity.

Most directive is Dyson’s testimony. “He made this alliance with the United States Army and the person of General Groves who gave him undreamed-of resources, huge armies of people, and as much money as he could possibly spend in order to do physics on the grand scale,” Dyson says with his flashlight perceptiveness. “We are still living with it. Once you sell your soul to the devil, there’s no going back on it.” Los Alamos, in this counternarrative, was not just an ivory tower but an irresistible paradise for genius-level scientists simply interested in new discoveries and mega-gadgets.

Oppenheimer was not just the enabler of the weapons that could annihilate us all, but of the high-stakes hallmarks of modern spectacle itself.

Dyson is a dubious fellow to emerge as the truthteller, given the inconsistency of his own legacy. His unorthodox theories are worthy of their own Nolan-esque treatment. He advocated growing genetically modified trees on comets, so that they might land on other planets and create human-supporting atmospheres, and eventually became a climate change denier based on his distrust of mathematical models. But his intelligence is irrefutable, and his distance from the Manhattan Project gives him a guiltless perspective and authority absent in Oppie’s other colleagues. Dyson, a greater antagonist than can be found in any mere Marvel movie, diagnoses Oppie as the self-induced victim of a “Faustian bargain.”

“Why did the bomb get dropped?” Dyson asks, his tie a little too big, his combover a little too combed over. “It was almost inevitable. Simply because all the bureaucratic apparatus existed at that time to do it. The Air Force was ready and waiting… The whole machinery was ready.”

Dyson also refutes the refrain of Oppenheimer’s responsibility for the catastrophe. “It was no one’s fault that the bomb was dropped. As usual, the reason it was dropped was that nobody had the courage or the foresight to say no.” Dyson pauses to let this sink in, then looks down and wobbles his head tragically. “Certainly not Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer gave his consent in a certain sense. He was on a committee that advised the Secretary of War, and that committee did not take any kind of a stand against dropping the bomb.” This measured oral history is fatal to the view of Oppie as a gentle humanist.

Dorothy McKibben, who ran the Manhattan Project’s office, chimes in with crystal clarity: “I don’t think they would have developed that [bomb] to show at a garden party. I think they were going to do it.” In archival footage, General Leslie Groves plays the role of plainspoken pragmatist: “It would have come out, sooner or later, at a Congressional hearing, if nowhere else, just when we could’ve dropped the bomb if we didn’t use it. And then knowing American politics, you know as well as I do, if there had been an election fought on the basis of every mother whose son was killed after such-and-such a date, the blood is on the hands of the President.”

Through these testimonies, the convention of the conflicted scientist and the myth of an A-bomb created in self-defense give way to a mantra of winning the war, and winning quickly. Valuing American lives over other lives. Avoiding a bloody invasion of the Japanese mainland. Months before Hiroshima, orders had been given to leave several Japanese cities untouched, to provide virgin targets where the impact of the new bomb could be clearly seen. Afterwards, a scientific team from the US was sent to Japan to study the effects. Footage rolls, in The Day After Trinity, of news clips of hospitalized burn victims.

This measured oral history is fatal to the view of Oppie as a gentle humanist.

In films on the Manhattan Project, questions of conscience are commonly seen through the assenting viewpoint—that of the scientists who continued to work on the bomb, even after Hitler’s defeat. One essential perspective is obscured, black-holed in subterfuge, even. Physicist and European refugee Joseph Rotblat made crucial discoveries in the fission process, and went on to specialize in nuclear fallout. He moved to Los Alamos in 1944 but defected from the project on grounds of conscience upon learning that the Nazis could not build such a bomb. He was the only scientist to turn his back.

“If my work is going to be applied, I would like myself to decide how it is applied,” Rotblat says in the 2008 Canadian documentary The Strangest Dream. Streaming on the National Film Board of Canada’s platform, the film traces his renunciation of A-bomb development and his role in the Pugwash Conferences, where scientists and statesmen gathered to discuss the reversal of nuclear proliferation. The film renders a fairly straight treatment of its quiet subject, with the visually rich backing of a vertiginous collage of disparate forms, including spooky Cold-War era footage and clips of the Trinity mushroom cloud. Oppie is not in the film, but the narrative takes place in the fissures he helped wrench open; he lurks like an ever-present ghost behind the character of Rotblat, who stands as his angelic nemesis as he tries to transform physics into a humanitarian project. Like Oppenheimer, Rotblat was also accused of espionage, but he was eventually awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the disarmament campaign.

Notably, Rotblat is entirely absent from Oppenheimer, despite being described as a brilliantly offbeat individual—a “mad Polish scientist”—by a former student in The Strangest Dream. It’s a curious historical erasure and a missed chance for a dramatic clash. Then again, perhaps Rotblat is too steady and untragic, incorruptible and unmemeable for his own big moment, let alone the blockbuster treatment. Oppie’s genius wasn’t just in his Faustian bargain but in the way that he spoke and the way he held himself, quoting Hindu philosophy and smoking till the end of time. I suppose film culture is more interested in the flawed, tortured luminary than the staunch, principled dissenter or the morally engaged scientist.

Prosecuting the melancholic drama of the ingenuous mastermind requires substantial historical selectivity. Most cinema narratives hew to the oft-cited rationale for the A-bomb’s development: its function as a deterrent to a Nazi explosive. But in his essay “Leaving the Bomb Project,” Rotblat wrote, “Groves said that, of course, the real purpose in making the bomb was to subdue the Soviets… Until then I had thought that our work was to prevent a Nazi victory, and now I was told that the weapon we were preparing was intended for use against the people who were making extreme sacrifices for that very aim.” With more than a dash of elegiac melancholy, the working thesis of The Strangest Dream is that Rotblat’s moral strength insulated him against Oppie-style tragedy.

Insofar as the The Strangest Dream and The Day After Trinity position the Manhattan Project as an unholy alliance of physics and the openly violent arm of the state, they do so via the absent presence of Oppenheimer, who, flush with government cash, personifies the uneasy collision of science and military. Today’s ventures in AI offer the same science-ethics conundrum, and we don’t seem to be any closer to resolving it than at the moment of Oppenheimer’s mythic quandary. Looking at the images of the Los Alamos exertions, you can almost faintly hear the words of today’s STEM bros: disruption, innovation, brilliance. Wondrous and diabolical, the A-bomb is presented in these documentaries as the freakish outcome of public-bureaucratic entrepreneurialism. (They are weaker on the tangled history of superpower competition and atomic technology.) It all depends, of course, on what humans do with the technology we develop.

If there’s such a thing as sober, mournful spectacle, these films manifest it.

Given what we know about capitalist society at present, things aren’t exactly looking up. Just a decade after The Day After Trinity, the Cold War victory lap was being run at the box office. A new, end-of-history generation of studio filmmakers was writing a euphoric, Fukuyama-esque version of reality into pop-culture lore: in blockbusters like Independence Day (1996), The Core (2003), and Armageddon (1998), American pluck saves humanity from wholesale destruction; anxiety surrounding US dominance over the international order is undetectable, and the US military is either prominent or necessary. Before them all, The Day After Trinity suggested that technology’s triumph is the very crux of the problem.

Today, Oppenheimer reifies a political crisis—superpower competition for atomic arsenal—as a conundrum of personality, tech, and naive genius, even as it centers the wild fraternity of science, military, and government vital to create the A-bomb. But the political arrangement of power and resources seems like more of an objective, inevitable fact about the world in The Day After Trinity and The Strangest Dream. If there’s such a thing as sober, mournful spectacle, these films manifest it.

Oppenheimer is long gone, but his legacy—the capacity of a self-destroying humanity, and the late-capitalist spectacle of that mushroom cloud’s bright flash of light—lingers. He did not sign the Einstein-Russell Manifesto against nuclear war. He never apologized for his role in bringing the bomb to life. Atomic technology is now standard. The world’s nuclear powers currently possess an estimated 12,512 active warheads. More than enough to wipe out the planet.

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On the “Inverted Cosmos”—From Aristotle to the Middle Ages https://lithub.com/on-the-inverted-cosmos-from-aristotle-to-the-middle-ages/ https://lithub.com/on-the-inverted-cosmos-from-aristotle-to-the-middle-ages/#respond Wed, 30 Aug 2023 09:55:14 +0000 https://lithub.com/?p=225561

Long before he gained fame as one of the world’s most beloved writers of children’s fiction, C. S. Lewis earned his reputation as a scholar of medieval literature. He taught this subject first at Oxford University before moving to Cambridge in 1954 to assume the newly created Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, a position he would hold for the rest of his career. One of the subjects Lewis lectured on at both storied schools was how people in the Middle Ages imagined the cosmos.

Like Kant, Lewis was filled with awe by the starry skies above. On occasion he would invite his students to walk with him at night and look up at those skies, and challenge them to cast aside their accustomed, modern way of viewing the heavens. “Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky,” he would tell them, “he certainly feels that he is looking out—like one looking out from the saloon entrance on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and lonely moors.”

But the cosmos didn’t appear that way to the poets and natural philosophers of the Middle Ages, Lewis went on to explain. If you succeeded in seeing with medieval eyes, he told them, “you would feel like one looking in.”

What could it mean to look out at the night sky, or any sky for that matter, and feel that we are looking in? To do this, we might begin by imagining that the surface of the earth on which we stand is not curved convexly, bending away from the soles of our feet, but rather concavely, like the inside of a bowl, such that, way out there, beyond any visible horizon, the earth’s surface slopes gently up to eventually encompass everything we see.

In this inverted cosmos, no matter where we stood on the surface of the earth, we could stare straight up and point toward the exact same point. But even if we could manage to twist our minds around this way, we would surely be tempted to wonder why anyone would concoct such a bizarre cosmic architecture. The reason medievals did so stemmed from a long-standing debate about what it meant for the cosmos to be somewhere at all.

University life in thirteenth-century Europe was dominated by a movement now known as Scholasticism. The Scholastics’ primary aim was to reconcile the teachings of Aristotle—whose works had arrived in Europe via the translations and commentaries of Arab philosophers—with their own culture’s dominant Christian theology. One of the ideas they adopted from Aristotle was his physical model of the heavens: imagine our earth as a giant marble encased in multiple, nesting, perfectly smooth layers of glass, each moving independently of the one below it and carrying the orbs we see above us in the sky—the sun, the moon, the planets, the blanket of stars.

One of the ideas they adopted from Aristotle was his physical model of the heavens: imagine our earth as a giant marble encased in multiple, nesting, perfectly smooth layers of glass, each moving independently of the one below it and carrying the orbs we see above us in the sky—the sun, the moon, the planets, the blanket of stars.

The outermost of these spheres imparted its motion to the others without itself needing another sphere to contain it and give it motion. This primum mobile, or first mover, appealed mightily to Christians, just as it had to its Muslim importers—not least because it seemed to offer a physical embodiment of a popular and intuitive proof for the existence of God (who was, after all, a pretty good candidate for the ultimate cause for which no other cause is needed).

While God as the first mover made for a nifty trick, reconciling all of Aristotle’s teachings with Christian ideas was more of a stretch. A particularly thorny problem arose from Aristotle’s definition of what constitutes where something is. The place something occupies, he believed, is “the innermost, motionless surface of the containing body in direct contact with the contained body.” This was important because it helped explain the concept of motion: namely, an object’s change in relation to its place. But if the outermost container of the cosmos itself had no container, how could it be said to move? Even more nerve-racking, if the cosmos as a whole had nothing surrounding it, might one not infer that it is impossible for anyone, even God, to move it?

In 1277 the bishop of Paris, one Stephen Tempier, had an answer for the Scholastics. He issued a proclamation ordering the university professors to stop instructing God what He couldn’t do. The list of 219 Condemnations in the bishop’s decree covered an enormous array of topics and censored specific books, but a good chunk of them dealt with the irksome (for the ecclesiastical authorities) hubris of philosophers who thought they had the standing to decide on God’s limitations.

So God could, it seemed, make the cosmos move, even if there were nothing outside the cosmos in which to make it move. This then raised the head-scratching question of relative to what, exactly, the cosmos was moving. Luckily, the Scholastics had a number of thinkers to whom they could turn for help—specifically the Arab commentators and translators who had brought Aristotle’s teachings to Europe. The most influential of these was named Ibn Rushd, a twelfth-century polymath from the south of Spain whose interpretations of Aristotle were so widely read and respected that he became known as the Arab Aristotle.

As a young man Ibn Rushd had been called into the presence of the sultan, himself a learned man, who had shown great interest in discussing deep theological questions. After some pleasantries and general inquiries about his family and provenance, the sultan jumped right into the deep end and, to the young philosopher’s considerable alarm, asked him what people were saying about the heavens, specifically, “Are they eternal or created?”

Not surprisingly, Ibn Rushd had given this some thought. Indeed, his answer would ultimately leave its enduring imprint on Christian as well as Islamic theology. Aristotle had believed that the earth and the system of crystalline spheres encapsulating it had existed for all time. Monotheists like Ibn Rushd and his sultan, however, believed that God had created the cosmos, which seemed to suggest that it had a beginning in time. Ibn Rushd’s response to this apparent contradiction was, in essence, to have his cake and eat it, too. The cosmos was both eternal and created by God.

Crucially, this solution had consequences for the place of the cosmos as well. Aristotle’s giant system of nested crystalline spheres had nothing around it. But nothing couldn’t really exist—nature, as the philosopher had taught, abhors a vacuum. So, what would you find if you managed to work your way to that outermost layer and tried to stick your hand out beyond it?

Ibn Rushd’s approach solved this tricky question, too. For just as the cosmos could be eternal—and hence have no beginning or edge in time—and yet still have been created by God, the cosmos could exist in space with nothing outside it—and hence have no edge in space—and yet still be something objectively movable for God. The cosmos could be said to be moving because its place was not determined by an external physical container; rather, it was determined by the very center it revolved around. The cosmos was contained by its own central point.

Ibn Rushd’s model, while not fully adopted by the theologians, had remarkable staying power. It was the model C.  S. Lewis had in mind when he tried to reorient his students to medieval ways of viewing the heavens, although Lewis had his version not from Ibn Rushd but from its adaptation by Dante. As he wrote in The Discarded Image, “A few astonishing lines from the Paradiso…stamp this [image] on the mind forever….The universe is thus, when our minds are sufficiently freed from the senses, turned inside out.”

The Italian poet’s Divine Comedy recounts in first person the mystical journey of his alter ego through the gates of hell down through its nine circles to the lowest point of creation, literally the nether parts of Lucifer, buried upside down in ice. From the nadir of creation that is Satan’s scrotum, the poet describes ascending to the surface of the earth, up the mountain of purgatory, and from there begins, in the third book, his ascent to the pinnacle of paradise. Improbably, bewilderingly, Dante managed to inscribe in his journey the model of a cosmos whose center is its own container.

To pass from the earth to the center point of the heavens, one must come to a point where one’s orientation flips, where what was up becomes down. More essentially, if even harder to put into words, one’s outward movement must also flip and become an inward movement—such that no matter what direction one chooses to gaze, one is looking at the same central point.

In a key passage in Paradiso, Dante manages to do both. Arriving at the upper reaches of the sky, he describes a point where “our atmosphere…sprinkles snowflakes downward with its frozen mists,” and yet now, instead of the snow falling downward, he sees “the upper air adorned, snowflaking upward with triumphant mists that for a while had stayed with us there.” There in the heights, among the snowflakes suspended in indecision about which way to fall, the pilgrim looks down as the sun races by below his feet. He turns helplessly to his beloved, who urges him to step “onto the swiftest heaven…whose nearest and most exalted parts are all so uniform, I cannot tell which Beatrice selected as my place.”

Gazing up and outward, Dante sees the enclosing circles of heaven around him become progressively smaller and more intense in light and joy until, ultimately, his eyes find that one central point, infinitely small and infinitely bright, that, paradoxically, encloses all of existence in its embrace.

Indeed, it does not and cannot matter where Dante steps onto the primum mobile, the swiftest heaven, for in the architecture he has created for this journey, all paths outward converge on the same point:

The nature of the universe, which holds
the center still and moves all else around it,
begins here as if from its turning-post.
And this heaven has no other where than this:
the mind of God, in which are kindled both
the love that turns it and the force it rains.
Only one circle’s light and love enclose it,
as it encloses the rest…and that precinct
only He who girds it understands.
No other heaven measures this sphere’s motion
but it serves as the measure for the rest.

Gazing up and outward, Dante sees the enclosing circles of heaven around him become progressively smaller and more intense in light and joy until, ultimately, his eyes find that one central point, infinitely small and infinitely bright, that, paradoxically, encloses all of existence in its embrace.

It was to this eternal solace—this “amazing and angelic temple that has as boundaries only love and light,” this self-contained cosmos that knows no outside in space or before or after in time—that Borges’s mind fled as he contemplated the bad infinity of words on pages, pages in books, and books on shelf after dusty shelf lining the municipal library whose outdated catalogs it was now his job to maintain.


The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality - Egginton, William

Excerpted from The Rigor of Angels by William Egginton. Copyright © 2023 by William Egginton. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Did J.D. Salinger Wield Copyright as Self-Protection? https://lithub.com/did-j-d-salinger-wield-copyright-as-self-protection/ https://lithub.com/did-j-d-salinger-wield-copyright-as-self-protection/#respond Wed, 30 Aug 2023 09:30:13 +0000 https://lithub.com/?p=225826

After J.D. Salinger published his story “Hapworth 16, 1924” in The New Yorker in 1965, he decided to stop publishing his works. Although he had resigned from his nearly twenty-year-long stint in the literary spotlight, retreating to a home in Cornish, New Hampshire, and beginning a reclusive lifestyle, he assured The New York Times in a rare interview in 1974, that “publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

Salinger’s most famous novel, The Catcher in the Rye, has sold more than 65 million copies. His self-imposed exile was hardly acceptable to many among the throngs of readers longing for his next words, and, eventually, after years devoid of Salinger’s stories, some jilted readers turned Salinger’s inexplicable silence into the contemptible, purposeful isolation of a man who believed himself above the rest, with many attempting to do whatever they could to draw him, and the unpublished works he seemed to be hoarding, back into the public eye.

When these endeavors, some of which resulted in unauthorized adaptations of both his books and his own persona, came to light, occasionally exploding into unprecedented legal battles, the ever-resisting Salinger was regarded sort of as a cantankerous ghost of an author—a once welcome houseguest rattling dusty chains at the unassuming newcomers he thought were messing around with things he left behind. Thus, Salinger’s public legacy, a gnarled mess of copyright enforcement designs, First Amendment controversies, and the persistent desire to be left alone by the press, is one of America’s most unique. Yet his belief that total ownership is not relinquished with public publication, as well as his radical enforcement of copyright law and reliance on the right to privacy, revolutionized the role of the “author” in modern culture, and consequently helped preserve both his identity and his works as masterful and mythic American originals.

Though he led a shrouded life, there are aspects of Salinger’s life that remain indisputable facts, even through the monasticism and mystery, and Kenneth Slawenski, the diligent biographer (and manager of the Salinger fan website deadcaulfields.com for nearly two decades) released his own clear chronology of Salinger’s life shortly after the writer’s death in 2010 at the age of 91. In this biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High (later renamed J.D. Salinger: A Life), Slawenski details the private life of Salinger as much as he can—usually referring to historical and public documents.

Copyright protections can stop a work from being copied, pirated, poached. They can’t stop it from being misunderstood.

As he details Salinger’s personal life with very public records, Slawenski paints a vivid picture of Salinger without attempting to violate the privacy he desired in his later years, particularly detailing the relationship Salinger had to the character Holden Caulfield, as influenced by his numerous attempts to publish The Catcher in the Rye, as well as the stories about Holden that he had written for himself during the war. Slawenski draws a deep comparison between these two figures (the writer and his creation), perhaps extrapolating better than any other biographer the sensitivity and sincerity of the most famous recluse of the twentieth century.

Salinger was particularly sensitive to appropriation. “Suppose you had a coat you liked,” he told the Times in 1974, “and somebody went into your closet and stole it. That’s how I feel.” Decades before Slawenski, in 1986, Ian Hamilton, a popular British author and a literary critic for The London Sunday Times, had attempted to write his own biography of J.D. Salinger. Salinger refused to grant permission, but Hamilton wrote it anyway, relying on many of Salinger’s letters that belonged to collections in the libraries at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Texas. Salinger then sued for damages on the grounds of copyright infringement, unfair competition, and breach of contract, and the case went to court in 1987.

Hamilton argued that his use of Salinger’s personal letters was legitimate under the copyright policy of Fair Use, which legally allows the incorporation of works within others under certain circumstances. Hamilton believed that the use of the letters fell under the “criticism, scholarship, and research” category permitted under Fair Use, and therefore that his utilization was permissible, while Salinger argued that, as the letters were unpublished when Hamilton used them (although Salinger registered them for copyright protection during the beginning of the case), a defense under Fair Use would be invalid, since the policy really referred to published works.

The case was settled using the four principles of Fair Use. Factoring in Hamilton’s transformative utilization of the letters, the fact that letters were unpublished, the large amount of text taken, and the fact that any reproductions and interpretations of Salinger’s letters might interfere with the library traffic aimed at viewing the originals (Hamilton reproduced the “most interesting” parts of their contents) it was decided that Hamilton’s actions were not protected under Fair Use. Salinger’s copyright suit extended beyond this, though—at various points in the text, it is clear that Hamilton blurred paraphrases and quotes from these letters, mimicking Salinger’s style when recounting. According to the case brief, upon cross-examination, Hamilton explained that he used Salinger’s style to prevent using “a pedestrian sentence I didn’t want to put my name to.” The court declared that,

When dealing with copyrighted expression, a biographer (or any other copier) may frequently have to content himself with reporting only the fact of what his subject did, even if he thereby pens a “pedestrian,” sentence. The copier is not at liberty to avoid “pedestrian” reportage by appropriating his subject’s literary devices (Salinger v. Random House, [24]).

Salinger was declared the winner, and Hamilton’s mimicking biography was invalidated. In this moment, both Salinger’s rights and his individual voice were vindicated. However, several years later, Hamilton came out with another book, In Search of J.D. Salinger.

In this self-justificatory, first-person biographical narrative, Hamilton analyzes the Salinger he had just encountered at court, and does not responsibly detail Salinger for biographical purposes, preferring to drag down to human level the aloof literary deity who had fought desperately to keep his elevated, and inaccessible status. And he succeeds—Hamilton’s memoir is exceedingly subjective, influenced by his own legal frustrations and the rather cartoonishly Caulfield-esque desire to tell his audience a sort of truth. “Obviously Seymour Glass is Salinger in disguise,” Hamilton writes, comparing Salinger to another lovable, suicidal teenager, this time from Seymour. “It’s evident Salinger has a saint complex. He wants to be a saint. The trouble is, he doesn’t have a saintly personality—quite the opposite—he is egotistical, ill tempered, unforgiving. But he wants to be a saint because saints are above the humans, they are unstoppably superior.” Hamilton is the proponent of this view of Salinger—a haughty relic frozen in time.

Despite his hammy, albeit sleazy, approach, Ian Hamilton helped build Salinger’s famous persona. He turned an introvert into an outsider, a writer into a caricature. The case gave Salinger a threateningly nitpicky reputation he would wear for the rest of his life—the verdict raised opposition because it seemed to infringe upon the First Amendment right to free speech, by censoring what people could reproduce in their own writing. However, Salinger’s lawyers argued, Salinger’s First Amendment rights had actually been trod upon, as, by publishing Salinger’s words without permission, Hamilton had infringed upon Salinger’s right not to speak.


In 1982, the writer W.P. Kinsella included a characterized version of Salinger in his novel Shoeless Joe, a story about an Iowa farmer who is encouraged by mystical voices to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield so the spirits of the eight scandalized baseball players of the Chicago White Sox could play ball again. When this literary Salinger learns about the baseball ghosts, he is delighted, and agrees to help the protagonist. Salinger the writer, however, was not amused with this harmless addition to Shoeless Joe. In a 2010 interview with McLean’s John Geddes, Kinsella mentioned, “his lawyers wrote my publisher’s lawyers saying he was outraged and offended to be portrayed in the novel and they would be very unhappy if it were transferred to other media.” Kinsella was careful in his construction of the character: “He was pretty much an imagined Salinger,” he said later “apart from being a recluse. I made sure to make him a nice character so that he couldn’t sue me.” Although Shoeless Joe is more of a commentary on the magic of American pop culture (baseball meets its match in the grown-up Catcher in the Rye), it does express Salinger as a character, instead of a person with a right to privacy.


Shoeless Joe was adapted into the film Field of Dreams in 1988. It starred Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Amy Madigan, Ray Liotta, a young Gaby Hoffman, and the legendary Burt Lancaster (in his last feature film performance). The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Writer/director Phil Alden Robinson removed Jerry from the story, replacing him with a similar but distinct enough character named Terry: Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), a major force in the 60s literary scene, author of the perennial classic The Boat Rocker, now a recluse. Ray is instructed, by the voice he hears in his cornfield, to find the writer Terrence Mann and take him to a baseball game.

In 1988, a headline reading “GOTCHA CATHER,” along with a black-and-white photo of a shocked, silver-haired, sixty-nine-year-old Salinger, appeared on the cover of the New York Post. Paparazzi photographer Paul Adao had jumped out at Salinger and taken the candid in Salinger’s town of Cornish, and the canted photo shows the elderly man attempting to punch the camera out of the photographer’s hands. Myles Weber suggests that it inspired Don DeLillo’s Pen/Faulkner Award-winning 1991 novel Mao ii, which is about an reclusive writer’s inability to shake his fame. However, not everyone received the photo with this same sympathy; the photo is the worst violation of privacy the author could have experienced—goofy, and disrespectful in its physical transformation of a rarely-seen, celebrated author into a kooky old hermit, or, given the title, an old Holden Caulfield.

In the late 1990’s, however, two works were released which also challenged Salinger’s privatization of his life. The writer Joyce Maynard, who, at age nineteen, dropped out of Yale to live with the twice-divorced Salinger in 1972. In 1998, she published a memoir about her time with him called If You Really Want to Hear About It. In 2000, the long-suffering daughter of J.D. Salinger and his second wife (Claire Douglas, who also dropped out of college at age nineteen, in 1954, to live with him) published her own memoir, Dream Catcher, about her relationship with her father. Both books, with titles punning on The Catcher in the Rye (in a similar tradition to Hamilton’s Holden-heavy biography), reveal intimate details of Salinger life. Critics of Maynard’s book called hers opportunistic, especially considering she auctioned off her personal letters from Salinger shortly after the publication of her book. (They were bought by Peter Norton, who immediately returned them to Salinger.) But Maynard’s story revealed another important facet of Salinger, a creepy side—that he was an older man obsessed with young girls.

Margaret’s book, published while her father was still alive, should be the most accurate representation of her father thus far. However, her tale conjures up a lost soul, an ex-soldier, and an antisocial wanderer, and seems to be, at least in the tradition of her father’s prose, a kind of epic catharsis. Margaret justifies the publication of her book on the grounds that she has the First Amendment right to share her own story—which just happens to be influenced by her father.

However, shortly after it’s publication, Salinger’s son Matt (the caretaker of his estate), published an open letter in The New York Observer, discrediting his sister’s account on the basis that she was unwell:

Of course, I can’t say with any authority that she is consciously making anything up. I just know that I grew up in a very different house, with two very different parents from those my sister describes,” Salinger explained, going on to claim, “she remembers a father who couldn’t ‘tie his own shoe-laces’ and I remember a man who helped me learn how to tie mine, and even-specifically-how to close off the end of a lace again once the plastic had worn away.

Words like Matt Salinger’s are rare, in that they respectfully acknowledge Salinger’s personal desire for solitude. More importantly, they, in a rich, J.D.-esque tone, serve to remind audiences of a deeper Salinger, one who, as noted by Dennis L. O’Connor, wrote about the sadness of anti-Semitism, the horror of war, and the crime of sexual exploitation, the importance of spirituality, the wonderfulness of children, and “the importance of human dignity.”

Though Salinger, himself, was adapted often, his works faced this fate even more. According to Myles Weber’s “Reading Salinger’s Silence,” it is not uncommon for writers to long for solitude—Katherine Anne Porter, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo all chose lives outside the spotlight but, unlike Salinger, they also chose to keep publishing. In addition, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye uniquely defined a generation, so his case is closer to that of the equally dormant Harper Lee, author of the 1960 Pulitzer-Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. In the 1993 edition of the novel, Harper Lee explained her unique silence in its short introduction: “Mockingbird still says what it has to say.” Lee’s refusal to publish is still distinct from Salinger’s, largely because she handed over the film rights to her masterpiece within two years of publication. Until the Times interview in 1974, Salinger’s perspective on his rights to his works were, according to Weber, “I have my reasons.”

He also adamantly refused to sell film rights. “The Catcher in the Ryehe explains in a letter, “Is a very novelistic novel. There are readymade ‘scenes’—only a fool would deny that—but, for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it.” According to Weber, the main reason for Salinger’s onslaught of fan-driven literary boosterism is that only Salinger understood why he stopped publishing—and it’s because people don’t understand that he stopped.

However, the more Salinger’s fans tried to bring him back, the more he grew frustrated, and grew more antisocial. In 1977, Esquire magazine published an anonymous short story called “For Rupert—With No Promises” written with the intent of making it seem as if he had begun to publish again. As it turned out, Esquire’s fiction editor, Gordon Lish, wrote the story. He claimed, “If Salinger was not going to write stories, someone had to write them for him.” Ironically, Gordon Lish was the recipient of Don DeLillo’s dedication in Mao ii, the story allegedly inspired by Salinger’s desire for solitude.


On December 8, 1980, an ex-mental patient named Mark David Chapman shot world famous musician John Lennon to “stimulate the reading of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.” A few weeks after his arrest, he sent a note to the New York Times, explaining his motives.

He says that he desired to “’stimulate the reading of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye,’” and “’if you were able to view the actual copy of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ that was taken from me on the night of Dec. 8, you would find in it the handwritten words ‘This is my statement.’’”

According to his note, Chapman identified with the novel’s protagonist, Holden, who, in the book’s conclusion, is institutionalized and brokenhearted. Chapman said, ”My wish is for all of you to someday read ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ All of my efforts will now be devoted toward this goal, for this extraordinary book holds many answers. My true hope is that in wanting to find these answers you will read ‘The Catcher in the Rye.'” At his trial, he read out loud the novel’s titular passage, about Holden’s wanting to catch children from falling off a cliff as they played.

In Daniel Stashower’s remarkable study, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Holden: Speculations on a Murder,” he suggests that

Holden Caulfield and Mark Chapman were faced with the same crisis: an assault on innocence. Holden Caulfield could not find a way to preserve innocence forever and was forced to entertain the notion of growing up. If I am correct in my speculation, Chapman found a way. Taking as a model the only character in The Catcher in the Rye who achieved perpetual innocence, Chapman found his course clear. For John Lennon’s innocence – which was essential to Chapman’s man’s own spiritual well-being—to remain intact, Lennon himself would have to die. Only then could his innocence, like [Holden’s deceased brother] Allie’s, be preserved forever.

Salinger’s themes, through the plight of Holden, are angsty, endearing, and easily relatable; the book, which finds new (mostly teenage) fans each year would not have needed Chapman’s help garnering publicity, but, this unfortunate linkage of the text to his action, presented a real-life association Salinger neither intended nor wanted: Holden’s appeal to frustrated, unwell, incel-trending young men. In 1981, following the attempted assassination of then-president Ronald Regan by John Hinckley Jr., police found a copy of The Catcher in the Rye in his hotel room. In 1989, the actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered in her apartment by her stalker, Robert John Bardo, who was reported as carrying a copy of the novel when he broke into her home.

Stephen Whitfield notes that a commentary on the appropriation of Catcher by mentally ill young men can be found in John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation from 1990. The troubled young protagonist, Paul, who lies to a wealthy New York Family to ingratiate himself into their home, discusses Catcher with his new family, reading the play as

…a touching story, comic because the boy wants to do so much and can’t do anything. Hates all phoniness and only lies to others. Wants everyone to like him, is only hateful, and is completely self-involved. In other words, a pretty accurate picture of a male adolescent. And what alarms me about the book-not the book so much as the aura about it-is this: The book is primarily about paralysis.The boy can’t function. And at the end, before he can run away and start a new life, it starts to rain and he folds….

Stashower notes, of the popular misreadings of Catcher,

Simply put, it appears Chapman misread The Catcher in the Rye. He took the ‘catcher’ passage to be the novel’s solution, when in fact it is the crisis. No one who has read The Catcher in the Rye will argue that Holden Caulfield was a seriously disturbed sixteen-year-old. He wanders through New York with a genuine desire, to quote an old Beatles tune, to “take a sad song and make it better,” but he doesn’t know how to begin. As a result he develops an all-purpose, self-protective cynicism… Holden Caulfield wants to stop reality. He wants to keep the children in the rye field from growing up. But growing up is the natural order of things. It cannot be stopped.

Meaningful critical interventions, aside, The Catcher in the Rye became cursed by such misreadings, such real-life appropriations. Copyright protections can stop a work from being copied, pirated, poached. They can’t stop it from being misunderstood.


Perhaps after this flurry of horrific, real-life infringements, the legacy of Catcher began to wear on its creator. In 2009, Salinger encountered a different kind of brazen opportunism in the Swedish writer Fredrik Colting, who published an unauthorized sequel to Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye in 2009, under the pseudonym J.D. California.

As Salinger had consistently renewed the copyright on The Catcher in the Rye, his estate sued Colting for copyright infringement. The unauthorized sequel, Coming Through the Rye: 60 Years Later, tells the story of “Mr. C,” a 76-year-old Holden Caulfield, who escapes from his nursing home and travels back to New York City to recapture his forgotten youth, before he meets none other than J.D. Salinger, his creator, who has magically brought Holden to life, so he can kill him and finally be rid of his annoying legacy.

By 2009, Salinger was ninety years old and completely deaf. The court evaluated 60 Years Later as a Fair Use case. While the book transformed the original, the new work took far too much (including the “heart”) from the original, and it might destroy the market for authorized sequels. (For those interested, pages 6-7 of the affidavit signed during the case by literary agent Phyllis Westburg detail Salinger’s specific contractual appropriation/adaptation rights).

The court declared Salinger the winner of the dispute. Although this second decision was extremely reminiscent of the 1986 decision, which many feared rattled too close to the First Amendment, Salinger was within the right. According to “Copyright for Functional Expression,” by Lloyd L. Weinreb and published in the Harvard Law Review, an author of a work automatically has copyright over their works, even if it is has not been formally approved, and regardless of the personality of the author. Coulting, and many others, violated that basic principle. Although it does increase his miserly image, Salinger’s reinforcement of this right is justified.

However, Salinger’s militant enforcement of law to protect his own personal interests also set negative precedents. For example, the verdict in Salinger v. Random House, which had prevented the copying of unpublished materials, made it impossible for the University of Maryland to legally microfilm their deteriorating collection of personal papers bequeathed to the library by Katherine Anne Porter. Therefore, at the time, it was both impossible and illegal for the University of Maryland to perform a necessary procedure to save some of their highly valuable documents. The laws towards unpublished works have since changed, but this instance indicates absurd and unexpected social ramifications of national verdict that Salinger had only sought for his personal vindication.

Although the circumstance involving the University of Maryland is tied to a copyright decision that Salinger unluckily and coincidentally spurred, Salinger has reacted with surprising zeal against innocent adaptations, as well.

In 1998, for example, Salinger threatened to sue the Lincoln Center Film Society if they screened an Iranian film called “Pari,” based loosely on Franny and Zooey, and directed by Dariush Mehrjui, who did not want any compensation for showing the film in America, preferring to give the film to the United States as a peaceful “cultural exchange” (McKinley, The New York Times). In this case, Salinger’s desire for privacy borders on inappropriate and obsessive—refusing to overlook a slight infringement in the name of the global peace he, a World War II veteran, allegedly desired badly.

Salinger’s ultimate legacy will be preserved by his estate—which is currently run by his widow, Colleen Salinger, and his son, Matt. Matt Salinger has already sent a bill through the New Hampshire legislature that would allow commercial use of one’s identity to be inheritable after death. The bill, which Salinger had hoped would prevent the sale of popular merchandise (t-shirts, hats, mugs, etc) with the Paul Adao photo (as well as the ubiquitous 1950 black-and-white photograph by Lotte Jacobi) on them, was vetoed on the grounds that, it would “inhibit constitutionally protected speech and result in needless litigation to judicially establish what should have been made explicit in this bill,” according to New Hampshire Governor Lynch (Ramer, The Huffington Post). History has come full circle—Salinger’s legacy has once again been tied to restrictions of the First Amendment.

The estate has not resisted the publication of Slewenski’s biography, perhaps because Slewinski clearly wants little from Salinger or his estate, and prefers to present the facts, allowing them, and not yet another interpretation of the man, to speak for themselves.

Salinger’s tradition has already begun to change, simply because his static identity had changed—he died. Both Myles Weber and Ian Hamilton suggest that Salinger had already created his own posthumous identity by retreating into solitude so early into his career. Therefore, Salinger’s real death brought about his public rebirth. For example, fifty letters that Salinger had exchanged with his English friend Donald Hartog from their meeting in 1938 through the 1980’s, which had clandestinely been possessed by University of East Anglia since Hartog’s death in 2007, were being made available to the public to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Salinger’s death. In these letters, Salinger discusses average things with his friend (such as his love for Burger King Whoppers and his favorite tennis player Tim Henman). Salinger’s death is slowly unfurling his humanity (Gabbatt, The Guardian).

The last book published by J.D. Salinger, a 1963 collection of stories called Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour—an Introduction, has a curious, and similarly human, dedication. “If,” Salinger briefly states, “there is an amateur reader still left in the world—or anybody who just reads and runs—I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children.” It is hard to imagine, however, that this anxious and extant idealist who, with the dedication in Seymour, entrusted his most autobiographical work simply to anyone who cared enough to read it, is the same man accused of being a strange, old version of his own characters, in the words of Weber, “a fledgling actor in his adolescence… now sinking his teeth into the role of a lifetime, that of a reclusive artist,” and, in the words of Hamilton, “an egotistical, ill-tempered, unforgiving man… who wants so badly to be canonized.” Salinger was well aware of his inadvertent public persona; in the 1974 Times interview, he stated, “I pay for this kind of attitude. I’m known as a strange, aloof kind of man. But all I’m doing is trying to protect myself and my work.”

In other words, before his death in 2010, Salinger became the ghost in the machine of American literature, embodying the battle between preservation attempts of his exterior works, and therefore the maintenance of their immortality, and the need for self-preservation and an undisturbed, peaceful human existence. And a battle it was, indeed.

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