Auf Wiedersehen Berlin, Hallo Boston!

music playing: Aimee Mann’s, Pavlov’s Bell

Hi everyone,

Just wanted to mention that I’ll be mostly offline the next couple of weeks.  For I am leaving my adopted homeland of curry sausage, beer, apfel strudel, and umlauts for a visit to my native homeland of hot dogs, coca cola, apple pie, and baseball.

In honor of the good ol’  USA, here is a poem by the great Romanticist, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


As a pale phantom with a lamp
  Ascends some ruin’s haunted stair,
So glides the moon along the damp
  Mysterious chambers of the air. 

Now hidden in cloud, and now revealed,
  As if this phantom, full of pain,
Were by the crumbling walls concealed,
  And at the windows seen again. 

Until at last, serene and proud
  In all the splendor of her light,
She walks the terraces of cloud,
  Supreme as Empress of the Night. 

I look, but recognize no more
  Objects familiar to my view;
The very pathway to my door
  Is an enchanted avenue. 

All things are changed.  One mass of shade,
  The elm-trees drop their curtains down;
By palace, park, and colonnade
  I walk as in a foreign town. 

The very ground beneath my feet
  Is clothed with a diviner air;
White marble paves the silent street
  And glimmers in the empty square. 

Illusion!  Underneath there lies
  The common life of every day;
Only the spirit glorifies
  With its own tints the sober gray. 

In vain we look, in vain uplift
  Our eyes to heaven, if we are blind,
We see but what we have the gift
  Of seeing; what we bring we find. 


 boston harbor

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 10:50 am  Comments (17)  
Tags: , , ,

From the Diary of Caroline Dall: On Writing

After my last post in which I included snippets from Caroline Healey Dall’s diary, I thought I would post a few of her diary entries in their entirety.

The first, posted here, is from near the beginning of her diary.  She was fifteen-years-old and living on Beacon Hill in Boston, MA.

excerpt is from “Daughter of Boston: The Extraordinary Diary of a Nineteenth-century Woman”  edited by Helen R. Reese

Sept. 2nd 1838-

“I have been wondering what it is that raises my spirits, and encourages me in the task which I have undertaken?  Certainly neither father nor mother, brother nor sister, have ever expressed any interest in what I have  written, or ever desired to read anything I have published, – It is strange, I think I should take pride & pleasure in the virtuous endeavors of a child of mine- and this apathy , this indifference breeds coldness- on my side, and there is no sympathy between me and my parents. 

My mother oftentimes expresses harsh, disapproval of my love of study, and her daily life seems to express but one wish- that I were as fond of housewifery as my sister Ellen.  She knows  not the depth of wound she probes, and the unbidden tears, which often spring to my eyes, are imputed childish weakness- Why then should I persevere, if those whom I wish to honor, seem insensible to my truly filial feelings?  Because, in my father’s anxiety to procure me every literary advantage, in his kind smile, and gentle voice, I find at least one assurrance that he will joy in his child’s success, and grieve for her disappointment. 

People talk of literary struggles, and of the trials which a man who chooses this department of life, has to endure.  These do not spring from the nature of literature, but from the interference of friends, the obstacles raised by the envious, and the discouragements, the cold indifference, with which his labors are regarded by the very ones who should be the first to support and aid him. 

Nothing is easier, than this, if he be a man of talent, he forgets in the inspiration of his genius, the disagreeable manual labor, to which his inclination subjects him.  This is a pleasure & not a task.”

Published in: on April 6, 2010 at 9:32 pm  Comments (17)  
Tags: , , , ,

Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Quintessential American Philosopher

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”  -Ralph Waldo Emerson- (May 25, 1803- April 27, 1882)

When Ralph Waldo Emerson died over one hundred and twenty years ago from this day,  the leader of the Transcendentalist Movement left behind a philosophy that continues to influence people around the world.

The poet, essayist, and philosopher was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Ruth Haskins and the Unitarian minister, Rev. William Emerson.  Although Emerson first  followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming ordained  on March 11, 1829, he became disillusioned by the church after the death of his first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, in 1831.  His diary note, dated June 1832: “I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession  is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers”. 

Emerson’s quest for new spiritual enlightenment led him to tour Europe that same year,  where he met distinguished men such as: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle.  Upon returning to the United States in 1833, he married Lydia Jackson, and settled in Concord, MA, where he became one of the most prominant citizens.

On September 8, 1836, Emerson, Frederick Henry Hedge, George Ripley, and George Putnam met in Cambridge to discuss forming a new club.  The first official meeting was held eleven days later at Ripley’s home in Boston.  Members included: Bronson Alcott,  William Henry Channing, Margaret Fuller,  Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Peabody, Sophia Ripley, among others. 

The Transcendentalist Club was born.

Members commenced to discuss their frustrations on American culture and the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and in the Unitarian Church.   They published, The Dial, run by Elizabeth Peabody, until its demise in 1844.   Their core belief was  in an ideal spiritual state that transcended the physical, and could only be realized through an individual’s intuition, rather than through established doctrines.

Emerson’s essay, Nature, ignited Transcendentalism into a major cultural movement in 1836.  In this tract, he  defined nature as  a divine entity known to humans in their innocence, rather than a component of a world ruled by a separate being.

On August 31, 1837, Emerson delivered his famous speech, “The American Scholar”,  before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge.   He urged Americans to create their own writing style, free from the influence of Europe. 

Many essays and speeches followed, but it  was 1842’s, Essays, which included,  “Self Reliance”, that cemented Emerson’s international renown.   Emerson said,  “A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. ”   He further declared,  “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude”

Emerson’s belief that all things were divine, and thus, connected to God, along with his ardent support of abolitionism, made him a controversial figure in his own time.   He is now remembered as a champion of individualism and free thought, influencing Henry Thoreau’s,”Walden; Or, Life in the Woods”, which many believe to be the most famous non-fiction American book ever written.

Emerson’s body long turned to dust- his words live on:

-“Be not the slave of your own past.  Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.”

-“Don’t waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.”

-“Finish each day and be done with it.  You have done what you could.”

-“ God enters by a private door into every individual.”
-“Insist on yourself, never imitate…Every great man is unique.”

Laura Bridgman: The First Blind and Deaf Person to Learn Language

Laura Bridgman c. 1845

Laura Bridgman was born on December 21, 1829 to a family of farmers in Hanover, New Hampshire.    At two years- old she was struck with scarlet fever and lost her sense of sight, hearing, smell, and even most of taste.   Only the sense of touch remained.   Pushing meant, “Go”.  Pulling meant, “Come”.   Soft patting was approval while heavier smacks indicated disapproval.   Frustrated by her lack of being able to communicate her desires, or understand others, it is little wonder she threw fierce tantrums which only her father could somewhat control.

Laura’s plight caught the attention of Dr. Samuel Howe, the first director of the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston.   Founded in 1829, it was the first of its kind in the United States. Howe was a social reformer who challenged John Locke’s theory that people only gather information through their senses.  Instead, he followed the Scottish Common Sense Philosophy which stated God instilled  people  with innate skills.

In the early 1800s, blind-deaf persons were considered virtually impossible to reach.  Howe was anxious to become Laura’s teacher.  If he could educate a child who’d lived in her own world almost since birth, he’d once and for all disprove John Locke.  Through Laura, he could prove humans were not born with blank minds.

No one had ever before been able to teach language to a blind-deaf person.

Howe traveled to Hanover and convinced Laura’s harried parents to allow him to try educating her.  In 1837, Laura entered the school.

At eight years-old, she did not know her own name.

Howe first taught her words before individual letters.  He pasted papers printed in raised letters upon common items such as keys and silverware.    Once she comprehended that these “bumps” signified the object, he taught her the alphabet and how to combine letters to form words.   From there, Howe taught her how to communicate with others through the manual alphabet.  Two years after entering the school,  Laura was able to write her own name.    Once adept in language, she followed the general curriculum of other students:  reading, writing,  math, history, geography, geometry, and philosophy.

drawing of Howe teaching Laura c. 1838

Laura’s success attracted people from all over the world.  Charles Dickens visited her in 1842, and with his usual over-sentimentality described her as, “pure and spotless as the petals of a rose”.  In reality, Laura, though amiable, was quick-tempered and moody.

Fame had its price.  Victorians were fascinated by “freaks”, and unfortunately, Laura became a sideshow.  Hundreds of tourists came weekly to watch the girl “perform” by finding places on a relief map or signing her name.   Little girls poked the eyes out of their dolls and named them, “Laura”.

Howe, himself, played a part in some of the pageantry.   He brought his most talented pupils on tour, including Laura.  On stage, they performed plays and recited poetry.   While Howe wished to change the public’s general perception of those with disabilities, it is also evident that he was soliciting donations.

In 1843, Samuel Howe married Julia Ward and left for a honeymoon in Europe.   During his absence, Laura  began to read religious tracts that differed from Howe’s own Unitarian beliefs.  She found his God to be too abstract and wished to feel a more personal Savior.   After several months of intense reflection, she became a devout Baptist like her parents.    Howe returned,  incensed that his greatest pupil who he considered a daughter, had rebelled against him.  In truth, Laura had entered puberty and was becoming a woman with her own mind.

While Laura remained her entire life at Perkins, her relationship with Howe was never the same.   She never got over the hurt of his rebuff of her.  After his death, she wrote to a friend, “I think much of Dr. H. day & night, with sorrow, & gratitude, & love, & sincerity.”

Laura taught needlework at the school and sold some of her own handmade crafts.  Two of her greatest loves were reading and writing letters to friends and family.  At the age of 59, she became ill and died on May 24, 1889.

Laura Bridgman’s sufferings and triumphs were not in vain.  In 1886,  Arthur and Kate Keller had read Dicken’s account of her.  Their own daughter, Helen, had also been struck with scarlet fever at the age of two and had become blind and deaf due to its horrible effects.    They hired Annie Sullivan, a graduate of Perkins, to teach their six year-old feral daughter.

Using the methods Samuel Howe had used on Laura Bridgman,  Annie Sullivan would become known as, “The Miracle Worker”.   Her pupil, Helen Keller,  learned to speak, read Braille in English, French, German, Greek, and Latin.   After graduating from Radcliffe College with honors,  Helen became a world-famous speaker and author.   A human rights advocate, she spoke out for the suffrage movement and the abolition of slavery.

It must be remembered, that born a half-century earlier, Laura did not have the same access to braille books as Helen.  Helen once stated that if Annie Sullivan had been Laura’s teacher, “she would have outshone me”.

Thanks to Samuel Howe’s innovative teaching and a little farm girl who refused to live in darkness, a new world was opened for Helen Keller and all those who followed.

Laura Bridgman reading in South Boston. c 1888