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"Wipe Thyself": Audubon's Mysterious Ledger
July 12, 2023

Page from the Audubon Ledger, Collections of the Lilly Library, 1842-44.


A revised version of piece first published on the blog of the Lilly Library.Ⓒ Christoph Irmscher, 2023


In the spring of 2016, the Lilly Library acquired a handsome ledger bound in sturdy marble-covered boards. Dubbed the "Audubon Ledger" by bookseller Donald Heald, the volume had been in the possession of Audubon's great-granddaughter, Margaret Audubon McCormick until it was sold at Sotheby's on January 26, 1983. The earliest entry in the book dates from December 10, 1842; the latest was made on February 14, 1844.

    The Audubon Ledger is a treasure trove for the scholar: it is chock-full with lists documenting Audubon's income and expenditures as he was finishing work on the Royal Octavo edition of The Birds of America (1840-1844) and beginning to launch his new venture, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Eight pages of draft letters, all in the handwriting of Audubon's son Victor Gifford, add to the documentary value of the collection. But the Ledger has something else to offer too, something more unexpected. Among the 70-plus pages of lists we find an example of a different kind of bookkeeping, a mysterious page-long aside, in Audubon's own handwriting, consisting of nothing but a stream of words, slathered on the page in no apparent order and, it seems, with near-complete disregard to meaning. Complete sentences are the exception rather than the rule.


Transcription p. 219: Second Course

Acquisition and use of Words in little sentences Wipe Pocket to wash Fish, Wipe, Table, deceits Smoke Pad Bush–Tables, Indian Ink Pocket Ashes Ashes Towels to wipe, to wash, to catch to pilfer dainties to extinguish, to listen, to smoke to draw with water color to wipe wiped mixed washed pilfered between already beautiful, Shine shrine rail sight The table is high, The pocket is wide, Pilfe not that is not nice Wipe thy self. Bath Thread Needle Wheel Bath Oath envy harm song Songs box, calf, (maggot, mite) fashion tired waste booth both Silk (Willow pasture) boundary Box boxes thread hurt to separate to avoid (Willows to pasture) neither again Songs leather feather (cart load, a tan) mould vein quarrel noble herd, poodle, nudel, needles, skull, there, there that the to the the thine one no mine his (clear pure) Wine by shine flax stone. The wheel is on the wagon The mite is in the cheese The Willow is a tree. Roof week to travel (to range to string) Book Brook Roof partition ah I me self thee (yet, however) (still, yet) high hole leek Stomach breath smoke, rich soft proud cloth Book beech (search to sack) (matter thing affair) revenge (guard watch) week cook kitchen oak corpse (pool laughter) to laugh—to make to pilfer throat to rake to reach rays to cook cake The book is new The brook is deep The beech is a tree The smoke comes out of the chimney.


The page that precedes this strange jumble of words (p. 214) is as ordinary as they come: a list of monies the Audubons had collected in New York City on July 14, 1844, from subscribers to the Royal Octavo edition. It is, as is most everything else in the volume, in Victor Gifford Audubon's handwriting. Subsequent pages seem to have been cut out, and the number at the top of our strange meditation has been corrected to read "219."

    It's difficult at first to discern some kind of principle behind this profusion of words. Some come from the same semantic field ("wipe," "wash," "bath" "clear," "pure"), some are repeated a number of times ("wipe" occurs, in somewhat different form six times; "pilfer" and "smoke" three times; "wash" twice). Sometimes Audubon's words acquire an incantatory quality and sound displaces meaning: "to rake to reach rays to cook cake." Other passages—especially the few fully formed sentences—are almost embarrassingly simple, as if they had been lifted from a children's picture book: "The wheel is on the wagon The mite is in the cheese The Willow is a tree." "The smoke comes out of the chimney."

    As we read on, elements of a landscape begin to emerge—willows, beech trees, a brook, a pasture, a house with a roof and a kitchen, smoke coming from the chimney. (I am immediately reminded of the "inscrutable house" in Elizabeth Bishop's wonderful poem "Sestina.") Then there is the feel of things, the soft, rich cloth of a dress (made of silk?) worn, perhaps, by a mother. "Pilfer not," she might have said to her child, "that is not nice." And: "Wipe thyself." We have, indeed, entered a child's world, as the novelist Katherine Govier pointed out to me when I showed her a copy of that page. But Audubon was a child not in England or America, where mothers or maids would have said such things. He grew up in Napoleon's blood-drenched France, raised by his stepmother. The sounds made in this text—"Wheel Bath Oath," "waste booth both," "nudel, needles, skull," "book Brook Roof""—are entirely English, as is the landscape it evokes, however confusedly. Sing willow, willow, willow.

     This page, then, evokes a childhood Audubon never really had, at least not in that form, a childhood he therefore couldn't have outgrown. Hence, too, the sense of loss that pervades this page, a loss of purity and perhaps of life—the mite in the cheese, the maggot, the ashes, the skull, the corpse. Pilfer not, the mother once said, and yet Audubon did, his entire adult life, when he entered into, and took away, the lives of birds. And the need to "wipe thyself" would have been immediately clear to someone who spent his days wading through dirt and blood. Birds weren't "nice" in their habits, Audubon once said (in his essay about the Shoveler Duck; Ornithological Biography 241). But neither was he. "To draw with watercolor," Audubon writes, close to the beginning of our page: an apparent reference to the work he did. And he goes on to define what he did: "to wipe wiped mixed washed pilfered between already beautiful." All watercolors on the world could not wash out the damn'd spots each killing of a bird—of a living thing that was "already beautiful," something that didn't need the artist to make it so—left in him. 

    This is all speculation, you might say, a fantasy. The title of the page ("Second Course") and dry-and-dust subtitle ("Acquisition and use….") might just mean that Audubon was reading a grammar textbook at the time and taking notes. But for whom? Or had the insecurities he had felt as a non-native speaker finally caught up with him? In a journal he kept in England in 1826, he referred to himself as a man who "never Lookd into an English grammar" (Writings 186). But by the mid-1840s, he was widely respected as writer, even by other writers: Longfellow, for example, based his Evangeline partly on the descriptions of Louisiana he had found in Audubon's essays. But maybe he was collecting words because he was getting ready to teach his grandchildren about homonyms and synonyms and the like? Thomas Brewer, who visited Audubon on July 4, 1846, did attest to Audubon's fondness for the "rising generation" (Herrick 2: 288).

    However, the sheer difficulty of the fragment casts doubt on these more pedestrian readings. What good are notes that make no sense? And speaking of non-sense, perhaps this text is a clinical document more than anything else. Audubon's dementia became an established fact in May 1848, when his friend John Bachman visited him on his estate and found the naturalist's "noble mind all in ruins" (Herrick 2: 289). But this change had not happened overnight—as early as July 1847, Spencer Fullerton Baird found his former mentor "much changed" (Herrick 2:288). Did the first signs of his illness announce themselves even earlier? We now know for sure what Alzheimer patients have perhaps always known intuitively, namely that language dysfunction is one of the first indications of the disease. And we also know, and some of us have probably experienced it when taking are of a family member, that dementia patients still retain a measure of control over "a lexical phonological system that is used to repeat both known and novel words and that processes linguistic information independent of its meaning" (Glosser et al.).

    But what if the last part of that statement—that there is no meaning in these repetitions—isn't true after all? What if all we needed to do is listen? What if meaning—if of a different, more fantastical, speculative kind—still resides somewhere even in the lexicon of the troubled mind, waiting for the right person to unlock it? "The brook is deep." John James continues to baffle and trouble us.



Audubon, John James. Ornithological Biography, or An Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America: Accompanied by Descriptions of the Objects Represented in the Work entitled The Birds of America, and Interspersed with Delineations of American Scenery and Manners. Vol. 4. Edinburgh: Judah Dobson, 1839.


—. Writings and Drawings. Ed. Christoph Irmscher. New York: Library of America, 1999.


Glosser, Guila and Susan E. Kohn, Rhonda B. Friedman, Laura Sands, Patrick Grugan, "Repetition of Single Words and Nonwords in Alzheimer's Disease." Cortex, 33. 4 (1997): 653-666.


Herrick, Francis Hobart. Audubon the Naturalist: A History of His Life and Time. 2 vols. New York: Appleton, 1917.



America Ends in Vienna'
July 5, 2022

Galápagos tortoise at the Vienna Natural History Museum. Photograph by the Author.

Franz Steindachner (1834-1919) was the curator of the fish, amphibian, and reptile collections at the Natural History Museum in Vienna when his work on South American fish came to the attention of the world-famous Professor Louis Agassiz at Harvard University. Always on the prowl for talent he could exploit, Agassiz invited Steindachner to come work with him. Steindachner became a key participant in Agassiz's "Hassler" expedition (1871-73), which traveled along the eastern coast of South America through the Straits of Magellan to the Galapagos Islands before ending up in San Francisco.

    At first, Dr. Steindachner didn't have an easy time adjusting to his new American environment. There were no coffee houses in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and everything cost an arm and a leg, as he compained to his sister back home--she wouldn't believe him if he told her how much he had to pay for a simple water pitcher. While Steindachner liked the way American women looked ("thin and graceful as sycamore trees," a remark aimed directly at his pastry-loving relatives in Vienna), he thought the men were strange and offish. They looked like "manservants." And everyone was talking too fast, swallowing half the syllables in each word they uttered. 

    To be sure, Dr. Steindachner had come with his own share of idiosyncrasies. It is said that when he was summoned for an audience with Emperor Franz-Joseph, he inked his underwear so no one would see the hole in the seat of his black pants. In another celebrated instance, when he was in the process of returning to Austria from Brazil, he traveled hundreds of miles back to Monaco to retrieve an umbrella he had forgotten.

    But never mind that umbrella—in Steindachner's universe, fish trumped everything. He thought nothing of keeping visitors waiting for hours when he was preoccupied with his ichthyological collections. Despite his eccentricities (or perhaps because of them), people found him instantly endearing. Steindachner was "like a woman," noted Elizabeth Agassiz, Louis Agassiz's wife, who got to know him well during the Hassler expedition, "kind and unobtrusive,—as obliging as he is modest" and seemingly immune to heat, rain, or sun: "he works through every thing—up early & to bed late and always busy."

    Steindachner's persistence exponentially increased the number of specimens Agassiz's men collected, though it apparently it was lost on the ship's pet parrot, who refused to learn to say "Guten Morgen" ("I fear me he is a stupid bird"). In one really unexpected way, however, Steindachner's doggedness paid off in spades. At the end of the Hassler expedition, precisely because no one would have thought him capable of such a thing, he nabbed a large part of Agassiz's natural history loot for his museum in Vienna. The great Agassiz himself liked to boast that, during the Hassler voyage, his team had netted thirty thousand specimens. But we also know that only seven thousand specimens actually made it to Harvard—you do the math. All Dr. Steindachner had to do is readress the barrels.

    It appears that, for all the gratitude he professed, Steindachner had maintained a healthy skepticism toward his mentor's skewed ideological principles. In his Schlangen und Eidechsen der Galapagos-Inseln (1876), instead of engaging in the Darwin demonization his mentor would have required, Steindachner quietly agreed with most of the scientific observations about these islands Darwin had shared in his Voyage of the Beagle.

    For example, Steindachner directly engages with Darwin in his comments on Amblyrhynchus cristatus, a species of marine iguana endemic to the Galápagos. Much of this description is vintage Steindachner, an exact accounting of how many scales one finds on the head and where, of the position of the nostrils, and of the pigments on their skin. Even the animal's lips, used to scrape seaweed of the rocks, are described with absolute precision: they consist of twelve to thirteen small square scales, growing in size and breadth towards the ninth or tenth infralabial plate (the scale bordering on the lower jaw), whereas the median plate, the scutum mentale, is smaller and has a blunt tip. And so forth. The marine iguana, in Steindachner's hands, becomes a work of art. Whereas Darwin's notes go on about how stupid these lizards were, Steindachner watches them disappear when humans approach, smartly retreating into the safety of the water.

    Like Darwin, Steindachner devotes several pages to the non-swimming variant of the Galápagos lizard, the land iguana. After extensive notes about the animal's skin, coloring, and skeleton, he allows himself only a slight demurral from his model Darwin, pointing out that these lizards aren't in fact always smaller than their sea-going relatives, as Darwin had claimed: several of the individuals Steindachner caught on Albemarle Island (now Isabela) weighed in at a whopping 22 pounds. 

    When he left Cambridge for Vienna in 1873, Steindachner avoided saying good-bye to his boss. He was done with an approach to nature that uneasily mixed fieldwork and theology. If Agassiz's science consisted in counting the scales on a snake's back to prove that the location where he had found the animal was the very place where God had originally created it (or rather its ancestors), Steindachner was content to count just the scales, and, because he wasn't distracted by thoughts of God, to do a better job of counting them than anybody else. His superiors paid attention: In 1876, Steindachner became director of the "Zoological Court Cabinet" at the museum; twenty-two years later, he ascended to the museum's directorship.

    One of the most illustrious ichthyologists of his time, Steindachner was as self-effacing as Louis Agassiz was blustery and pompous. Uncontaminated by Agassiz's virulent racism, Steindachner easily reconciled his passion for fieldwork with a pragmatic understanding of museum culture. He was the cosmopolitan scientist his friend Agassiz, for all his worldliness, never became. As Dr. Steindachner noted proudly in a letter to Elizabeth Agassiz,"'In Wien faengt Europa an" (In Vienna, Europe begins). By the same token, one could also say that, given Franz Steindachner's success in funneling Agassiz's specimens to his Austrian museum, Vienna was where America, or parts of it, ended.  


For more on  Steindachner, see my new article, "'In Gedanken in America': The Evolution of Franz Steindachner," just published in Transatlantic Elective Affinities, ed. Waldemar Zacharasiewicz and Herta Nagl-Docekal (Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2021), 79-106. The current essay, as well as the longer article, are based on original research in the Naturgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna. 

Florence Goes to Hollywood
January 4, 2021

As I was writing my biography of the socialist writer Max Eastman, I became obsessed with finding out more about the woman who played an outsized role in his life, even though their relationship, rocky from the beginning, lasted for less than six years.

     Florence Deshon, whose real name was Florence Danks, was an aspiring movie actress from Seattle who had already enjoyed some success in Vitagraph movies when Eastman fell in love with her, leaving his wife, the activist Ida Rauh, and his four-year-old son Daniel without ever looking back. More committed to her career than to Max, however, Florence accepted an invitation from Samuel Goldwyn and, in July 1919, relocated to Hollywood. During two tempestuous years, Florence and Max stayed in almost daily touch through the letters and telegrams they exchanged, which Cooper Graham and I have now collected, with extensive narrative commentary. Love and Loss in Hollywood will be published by Indiana University Press in February 2021.

     While Max remained in New York and continued to edit The Liberator, Florence starred in a variety of Hollywood movies, most of which are lost today. The handful that have survived, among them Dollars and Sense (1910) and The Loves of Letty (1919), show that she had charisma and talent galore and was destined for even greater success. Now separated by thousands of miles, both Florence and Max engaged in affairs, Max with the dancer Lisa Duncan, of "Isadorables" fame, and Florence with Charlie Chaplin, who got her pregnant (the child died in utero). Florence's story did not end well—Goldwyn broke his contract with her, for reasons that aren't clear today, and she returned to New York, where she and Max bickered. Florence died, 28 years old, on February 4, 1922, likely by her own hand, a story that we recreate in more extensive detail in Love and Loss.

     As part of my efforts to make Florence come alive again, I visited Hollywood in the summer of 2014. First, I went to the Academy Archives, where curators screened the only surviving copy of The Loves of Letty for me, a memorable experience. Florence was every bit as good in the film as she herself felt she was (see her letter to Max, September 4, 1919). I must admit, though, that my appreciation of the film was a little dampened by the fact that, in the version held by the Academy Archives, the intertitles were in French. Attempting to translate them for the curators, who were watching the film with me, I inevitably missed out on some of the nuances of the film's exceedingly convoluted plot.  

     More successful was my quest to find Florence's former apartment at 6220 DeLongpre Avenue, where she had moved towards the end of 1919, after sending her needy and petulant mother Flora "Caroline" (who had initially joined her) home to New York. Florence likely knew who Paul de Longpré was. A successful, self-taught painter of flowers originally from France, de Longpré had arrived in Southern California in 1899. Daeida Wilcox Beveridge, often considered the "Mother of Hollywood," was so excited by the appearance of a man considered the "Le Roi des Fleurs" (the King of Flowers) that she allowed him to buy, for a discount price, a large lot she owned on Cahuenga and the northwest corner of Prospect Boulevard (later Hollywood Boulevard). It was there that de Longpré built his Moorish style mansion surrounded by lavish flower gardens, which were open to the public and where the artist himself could often be found going for walks. De Longpré's property became fledgling Hollywood's first tourist attraction. D.W. Griffith's syrupy fairy-tale short, Love Among the Roses (1910), starring a young Mary Pickford, was filmed in de Longpré's gardens, with the painter's sumptuous residence providing a suitable backdrop.

      De Longpré died on June 29, 1911, aged only 56, and his family returned to Europe. But his house was still there when Florence moved to the area in 1919. An early attempt to name Prospect Boulevard after de Longpré failed, but he got what later became Florence's street as a consolation prize. I bet she liked the association: de Longpré was, by all accounts, civic-minded, charming, and well-liked, a far cry from the abusive Hollywood moguls she came to despise very quickly: "They do nothing but brag about their power and what they have done for girls, and what they could do for me," Florence wrote disgustedly after a dinner with two of the men in charge, Joe Godsol, Goldwyn's business partner and eventual successor, and Hiram Abrams, managing director of United Artists (to Max, January 9, 1920).

     There was ample compensation, though: Florence loved sun-bathed southern California, and she enjoyed her new residence, which at the time overlooked green meadows. Built in 1917, the house sports four units and eight bathrooms; its market value today (it came up for sale at the beginning of last year) is $6 million. Florence lived on the ground floor, in an apartment she had taken care to furnish herself. It was here that, in April 1920, she was visited by Gordon Brooke, a writer for Picture-Play, who was deeply impressed with her and found rumors, actively encouraged by Florence herself, that she was at least partly a "gypsy," entirely credible. (She appears not to have stressed the fact that, at least on her mother's side, she was of Jewish descent). Brooke admired the silken blinds, the cozy fireplace, the blue carpeting made of soft velvet, and the tasteful furniture (a writing desk, some wicker chairs and a wicker table, the lounge that had an orange throw draped over it), all painted "olive-leaf gray" to match the walls, which were "powdery-gray as though dusted with pollen" and which Florence had decorated with original paintings, one by the neoclassical painter Maxfield Parrish, and a strip of Japanese paper that looked coppery in the electric light.

     Of course, I wasn't able to inspect the apartment itself. But seeing the exterior somehow was enough. I had spent so much time with Florence, at least in my imagination, reading her and Max's mail, tracking down references, adding dates where they had omitted them, trying to reconstruct their inner lives. The writer and photographer Wright Morris said that people who have once lived in a house live in it forever: "There's something in the rooms, in the air, that raising the windows won't let out, and something in the yard that you can't rake out of the grass" (The Home Place, 1948). Standing in front of Florence's house, I told myself I could still feel her presence, could see the people who would come there, Max Eastman, who spent the nights with her when he was in town, their window open to the soft breeze, but also Charlie Chaplin, or that half-crazy English actor Reginald Pole, who would drop in "at all times of the day and night" and drone on, comparing Florence to "every known[n] Greek Goddess and Italian Madon[n]a" (January 15, 1920). Theodore Dreiser also stopped by for tea, listening to her rant about Max's "slickness." Were some of the magnolia trees lining DeLongpre still the same ones that Florence and her visitors would have walked under in 1920? Upon closer inspection, the low fence around the small garden plot in front of the house, where the Picture-Play photographer took a picture of Florence's sitting contemplatively next to a little ornamental pond, looks a bit like the fence that is there today.

     Hollywood, to be sure, has changed considerably since 1920: said fence is quite a bit higher, the windows on Florence's house are now gated, and there are the inevitable "No Trespassing" signs. But the mild smell of marihuana blanketing DeLongpre might serve as a reminder of the different era of social experimentation fully embraced, so many decades ago, by the politically and sexually liberated Florence, who was legendary for driving her Ford Model T at breakneck speeds all over town (she had a few crashes, too). And, come to think of it, burglars were also very much on Florence's mind at that time, especially when, after reading in the Hollywood papers about a murder that had happened in New York, she discovered her front lock wasn't working properly (to Max, February 12, 1920).

     Having stared at Florence's house for a good long while in the waning light of that warm summer evening, I asked a man who was lingering near the fence and looked as if he'd just emerged from the house if I could take some pictures. "Go right ahead, buddy." I walked as close to the house as I dared, rushing to capture at least some of what I had seen before the sun went down. When I was done, I thanked the man profusely. "Okay," he said, taking a drag from what I now realized probably wasn't a cigarette. "It's not my house, you know."


Louis Agassiz, Relocated
October 10, 2020

Earlier this week, the president of Stanford University, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, and Stanford's Board of Trustees approved a campus committee's recommendation to remove the name of the university's first president, David Starr Jordan (1851-1931), from Jordan Hall, home of Stanford's Department of Psychology. In addition, the marble statue of Jordan's mentor, Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), affixed to the exterior of Jordan Hall, will be relocated. Agassiz and Jordan had it coming: at Stanford as well as elsewhere, the shadow of their long-discredited ideas--polygenism, racial segregation, and, in Jordan's case, eugenics—had become too long to ignore. The last nail in the coffin of Jordan's legacy was the publication earlier this year of Lulu Miller's brilliant Why Fish Don't Exist, a reckoning with Jordan's relentlessly optimistic way of doing science filtered through the unforgiving mirror of Miller's own life experiences. Indiana University Bloomington, where Jordan had served as professor of natural history and as president before Leland and Jane Stanford recruited him in 1891 as their founding president, has just announced that it will rename its version of Jordan Hall and likely other campus landmarks, too, such as the iconic creek that winds its way through the campus.


Of the two fallen scientists, Agassiz is receiving the lighter punishment—relocation, not removal. As Agassiz's last biographer (and as someone who had advocated for renaming Jordan Hall on the campus of my university) I was struck by the reasons the Stanford administrators gave for holding on to the statue, if in a different place: not Agassiz's undisputed scientific achievements in glaciology, ichthyology, or embryology, but the simple fact that he—or, rather, his marble effigy—had been removed once before, though not by administrators. A Stanford University news release explained the decision by pointing to "the iconic imagery showing the statue's head stuck in concrete after being dislodged in the 1906 earthquake." The marble Agassiz had, the writer went on, thus become "an educational example demonstrating important principles in rock rheology (the study of the strength of Earth materials)."


To skeptical minds, this explanation might sound just a little bogus. Surely there are other, better examples one could find to aid in rheological demonstration? Or is Stanford planning to stick the statue back into the concrete again, so that it might serve as a more authentic teaching tool?


The irony is that Stanford's reasoning would have made sense to Agassiz himself. When he died in his house on Eliot Street in Cambridge on December 14, 1873, Agassiz was one of the most famous scientists in the world. His stubborn resistance to Darwinism had rendered much of his work obsolete even before his death, but his institutional influence lasted. Just a few months before his death, he had convened the first American summer school of natural history on Penikese Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. He had also invited a dozen or so women to attend, something unheard of in a scientific culture that still defined itself as exclusively male. The Penikese school was an extraordinary event in the history of American science, and to many of his contemporaries, even those who had long sided with Darwin, it was inconceivable that Agassiz had died so soon after the culmination of his efforts to popularize science. While Agassiz's seaside classroom on Penikese Island did not survive for more than a year after his death, several of his former students went on to create similar opportunities, among them the two oldest such institutions on the East and West Coast of the United States, the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1888, and the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University in Pacific Grove, California, in 1892. (For more on this topic, see my Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science and my edition of Louis Agassiz's Introduction to the Study of Natural History.)


Then, on April 21, 1906, the devastating California earthquake hit the region. Agassiz's statue toppled from its shelf on the façade of what was then the Zoology Building. The marble Agassiz plunged headfirst into the ground, where he stayed, feet in the air, his upper body buried up to the shoulders. The statue's swift, undignified descent became a sight to see, and Stanford students had their pictures taken with the fallen idol. In one snapshot I acquired, Stanford student Percy Blodget can be seen, looking dapper in a sports coat, tie, and jaunty hat, next to the overturned Agassiz. Mr. Blodget's left hand rests casually on the tip of Agassiz's left foot, his cocky upright posture providing a comical counterpoint to the half-hidden professor.


We know that that this is Percy Blodget because the inked inscription, written perhaps by the friend who held the camera, identifies him as such, and while we know little else about him, we can at least say with some certainty that he was a member of the Beth Chapter of Stanford's Acacia fraternity. Had Percy and his friend made a special trip to the statue to have their pictures taken? It doesn't even matter if the bicycle, seen leaning against a pillar on the left, belonged to Percy; what matters is that the juxtaposition of bicycle and tumbled-down statue helps create a contrast between the present moment casually inhabited by the likes of Mr. Blodget, vibrant and alive even when interrupted by an earthquake, and a petrified past, stiffly monumentalized in statues that aren't even earthquake-proof.


 Verso of photograph of Percy Blodget


When David Starr Jordan, whose own laboratory was significantly damaged by the earthquake, came to take a look at his mentor's statue, he heard someone quip: "Agassiz was great in the abstract but not in the concrete," a sentiment Jordan liked so much that he reported it in his autobiography. It was a good joke, to be sure, but Jordan himself must have known that it wasn't true. Agassiz's greatest quality was precisely his concreteness. What students most remembered about his lectures were the specimens he brought to class, pulling them out of his pockets as he asked his audience to touch them, or the illustrations he skillfully sketched on the blackboard. Coming from the mountains of Switzerland, where he and his assistants had spent more time than in the classrooms of the local college, Agassiz emphasized the value of fieldwork to his American students—the only way, as he put it, to "catch nature in the act" or, in his native French, "prendre la nature sur le fait." He established the first oceanographic laboratory in the history of American science on the shore of Nahant, where "hundreds of ... medusae might be seen floating together in deep glass bowls."




But Agassiz was also an unabashed, visceral racist; it was for his benefit that the now infamous Zealy daguerreotypes of enslaved people (kept at Harvard's Peabody Museum) were taken. A new volume just published by Peabody University Press, To Make Their Own Way in the World, edited by Ilisa Barbash, Molly Rogers, and Deborah Willis, offers the most fully contextualized account yet of these images as well as of Agassiz's involvement in their production.


Whether the Stanford committee realized it nor not, Agassiz would have welcomed the rationale behind the committee's recommendation to relocate his statue instead of removing it and to treat it as an object lesson in "rock rheology." Whether he would have appreciated that he himself had become the object in question is less obvious. But it seems abundantly clear that, Percy Blodget's cockiness notwithstanding, we remain beholden to the past Agassiz embodies. The most important lesson Agassiz teaches us—one reinforced and fully explored by the essays in To Make Their Own Way in the World—is that whatever we might prize about that past (e.g. having inaugurated a new way of learning about the world that has reformed our academic practice) is inextricably tied to those aspects of it (e.g. the legacy of pervasive racism) that we would have hoped to have discarded but that continue to cripple our political and personal lives today. We have not become modern yet, not by a long shot.  


Photographs in this newsletter are all from the collections of Christoph Irmscher and may not be reproduced without prior written permission.

A Kereru, Undeceived
October 12, 2019

The gorgeous new editon of my Poetics of Natural History, which was just published by Rutgers University Press, includes photographs by Rosamond Purcell, one of the leading photographers of our time. I have admired Purcell for a long time, and I couldn't be prouder to have my work accompany hers. The connections between Purcell and the naturalists discussed in my book are obvious, as are the differences. In a decades-long career, which includes three collaborative projects with Stephen Jay Gould (Illuminations: A Bestiary, 1986; Finders, Keepers, 1993; Crossing Over, 2000), Purcell has become widely known for her unsettling still-lifes of human-made and natural objects and she has shown considerable interest in natural history museums, which both fascinate and appall her. Purcell's nature is to be found indoors—today the only space where Carolina Parakeets or Passenger Pigeons, their disemboweled, arsenic-dusted bodies arranged in parallel lines in drawers or stuffed into boxes, can still be found. Purcell's photographs frequently show the aftermath of massacres: her birds, instead of flying high, are lying low, resting on beds made by the dead wings of other members of their species. As Herman Melville once said, in a different context, "What like a bullet can undeceive" ("Shiloh: A Requiem"). 


Museums are, Purcell wrote in an incisive essay included in her book Swift As a Shadow (1991), "a way of closing out the cosmos from which each creature came." As ecosystems collapse, museums begin to replace the cosmos, that "inextricable network of organisms" that Alexander von Humboldt had once tried to capture. And they do so at a price. In the natural history museum, explains Purcell, an essential part of the animal's or plant's history is lost: "there is not enough room on the card or in the catalogue to report how the philosopher, the villager, the forest dweller or the poet saw the animal walk, crawl, zigzag, or soar." The museum, one might add, cannot preserve either the memory of how the dead animal saw us walk, how it saw us walk towards it, how in the final moments of that animal's life, fear would have taken over all other impulses, the paralyzing knowledge that all it was used to doing, what it enjoyed doing, was about to end. In death, the animal becomes a specimen, our specimen. If the museum tells us little about the animal itself, it tells us all about what we did to it after its death in order to confirm its deadness. Turned into a natural history specimen, the animal absorbs into its dead body the marks of our preservation attempts, "the straw, metal, and cotton poking through the skin," the hooks, bolts, and wires needed to fix it into place or to make it fit into a drawer or box.


Survival in the natural history collection is, obviously, different from survival in the wild.  It depends on the amount of data gathered about a specimen: the field notes, the record of the date of its capture, a reference to the place of its origin. History, in the natural history museum, is less history of nature or even history of a specific animal but the history of our interactions with it, which is, precisely, the topic of my book.


Consider Purcell's photograph of a Norfolk Island Pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae spadicea), which serves as the frontispiece for the section on "representing" in my book, a triad of chapters dealing with stories surrounding the power of snakes in American natural history, with Audubon's Birds of America, and, finally, with Louis Agassiz's Amazon Valley expedition. The Norfolk Island Pigeon, known also as the Norfolk kereru (an onomatopoetic word Maori word), was a subspecies of the New Zealand pigeon, a large, handsome, fruit-eating bird indigenous to a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean about 800 miles west of the coast of the Australian mainland, the site of one of England's worst penal colonies. Norfolk Island is so remote that, by 1814, the European settlers had left again, but not before exterminating the Norfolk pigeon, which, unlike them, had had no problem living there. The last Norfolk kereru was seen in 1801. (The Europeans, though they had vowed never to return, were back by 1825). 


Purcell's kereru is shown lying beak down in a box, as if it had just fallen out of the sky, wings folded, the tail sticking up awkwardly, the head buried deep in the corner of the box, where it casts a shadow around it. But the white wrapping paper, the cardboard box, the cloth-covered table on which it sits, the label attached to what we assume is the bird's foot, remind us that this is not a natural but a museum setting. Purcell's is a composed image, for sure. The red on the bird's neck, the specks of pink on its plumage echo the red cloth; the brownish tips of the tail feathers provide a transition between the lighter brown of the box and the dark brown background. The image as a whole has a kind of sunset-like feel. Red suggests royalty (the kereru as a fallen king?) but also bloodshed. This is a bird defeated and subdued, yet not: we cannot see the bird's face or eyes. Protected from our intrusive looking, the kereru shares with us only what we own anyway—its carcass, now labeled for easy identification. The gently billowing wrapping paper, the label that seems to arch up as if lifted by an invisible wind indicate movement, even animation: a parody of the life that has long left that bird's beautiful body. Surrounded by the darkness to which it already belongs, the kereru is displayed here not as if it were alive, but as if it were a gift being unwrapped only for the benefit of the human viewer.


In Purcell's photograph, the technology that preserves the specimen (represented by the label) is complemented by another technological intervention: the camera. Purcell is aware of that irony. In fact, her image doubles up on the unreality of the natural history specimen. Purcell's unboxed Norfolk Island kereru is deader than dead, a puppet in a spectral theater, something that, if it ever was a bird, was that a very long time ago. 


Purcell's memento mori is as powerful as it is ironic, because it's almost entirely useless: all the Norfolk kererus in the world perished a long time ago. But this near-uselessness is precisely the space in which art begins, where, in our case, it begins to question the premise on which the entire tradition of natural history rests, namely the assumption that we may look—in the words of Williams James, cited in the final chapter of my book—"on the vast diversity of living things as if [we] were there with authority to take mental possession of them all."

To Be Born Is to Be a Robinson Crusoe:
A New Edition of Stephen Spender’s Earliest Poems

July 29, 2019


Indiana University Press has just published a beautiful facsimile edition of Sir Stephen Spender's earliest poems, an unpublished chapbook titled "Poems Written Abroad" now in the collections of the Lilly Library. The introduction, transcriptions, and extensive notes were produced by me. I couldn't be more delighted with this handsomely designed book.


The poems, written by an anguished, recently orphaned 18-year-old who had been sent abroad to France and Switzerland to sort out his life, are clearly the work of a poet at the beginning of his career. Spender had been reading the Georgian poets (such as Rupert Brooke and Robert Graves) as well as Rimbaud and, more recently, T. S. Eliot—a complex mix of influences, to be sure. Some of his poetic conceits might seem contrived, his syntax at times comes across as a little tortured, and there are some of those clumsy rhymes to be expected from someone who is still working to find his own place in the universe of poetic possibilities that he has inherited.

That said, there are so many wonderful and effective texts in that chapbook, too, including a poem painting a despondent vision of the world as a place of universal slaughter, beginning with the animals ("brothers Ox, and Lamb"), whose killing in the name of God Spender likens to forms of Christian martyrdom. "Written after the Fête de Dieu at Nantes (June 16) on June 17th" was, as the title suggests, inspired by a parade held as part of the Festival of the Blessed Sacrament in Nantes. It ends on a chilling note: "And I shall think of how at Death's cold jaws / Christ's heart broke so loud men heard it crack." Yet Spender also knows that the "milkwhite horizon" of his impressionable mind, as he calls it in another poem ("Tail-piece"), fatally limits his ability to envision any change in the way the world works: "All men are creatures of vicinity, / And to their neighbours' thoughts, react or mound" ("Two Sonnets," II). 

Spender has sometimes been regarded as excessively self-absorbed, but "Written after..."  leaves us with a compelling picture of the emotional turmoil that the suffering of others would always cause him as he transformed himself into one of the more socially aware writers of the 20th century. As is well-known, he joined the Communist Party in 1936 and went to Spain to observe the Spanish Civil War for the Daily Worker. Even after he renounced communism and became, in the eyes of some, a bit of a Cold Warrior, Spender never relinquished his belief that poetry would lose its relevance when disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people.  

Spender was always honest about the inner ambivalences that made him a somewhat unreliable spokesman for political causes. In the essay he contributed to The  God that Failed—a signature 1949 collection, in which writers from André Gide to Richard Wright lined up to confess to their disillusionment with communism—Spender reflected critically on his own cushy upbringing and the social responsibility he felt in his childhood, even if such responsibility was the result of personal awareness rather than of political commitment: "What had impressed me most in the gospels was that all men are equals in the eyes of God, and that the riches of the few are an injustice to the many. My sense of the equality of men was based not so much on awareness of the masses as on loneliness. I can remember lying awake at night thinking of this human condition in which everyone living, without the asking, is thrust upon the earth, where he is enclosed within himself, a stranger to the rest of humanity, needing love and facing his own death."  

The crushing weight of loneliness as the root for the poet's desire to hold communion with others shapes Poems Written Abroad, as does young Spender's fervent wish to be able to enjoy, liberated from any feelings of guilt, the riches the world has to offer (by which he also meant sexual experiences).  And if Stephen Spender, descended from an entitled family or writers and artists, wasn't fully free to partake of such riches, who would be? "Since to be born is to be a Robinson Crusoe cast up by elemental powers upon an island," he continued in the 1949 essay, "how unjust it seems that all men are not free to share what nature offers here; that there should be men and women who are not permitted to explore the world into which they are born, but who are throughout their lives sealed into leaden slums as into living tombs."  Looking back on his youth, the private agonies of which are so vividly dramatized in Poems Written Abroad, Spender concludes: "It seems to me—as it still seems—that the unique condition of each person within life outweighs the considerations which justify class and privilege." A weak answer to the world's problems as well as to Spender's own predicament, some might say. But behind it lies, shrouded by the veil of typical Spenderian cautiousness, the conviction that Heaven becomes Hell only "if you would make it so" ("Two Sonnets,” II).

Max Eastman Translates Trotsky

"Translators and Their Props," The Lilly Library, October 29 - December 14

November 10, 2018

To celebrate this year’s 41st national convention of the American Literary Translator’s convention at the Lilly Library, Breon Mitchell, the Director Emeritus of the Lilly, curated an exhibit highlight materials drawn from the archives of important translators. I was privileged to be invited to curate a case focusing on Max Eastman’s activities as a translator and specifically his work with Leon Trotsky.

Max Eastman had met Trotsky during his stay in Moscow and at the Black Sea from 1922-1924. Married to Eliena Krylenko (1895-1956), the sister of Nikolai Krylenko, former commander of the Red Army and later Stalin’s minister of justice, Eastman had nativelike fluency in Russian. His first forays as a translator included a collection of Trotsky’s fugitive writings, The Real Situation in Russia (1928), and Alexander Pushkin’s poem Gabriel, with exquisite woodcuts by Rockwell Kent (1929). The highlight of Eastman’s translation work, however, was the English version of the monumental History of the Russian Revolution, which Trotsky had completed in his involuntary exile on Prinkipo Island (Büyükada), Turkey. An earlier work, Eastman’s translation of Trotsky’s biography of Lenin, Young Lenin, mysteriously vanished from his house in Croton-on-Hudson, only to resurface twenty years later at Harvard. It was published posthumously in 1972.

The case includes the lively and often funny journal Eastman kept in Russia from 1922-23. Traveling to Moscow by train, Eastman, without being able to speak the language yet, undertook his first Russian translation, a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, “Утёс” or “Mountain.” As he later recalled in his autobiography, the translation was a group effort, “Having found the words in the dictionary, I would of course have to guess their cases, tenses, and so on. This I managed with a little help from Russian passengers.” By the time he reached Moscow, on August 27, 1922, Eastman was finished. The translation eventually appeared in his collection Kinds of Love (1931). To Eastman, the lesson learned from this crowd-translation exercise was evident: “[The translator] must be primarily a writer, not a reader. Perhaps a profounder moral is that no poem is ever translated.” In the exhibit, the journal opens to the page on which Eastman had noted down, for ready reference, the letters of the Russian alphabet.

The centerpiece of the case is the third volume of Eastman’s translation of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (1933), in a copy once owned by W. E. D. Allen, a British diplomat, historian, and supporter of fascist Oswald Mosley. Allen was an expert on Georgia and the Caucasus. His extensive library, estimated, at the time of his death in 1973, to be worth about a half-million pounds, was acquired by the Lilly Library.

Trotsky was initially excited about Eastman’s work , but their relationship soured as their ideological differences increased (Eastman rejected Marx’s dialectical materialism as a form of religious thinking) increased. In a letter of March 15, 1933, for example, Trotsky criticized several of Eastman’s decisions, to which Eastman responded (in the margin of the letter): “Not a mistake.” Trotsky’s entire correspondence with Eastman is now housed at the Lilly.

Eliena Krylenko Eastman was an active (if largely unsung) collaborator in Eastman's activities. He relied on her expertise as a native speaker as well as on her services as a proofreader. As revealed in a letter from Eliena to Max, also on display, she occasionally enlisted the services of others to lighten her load (January 25, 1932). Here she describes, with her trademark dry wit, a proofreading session at her kitchen table, during which she was joined by Albert Glotzer, who had served as Trotsky’s guard in Turkey, and Glotzer’s wife Bertha. Everyone read through “the thing” one more time, “till Bertha’s eyes began to look in different directions, and Glotzer thought he is again on the boat with Trotsky.”

The inevitable finally happened. Incensed by Stalin’s ruthlessness (Eliena’s entire family had perished), Eastman realized that he could no longer call himself a socialist. And he broke with Trotsky, too. In Stalin’s Russia and the Crisis in Socialism (1940), represented in the exhibit by a copy from Eastman’s own library, he explained: “Those surrounding Trotsky accept the basic principles of totalitarian gang-rule, the one-party tyranny and immoralism in the cause of power, but promise that in a sufficiently advanced country, and provided the gang has the right leaders and a genuine proletarian policy, there will still emerge, even though like a rabbit out of a hat, the society of the free and equal” (p. 155). So much for dialectical materialism.

Remembering Eliena Eastman, Part II

Eliena Krylenko Eastman, Martha's Vineyard, 13.5 x 10 inches, oil on wood, before 1949. Collection Christoph Irmscher.

June 3, 2018

In 1942, Max and Eliena Krylenko Eastman took possession of their new home on East Pasture Road in Aquinnah (then Gay Head) on Martha’s Vineyard. The property also included a studio for Eliena, an A-frame, recently demolished, with two additional rooms, a large bedroom in the back and a smaller attic space on top, as well as a garage for their car. Eliena, a lawyer by training, had been painting seriously since she left the Soviet Union in 1926—one of her many talents, which also included ballet, teaching, and literary translation. Although she is largely forgotten today, occasionally some of her works still come up for sale. In 2011, for example, a small canvas, Woman on the Beach, was offered and sold by Doyle’s in 2011. Recently, I was fortunate enough to acquire another small composition from a private collector.

As a painter, Eliena was a traditionalist. As if modernism had never taken place, her paintings were representational, marked by vigorous brushstrokes and splashes of color to indicate plasticity. The Vineyard landscape excited her and was a frequent subject of the painting she did for enjoyment. Her lack of sustained formal training gave her landscapes a kind of fresh, improvised quality, as in the painting I acquired, which shows a farmer holding a bucket for a calf, with a mother sheep and two lambs close by, one of which has just kicked over the bucket in the foreground. The barn sits awkwardly in the landscape, a sight not unfamiliar on the Vineyard where such structures often seem afterthoughts in a landscape barely intended for human habitation. Although she is distinctly pre-impressionist in her painterly sensibilities, Eliena was similarly enamored with the outdoors. Her landscapes are bathed in sunshine, and her light handling of the brush allows her to achieve an almost pastel-like effect, even in such a small painting.

Perhaps because she so much enjoyed being with people, Eliena’s accomplishments as a portrait painter are perhaps more easily evident. Her portraits of Max Eastman, two of which hung right on the wall of her studio, do give us a vivid sense of her deep love for him. A particularly memorable one shows Eastman seated at his green writing desk, his head slightly cocked and his hands resting on his typewriter, the famous shock of white hair matching the open collar of his shirt.

A month before Eliena died, aged only 61, at their shared home on East Pasture, she wrote out her will on a scrap of yellow paper, her handwriting more wobbly than usual. “Eliena’s Will” consists of only three unrhymed lines of poetry:

I will you all my strength,
Still so complete, unused,
To keep your spirit firm, foot sure, and head high.

The next stanza is by Max, in his handwriting. Three lines of poetry again, thanking and accepting Eliena’s offer, with a pledge added in line four:

I have received, dear love,
Your priceless bequest.
My spirit firm, my foot sure, and my head high.
I promise.

The document, dated September 2, 1956 (and now at the Lilly Library), is an extraordinary testament to Eliena’s resilience and selflessness. It is characteristic that, ever the pragmatist, she should have worried about what would happen to all the energy she felt she had left, despite the damage cancer had done to her body—a fact that only increases my admiration for a woman who, after leaving Soviet Russia at a side of man who had married her only reluctantly, saw life as a never-ending series of opportunities, not challenges. When she was a child, her favorite literary character was Huck Finn. No wonder that for her even the prospect of her own extinction was “no time to be sentimentering.” Death, for Eliena Eastman, was just another opportunity.

October 3, 2017

Remembering Eliena Eastman Krylenko: Painter, Poet, Dancer

Republished from the Lilly Library Blog, October 2, 2017

When I was writing my biography of the writer, ex-socialist, and poet Max Eastman, one character kept pushing herself into the foreground—his second wife Eliena Krylenko. There was a reason. Eastman, one of the most flamboyant figures among the Greenwich Village radicals, had plenty of charisma. But everyone who met Eliena agreed that she outshone him. Her papers and artwork at the Lilly Library allow us to piece together a life worth remembering. Eliena was small but athletic, even muscular, exuding an aura of easy confidence wherever she went. Born in Lublin, Poland, on May 4, 1895, to exiled Russian parents, she spoke English fluently, well enough at any rate to crack jokes, often at her own expense. Her family background was spectacular: she was the sister of Stalin’s Prosecutor General, Nikolai Krylenko, whose blood-soaked career left a permanent imprint on the twentieth century. One of the things for which Nikolai is justly famous is his observation that it was important to execute not just the guilty but also the innocent. Eventually, what Nikolai had started caught up with him, too, as it did with all other members of Eliena’s family: in 1938, after a trial lasting only 20 minutes, he was unceremoniously shot. Eliena’s grief for her brother was limited: “You died in silence, bruised and defamed, / By your own error, not by their deceit,” she wrote in a sonnet she dedicated to his memory (“They,” of course, were the Stalinists).

Max had met Eliena in 1922, when she was attending the Genoa conference as a member of the staff of Maxim Litvinov, the First Deputy People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet regime. As Max remembered later, Eliena, intrigued by the handsome American, made the first move. Their on-again, off-again affair continued in Moscow, where they finally lived together. In the summer of 1924, getting ready to return home, Max somewhat diffidently agreed to marry Eliena, who had found herself under increasing political pressure. Being able to leave the Soviet Union likely saved her life. If the naturally promiscuous Max thought their vows were a formality, he was in for a surprise: Eliena was and remained fiercely committed to their marriage. She moved to Croton-on-Hudson with Max, and although her primary source of information about American culture had been Huckleberry Finn, which her father used to read to her, she settled easily into her new life. A lawyer by training, she took painting lessons, learned to drive, taught language classes in New York, and made herself available as a translator, later helping her husband with the massive task of rendering Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution into English.

Helped by funds from Reader’s Digest, the Eastmans acquired property on Martha’s Vineyard. Eliena managed their rental income, keeping a watchful eye over all expenses. No tenant got away with anything; a letter survives in which she instructs their local agent to make sure that the tenants paid cash even for the light bulbs they ordered. She also offered free instruction in interpretive dance to the Vineyard children. As a painter, Eliena was cautious and conservative, combining an interest in finely observed detail with a good sense for atmosphere and mood. A lovely charcoal drawing from a pad she carried with her on a trip to Cuba reveals her quick eye for scenery: a hazy beach scene, with a freighter looming in the background, dominated by the sheer endless ocean that renders everything else indistinct, including the faceless adults and children pursuing their different activities—playing in the water, sitting in the sand, picking something up, or just standing there, staring. One cannot really tell where the beach ends and the water begins.

To his credit, Max did what he could to further Eliena’s artistic career, including helping pay for a trip to France in the summer of 1953, when Eliena exhibited her work in a gallery in Paris. Eliena, in turn, defended him when his former friends criticized him for his apparent defection to the right side of the political spectrum. But she reserved special condemnation for those of Max’s lovers who, disappointed that his main loyalty was to Eliena, publicly maligned him. In the letters the couple exchanged, the code word for Max’s affairs was “seizures”—nothing bad, episodes that would pass, a blip on the all-encompassing horizon of their love.

It seems difficult now to understand Eliena’s devotion to a man who, in many ways, didn’t seem to deserve it. An extraordinarily tender, unpublished poem by Eliena from the early 1950s that has survived among Max’s papers perhaps sheds some light on the situation. In “To Max,” Eliena evokes a walk she took with Max across the shimmering moors. They ended up next to a spring:

Wild roses grew there, pink and innocent, although full
Of nasty thorns, and dark green spearmint, cool
And fragrant, and a tall leafy weed, the like of which, I think,
I never saw before. It had bell-shaped small
Gold blossoms and pale-green suede-like leaves.

Ever the naturalist, Max readily identifies the plant, a beautiful orange-blossomed annual species native to North America, which is indeed common in bottomland soils, ditches, and along creeks. Also known as “touch-me-not,” since its seedpods explode when lightly touched, the plant derives its name from the fact that the leaves will assume a silvery shine when held under water. Max had known it since he was a child.

“It’s Jewel-weed,” you said and bending over,
The round crystal pool, the clearest mirror,
In which your face so dear appeared reflected,
You dipped a slender branch of it in water …

What follows is an epiphany Eliena applies to her relationship with Max, in a fashion that will perhaps seem unappealing to the sophisticated reader of poetry. But this poem was not intended to be a literary artifact. Instead, it is an intimate declaration of love, as fragile and as powerful and complex as the moment it commemorates:

Gay with a happy wonder, laughingly I watched
Enchanting miracle—that dull simple reed
Transformed in shining, sparkling work of jade and silver,
Aquiver with a million multicolored gems;
And then I watched your lovely lips and eyes,
Over which ripples moved, gentle and timid,
And thought—“You are the pool, and I that Jewel-weed.

At first, the poem’s conclusion might seem too meek and mild, with Eliena, the jewel-weed, admitting that she needs Max, her crystal pool, to shine. But such a reading forgets that, in the context of the analogy she has created, Eliena is the multicolored miracle, the hidden, explosive source of wonder, light, and power, while Max is merely the mirror in which she finds herself reflected.

Eliena died on October 9, 1956, at their shared Vineyard home, in view of her beloved ocean and in Max’s arms, after a painful bout with abdominal cancer. “I love you so very much,” were Max’s final words to her. “I am so very glad you do,” Eliena responded. Max was left behind, in the shadows.

Note: This essay uses material from Eastman Mss. II and Eliena Eastman Mss., both held by the Lilly Library. It appears here by permission of the executor of the Eastman estate, Breon Mitchell. Eliena’s story is told more fully in my biography of Max Eastman, Max Eastman: A Life, just out from Yale University Press.

Florence Deshon as Marion Allardyce, The Loves of Letty. Deshon Mss., The Lilly Library

April 14, 2017


My new book, Max Eastman: A Life, due to be published by Yale University Press in June 2017, tells the remarkable story of the life of one of America’s most colorful radicals, Max Forrester Eastman (1883-1969). But Eastman’s life was inextricably connected to the lives of the women and men around him. His most important relationship was with the Hollywood actress Florence Deshon (born Florence Danks, in Seattle), widely considered one of the most beautiful screen presences of her time. The letters, telegrams, and photographs Eastman and Deshon exchanged when she was trying to launch her career in Hollywood tell a story of too much work and too little money: Eastman was struggling to finish his book on The Sense of Humor while continuing to edit his magazine The Liberator, while Deshon appeared in theatrical productions and starred in no fewer than 24 movies. It is also a story of political turmoil: Eastman endured two trials brought against him, traveled the country to agitate against the war, and fought tooth and claw for women's and workers' rights. During years dominated by federal raids and arrests, two prominent public figures with the documented political convictions of Deshon and Eastman also lived in considerable personal danger. Agents showed up in Eastman’s country retreat Croton, and it is more than likely that Deshon missed out on acting opportunities because she had once, during a movie premiere, pointedly stayed in her seat when the national anthem was played.

The first major film in which she starred was The Loves of Letty (1919), based on a play by the English actor and playwright Arthur Pinero. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by Frank Lloyd, the movie starred Pauline Frederick, a seasoned stage actress who had made her film debut in 1915. Florence liked her part, and Frank Lloyd was, she told Eastman, “lovely.” She had been cast as Letty’s best friend, Marion Allardyce, a down-to-earth London shop girl. Unfortunately, Frederick barely talked to her, out of jealousy, as Deshon suspected. Although they didn’t look much like each other, Frederick's facial expressions made her look as if she were Florence’s sister, a resemblance Florence did not find encouraging. “I don’t feel a bit happy here” (to Eastman, July 16, 1919; all letters held by the Lilly Library, Indiana University Bloomington).

Most of Florence Deshon's films are lost today. Miraculously, one copy of The Loves of Letty has survived, at the Academy Film Archives in Hollywood, and it is in rather poor shape. Three years ago, thanks to the Archives’ public access coordinator, Cassie Blake, and with the help of Nitrate Curator Melissa Levesque, I was allowed to view it on site. The copy at the Archives, titled Tentations, is the French version, and the inner titles are in French, too. The film has a complicated plot, made even more incomprehensible by the French adaptation. But one thing is clear: Frederick would have had little reason to be jealous of Florence, since the film is almost entirely focused on the lead character. Frederick’s Letty finds herself entangled in multiple relationships: with a married man, separated from his wife, whom she thinks she loves; with her rich, froglike boss, whom she doesn’t love but who wants to propose to her; and with a man she doesn’t yet know she loves. Her desire for Sir Neville Lechmere, whose ominous name already suggests that he’s trouble, induces Letty to invest in her wardrobe rather than her meals, with the result that she faints from sheer hunger. Marion Allardyce, the character played by Florence, rushes over to revive her. As it happens, Marion is both Letty’s friend and roommate, in a rather lively boarding house community. An independent woman, she has no need for a lover and knows how to provide for herself. In fact, in her first extensive appearance in the film she can be seen cooking a rather tasty dinner for herself.

Frederick clearly dominates the screen, though Florence is frequently at her side, engaging in the usual eye-rolling, head-shaking, and hand-holding that one would expect from a silent movie star. But she clearly identifies with her part. Marion's concern for her friend is evident—she worries when Letty agrees to marry her boss, and she is equally concerned when, after a disastrous dinner intended to celebrate the engagement, Letty does take off with her married would-be lover. In despair, Marjorie announces that this will destroy her relationship. Fortunately, she doesn’t really mean that. In fact, Marion precipitates the film’s happy ending. She tells Mr. Perry, the man who is genuinely in love with her friend, that Letty has run away with the sinister Lechmere. This prompts Perry to look for Letty, whom he finds on the street, in a state of collapse. He takes her in, and the last scene is set at the country estate of Mr. Perry’s mother. Turns out that Mr. Perry wasn’t so poor after all.

Throughout the movie, Florence looks stylish and graceful, if slightly somber and pale, her heart-shaped face emphasized by the hat she wears for the failed engagement party. Tall and slim, she towers over the shorter Frederick. Her dark eyes burn themselves into the viewer’s mind; ultimately they make her character more mysterious and inscrutable than Frederick’s rather transparent Letty.

The Loves of Letty came to occupy a special place in Florence’s portfolio: “There is never a moment I look strange like I sometimes did in Vitagraph pictures,” she said, remembering the studio she worked for before the met Eastman. “I always look like myself” (to Eastman, September 4, 1919).

Unfortunately, looking like herself and, more importantly, being like herself, turned out to be an insurmountable challenge for this gifted, unconventional woman. Hollywood was not ready for her. Charlie Chaplin, who also professed to love her, gave her a small role in his film A Day’s Pleasure (1919), where Florence appeared in the famous Los Angeles traffic jam, behind the wheel of her own Ford. Caught between two cars, she cried out to the traffic policeman (who will soon end up in a manhole): “Are you going to let them kill me?” She got no sympathy from the copper. “Keep out of the way, can’t you, was all he said” (to Eastman, December 26, 1919). Chaplin later cut her scene.

Ultimately, it seems that no one could help Florence, and she did keep out of the way. On February 4, 1922, disenchanted with Hollywood and desperate over the end of her relationship with Eastman, she died New York, likely by her own hand—a traumatic event that overshadowed the rest of Eastman’s life. She was twenty-seven years old.

November 6, 1016

Allison Quantz Interview on WFIU

The story of the naked photograph of Hemingway in Max Eastman's papers made attracted the attention of Allison Quantz, an innovative radio producer, who interviewed me in my office and turned my mumblings into an exciting show, with music, passages from Eastman's work read by actors, and funny asides contributed by Allison herself. Thanks to the context provided by Allison, the story becomes much more than an altercation between two competitive males. Instead, the legendary fistfight between Hemingway and Eastman invites us to think about different versions of masculinity. Eastman was the more forward-thinking of the two men, less caught up in the need to flaunt his heterosexual credentials than Hemingway. But as the fight, as well as his need to revisit it throughout his life, demonstrated, even Max, a lifelong advocate for women's rights, couldn't move beyond the gender norms of his (and our) time. Admitting to doubts about one's virility, he wrote in an unpublished autobiographical fragment, was "stronger than a religious taboo." Listen here to the entire show. My new biography, Max Eastman: A Life, will be out from Yale University Press in June 2017. Pre-order your copy here.

Waldo Pierce, photographer, Ernest Hemingway, on the Marquesas Keys, 1928. The Lilly Library, Eastman mss. II.

February 20, 2016

Max Eastman and Hemingway

(from the blog of the Lilly Library)

The poet, editor, and activist Max Eastman (1883-1969) was one of the handsomest men of his time. His film star looks melted the hearts of women right and left and, judging from the letters they sent him, they were not content with worshipping him from distance. A fervent believer in what might be called the “big tent” approach to modern love, Eastman readily invited his female fans into his life, if mostly for brief periods of time and with the understanding that he had not promised them anything at all. In 1925, when Eastman, having returned from Bolshevik Russia, was frequenting the coffee shops of Paris, Hemingway was a member of his circle of friends. Max deeply admired Hemingway’s In Our Time and even toyed with the idea of having his wife Eliena—the sister of Stalin’s favorite prosecutor Nikolai Krylenko—translate it into Russian. But his respect for the writer didn’t extend to the person. In Great Companions (1959), Max records a terse exchange that he had with Hemingway, who guiltily shared with him the pleasure he got from staring at the girls in the Parisian dance halls. Coming home from his nights in Montmartre, Hemingway was, he told Max, “disgusted” with himself. He asked Max if he felt so, too. Max, an early convert to Freudian psychoanalysis, had little patience for such talk: “No, I don’t, Ernest. I enjoy lustful feelings, and what’s more I don’t think you’re talking real.”

As Hemingway turned his adolescent approach to sex into literary method, Max’s respect for the writer took a hit too. Reviewing Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, a book about bullfighting in Spain, Max freely expressed his frustrations with Hemingway’s masculine swagger. His heart went out to the bull in Hemingway’s narrative, “this beautiful creature … gorgeously equipped with the power for wild life, trapped in a ring where his power is nothing.” Max had no sympathy for the toreros who would hunt the animal till he would sink down, “leadlike into his tracks, lacking the mere strength of muscle to lift his vast head, panting, gasping, gurgling, his mouth too little and the tiny black tongue hanging out too far to give him breath, and faint falsetto cries of anguish, altogether lost baby-like now and not bull-like, coming out of him.” Max accused Hemingway of deriving pleasure from such callous acts of murder, an attitude he compared to the “wearing of false hair on the chest.”

Hemingway’s supporters were outraged. “I don’t know when I have written anything that I have heard more about from various sources than that article,” said Max. Nevertheless, he included the review in a book he published in 1034, Art and the Life of Action. Two years later, as Max was hanging out in the office of his editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins, look who happened to drop in: Ernest Hemingway, en route back to the Spanish Civil War! Hemingway relished the opportunity to exact revenge on Max. To Perkins’s consternation, he ripped open his shirt and invited the men to inspect his chest hair. He then proceeded to tear open Max’s shirt, too, revealing a chest that was, Perkins recalled, as “bare as a bald man’s head.” Rifling though a copy of Art and the Life of Action, which just happened to be lying on Perkins’s desk, Hemingway yelled out a particularly objectionable sentence and then, for emphasis, socked Max on the nose with the book. Max lunged at Hemingway, and both men fell on the ground. By the time Perkins had reached them, Max was on top of Hemingway, although that might have been an accident. Max declared himself the winner. Given his age he had, he told the press, used a wrestling move to take Hemingway down. Hemingway assured the Times that no such thing had taken place, and that Max instead had taken his slap “like a woman.” But there is one detail that does make Max’s account somewhat credible: he did know how to wrestle. Decades ago, while he was John Dewey’s student at Columbia University, he had coached a wrestling team in a Lower Eastside boys club.

Max never forgot what had happened. As Hemingway went from one well-publicized risky adventure to the next, Max continued to insist on his own version of masculinity that involved not loud displays of virility but a deliberate celebration of the human body and its infinite capacity for pleasure. As it turned out, he was not the only one with a grudge against Hemingway. Decades after the battle in Perkins’s office, a mutual friend of both men, the painter Waldo Pierce, presented Max with a surprise gift. In the 1920s, Pierce had been Hemingway’s fishing buddy in Florida, and it was on one of those occasions that Pierce had persuaded Hemingway to pose for his camera wearing nothing but a kind of turtle-shell or sponge on his head and the butt-rest of a fishing rod around his privates. I recently discovered the original photograph in Max’s extensive papers housed at the Lilly Library. Hemingway had sometimes needled Pierce for his devotion to his family (in a letter to Dos Passos, he once called him a “domesticated … cow”). Well, here was Pierce’s chance to retaliate. Before he sent the compromising photograph to Max, he inscribed it on the back: “The great Pescador hiding his light under a but-rest [sic].” Max, with evident satisfaction, noted the near-absence of chest-fur. And he published the photograph in the second volume of his autobiography, Love and Revolution (1964), accompanied by the sarcastic caption, “Hemingway in the twenties.” By then, Hemingway had been dead for three years.

Whether Max or his publisher balked, we don’t know. But in the published version of the photograph, Hem is wearing a pair of dainty swimming trunks. No matter, Max had finally won the battle.

Christoph Irmscher’s biography of Max Eastman, Max Eastman’s Century, which contains an in-depth discussion of the material discussed above, will be published by Yale University Press.

February 20, 2016

Biography of Max Eastman Completed

I am delighted to report that work on my new biography of Max Eastman--tentative title Max Eastman's Century is now complete. It will be published by Yale University Press in 2017. I was very pleased to be able to visit Yvette Eastman shortly before her death at age 101. My hope is that I have been able to do justice to her husband's multifaceted career and personality.

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