Happy Birthday, Audre Lorde!

Audre Lorde, 1980

Audre Lorde, 1980

Poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde was born on February 18, 1934. In remembrance of this powerful and eloquent woman on her birthday, I’ll share the bio I found at the Poetry Foundation:

‘A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing the injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her poetry, and “indeed all of her writing,” according to contributor Joan Martin in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, “rings with passion, sincerity, perception, and depth of feeling.” Concerned with modern society’s tendency to categorize groups of people, Lorde fought the marginalization of such categories as “lesbian” and “black woman,” thereby empowering her readers to react to the prejudice in their own lives. While the widespread critical acclaim bestowed upon Lorde for dealing with lesbian topics made her a target of those opposed to her radical agenda, she continued, undaunted, to express her individuality, refusing to be silenced. As she told interviewer Charles H. Rowell in Callaloo: “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds… [White, arch-conservative senator] Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity…or even about sex. It is about revolution and change.” Fighting a battle with cancer that she documented in her highly acclaimed Cancer Journals (1980), Lorde died of the illness in 1992…. Read more about Audre Lorde and her poetry here

and the wonderful articles about Lorde by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

How ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ Inspired Victorian Hedonists, by Roman Krznaric

The Angel of the Drink of Darkness, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, by Edmund Dulac

How did a 400-line poem based on the writings of a Persian sage and advocating seize-the-day hedonism achieve widespread popularity in Victorian England? The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was written by the eccentric English scholar Edward FitzGerald, drawing on his loose translation of quatrains by the 12th-century poet and mathematician Omar Khayyám. Obscure beginnings perhaps, but the poem’s remarkable publishing history is the stuff of legend. Its initial publication in 1859 – the same year as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and J S Mill’s On Liberty – went completely unnoticed: it didn’t sell a single copy in its first two years. That all changed when a remaindered copy of FitzGerald’s 20-page booklet was picked up for a penny by the Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes, who passed it on to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who subsequently fell in love with it and sang its praises to his Pre-Raphaelite circle.

When, in 1863, it fell into the hands of John Ruskin, he declared: ‘I never did – till this day – read anything so glorious.’ From that moment, there began a cult of Khayyám that lasted at least until the First World War, by which time there were 447 editions of FitzGerald’s translation in circulation. Omar dining clubs sprang up, and you could even buy Omar tooth powder and illustrated playing cards. During the war, dead soldiers were found in the trenches with battered copies tucked away in their pockets.

What then was the extraordinary attraction of the Rubáiyát? The answer sings out from some of its most famous verses:

XXIV
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and – sans End!

XXXV
Then to the lip of this poor earthen Urn
I lean’d, the Secret of my Life to learn:
And Lip to Lip it murmur’d – ‘While you live
Drink! – for, once dead, you never shall return.’

LXIII
Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain – This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

The Rubáiyát was an unapologetic expression of hedonism, bringing to mind sensuous embraces in jasmine-filled gardens on balmy Arabian nights, accompanied by cups of cool, intoxicating wine. It was a passionate outcry against the unofficial Victorian ideologies of moderation, primness and self-control.

Yet the poem’s message was even more radical than this, for the Rubáiyát was a rejection not just of Christian morality, but of religion itself. There is no afterlife, Khayyám implied, and since human existence is transient – and death will come much faster than we imagine – it’s best to savour life’s exquisite moments while we can. This didn’t mean throwing oneself into wild hedonistic excess, but rather cultivating a sense of presence, and appreciating and enjoying the here and now in the limited time we have on Earth.

This heady union of bodily pleasures, religious doubt and impending mortality captured the imagination of its Victorian audience, who had been raised singing pious hymns at church on a Sunday morning. No wonder the writer G K Chesterton admonishingly declared that the Rubáiyát was the bible of the ‘carpe diem religion’.

The influence of the poem on Victorian culture was especially visible in the works of Oscar Wilde, who described it as a ‘masterpiece of art’ and one of his greatest literary loves. He took up its themes in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The character of Lord Henry Wotton is a champion of hedonism who explicitly refers to the sensual allures of ‘wise Omar’, and tempts the beautiful young man Dorian to sell his soul for the decadent pleasures of eternal youth. ‘Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses,’ says Lord Henry. ‘A new Hedonism – that is what our century wants.’

Wilde’s novel was a thinly veiled celebration of homosexuality – a crime for which he was gaoled in 1895 (passages of the book were read out at his trial as part of the incriminating evidence). He saw in the Rubáiyát an argument for individual freedom and sexual liberation from the constraints of Victorian social convention, not least because FitzGerald too was well-known for his homosexuality. For Wilde, as for FitzGerald, carpe diem hedonism was far more than the pursuit of sensory pleasures: it was a subversive political act with the power to reshape the cultural landscape.

Hedonism has a bad reputation today, being associated with ‘YOLO’ binge-drinking, drug overdoses, and a bucket-list approach to life that values fleeting novelty and thrill-seeking above all else. Yet the history of the Rubáiyát is a reminder that we might try to rediscover the hidden virtues of hedonism.

On the one hand, it could serve as an antidote to a growing puritanical streak in modern happiness thinking, which threatens to turn us into self-controlled moderation addicts who rarely express a passionate lust for life. Pick up a book from the self-help shelves and it is unlikely to advise dealing with your problems by smoking a joint under the stars or downing a few tequila slammers in an all-night club. Yet such hedonistic pursuits – enjoyed sensibly – have been central to human culture and wellbeing for centuries: when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas, they discovered the Aztecs tripping on magic mushrooms.

On the other hand, the kind of hedonism popularised by the Rubáiyát can help to put us back in touch with the virtues of direct experience in our age of mediation, where so much of daily life is filtered through the two-dimensional electronic flickers on a smartphone or tablet. We are becoming observers of life rather than participants, immersed in a society of the digital spectacle. We could learn a thing or two from the Victorians: let us keep a copy of the Rubáiyát in our pockets, alongside the iPhone, and remember the words of wise Khayyám: ‘While you live Drink! – for, once dead, you never shall return.’Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Roman Krznaric is a social philosopher. He is the founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum and of the digital Empathy Library. He is also a founding faculty member of The School of Life and on the faculty of Year Here. His latest book is Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day (2017). Bio credit: Aeon

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!

Walt Whitman, age 35, from Leaves of Grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., engraving by Samuel Hollyer from daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison, public domain via Wikimedia Commons‘Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding, No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . no more modest than immodest.’ Thus Walt Whitman introduces himself to us for the first time in his first self-published 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Not on the cover or on the title page, mind you, but deep within the body of the untitled poem later called Song of Myself. If this is a dialing-back attempt to inject a little respectable humility or yet another self-aggrandizing affectation on the part of this unapologetic egoist, it’s hard to say definitely, though I strongly suspect it’s the latter. It certainly is so-very-American.

He was confident, earthy, crude, and vibrant, a self-styled natural man whose personas were nonetheless carefully crafted. He did his own thing and ‘lived the free life of a rover’ (an Eric Bogle phrase from his great anti-war ballad And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda), working odd jobs as a printer, journalist, teacher, and clerk, among other things. Moved by horror and compassion at the magnitude of death and suffering he observed, he worked some years as a nurse to the Civil War wounded, and spent much of his somewhat meager earnings on supplies for their comfort and care. He remained single but had many lovers, probably mostly homosexual, though he praises the physical beauty and power of women as lavishly in his poems as he does those of men. All the while, starting at just over age 30, he began to write his highly idiosyncratic, free verse poetry celebrating the authentic and the crafted self, the human body, democracy, equality, work, nature, and companionship. He spent the rest of his somewhat long life revising and republishing several editions of Leaves of Grass, up to several months before his death at age 72 in 1892.

To read more work by, about, and inspired by the great Walt Whitman, here are some links and articles:

Walt Whitman“. in Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Walt Whitman, 1819–1892‘. The Poetry Foundation (website)

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass (1855). Source: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

Whitman, Walt. Assorted poems at Poets.org

The Walt Whitman Archive, Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, Ed., published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

and just because I love it:

The Body Electric, song and music video by Hooray for the Riff Raff. The song title is inspired by one of Whitman’s most enduring and controversial poems, and is a critique of the tradition of the murder ballad

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Julia Ward Howe!

Julia Ward Howe, ca. 1855

Julia Ward Howe, poet and activist, was born on May 27, 1819, and lived a long life ever dedicated to social reform.

She’s best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the stirring Civil War anthem still sung at military events and in churches today; I remember singing it at Mass growing up. Filled with Biblical imagery, it reminds me of the Old Testament-inspired Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. In it, he addresses the terrible costs of the war in lives and property, surmising that God’s justice may demand that ‘all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk., and …every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ in recompense for the terrible sin of slavery.

Howe wrote her Hymn in 1861, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was delivered in 1865. Lincoln is known to have heard the Battle Hymn and reported to have wept when he did. Lincoln was well versed in Scripture and references it liberally in his writings and speeches; nevertheless, he may also have had Howe’s Hymn in mind when he wrote his Address. In any case, both remain prominent in American historical memory, continuing to resonate and inspire today in our Protestantism-derived culture. John Steinbeck uses her Book of Revelation-derived phrase The Grapes of Wrath as the title of his great novel about the suffering of Dust Bowl refugees fleeing to California. The great Leonard Cohen references her Hymn in ‘Steer Your Way’ from You Want It Darker, his final album released shortly before his death last fall. Howe’s lyric ‘As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free’ becomes ‘…let us die to make things cheap.’ Cohen redirects her line to critique today’s great sin of destroying our environment likewise out of greed, complacency, indifference to the fate we’re creating for our descendants, and slavish adherence to the ‘way it’s always been done.’

Julia Ward Howe postcard dated August 28th, 1903, from the Hutchinson Family Scrapbook in the collection of the Lynn Historical Society in Massachusetts. I was here in spring 2016 following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass. The Hutchinson family dedicated their musical skills to the abolition movement and other reform causes and were friends with many prominent activists of their day. The scrapbook doesn’t note which member of the Hutchinson family Howe wrote this card to.

Read more about this great abolitionist, feminist, and author:

Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910: BiographyPoetry Foundation

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) – by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum

‘The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,’ by Elaine Showalter – by Jill Lepore for The New York Times

Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Volume 1 – by Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, Maud Howe Elliott, and Florence Howe Hall, 1915

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Omar Khayyám!

By Adelaide Hanscom, from Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1905, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since Edward FitzGerald published his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, Omar Khayyám has been known, especially in the western world, first and foremost as a great poet, eloquently expressing the joy and beauty of life and our own struggles to live it with a sense of love and meaning. It’s a humanist work, with Khayyám writing much as an Epicurean or Skeptic here and a Stoic there, freely doubting and wondering at everything, unshackled from the orthodoxy one might expect from a famed teacher and writer of his time and place. Yet Khayyám, a devotee of Avicenna, took his Islamic faith very seriously, and thought deeply about the nature of God and our relationship to him.

Khayyám, born in Persia in 1048, was most famed in his own time as a mathematician, astronomer, and scientist. He wrote some of the most important medieval works in geometry and algebra, and helped reform the calendar, an even more accurate one than the Gregorian calendar we use today. But he was also an accomplished philosopher, and scholars are working on resolving the apparent contradictions between this work and his poetry.

One thing I’ve gotten from my research (which, thus far, is only beginning and therefore not nearly enough): for all his prodigious learning and accomplishments, Khayyám honestly acknowledges the limits of human understanding, and seems to tell us that while the great work of discerning the truths of the universe is a great, noble, even necessary endeavor, we do well to keep in mind that we can never know everything, whether through science or religion. So, Khayyám seems tells us, we do well to work, to wonder, to seek, to do right, but also to live for today:

‘At first they brought me perplexed in this way
Amazement still enhances day by day
We all alike are tasked to go but Oh!
Why are we brought and sent? This none can say’. (Rubā‘iyyāt, Tirtha 1941, 18, from IEP)

‘As Spring and Fall make their appointed turn,
The leaves of life one aft another turn;
Drink wine and brood not—as the Sage has said:
“Life’s cares are poison, wine the cure in turn.” (Sa‘idī 1994, 58, from IEP)

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and Inspiration

Aminrazavi, Mehdi and Van Brummelen, Glen, ‘Umar Khayyam‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Omar Khayaam, 1048–1131‘. The Poetry Foundation

Omar Khayyam‘. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Omar Khayyam‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Rizvi, Sajjad H. ‘Avicenna (Ibn Sina)‘. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

‘Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam)‘. Muslim Heritage

Happy Birthday, Maya Angelou!

Maya Angelou, author, poet, singer, dancer, activist, and so much more, was born on April 4th, 1928. We lost her only a few years ago, on May 28th, 2014.

There’s a wonderful Angelou biopic on PBS that I watched just a few weeks ago. In case you haven’t seen it, I highly, highly recommend it, and what better day to watch it than today? It’s only available now if you purchase a Passport subscription, but it’s very inexpensive and besides, our great public institutions like PBS need all the support we can give them in our current political climate of de-funding that which is not a weapon or a tax break for some special interest. I’ve long known of her and was aware of her prominence as an American author and civil rights leader, as most have, and had read and heard snippets by and about her over the years. This biopic, however, was my first sustained look at her life and accomplishments. How I went so long without more than a passing familiarity with her I know not. I am drawn in, and must discover more.

The Poetry Foundation’s page for Angelou is another excellent source for learning about her life and work and includes a short biography, lists of works by and about her, and some of her poetry.

What a fascinating woman.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Angelina Weld Grimké!

angelina-weld-grimke-image-public-domain

Angelina Weld Grimké

El Beso

Twilight—and you
Quiet—the stars;
Snare of the shine of your teeth,
Your provocative laughter,
The gloom of your hair;
Lure of you, eye and lip;
Yearning, yearning,
Languor, surrender;
Your mouth,
And madness, madness,
Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
The space of a sigh;
Then awakening—remembrance,
Pain, regret—your sobbing;
And again, quiet—the stars,
Twilight—and you.   (via Poets.org)

Let us celebrate the memory of the wonderful and far-too-unknown author of this gorgeous poem and so many other wonderful works of art and literature on her birthday!

Alix North of Island of Lesbos writes of Grimké:

Angelina Weld Grimké was born [on February 27th, 1880] in Boston, the only child of Archibald Grimké and Sarah Stanley. Angelina had a mixed racial background; her father was the son of a white man and a black slave, and her mother was from a prominent white family. Her parents named her after her great aunt Angelina Grimké Weld, a famous white abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.

Angelina received a physical education degree at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902. She worked as a gym teacher until 1907, when she became an English teacher, and she continued to teach until her retirement in 1926. During her teaching career, she wrote poetry, fiction, reviews, and biographical sketches. She became best known for her play entitled “Rachel.” The story centers around an African-American woman (Rachel) who rejects marriage and motherhood. Rachel believes that by refusing to reproduce, she declines to provide the white community with black children who can be tormented with racist atrocities. “Rachel” was the only piece of Angelina’s work to be published as a book; only some of her stories and poems were published, primarily in journals, newspapers, and anthologies.

Only her poetry reveals Angelina’s romantic love toward women. The majority of her poems are love poems to women or poems about grief and loss. Some (particularly those published during her lifetime) deal with racial concerns, but the bulk of her poems are about other women, and were unlikely to be published for this reason. Only about a third of her poetry has been published to date… Read the complete bio and a wonderful selection of poems here

angelina-weld-grimke…and learn more about Angelina Weld Grimké at:

Angelina Weld Grimké – in Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, edited by Yolanda Williams Page

Angelina Weld Grimké – by Judith Zvonkin for The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C.

Angelina Weld Grimké – from Encyclopædia Britannica

Grimke, Angelina Weld (1880-1958) – by Claudia E. Sutherland for Blackpast.org

Grimkè’s Life and Career: The Introduction to The Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimké – by Carolivia Herron for Modern American Poetry at the Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Further reading: Selected Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: A Resource Guide – Angelina Weld Grimké 

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Audre Lorde!

Audre Lorde, 1980

Audre Lorde, 1980

Poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde was born on February 18, 1934. In remembrance of this powerful and eloquent woman on her birthday, I’ll share the bio I found at the Poetry Foundation:

‘A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing the injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her poetry, and “indeed all of her writing,” according to contributor Joan Martin in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, “rings with passion, sincerity, perception, and depth of feeling.” Concerned with modern society’s tendency to categorize groups of people, Lorde fought the marginalization of such categories as “lesbian” and “black woman,” thereby empowering her readers to react to the prejudice in their own lives. While the widespread critical acclaim bestowed upon Lorde for dealing with lesbian topics made her a target of those opposed to her radical agenda, she continued, undaunted, to express her individuality, refusing to be silenced. As she told interviewer Charles H. Rowell in Callaloo: “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds… [White, arch-conservative senator] Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity…or even about sex. It is about revolution and change.” Fighting a battle with cancer that she documented in her highly acclaimed Cancer Journals (1980), Lorde died of the illness in 1992…. Read more about Audre Lorde and her poetry here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

A Woman’s Work: Ann Plato’s Republic, by Sara Georgini

phillis-wheatley-silhouette-william-kingShe was named for the ship that stole her away. At seven years old, Phillis Wheatley crossed the Atlantic from West Africa, another dot in the mosaic of roughly six million enslaved Africans who landed in the Americas between 1700 and 1808. Small and so young, she became Boston merchant John Wheatley’s gift to wife Susannah. Early on, Phillis’ talent shone. She mastered Latin and Greek, earning transatlantic praise for her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first book of poetry by an African-American, published in London in 1773. She sat for an author portrait, toured England, met George Washington, and, finally, secured her freedom before dying, impoverished, in 1784.

Early Americans and early Americanists have pored over her too-brief career ever since. Phillis Wheatley’s byline alone, threading together her sacrifice and her sale, bears hard history in it. As an African-American founding mother of our national literary tradition, Wheatley owns a leading role in survey classes, public statues, and cultural memory. Wheatley’s last manuscript, 300 pages of poetry, may be lost; but we hold pieces of her legacy intact. Here at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I pass by her writing desk nearly every day. It’s not the one in her formal portrait. Rather, it’s the mahogany “card or tea table” that John Wheatley gifted Phillis with sometime during her long servitude. Ball-and-claw feet grip the carpet. A neat apron-front drawer has room enough for cards, ink, and a few cottony sheets of colonial paper. Sold at auction to settle her heavy debts, the poet’s desk is a rich artifact of literary technology, an Enlightenment-era laptop. Polished and bare, Phillis Wheatley’s desk raises the question: Who took up her pen?

Today, resuming my series on early American women intellectuals, I’ll focus on Ann Plato, a Hartford, Conn., schoolteacher who was, in many ways, Wheatley’s direct heir. Or so argued the abolitionist preacher James W.C. Pennington in his opening attestation of Plato’s 1841 Essays; Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose and Poetry. Pennington, then deep at work on his own book, The Origin and History of the Colored People (1841), made a compelling case for Plato’s historical significance. Of African-American and Native American ancestry, Plato (fl. 1824-1870), had, according to Pennington, suffered in order to persevere as a literary artist. By his lights, Ann Plato therefore joined the ranks of Wheatley, the Roman playwright Terence, and the Jamaican poet Francis Williams. “These all served in adversity,” Pennington reminded readers, “and afterwards found that nature had no objection, at least to their serving the world in high repute as poets… But as Greece had a Plato why may we not have a Platoess?”

For researchers, the long-forgotten, local “Platoess” has proved near-mythic to examine. A great deal of excellent biographical spadework has been done by Ron Welburn, in Hartford’s Ann Plato and the Native Borders of Identity (Albany: SUNY Press, 2015). Ann Plato presents a critical dilemma for scholars, as Welburn points out, since she “left neither entry nor exit signs,” opting to blur her contributions within the historical record. Tracing Plato’s education from eastern Long Island to her Connecticut teaching career, Welburn weaves in the intellectual “places in between,” where Ann Plato also thrived: praying at the Talcott Street (Colored) Congregational Church, publishing poetry in The Colored American newspaper, and––like so many other Americans––possibly wending her way West, to Iowa, in the Reconstruction era. To deal with Plato on any critical level is tough. Though she produced several shorter (and often near/anonymous) pieces, Ann Plato’s legacy rises or falls on her single volume, Essays. Between her conduct book’s rote lines lies a wealth of African-Americans’ sense of experience, education, history. A pastiche of prose parables, morality tales, advice for youths, and poetry humming with political and religious commentary: Ann Plato’s book is at home in the early republic.

Plato’s Essays split along three paths, marked out “Prose,” “Biographies,” and “Poetry.” To read Plato is to sink fully into the antebellum schoolroom. The first section instructs the reader via “lessons from nature,” outlining the Christian principles of education, diligence, and obedience needed to frame a good character. Youth remains the best “season” to cultivate ideal habits. Plato’s voice steers the narrative; she is quiet but firm. In one essay, she frets that her female pupils will favor making a “showy appearance” more than “prizing the gift” of entrance into the “temple of knowledge.” In another piece, she urges students to excel, since “mediocrity is a proof of weakness; and perfection may always be purchased by application.” Like her literary peers, Ann Plato keeps her “Prose” primly aspirational with “Eminence from Obscurity,” a listicle of “great” European men who have “risen from humble stations” and laboring lives to become artists and scholars.

Plato wraps up “Prose” with a trinity of tragic reflections. “Life is Short” documents the first moments of new orphans, in freefall after a family funeral. “Death of the Christian,” a shorter and more ambitious work, namechecks a set of classical and modern references (Caesar, Pollok, Byron, Chesterfield, Addison). There, Plato reels in cultured readers with her impressive grasp of Anglo-American literature. Then she steps back, sealing her conclusion with an appeal to godly virtue. “Learn with what superior dignity of mind a Christian can die,” Plato writes. Certainly, Pennington’s “authoress” knew her audience, for Plato folds lost friends into her saga. The second part, “Biographies,” features short eulogies of four women, all local acquaintances who died young (likely of consumption). Using their lives to reinforce cherished notions of Christian morality and youthful piety, Plato attempts women’s biography with sentimental verve. Industrious, mild, and ever sweetened by death’s approach, Plato’s subjects melt and sway into one another’s path. Plato is more interested in presenting a template than a person, putting her work in line with the religious tracts, advice books, and “manners” novels that fellow New Englanders enjoyed. Then, in the space of a few stanzas, Plato turns inward, and against the crowd.

Ann Plato is best known for her poem, “The Natives of America,” an eloquent reflection on her biracial identity, which features prominently in her Essays’ final pages. Go ahead, read it. Plato opens in a familiar, Longfellow-esque tone, with a child begging for a story from her father’s lap. But the narrative she learns is one of conquest and loss. Here is a key sample: “Wars ensued. They knew the handling of firearms. / Mothers spoke,––no fear this breast alarms, / They will not cruelly us oppress, / Or thus our lands possess. / Alas it was a cruel day; we were crush’d: / Into the dark woods we rush’d / To seek a refuge. / My daughter, we are now diminish’d, unknown, / Unfelt! Alas! no tender tone / To cheer us when the hunt is done; / Fathers sleep––we’re silent every one.” If Plato’s individual eulogies run drab, embroidered with obligatory accents of Christian piety, her reconstruction of the Native American experience is raw, powerful, and worth your read.

Part of why I began this project was to read more early American thinkers who sensed their histories, like Phillis Wheatley’s or Ann Plato’s, were diminished, unfelt, unknown. Reading Ann Plato’s republic is a way to understand the kind of historical figure extolled by Anna Julia Cooper in A Voice From the South (1892), the “open-eyed but hitherto voiceless Black Woman of America.” It’s also a route to retrace how early American women wrote about themselves en route to Seneca Falls, through the Civil War, beyond the cultural upheavals of Reconstruction, and into a modern realm of world literature that Phillis Wheatley glimpsed, far too briefly. For, as “A Lady from Philadelphia,” asked in an 1885 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine: “Why should not the coming novelist be a woman as well as an African? She––the woman of that race––has some claims on Fate which are not yet paid up.”

~ Sara Georgini is a Historian & Series Editor, Adams Papers, @MHS1791. Ph.D., #BU. Views=mine, #history for all (Bio notes credit: author’s own on her Twitter page)

~ This piece was originally published in the Society for U.S. Intellectual History Blog on December 21st, 2016

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Goodbye, Dear Leonard Cohen!

leonard-cohen-2008-by-rama-own-work-cc-by-sa-2-0-via-wikimedia-commons

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

‘I’ve been listening
To all the dissension
I’ve been listening
To all the pain
And I feel that no matter
What I do for you
It’s going to come back again
But I think that I can heal it
But I think that I can heal it
I’m a fool, but I think I can heal it
With this song’

– Leonard Cohen, ‘Minute Prologue’ from Live Songs, 1973

I heard of Leonard Cohen’s death when I returned home from work yesterday evening. Thursdays are my long day at the doctor’s office, and by the time I left, we had cared for about sixty patients, and I had just enough time on my short break to do a little reading and quickly tuck a little lunch away. No time for social media or news and no interest in them either, weary from election coverage and its aftermath.

So I learned of his death not from the cold glow of a screen but from the living face of my husband Bryan, who is also one of my oldest friends. We’ve sung Cohen’s songs together countless times over the years as he played guitar, or a capella while driving, which I especially love to do…. Read the full written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!