Category Archives: History

“And Death Shall Have No Dominion” – a Look at Welsh Poet Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas is one of Wales’ best known writers. As a poet he expressed himself and his talent at a young age, and though he died much too young, he was amazingly able to create a large amount of work in a relatively short time. On this day 69 years ago, Thomas passed away in New York City. In honor of his life and work we wished to do a short blog detailing this amazing writer and the influence he had on so many.

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Dylan Marlais Thomas was born on October 27th, 1914, in Swansea, Wales. His mother was a seamstress, his father – an English literature teacher at the local school. It was through his father that Thomas first found a love for the rhythm of poetry – as his dad would recite Shakespeare, Yeats, and Poe to the young Dylan at length. His father also took charge of educating Dylan in the Welsh language, which he understood and spoke, despite writing exclusively in the English language and not Welsh. At a young age (young enough to put the rest of us to shame, truly), Dylan discovered a talent for poetry. At the age of 11 his first poem was published in his grammar school newspaper, and by the time he left school he carried out duties as editor of said paper.

When he was 16, Thomas left school and became a reporter for the South Wales Daily Post, where he worked for roughly a year and a half. During that time and the following few years where he worked as a freelance journalist, Thomas wrote somewhere around 200 poems, his most prolific period of writing coincided with these young years and a depth of feeling at such a formative age. It was during these years that some of his most well-known works were published – including the poems “And death shall have no dominion”, “Before I Knocked” and “The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower”. In 1934 his poem “Light breaks where no sun shines” was published in London’s The Listener – catching the attention of several important London literary celebrities, including T.S. Eliot. Eliot and Stephen Spender and Geoffrey Grigson were instrumental in helping Thomas publish his first book of poetry in 1934, called (rather simply) 18 Poems. The book was an immediate success, meeting with critical success, winning awards and thrusting Thomas into the London literary scene with a vengeance.

For a long while, it was as if Thomas could do no wrong. A year after his first volume of poetry was published he contributed his famous poem “The Hand that Signed the Paper” to an issue of New Verse. Another year later (1936) his second volume of poetry was published (similarly titled to his first – Twenty-five Poems) and also met with critical success. In 1938 Thomas won the Oscar Blumenthal Prize for Poetry. Many of his poems published in these volumes and in poetry journals were written before Thomas ever moved to London, back in Wales in his prolific period. Personally, I believe that this back-log of work to choose from (while all of it remaining relevant and popular) allowed Thomas to develop the heavy drinking habits he struggled with all his life.

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Much of his following years look quite like this – critical success, volumes and single poems published. His only less successful years happened to coincide with WWII, and many critics have attributed this to the general population’s distraction with more important matters. Thomas was always interested in the theatrical and even recorded for the BBC, and wrote scripts and screenplays. His work, while the early poems perhaps have a touch more idealism than some of the later, remained popular. He was heralded as a lingering-on member of the Romantics, in a time where other popular works clamped hard on realism and political realms. The Poetry Foundation lists some of Thomas’s work’s key themes, that include “the unity of time, the similarity between creative and destructive forces in the universe, and the correspondence of all living things.” Of one of Thomas’ most famous works “And death shall have no dominion”, critic Clark Emery noted how it was “published in a time when notes of affirmation—philosophical, political, or otherwise—did not resound among intelligent liberal humanists, [and thus] it answered an emotional need. … It affirmed without sentimentalizing; it expressed a faith without theologizing.” (Poetry Foundation). This is true of much of Thomas’ work. It touched an emotional place in his readers, and continues to do so today.

Thomas seemed to become a highly individual figure of the time. He was seen as somewhat wild – with his Welsh accent and beautiful story-telling capabilities. His drinking, the sexual imagery in his work, his ability to captivate. He had something that other poets of the time, especially in London, did not – he did not care about beautiful society or being part of a group of famous literary figures. He and his wife Caitlin moved between London and Wales for many, many years, realizing that London held more work, while Wales held love and safety for them and their children. Thomas was invited abroad to the continent, and then also to tour in the United States four times. It was on this last tour in New York at the age of 39 that he collapsed after a night of heavy drinking, and was unfortunately sent home to be buried in Wales by his family. But the love of his work endures even to this day, his poems no less beautiful, and no less relevant today, than they were seventy years ago.

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The Whale – and How it Shapes Lives All Over America

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A few years ago we published a blog detailing Herman Melville’s life. This week we thought we’d revisit his most famous work in a bit more detail, and come up with five in-depth reasons about Moby Dick, why it is one of the most widespread works taught in American schools today, and why it matters. “Book! You lie there; the fact is, you books must know your places. You’ll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts.” And on we go!

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1. Several scholars argue that the opening sentence of Moby Dick “Call me Ishmael” is the best known line in classic American literature. It starts off a long tale of adventure and revenge, focusing on a crazed whaling boat captain and his enduring grievance against the giant white sperm whale that took off his leg. While this book is, as stated, one of the most well-known works in America today, it was considered a flop at the time of its publication. Melville wrote it at the tender age of 32 in 1851, and over the next fifty years of his life it sold only 3,215 copies, making him a whopping $1,260 over those decades. It was only after the centennial of his birth in 1919 that a slow resurgence of interest in Melville’s work began, and by the 1960′s Moby Dick was being regularly taught in schools.

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“I try all things, I achieve what I can.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

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2. Melville masterfully created characters that could inspire, despite their outward, stereotypical appearances. The moral compass of humanity in Moby Dick is the cannibal Queequeg. He is courageous, stoic and self-sacrificing, a good friend to the novel’s narrator, and his virtuous nature is a stark contrast to the vengeful and fanatical Captain Ahab aboard the Pequod (the whaling ship). In this way, Melville dictates to his audience that appearances are not always what they seem. After all, “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”

 

3. Another reason why the story is so revered is Melville’s ability to use these characters to make social commentary on society at large. As Jamie Gass wrote, “A full decade before the Civil War’s carnage, only a highly unconventional writer of profound depth could craft a poetic novel using an enlightened cannibal to devour America’s racial, nativist, and religious stereotypes.” By placing Queequeg as the savior in the story, Melville highlights to students today how being fearful of someone different than us isn’t necessarily justified. Just because people are different doesn’t mean they are inherently bad – and we should not stereotype each other without giving ourselves a chance to see the human beneath the surface, as Ishmael does Queequeg. Some have even likened the Pequod to Melville’s America, with its treatment of minorities on the ship. In this way, Melville used his characters to comment on America’s shameful treatment of African Americans and other minorities, and continues to this day to remind us to look beyond the surface. As Melville writes, “See how elastic our prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them.”

 

4. The life lessons throughout the story rival those in famous religious works. Not only are their cautionary lessons on the limits of vengeance inside, but there are studies of the issues of man vs. nature (is it our job to conquer nature, or simply be its stewards? I’ll give you one guess), sexual orientation, the dangers of following a charismatic madman, and how our unacknowledged biases shape our actions – for better and for worse. One website claims that you couldn’t open to a single page of Moby Dick without finding a lesson being taught…. even when it is lessons on the world of whaling (at times disgusting and horrifying – but nevertheless educational).

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5. Moby Dick is an adventure story, yes. But layered within the adventure “we learn about malevolence, ambition, ego, bravery, friendship. We meditate on the existence of truth. We gather up an understanding that ‘truth’ is rarely captured in a snapshot, that it’s a mosaic of perspectives that don’t always add up neatly.” (Suzy Akin). It can be seen at one time as a religious text, an ancient epic, a Shakespearean drama. It can be interpreted a multitude of different ways. But one thing is for sure – it does teach lessons that could come in handy as students ready themselves for the future, and the “rough seas” that may lie ahead.

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“All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

 

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OTD in 1535, Thomas More is Executed by Henry VIII

On this day, 487 years ago, a king was on a rampage. He was condemning non-believers. Not those who didn’t believe in God or religion, but those who didn’t believe in his divorce and therefore the new religion that he was shaping in order to get one. That’s right, King Henry VIII was in the middle of his divorce from Queen Katherine of Aragon and it was not a good time for those who opposed this nullification and the king’s appointment as Head of the Church of England. One such man was Thomas More, Chancellor of England, humanitarian, lawyer, writer, and statesman. As author of Utopia, More had a definitive idea in mind of the perfect society – let’s delve into what this was, and what his execution meant for England.

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Thomas More was born on the 7th of February, 1478, the second of six children to a well-regarded lawyer. More received a classical education, and was a page to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who recommended him for a University education – prompting More to attend Oxford in 1492. He left after only two years, but those short years were more than enough time for More to become proficient in both Latin and Greek, as well as instruct himself in the fine etiquette of society. He began his legal education in London instead, at his father’s insistence.

It would be worth noting that by this time More had a significant interest in the spiritual realm. According to one of his friends at school he was seriously considering leaving his burgeoning legal profession to spend his life as a monk. Despite ultimately deciding that he would live his life as a layman, he kept up some of the more rigorous practices of the church, occasionally using self-flagellation as a cleansing tool, and wearing a rough hair shirt as a symbol of repentance. Although some aspects of his life might have looked severe to an onlooker, More himself was thought of as a warm, good natured (if stoic) person. He was a loving father, and had four children of his own, adopted another daughter upon his second marriage to a widow, and took two other children further under his wing. He gave all of his children (the girls as well as the boys) extremely detailed tuition, his extremely intelligent daughters and his pride in their accomplishments setting a new standard for female education throughout the country. More spent as much time with his family as his lifestyle could allow – for in 1504 he was elected to Parliament and in the short years that followed experienced a great rise in his value and influence to the nation. In 1516 he published his famed work Utopia in Latin, a work that wouldn’t be translated into English until almost twenty years after his death. Utopia depicted a perfect society – a place of total harmony, without the need for lawyers, with education to all sexes alike and religious tolerance. The work itself is actually hailed as the start of dystopian literature, a popular genre still today. By 1521 More was a close confidant and personal adviser to King Henry VIII.

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Thomas More as painted by Hans Holbein the Younger

More’s support of the Catholic church led to his position as a staunch Anti-Protestant advocate. He and Henry VIII together led extreme responses to Martin Luther’s publications, burning the books and those that openly supported the German “heretic”. More enjoyed over a decade of his position in the royal household, until it all came crashing down. In 1530, More refused to sign a letter signed by other members of the English aristocracy, begging the Pope to annul Henry and Catherine’s marriage. More then refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy, giving Henry just cause to reign higher than the Pope in the matter of his marriage. Despite More’s personal beliefs, he did not openly condemn the King’s actions, or refuse to acknowledge his divine rights as King. This balancing act was the only thing that kept More safe for as long as he was. He resigned from his position as Chancellor in May of 1532, realizing that he couldn’t show support for actions he did not believe in, nor could he condemn them. He (gentlemanly, sending his regrets) refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn in 1533, and in 1534 when he was asked to trial to swear his allegiance to the Act of Succession, More continued to refuse to take the Oath of Supremacy, acknowledging the Church of England over papal rule and Queen Anne’s offspring as rightful heirs to the English throne. Balancing act now over, this was unfortunately the act of treason his enemies (Thomas Cromwell, for one) had been waiting for – and the court appointed to try Thomas More took only 15 minutes to condemn him to death.

We know the rest of the story, but what did his death mean for the world? Well, for one, the imprisonment of Cardinal Wolsey and then the imprisonment and execution of Thomas More did much to unsettle the country. Both men had been great friends and confidants of the King, and their deaths are occasionally credited with instilling a fear in the English aristocracy. Thomas More in particular, was an innocent man. Unlike Wolsey, More was never accused of financial shadiness, nor did he have a false sense of his own importance or worth. He was a man of relatively simple pleasures, and his only crime was sticking to his beliefs, which, until Henry VIII settled on divorcing his wife, were shared by the King as well. More has since been martyred in the Catholic church for remaining true to his faith, even in the face of certain death. If you ask us, the execution of Thomas More is one of the saddest in history.

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What Can We Still Take Away from Orwell’s Last and Most Beloved Work?

Plenty of stories make ripples. The ripples they create inspire some, and makes others look deeply into themselves. Some stories can change the world – and frequently have! We would argue that one such book was 1984, the dystopian novel written by George Orwell in 1949. Now that 1984 (the year) has come and is long gone, we thought it might be interesting to take a look at this popular novel and see how its ripples continue to affect society today. 

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1984 was published on June 8th, 1949 – 73 years ago today. It would be English author George Orwell’s last work, as he was dying from tuberculosis while writing it, and passed away less than a year after its publication. Orwell himself was an atheist who supported democracy and vehemently opposed totalitarianism (of course). He was a proponent of simple pleasures, and was a fan of all traditional British delights – fish and chips, a strong cup of tea, a nice pub or chat by a fire, to name a few. It is no wonder how this kind of individual was able to write 1984, a book that played on a fear of oppressive government sanctions and a powerlessness to enjoy the simple pleasures in life.

For those that haven’t read it since their school days, 1984 follows the protagonist Winston Smith as he navigates his feelings towards an undemocratic governmental regime. Smith realizes he is doomed quite early on in the tale, as he buys a journal at a small antiques shop (on a black market of sorts), in order to write his “illegal” thoughts down in. Smith wonders often at the idea of the rebels, constantly interpreting the actions of those around him as either for or against the regime – he rarely views anything as a simple personal interaction. He begins an illicit romantic relationship with a woman named Julia after she hands him a secret note that says “I love you” (yes, after Winston is sure her interest in him is as a government spy). They are happy and in love, though Winston’s interest in rebelling against the regime is significantly stronger than Julia’s. As Winston grows more interested in breaking away, he becomes closer with Mr. Charrington, the owner of the shop that sold him the journal. Winston also believes his direct superior at work is a member of the rebellious “Brotherhood”. Winston and Julia are eventually brought before both of them and invited to join the Brotherhood, before it is revealed that both Charrington and O’Brien (his superior) are actually members of the government’s “Thought Police” task force and Winston and Julia are arrested. After being tortured, interrogated and brainwashed for months, a final act involving fear, rats and selling out each other finally break the couple, individually. They are released back into normal society in Oceania, loving “Big Brother” as newly minted members of the tyrannical and ruthless regime.

While considering the above as a highly abridged Cliff Notes version of 1984, we look toward the meaning behind the novel and how its ripples still affect us today. We are lucky to live in a non-extremist, democratic society. We are obsessed with our Constitutional rights – one of the most important being the right to free speech, as Winston unfortunately did not have. As an article in The Atlantic stated “It’s almost impossible to talk about propaganda, surveillance, authoritarian politics, or perversions of truth without dropping a reference to 1984.” And that is true. “Big Brother” is a household term, a terrifying nightmarish possibility of a government that is allowed to become too involved in the lives of its citizens. Once again, we are lucky that we do not live in such a society. As music critic Dorian Lynskey (author of The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984) writes “By definition, a country in which you are free to read Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the country described in Nineteen Eighty-Four“. But the year of Trump’s inauguration as President saw the rise of 1984 back to the best-seller list. Why? Because many Americans worried about the beginning of the decline of democracy in our country. After all, the rise of a totalitarian administration is certainly something to fear.

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But occasionally, we’ve had cause to ask if the totalitarian we fear may, in fact, be something within ourselves. In today’s world, we already allow companies, rather than the government, to watch our every move. It makes life easier for us, and we’ve had no visibly apparent reason to believe it is otherwise affecting our lives. We police the things each other say online, constantly. To both positive and negative ends. A problem today’s America faces isn’t that we are being oppressed by an authoritarian regime, but that because of the newspeak that we follow or watch we are too divisive to be able to be on the same page about anything whatsoever. It seems the news (and therefore groups of people), fall at two very far ends of a spectrum – without the ability to work together to make changes any which way. Unfortunately causing us to be at a consistent stalemate, daily. Normally we don’t quote lengthy paragraphs from others, but I believe George Packer said it correctly in an article about 1984:

“We are living with a new kind of regime that didn’t exist in Orwell’s time. It combines hard nationalism—the diversion of frustration and cynicism into xenophobia and hatred—with soft distraction and confusion: a blend of Orwell and Huxley, cruelty and entertainment. The state of mind that the Party enforces through terror in 1984, where truth becomes so unstable that it ceases to exist, we now induce in ourselves… Today the problem is too much information from too many sources, with a resulting plague of fragmentation and division—not excessive authority but its disappearance, which leaves ordinary people to work out the facts for themselves, at the mercy of their own prejudices and delusions.” 1984 hasn’t become obsolete, on the contrary – it is more important than ever that we look to it as the cautionary tale it was meant as. Let us not follow anyone blindly – and perhaps we can stop screaming at each other long enough to help each other. To see the problems in our society and make changes necessary for the safety, health and happiness of us all.

And whatever you do, don’t ever trust the antiques shop owners selling books, journals and other trinkets… obviously it is the quiet ones you need to watch out for!

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Who was Juliette Récamier? OTD in 1849, France (and the World) Lost a Celebrity

How do we believe fame differs today than a few hundred years ago? With today’s social media and instant internet access, celebrities of all backgrounds are scrutinized in almost every moment of their lives. At the end of the 18th century, this would obviously not have been the case. To be famous the world over, word had to literally travel from mouth to mouth… and that is precisely how one Juliette Récamier, the darling of the European literary scene, came to be a legend in intellectual circles.

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Juliette was born on December 3rd, 1777 in Lyon, France. As the only child of her father (the King’s notary and counsellor) and mother, Juliette enjoyed certain amounts of freedom and attention as a child that many others of the time did not. Juliette was also highly educated, her father being an educated man himself. Most importantly of all, accounts of Juliette did not portray her as a precocious or obnoxious child and teenager. If anything, she was described as shy, kind, modest and affectionate. With these wonderful qualities, a sharp mind and interest in literature, and a great amount of beauty, it is no wonder that Juliette had suitors from a young age. At the age of fifteen she was married, platonically, to a banker in Paris – Jacques-Rose Récamier, who was thirty years her senior.

Despite being married to a young, vivacious and beautiful girl, the marriage always remained chaste, and Juliette remained a virgin until her forties (there has been evidence to support the notion that Jacques was her own natural father, after having an affair with her mother 16 years prior to his marriage, and knowing that he was considered an “enemy to the republic” at the height of the French Revolution, Jacques may have married the girl to make sure she inherited his estate). Jacques noted her charitable nature, her interest in their reciprocal desire to bring forth happiness and contentment in each other. He treated her with great respect and freedom (at one point being willing to have her divorce him to marry someone with more advantageous finances, after he began experiencing financial woes, though she would not leave him), and she flourished. In Paris, Juliette became the socialite known for entertaining some of the greatest political and literary minds of the day in her “salon”.

juliette1As time went on and interest in her intelligence, loveliness, refinement and gentility grew, Juliette became friendly with all manner of people. Some of the most notorious members of her salon were François-René de Chateaubriand (a French politician, diplomat, activist, historian and writer who ended up as one of Juliette’s life-long friends), Benjamin Constant (Swiss-French political activist and writer), Prince Augustus of Prussia (whose proposal she would ultimately reject), and the political Madame Germaine de Staël. Juliette enjoyed almost unprecedented independence in her ability to entertain and act as she saw fit – she also received many proposals, and was “courted” by many men, but never, as far as history is concerned, betrayed her husband. People were attracted to Juliette not solely because of her good looks, but because of her academic and literary prowess, her interest in social and political endeavors, and her apparent ability to charm a room with a single glance, smile or comment. Juliette Récamier was the epitome of an esteemed lady – a patron, a scholar, a magnetic and irresistible personality, and a beautiful and charismatic individual. Political and intellectual persons flocked to her sitting room, and the discourses had there (both with Madame Récamier and with each other) can be credited with several of the ideas and large-scale changes in the turbulence of the French politics of the day.

One of Juliette’s society friends, Madame Germaine de Staël, greatly influenced Juliette politically and their liberal and centrist opinions were the reasoning behind the two being exiled from France by Napoleon in1806. Juliette left for Lyon, then Rome, then settled in Naples, before she was eventually allowed to return to her native country, and to Paris almost ten years later. By her later years, however, Récamier had lost much of her money and was living, while not in destitution, in significantly reduced circumstances. That being said, Juliette’s enticing manner and charm made sure she continuously enjoyed a consistent stream of friends, intellectuals, politicians and activist visitors up until her death at age 71 of cholera. Today, her contributions may not be a well-known fact, but in today’s world there is (at the very least) a sofa, similar to a chaise lounge, named after her – as that was her preferred method of reclining while entertaining her guests!

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“The beginning is always today” – Happy Birthday to Mary Wollstonecraft!

“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”

Yes, Queen.

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Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27th, 1759, in London. Though later on in her life she would be known for her writings and her advocacy of the social and educational equality of women, she was born somewhat inconsequentially as the second of seven children. Mary grew up in a household with a violent alcoholic father who squandered away all their savings and inheritance before Mary could come of age. She worked as a governess and a lady’s companion in her young life, both of which were formative influences on her views of the role of women in society. Mary also had two significantly influential friendships as a young woman – with Jane Arden and Fanny (Frances) Blood. Arden’s philosophical and academic family greatly impacted Wollstonecraft’s ability to think outside-the-box (so to speak), and her friendship with Fanny gave her purpose and female companionship. As a matter of fact, at one point Mary, her sister Eliza and Fanny opened up a school for girls in Newington Green. Her experiences in the education of young women (and subsequent job as a governess) gave her her greatest ideas on the education of women and how it affects their future in society.

“If women be educated for dependence; that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop?”

Unfortunately, Mary’s closest friend Fanny died relatively young, after becoming pregnant while suffering from a weak constitution. A heartbroken Mary used her connections to become a governess to a family of girls in Ireland, and although the girls found her an inspiring instructor, a frustrated Mary decided to give up the position to pursue writing and publishing full-time (a radical notion for a woman, in 1787). In 1788 she began working as a translator for a London publisher, Joseph Johnson, whom she regarded as a father/brother figure, and whom she remained quite close to for the rest of her life. During her first stint working for Johnson she wrote several reviews for his Analytical Review publication, all the while expanding her mind through translating texts and writing her own. Mary seemed happy in London - constantly meeting intellectuals, activists and other interesting figures at meetings and dinners at Johnson’s. Some of these influential individuals included Thomas Paine and William Godwin (the scholar considered the father of modern anarchism – though Mary and Godwin did not originally hit it off). Mary’s free-thinking ways led her to propose to live platonically with a married man she was enamored with (artist Henry Fuseli) and his wife – the astonishment of society at such an idea leading her to decide to move abroad. Well… that and her obvious interest in the French Revolution, as was evidenced in one of her most famous works, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in London in 1790 as a response to Whig MP Edmund Burke’s conservative critique of the events in France. Her publication shot her to activist stardom seemingly overnight (though at the very first it was published anonymously – the second edition published a month after the first pronounced her as the author). Wollstonecraft left for Paris, to witness the Revolution firsthand.

“It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men.”

maryw2During her time in France, Mary witnessed the execution of King Louis XIV, even saw some of her friends executed when the Jacobins took power, was refused her requests to leave the country, and lived with American adventurer Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had a passionate affair. (“Which of these things is not like the other?”, you may as well ask!) Though all of her experiences greatly influenced her thoughts and views of humanity, she decided to put her individuality and power to the test by living unmarried with a man, and bearing a child by him, named Fanny after her dearest deceased friend. Wollstonecraft and Imlay remained together long enough to do a bit of traveling, and for Mary to publish two other works - An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, and a introspective and personal travelogue, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. After Imlay left her, Wollstonecraft returned to England to pursue him, and after bouts of suicidal tendencies and depression fell back into Joseph Johnson’s literary circle. Eventually, Mary began striking up a friendship, and then a passionate love affair with William Godwin. Of her work (her travel Letters, in particular) Godwin wrote, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration.” Despite not being proponents of marriage in general, the two wed shortly before Wollstonecraft’s second child was born – her daughter Mary, who would later go on to write Frankenstein as Mary Shelley (to read our blog on the second brilliant female mind in the family, click here). Eleven days after the birth of her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (as she was then known) passed away due to complications from the birth.

“It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should be only organized dust—ready to fly abroad the moment the spring snaps, or the spark goes out, which kept it together. Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable—and life is more than a dream.”

Wollstonecraft died much too young – and one might now argue that the world as she knew it was too little, too conservative for her rather modern notions. Nevertheless, her legacy lived on – not only did she propose radical notions of educational equality and female power, but she ran in circles that picked up her theories and helped spread the word. Her legacy also lived on in her children, particularly in Mary Shelley – who supported similar ideas of female empowerment and sexual freedom. To this day, the name Mary Wollstonecraft is a household name symbolical of female rights and equality, as she was the epitome of a free-thinker! Happy Birthday to Mary Wollstonecraft!

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The Household Name that Was a Radical Before it was Cool to be a Radical

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Every American-raised person once attended (though when I was in school it was more like seven years in a row attended) classes on American history. We all know the name Thomas Paine, we all associate him with the American Revolution. We all know he wrote Common Sense. Who among us has read it? Don’t worry if you haven’t, you wouldn’t be alone. That being said, however, there is so much to this gentleman… born into an age that both revered and scorned him, whereas if the man lived in today’s world he might have been revered and revered only. Let’s find out just how cool Thomas Paine really was, shall we?

Born on February 9th, 1737, in Norfolk, England, many Americans who didn’t pay much attention in history class would be surprised to find out that he lived a relatively average British life… for thirty seven years before emigrating to the British colonies in America. Born to a tenant farmer and stay-maker (a tailor specializing in the making of corsets), Paine’s baptized name is spelled “Pain” – a change he apparently made when moving to America. His early life seems uneventful, he attended a few years of schooling, then apprenticed with his father as a stay-maker. He married at 22, but his young wife died in childbirth along with the baby soon after. Paine dealt with typical difficulties – many of which were financial in nature. After working several occupations in several towns, in 1768 Paine ended up in Lewes – a town in Suffolk known for its radical notions (like an opposition to the monarchy). It was here that Paine first became involved in political and civic matters, and gained an interest in the plight of freedom of the every-man.

In Lewes, Paine was a member of the parish vestry, and in the early 1770s joined excise officers in their ask of Parliament for better wages and treatment. It was during this period that he published his first political work – a twelve page article entitled The Case of the Officers of Excise. He failed again financially around this time, and moved to London – where he was introduced to one Benjamin Franklin, who convinced Paine to emigrate to the colonies, and even wrote him a letter of recommendation for the change. Paine agreed, and arrived in Philadelphia in November of 1774.

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By March of 1775, Paine was the editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, then becoming the editor of the American Magazine - in a short time becoming a rather important figure. Under Paine’s direction, the magazines flourished, gained a wider audience, and became more and more political in nature. In fact, just a few short months after arriving in America, an untitled essay appeared in the Pennsylvania Magazine entitled African Slavery in America - an early abolitionist essay attacking slavery as an “outrage against Humanity and Justice.” That essay is commonly attributed to Thomas Paine’s own hand. Paine also focused often on the plight of the working man – using his platforms to discuss worker’s rights. Clearly, Paine quickly became a leading figure in the political consciousness of America on the brink of revolution.

Thomas PainePaine’s pamphlets, especially Common Sense, were immediate successes. Common Sense was published on January 10th, 1776, and was signed anonymously, “by an Englishman”. Within the first three months of its existence 100,000 copies were sold throughout the colonies. He employed his eloquence to fan the flames of anger at the British monarchy for their abuses. While published after the start of the American Revolution (which began in April 1775), it served to bolster enthusiasm for the cause, to inspire many and to aid in the confidence of those fighting for freedom. Common Sense largely upholds the ideals of republicanism and encouragement for freedom, and spends some time encouraging readers to join the Continental Army. He advocates an extreme change, a total break in the narrative of history. Though his ideas were not necessarily original nor unheard of, Paine’s method and way of speaking to the public made his pamphlet one of the most popular Revolutionary works in existence. In that vein, Paine became one of the most influential revolutionary writers in history.

Though throughout his life he went in and out of favor, what never faltered was Paine’s personal beliefs in freedom and liberty. He denounced slavery, supported the French Revolution, he advocated religious freedom, condemned and criticized those he did not care for, and had no qualms about staying true to his own personal values until the day he died. As Robert G. Ingersoll once famously said: “Thomas Paine had passed the legendary limit of life. One by one most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him. Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred – his virtues denounced as vices – his services forgotten – his character blackened, he preserved the poise and balance of his soul. He was a victim of the people, but his convictions remained unshaken. He was still a soldier in the army of freedom, and still tried to enlighten and civilize those who were impatiently waiting for his death. Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts.” Happy 285th Birthday to Thomas Paine, a man ahead of his time!

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