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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Darwin’

Ghosts Stay Near Home

November 3, 2015 | by

In the third of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur looks at the life and afterlife of the churchyard in literature.

John Constable, The Church Porch, East Bergholt, 1810.

In 1806, England’s greatest landscape painter, John Constable, began a series of drawings and oil sketches of the church and churchyard of East Bergholt in the Stour Valley of Sussex, the village in which he had been born. In one of these, a man and two women gather around a tomb and look intently at an inscription that we cannot quite read. Those who saw the final painting would have known the allusion. An engraving published as the frontispiece to a collection of epitaphs the same year makes it explicit: the girl with her back to us blocks most of the text, but we can make out “Here rest / A Youth.” Anyone in the early nineteenth century would have been able to fill in the missing words:

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth,
A Youth, to fortune and to fame unknown

from Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751). They would not have needed the words; any picture of a churchyard evoked Gray. The “Elegy” was an immediate success when it was published and remained resonant for at least two centuries. “Poem of Poems,” Edmund Gosse, the late nineteenth-century man of letters called it in his English Men of Letters book about Gray. Line for line, it has given more words to the English language, according to the attributions in the Oxford English Dictionary, than any other source; it was probably recited by more schoolchildren in the nineteenth century than any other; it was continually translated—thirty-three times into Italian alone by 1850. It was endlessly reprinted and anthologized in English. Read More »

Madness and Meaning

April 22, 2015 | by

Depictions of insanity through history.


Nebuchadnezzar turned into an animal, 1410.

Modern psychiatry seems determined to rob madness of its meanings, insisting that its depredations can be reduced to biology and nothing but biology. One must doubt it. The social and cultural dimensions of mental disorders, so indispensable a part of the story of madness and civilization over the centuries, are unlikely to melt away, or to prove no more than an epiphenomenal feature of so universal a feature of human existence. Madness indeed has its meanings, elusive and evanescent as our attempts to capture them have been.

Western culture throughout its long and tangled history provides us with a rich array of images, a remarkable set of windows into both popular and latterly professional beliefs about insanity. The sacred books of the Judeo-Christian tradition are shot through with stories of madness caused by possession by devils or divine displeasure. From Saul, the first king of the Israelites (made mad by Yahweh for failing to carry out to the letter the Lord’s command to slay every man, woman, and child of the Amalekite tribe, and all their animals, too), to the man in the country of the Gaderenes “with an unclean spirit” (maddened, naked, and violent, whose demons Christ casts out and causes to enter a herd of swine, who forthwith rush over a cliff into the sea to drown), here are stories recited for centuries by believers, and often transformed into pictorial form. Read More »

The Sam Weller Bump

April 14, 2015 | by

Dickens the authorpreneur.


Bigger than the Zuckerberg Bump, bigger even than the Colbert Bump or the Oprah Bump—arguably the most historic bump in English publishing is the Sam Weller Bump, triggered not by a tastemaker with a megaphone but a sharp-talking, warm-hearted servant.

In June 1836, Charles Dickens published the fourth installment of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, one of the many shilling monthlies that were the backbone of Victorian publishing. Printed on low-cost acidic paper and sold in pale green wrappers, they were aimed at the middle and newly literate working classes on the lookout for entertaining fare. But many of these readers had grown accustomed to the gobbets of melodrama offered by the cheap press—they were utterly uninterested, then, in the picaresque misadventures of Mr. Pickwick and his chums as they bowled through England collecting scientific information for the betterment of mankind. The first three installments of Pickwick barely sold four hundred copies.

But that June, sales began to grow by orders of magnitude: from four hundred to four thousand to an astounding forty thousand as the serialization drew to a close in November 1837. Everyone up and down the social ladder began to devour Pickwick, from butchers’ boys to John Ruskin, who read Pickwick so often he claimed to know it by heart. Copies were passed from hand to hand and read aloud as family entertainment. The critics effused with praise. Dickens, who was twenty-four and expecting his first child, had become a household name. Read More »

David Foster Wallace for Congress, and Other News

November 12, 2012 | by

  • Such literary luminaries as David Foster Wallace, Charles Darwin, and Voldemort were just a few of the write-in candidates found on the ballot for Georgia’s Tenth Congressional District following controversial anti-science comments by candidate Paul Broun.
  • The literature of hockey.
  • Writers’ graves can be surprising places to visit. Unlike the luminaries housed at more elegant cemeteries, like Pere Lachaise in Paris (Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Richard Wright), many literary stars lie for eternity in simpler, plainer spots around this country, with traditions around how to commemorate them as widely varied as the genres they comprise.”
  • Next for the embattled Oxford American: fine dining?
  • “He hated the idea of talking about things. We could sometimes, if you got the right moment, but even then it was almost cruel to do that to him—to do that to anyone of that generation.” Nanette Vonnegut talks about her dad to The Rumpus.


Map Quest

September 4, 2012 | by

The draw of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s classic breakup song “Maps” is that it is as plainly sad as possible. “Wait,” the band’s lead singer, Karen O, sings over and over, “they don’t love you like I love you.” But “Maps” is also enigmatic: beyond its abject chorus, the lyrics are cryptic, with verses that are brief and opaque—“Packed up / Don’t Stray / Oh say, say, say / Oh say, say, say.” Karen O repeats maps, plaintive and without context, stretching the word’s aaa over four bars.

According to fan mythology, “Maps” is an acronym for “my Angus please stay,” referencing Liars lead singer Angus Andrew, whom Karen O has said the song is about. There may be other ways to read the song’s title, though. “Maps” evokes the physical and metaphorical distance that is felt from a lover who is leaving. It is a kind of emotional cartography, mapping two people’s painful journeys away from one another. This will serve as our foundation: maps aren’t impersonal, objective. They aren’t.

Read More »


Rich Writers, Niche Bookstores, Darwin

August 13, 2012 | by

  • Check out the handmade books of Berlin-based Palefroi.
  • Maria Papova presents the literary jukebox, in which quotes are matched to thematic songs.
  • Forbes lists the highest-grossing authors.
  • A salute to niche bookstores of the world.
  • The fate of dead books: a history of pulping.
  • Prior to proposing to Emma Wedgwood, Charles Darwin did a cost-benefit analysis of marriage, with one of the deficits listed as “less money for books.”
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