Lanjee Chee’s Thoreau stamp, designed ca. 1967.
- Kathryn Schulz’s Thoreau-bashing New Yorker piece last week was only the latest in a long tradition of broadsides against Walden—people love to hate Thoreau. James Russell Lowell, Garrison Keillor, Jill Lepore, and Bill Bryson have all taken swipes at him in print. But all of them, and especially Schulz, are dearly misreading him, especially when they accuse him of misanthropy: “He was active in circulating petitions for neighbors in need. He was attentive to what was going on in the community. He was involved in the Underground Railroad. He quit his first teaching job, in protest, because he was expected to administer corporal punishment, and struggled to find a new one. He loved watermelons, and threw an annual watermelon party for his friends, of whom he had plenty. Children were especially fond of him … He was very handy. He could dance, and play music. He wrote lovingly about his father, mother, and siblings in his journals, and they wrote lovingly about him, and he was so devastated by his brother’s death that he developed symptoms of tetanus in sympathy.”
- Notes from the annals of traffic planning: one of the greatest innovations in Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs for Central Park was his way of guiding people and horses—and, later, cars—gently away from one another: “In 1900 there were some two hundred horse-related deaths in New York City. Thus Olmsted and Vaux’s strict division of circulation in the park acknowledged the ever-present danger of such accidents by consigning heavy east–west vehicular traffic to crosstown transverses sunk well below surface level, while above-grade pedestrian footpaths dipped beneath north–south roadways through small bridges and short tunnels … This concept of dual circulation soon became an article of faith among progressive planners in the United States and Europe. Clarence Stein and Henry Wright’s much-praised 1929 design for Radburn, New Jersey—touted as the ‘New Town for the Motor Age’—so effectively segregates cars and people that children can walk to local schools and playgrounds without crossing a street. Stein, whose Central Park West apartment overlooked the 65th Street Transverse, said that he discovered what became known as ‘the Radburn idea’ simply by peering out his front window.”
- The Polish writer Agnieszka Taborska is gazing seaward, as writers are wont to do. In the ocean she’s found a suitable home for surrealism: “The sea calms and alarms. Its swoosh is compared to a hundred sounds at once and yet there’s no way to convey the whole complexity. Screams, wails, thunderclaps, whistles, moans, rumbles, shrieks of exhortation, the boom of waves breaking on rocks, seagulls’ cries, sirens’ chants, the weeping of sailors tickled to death, half-audible words coming from no one knows where, transfused with their own echo. Ghost ships on the horizon, spirits of castaways floating on waves nearer the shore, shadowed by the amused look of a mermaid combing her wet locks for eternity … And then there are the beaches! Dunes torn asunder by secret life.”
- “Do you remember Novokuznetskaya Station? … My mother threw up at each of the throne-like benches and felt sick at the sight of the lamps that look like a dentist’s spittoons…” Each chapter of Hamid Ismailov’s newly translated The Underground is named after a Moscow metro station, which is fun and all, but how is a bewildered, provincial American reader to make heads or tails of these places? You can use Google, for starters—it brings those sick-making spittoon-lamps right to life.
- Isn’t it high time that we give Ursula K. Le Guin the anarchist cred she deserves? “Le Guin has received her due as a master crafter, as the lyrical chronicler of worlds of the imagination, spaces apart from the world, where children and lingering adults can find an oasis. But the political implications of her anarchist aesthetics go much further than that … Stalin said that the poet should be the engineer of human souls. Le Guin is the anti-engineer.”