The streets are always wet with rain After a summer shower when I saw you standin’ In the garden in the garden wet with rain
You wiped the teardrops from your eye in sorrow As we watched the petals fall down to the ground And as I sat beside you I felt the Great sadness that day in the garden
And then one day you came back home You were a creature all in rapture You had the key to your soul And you did open that day you came back to the garden
The olden summer breeze was blowin’ on your face The light of God was shinin’ on your countenance divine And you were a violet colour as you Sat beside your father and your mother in the garden
The summer breeze was blowin’ on your face Within your violet you treasure your summery words And as the shiver from my neck down to my spine Ignited me in daylight and nature in the garden
And you went into a trance Your childlike vision became so fine And we heard the bells inside the church We loved so much And felt the presence of the youth of Eternal summers in the garden
And as it touched your cheeks so lightly Born again you were and blushed and we touched each other lightly And we felt the presence of the Christ
And I turned to you and I said No Guru, no method, no teacher Just you and I and nature And the father in the garden
No Guru, no method, no teacher Just you and I and nature And the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost In the garden wet with rain No Guru, no method, no teacher Just you and I and nature and the holy ghost In the garden, in the garden, wet with rain No Guru, no method, no teacher Just you and I and nature And the Father in the garden
THOUGH IT IN no way endangers the meisterwerk musical status of Dark Side of the Moon (still on the charts nearly seven years after its release), Pink Floyd’s twelfth album, The Wall, is the most startling rhetorical achievement in the group’s singular, thirteen-year career. Stretching his talents over four sides, Floyd bassist Roger Waters, who wrote all the words and a majority of the music here, projects a dark, multilayered vision of post-World War II Western (and especially British) society so unremittingly dismal and acidulous that it makes contemporary gloom-mongers such as Randy Newman or, say, Nico seem like Peter Pan and Tinker Bell.
The Wall is a stunning synthesis of Waters’ by now familiar thematic obsessions: the brutal misanthropy of Pink Floyd’s last LP, Animals; Dark Side of the Moon‘s sour, middle-aged tristesse; the surprisingly shrewd perception that the music business is a microcosm of institutional oppression (Wish You Were Here); and the dread of impending psychoses that runs through all these records — plus a strongly felt antiwar animus that dates way back to 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets. But where Animals, for instance, suffered from self-centered smugness, the even more abject The Wall leaps to life with a relentless lyrical rage that’s clearly genuine and, in its painstaking particularity, ultimately horrifying.
Fashioned as a kind of circular maze (the last words on side four begin a sentence completed by the first words on side one), The Wall offers no exit except madness from a world malevolently bent on crippling its citizens at every level of endeavor. The process — for those of Waters’ generation, at least — begins at birth with the smothering distortions of mother love. Then there are some vaguely remembered upheavals from the wartime Blitz:
Did you ever wonder Why we had to run for shelter When the promise of a brave new world Unfurled beneath a clear blue sky?
In government-run schools, children are methodically tormented and humiliated by teachers whose comeuppance occurs when they go home at night and “their fat and/Psychopathic wives would thrash them/Within inches of their lives.”
As Roger Waters sees it, even the most glittering success later in life — in his case, international rock stardom — is a mockery because of mortality. The halfhearted hope of interpersonal salvation that slightly brightened Animals is gone, too: women are viewed as inscrutable sexual punching bags, and men (their immediate oppressors in a grand scheme of oppression) are inevitably left alone to flail about in increasingly unbearable frustration. This wall of conditioning finally forms a prison. And its pitiful inmate, by now practically catatonic, submits to “The Trial” — a bizarre musical cataclysm out of Gilbert and Sullivan via Brecht and Weill — in which all of his past tormentors converge for the long-awaited kill.
This is very tough stuff, and hardly the hallmark of a hit album. Whether or not The Wall succeeds commercially will probably depend on its musical virtues, of which there are many. Longtime Pink Floyd fans will find the requisite number of bone-crushing riffs and Saturn-bound guitar screams (“In the Flesh”), along with one of the loveliest ballads the band has ever recorded (“Comfortably Numb — “). And the singing throughout is — at last — truly firstrate, clear, impassioned. Listen to the vocals in the frightening “One of My Turns,” in which the deranged rock-star narrator, his shattered synapses misfiring like wet firecrackers, screams at his groupie companion: “Would you like to learn to fly?/Would you like to see me try?”
Problems do arise, however. While The Wall‘s length is certainly justified by the breadth of its thematic concerns, the music is stretched a bit thin. Heavy-metal maestro Bob Ezrin, brought in to coproduce with Roger, Waters and guitarist David Gilmour, adds a certain hard-rock consciousness to a few cuts (especially the nearfunky “Young Lust”) but has generally been unable to match the high sonic gloss that engineer Alan Parsons contributed to Dark Side of the Moon. Even Floydstarved devotees may not be sucked into The Wall‘s relatively flat aural ambiance on first hearing. But when they finally are — and then get a good look at that forbidding lyrical landscape — they may wonder which way is out real fast.
Behind the Meaning of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” by Pink Floyd
In a world of love songs, Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” inevitably stands out.
The defiant anthem is a satirical view on formal education, a loud protest against authority, and it became one of Pink Floyd’s most recognizable songs.
Here we’ll dive into the song’s context, composition, and success.
Just one part of the story.
“Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” is as it’s descriptor indicates, only one part of the story. There are three sections of “Another Brick in the Wall” on Pink Floyd’s 1979 rock opera album, The Wall. All three parts total eight odd minutes of building up emotional walls.
The beginning, “Part 1,” sets the scene with the protagnoist’s first blow from life. His father abandons the narrator, whether that is in death or otherwise, and creates a level of distress. Daddy, what else did you leave for me? / Daddy, what’d ya leave behind for me?
“Part 2,” which we will get to, continues the assembling of emotion. Then, “Part 3” concludes the trilogy with the determination that everyone has simply been just bricks in the wall.
Recording an unexpected beat and children’s choir.
Roger Waters, singer/songwriter and bassist for Pink Floyd, wrote the “Another Brick in the Wall” song series and the band recorded the songs for several months in 1979.
For “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” the underlying beat leans into the themes and sounds of disco. And according guitarist David Gilmour, the band’s producer Bob Ezrin, has suggested this sonic turn. “[Ezrin] said to me, ‘Go to a couple of clubs and listen to what’s happening with disco music,’” Gilmour recalled in a 2009 interview with Guitar World, “so I forced myself out and listened to loud, four-to-the-bar bass drums and stuff and thought, Gawd, awful! Then we went back and tried to turn one of the parts into one of those so it would be catchy.”
Another unique aspect of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” is the children’s choir that sings the second verse of the song. The collection of young singers was composed of 23 children from the Islington Green School in North London. After recording, the childrens’ part was overdubbed 12 times to give the effect of many, many more children singing.
Ezrin explains their decision to use a children’s choir: “[W]e sent [engineer] Nick Griffiths to a school near the Floyd studios [in Islington, North London]. I said, ‘Give me 24 tracks of kids singing this thing. I want Cockney, I want posh, fill ’em up,’ and I put them on the song. I called Roger into the room, and when the kids came in on the second verse there was a total softening of his face, and you just knew that he knew it was going to be an important record.”
Lyrics: Say a lot with little.
The lyrics themselves while not necessarily elaborate, speak volumes.
We don’t need no education We don’t need no thought control No dark sarcasm in the classroom Teacher, leave them kids alone Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!
It’s a pretty glaring critic of the education system, but Waters explained that it wasn’t so much of a blanket statement on education itself, but rather a statement to inspire a sense of individuality.
“Obviously, I care deeply about education. I just wanted to encourage anyone who marches to a different drum to push back against those who try to control their minds rather than to retreat behind emotional walls,” Waters told The Wall Street Journal in 2015.
Further explaining how he arrived at these lyrics, Waters revealed that his own experiences in school left a bad taste in his mouth.
“The lyrics were a reaction to my time at the Cambridgeshire High School for Boys in 1955, when I was 12,” Waters told The Wall Street Journal. “Some of the teachers there were locked into the idea that young boys needed to be controlled with sarcasm and the exercising of brute force to subjugate us to their will. That was their idea of education.”
Success and its haters.
Pink Floyd released “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” as a single, their first single release after “Point Me at the Sky” in 1968. The track topped the charts in 14 different countries, including the United States and the U.K. The song also garnered a Grammy nomination and a spot on Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list in 2010.
Not everyone liked the track, however. The single and the subsequent album were banned in South Africa in 1980 after the lyrics were used by school children to protest their educaiton under apartheid. Prime minster Margaret Thatcher was also reported to have “hated it.”
All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall
Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2 by de Pink Floyd
We don’t need no education We don’t need no thought control No dark sarcasm in the classroom Teacher, leave them kids alone
Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall
We don’t need no education We don’t need no thought control No dark sarcasm in the classroom Teachers, leave them kids alone
Hey, teacher, leave us kids alone All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall
If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat? You! Yes, you behind the bike stands Stand still, laddy!
40 years later: Are we still just another brick in the wall?
They tell us we are the next generation. A representation of greatness, a symbol of hope, a future of prosperity. They tell us we have the power to fix all the wrongs in this world, make it a better place for all. And then they throw us into the deep end of the pool, expecting us to stay afloat. They don’t even flinch when we become just another brick in the wall.
Pink Floyd shattered the traditional notion of a song with their album “The Wall,” which is widely regarded as one of the best concept albums ever produced. Its most popular single, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” issued a provocative social statement on the British education system in the 1950’s.
Although Waters wrote “Another Brick in the Wall” about another country and an earlier generation, the song’s lyrics and key concepts stay relevant to our own education system today.
We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control
Our educational institutions have systematically failed to adapt to change. They continue, even during these unprecedented times, to evaluate student performance based solely on rote memorization rather than progress and learning. We are labeled by our grades, which seems like the ultimate determinant of our futures. Our stomachs drop when a teacher hands back a grade, and we realize we underperformed on an exam. But shouldn’t failing be a learning experience rather than a punishment? And who decided that letter grades were supposed to determine what we could achieve in our lives? School is not supposed to be a series of memorized algebraic calculations or properly formatted, multi-paragraphed english essays; it’s intended to help us acquire new knowledge and skills, to teach us to collaborate and, most importantly, to inspire us.
However, Waters paints a bleak, but accurate image of the education system in his lyrics; he explains that education revolved around a set of rigid ideas to which all students were expected to conform and teachers were meant to enforce. Just like Roger Waters and his generation, we are being taught to put our heads down and color inside the lines. But what we truly need is for education to encourage free thinking and critical thought, releasing students and teachers from the confines of the curriculum.
The reality of our current educational system: we don’t need this type of “education.”
No dark sarcasm in the classroom; Hey! Teachers leave those kids alone
During our foundational years, we spend most of our lives in school. Yet, so many of us are scared to speak up in class, talk to our teachers or ask our counselors for help.
More than 40 years ago, Waters felt as though teachers served to chastise students whenever they stepped out of line. He too believed that his teachers simply enforced the “rules” of the classroom, turning his educational experience into one of isolation.
From kindergarten through senior year, the same set of rules are designed to mold us into the “ideal student,” one who displays only acceptable behavior in the classroom.
Don’t speak without raising your hand; don’t go to the bathroom before you ask; don’t talk back to teachers.
Those who do not follow such rules are deemed “bad children” and punished accordingly. In the music video for “Another Brick in the Wall,” the teacher punishes the main character for reading poetry because it did not fall within the classroom’s guidelines.
This is where the real question lies: when did school become more intimidating than inviting? As we sit in our Zoom classes, many are too afraid to unmute themselves. We build psychological walls to protect ourselves. School is still an unfriendly, increasingly isolating environment for many students. It can be terrifying to speak up to a teacher, and often “unacceptable” to voice your opinion when an adult says it’s not right.
The needless rules some teachers impose and the constant fear many students face reinforce Waters’ idea that if teachers cannot create a welcoming learning environment, they really should leave us kids alone.
You’re just another brick in the wall
As kindergarteners, we are eager to be “grown up,” excited about everything the world has to offer and filled with innocence. During our last years in high school, that curiosity has dimmed, replaced by a mask of stress, sleeplessness and cynicism.
Pink Floyd sketched this transformation through their lyrics: “you’re just another brick in the wall, all in all it’s just another brick in the wall.”
The education system is a machine, taking us in at kindergarten and spitting us out in 12th grade, isolated and alone, feeling like just another stitch in the fabric of society. It strips us of our humanity and our individuality as we make our way through the factory; it reminds us at every turn that we are always replaceable.
Yet, we aren’t. We are unique individuals, with passions, motivations and intrinsic drives. We are not clones molded by the education system. We will never be replaceable. We are not “just another brick in the wall.” Let’s stop letting them tell us we are.
1, 2, 3, 4 Freedom and Justice Is the melody that let us shine on If you feel it through the music We can make this world a better place.
Freedom and Justice Is the melody that let us shine on If you feel it through the music We can make this world a better place Live together, love forever Is the only thing we can do Hold.. my hand, by me stand We are gonna make it through.
Freedom and Justice Is the melody that let us shine on If you feel it through the music We can make this world a better place.
Freedom and Justice Is the melody that let us shine on If you feel it through the music We can make this world a better place.
Freedom and Justice Is the melody that let us shine on If you feel it through the music We can make this world a better place.
Freedom and Justice Is the melody that let us shine on If you feel it through the music.
We can make this world a better place We can make this world a better place We can make this world a better place We can make this world a better place..
Heal the World – Michael Jackson
(Think about um, the generations And ah, say we want to make it a better place for our children And our children’s children so that they, they They, they know it’s a better world for them And think if they can make it a better place)
There’s a place in your heart And I know that it is love And this place it was brighter than tomorrow And if you really try You’ll find there’s no need to cry In this place you’ll feel there’s no hurt or sorrow
There are ways to get there If you care enough for the living Make a little space Make a better place
Heal the world Make it a better place For you and for me, and the entire human race There are people dying If you care enough for the living Make a better place for you and for me
If you want to know why There’s love that cannot lie Love is strong It only cares of joyful giving If we try we shall see In this bliss we cannot feel Fear of dread, we stop existing and start living
Then it feels that always Love’s enough for us growing Make a better world So make a better world
Heal the world Make it a better place For you and for me, and the entire human race There are people dying If you care enough for the living Make a better place for you and for me
And the dream we were conceived in will reveal a joyful face And the world we once believed in will shine again in grace Then why do we keep strangling life Wound this earth, crucify its soul? Though it’s plain to see, this world is heavenly Be god’s glow
We could fly so high Let our spirits never die In my heart I feel you are all my brothers Create a world with no fear Together we cry happy tears See the nations turn their swords into plowshares
We could really get there If you cared enough for the living Make a little space To make a better place
Heal the world Make it a better place For you and for me, and the entire human race There are people dying If you care enough for the living Make a better place for you and for me Heal the world Make it a better place For you and for me, and the entire human race There are people dying If you care enough for the living Make a better place for you and for me
Heal the world (heal the world) Make it a better place For you and for me, and the entire human race There are people dying If you care enough for the living Make a better place for you and for me
There are people dying If you care enough for the living Make a better place for you and for me
There are people dying If you care enough for the living Make a better place for you and for me
You and for me (for a better place) You and for me (make a better place) You and for me (make a better place) You and for me (heal the world we live in) You and for me (save it for our children) You and for me (heal the world we live in) You and for me (save it for our children) You and for me (heal the world we live in) You and for me (save it for our children) You and for me (heal the world we live in) You and for me (save it for our children)
Best known for his tragicomic character «The Little Tramp,» Charlie Chaplin revolutionized cinema, both during the silent era and the talkies. Almost a century later, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Kid, and The Great Dictator are still considered essential cinematic works. His writing, producing, directing, acting, and scoring of his own films received just as much attention as his controversial personal life. The London-born Chaplin had a penchant for marrying teenage women, and ended up fathering 11 children. Though his outspoken political views would eventually force him out of America for good in 1952, Chaplin’s Hollywood legacy still burns brightly. Here are 10 facts about the legendary filmmaker, who was born on this day in 1889.
1. HE COLLABORATED WITH A FEMALE FILMMAKER (WHICH WAS A RARITY IN THOSE DAYS).
Mabel Normand was a silent film actress as well as a writer, producer, and director—which was unusual for the mid-1900s. She starred in 12 films with Charlie Chaplin, including 1914’s Mabel’s Strange Predicament, which marked the onscreen debut of Chaplin’s The Tramp character (though Mabel’s Strange Predicament was filmed first and technically was his first Tramp appearance, it was released two days after Kid Auto Races at Venice, the actual film debut of the character). She also directed Chaplin in 1914’s Caught in a Cabaret and the pair co-directed and starred in Her Friend the Bandit, which was released the same year.
2. HE CO-FOUNDED A BIG-TIME MOVIE STUDIO.
In 1919, Chaplin and fellow filmmakers Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith formed United Artists as a means to finance their own movies so that they could retain creative control. The first film released under the new studio was 1919’s His Majesty, the American, starring Fairbanks. The studio took off and eventually branched out to build a chain of movie theaters. But in 1955, with movie attendance at a new low, Chaplin sold his shares. UA released the first James Bond movie in 1963. Today, MGM is UA’s parent company.
3. HE COMPOSED THE MUSIC FOR MANY OF HIS FILMS.
Beginning with 1931’s City Lights, Chaplin composed scores for his films’ soundtracks. His song “Smile,” used in Modern Times, became a classic. In 1954, Nat King Cole’s version—now with lyrics—peaked at number 10 on the Billboard charts. Michael Jackson also recorded a cover. Chaplin won his only competitive Oscar in 1973 for composing the theme to his 1952 film Limelight(the film wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1972).
4. HE WAS A PERFECTIONIST.
There was a reason Chaplin did everything himself: perfectionism. When he worked on his short film The Immigrant, Chaplin shot 40,000 feet of film, which was a lot for a 20-minute short. Chaplin cast actress Virginia Cherrill in City Lights to say just two words, “Flower, sir,” but he forced her to repeat them for 342 takes. “He knew exactly what he wanted and he would have preferred not to have any other actors in his films—he even tried making a film once where he was the only person in it,” Hooman Mehran, author of Chaplin’s Limelight and the Music Hall Tradition, told CNN.
5. HE WAS EMBROILED IN A NASTY—AND GROUNDBREAKING—PATERNITY SUIT.
In the 1940s, actress Joan Berry was allegedly having an affair with Chaplin. At one point, he invited Berry to travel from L.A. to New York City. While in New York, she spent time with Chaplin and claimed that the director “made her available to other individuals for immoral purposes.” This violated the Mann Act, in which a person isn’t allowed to cross state lines for depraved behavior.
When, in 1943, Berry gave birth to a daughter, she stated that Chaplin was the father—a charge he adamantly denied. Though blood tests confirmed that Chaplin was not the father, because the tests weren’t admissible in California courts, he had to endure two separate trials. Despite the blood evidence saying otherwise, the jury concluded that Chaplin was the father. Not only was his reputation ruined, but he also had to pay child support. On the bright side, the ruling helped reform state paternity laws.
6. HE ACCEPTED HIS 1972 HONORARY OSCAR IN PERSON.
In 1952, because of his alleged Communist politics, the U.S. denied Chaplin re-entry to the United States after he traveled to London for the premiere of his film Limelight. Incensed, he moved his family to Switzerland and vowed he’d never return to Hollywood. But 20 years later, possibly to make up for his exile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored the 82-year-old Chaplin with an honorary Oscar (his second of three). Chaplin attended the ceremony and received an enthusiastic standing ovation. When he finally spoke, he said, “Thank you for the honor of inviting me here. You’re all wonderful, sweet people.”
7. A RUSSIAN NAMED A MINOR PLANET AFTER HIM.
In 1981, Russian astronomer Lyudmila Georgievna Karachkina, who has discovered more than 100 minor planets, named one of them after the legendary director: 3623 Chaplin.
8. THERE’S AN ANNUAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN FILM FESTIVAL.
In the 1960s, Chaplin and his family enjoyed spending summers in the village of Waterville, located on the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. In 2011 the town founded the Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival, which is held each August. (A bronze statue of him resides in town.) The festival features a short film competition with categories like Chaplins of the Future. Last year the fest tried to break the Guinness World Record of the largest gathering of people dressed as Chaplin.
9. HIS FORMER HOME IN SWITZERLAND WAS CONVERTED INTO A MUSEUM.
On April 16, 2016—what would’ve been his 127th birthday—Chaplin’s World, a museum dedicated to the filmmaker’s life and work, opened in his former home in Switzerland. The museum has welcomed around 300,000 visitors in its first year. Visitors can see his home, the Manoir de Ban, at Corsier-sur-Vevey, by Lake Geneva. The estate also houses a studio where his movies are screened, wax figures, recreations of some of his film set pieces, and a restaurant named The Tramp.
10. THIEVES GRAVE-ROBBED CHAPLIN’S BODY AND HELD IT FOR RANSOM.
Even in death, Chaplin created controversy. Chaplin died on Christmas Day 1977 and was interred near his home in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland. Almost three months after his death, on March 2, 1978, his widow, Oona Chaplin, received a call from the police saying, “somebody dug up the grave and he’s gone,” Eugene Chaplin told The Independent.
The thieves demanded $600,000 to return the body. Oona tapped the phone lines, which led authorities to the two men, Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev. They confessed to the crime and showed the police Chaplin’s body, which they buried in a cornfield near his original gravesite. The men went to jail, but not before writing “I’m sorry” letters to Oona, who forgave them.
It’s hardly surprising that Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was banned in Germany, and in every country occupied by Germany, in 1940. A film that mocked Adolf Hitler was never going to be the Nazi High Command’s first choice of Friday night entertainment. The more surprising thing, from today’s perspective, is that Chaplin was warned that it might not be shown in Britain or the US, either. Britain’s appeasement policy kept going until March 1939, and the US didn’t enter World War Two until December 1941, a year after The Great Dictator was released, so when Chaplin was scripting and shooting the film – his first proper talkie – colleagues at the studio he co-owned were afraid that no government would let it be seen.
«I began receiving alarming messages from United Artists,» he wrote in his autobiography. «They had been advised… that I would run into censorship trouble. Also the English office was very concerned about an anti-Hitler picture and doubted whether it could be shown in Britain. More worrying letters came from the New York office imploring me not to make the film, declaring it would never be shown in England or America.»
But Chaplin wouldn’t be dissuaded. He knew that The Great Dictator was worth making, and, sure enough, it was a box office smash: 1941’s second biggest hit in the US. On the 80th anniversary of the film’s release, Chaplin’s prescience is even more startling. The Great Dictator is a masterpiece that isn’t just a delightful comedy and a grim agitprop drama, but a spookily accurate insight into Hitler’s psychology. «He was a visionary,» said Costa-Gavras, the Greek-French doyen of political cinema, in a making-of documentary. «He saw the future while the leaders of the world couldn’t see it, and remained on Hitler’s side.»
What’s even more remarkable is that Chaplin didn’t just capture Hitler, but every dictator who has followed in his goose steps. «It resonated at the time, and it continues to resonate,» says Simon Louvish, the author of Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey. If you want to see a crystalline reflection of the 21st Century’s despots, you’ll find it in a film that came out 80 years ago.
A serious message
By the time Chaplin made The Great Dictator, he had long despised the Nazis, and vice versa. A German propaganda film denounced him as one of «the foreign Jews who come to Germany» – never mind that he wasn’t Jewish – while the US press nicknamed him «The 20th-Century Moses» because he funded the escape of thousands of Jewish refugees. When he started work on the film initially titled «The Dictator», he was «a man on a mission», says Louvish. «Some of his contemporaries, like Laurel and Hardy, just wanted to make funny movies and make money. But Chaplin was very serious about what he wanted to say. The Great Dictator wasn’t just a film. It really was something that was required.»
Still, Chaplin was motivated by more than humanitarianism. He was also fascinated by his uncanny connections to Hitler, who was born in the same week as he was in April 1889. A comic song about the Führer, recorded by Tommy Handley in 1939, was entitled «Who Is That Man…? (Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin)». An editorial in The Spectator magazine, marking the men’s 50th birthdays, explored the theme in more depth: «Providence was in an ironical mood when… it was ordained that Charles Chaplin and Adolf Hitler should make their entry into the world within four days of each other… The date of their birth and the identical little moustache (grotesque intentionally in Mr Chaplin) they wear might have been fixed by nature to betray the common origin of their genius. For genius each of them undeniably possesses. Each has mirrored the same reality – the predicament of the ‘little man’ in modern society. Each is a distorting mirror, the one for good, the other for untold evil.»
It was Alexander Korda, the Hungarian-born British producer, who suggested that Chaplin should capitalise on the similarity, but it was obvious that an entire film of the former «Little Tramp» as a frothing tyrant would be too much for audiences to take, and so Chaplin opted to play two roles. He would be Adenoid Hynkel, the autocratic ruler of Tomainia, and he would be a humble, amnesiac, unnamed «Jewish Barber». An opening caption announces: «Any Resemblance Between Hynkel the Dictator and the Jewish Barber is Purely Co-Incidental.»
Inevitably, this coincidental resemblance results in the two men being mistaken for one another, but not until the film’s climax. The Barber is hustled onto a stage where his doppelganger was due to make a speech, and Chaplin delivers a sincere five-minute plea for decency and brotherhood that either spoils the film (in the view of the Pulitzer-winning critic Roger Ebert) or elevates it further still: «More than machinery, we need humanity! More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness!» For most of the running time, though, Chaplin cuts between the two characters’ separate storylines, so that we can never forget either the victims of Nazi persecution or the man responsible for it. In the ghetto, the gentle Barber romances a defiant washerwoman, Hannah, who is played by Chaplin’s wife at the time, Paulette Godard. (The scene in which Storm Troopers pelt Hannah with the tomatoes they have just stolen from a grocer’s shop is the most infuriating portrait of cowardly bullying imaginable.) Meanwhile, in his palace, Hynkel – aka the Phooey rather than the Führer – frets about how to outmanoeuvre his Mussolini-like rival, Benzino Napaloni.
Both strands are so bold that they make most big-screen satire seem feeble in comparison. In Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, which came out in 1942, the word «Jew» is never spoken. Chaplin isn’t so coy. Central to the ghetto scenes is the fact that «Jew» has been daubed on all of the windows in capital letters. When the Barber tries to wipe off the paint, he is chased by Storm Troopers in sequences that recall Buster Keaton dodging crowds of policemen in Cops. But in this case, one such sequence concludes with the Storm Troopers throwing a noose around the Barber’s neck and hanging him from a lamp post. He is saved at the last second, but still, the speed with which Chaplin flips between slapstick and horror is breathtaking. It’s also worth noting that the Storm Troopers don’t have German accents – or even upper-crust English accents, as so many Nazis would in later Hollywood films. Most of them sound American.
In Hynkel’s palace, the comedy is lighter and more farcical. Chaplin sketches a caricature of European political shenanigans in the zany tradition of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. (Jack Oakie’s Napaloni is the kind of hearty Italian wise guy played by Chico Marx.) The dictator’s crimes aren’t ignored: on a whim, Hynkel orders 3000 protesters to be executed. But Chaplin concentrates on the character’s vanity, stupidity and childishness. In one throwaway visual gag, the towering filing cabinet behind his desk is shown to have no drawers at all, but several concealed mirrors instead. When Napaloni pays a state visit from the neighbouring country of Bacteria, the two men compete to have the higher chair while they are being shaved, and to have the more flattering position when they are being photographed.
The message is that Hynkel is not a brilliant strategist or a mighty leader. He is an overgrown adolescent – as demonstrated in the sublime set piece in which he dances with an inflatable globe, dreaming of being «emperor of the world». He is an insecure buffoon who bluffs, cheats, obsesses over his public image, manhandles his secretaries, revels in the luxury of his extravagant quarters, and reverses his own key policies in order to buy himself more time in power. «To me, the funniest thing in the world is to ridicule impostors,» wrote Chaplin in his autobiography, «and it would be hard to find a bigger impostor than Hitler.»
Hynkel’s anti-Semitic rants (consisting of cod-German punctuated by shouts of «Juden») are terrifying, but there is no conviction behind them, just a desperate need to distract the Tomainians from his economic failures. As his urbane sidekick and Goebbels substitute, Garbitsch (Henry Daniell), says: «Violence against the Jews might take the public’s mind off its stomach.»
The film has been accused of trivialising Nazi atrocities. Chaplin himself said, in his autobiography, «Had I known the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.» But he isn’t just making fun of Hitler – as Mel Brooks did in The Producers in 1967 – he is making an astute point about the fragile egos of male world leaders.
Think of today’s dictators and would-be dictators, in any country, and you can spot all the juvenile qualities that Chaplin identified: the fetish for photo opportunities, the lavish lifestyles, the policy flip-flops and the crackpot schemes, the self-aggrandising parades and the chests full of medals: Billy Gilbert’s Herring, ie. Göring, has so many medals pinned to his uniform that Hynkel has to turn him sideways to find room for the latest addition. Hitler was at the peak of his power when The Great Dictator was being made, but Chaplin had already recognised that, as with every subsequent dictator, his villainy was bound up with his immaturity.
According to biographer Jürgen Trimborn, much of the film was inspired by a screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Hitler documentary, Triumph of the Will, at the New York Museum of Modern Art. While other viewers were appalled, Chaplin roared with laughter at the ridiculous spectacle. This attitude sustained him when he was urged to abandon The Great Dictator. «I was determined to go ahead,» he wrote in his autobiography, «for Hitler must be laughed at.»
What Charlie Chaplin Got Right About Satirizing Hitler
The Great Dictator—Charlie Chaplin’s masterful satire of Adolf Hitler—began filming in September 1939, right at the start of World War II. By the time it was released in 1940, the Axis had been formed, and Nazis were already occupying much of France. The threat was not at all abstract: critic Michael Wood notes that the movie premiered that December, in London, amid German air raids. The following December, of 1941, would yield its own devastating threats from the air—this time on American soil, which would clarify for Americans the realness of this war by bringing it home.
It was, in other words, a strange moment to be making a comedy about Adolf Hitler—even a satire holding him to account, and even one in which Chaplin himself, who was at that point one of the most famous movie stars in the world, famous for playing the ambling, lovable Little Tramp, took on the role of Hitler. In 1940, Germany and the US had yet to become enemies; feathers, it was worried, would be ruffled by a movie like this. But Chaplin was already unwittingly bound up in the era’s iconographies of evil. His likeness, the Little Tramp, with that curt mustache and oddly compact face of his, had already become a visual reference for cartoonists lampooning Hitler in the press. And he was already on the Nazis’ radar: the 1934 Nazi volume The Jews Are Looking At You referred to him as «a disgusting Jewish acrobat.» Chaplin wasn’t Jewish. But he was frequently rumored to be. And when he visited Berlin in 1931, he was mobbed by German fans, proving that his popularity could surpass even the growing ideological boundaries of a nascent Nazi Germany—hence their hatred.
Chaplin was aware of all of this—and of the fact that he and Hitler were born only four days apart, in April of 1889, that they had both risen out of poverty, and that they had enough points of biographical comparison, overall, to spook any sane person. Let’s not overstate their similarities: One of these men would go on to make the world laugh, and the other would go on to start a world war and facilitate the Holocaust. Humorously, that split would come to be echoed in The Great Dictator. Chaplin does double duty, playing the movie’s two central roles. One, the character of Adenoid Hynkel, is a Hitler spoof by way of a short-tempered and preposterously powerful personality, a dictator of the fictional country Tomainia. And in the opposing corner, Chaplin offers us a variation on his classic Little Tramp, a Jewish barber who saves a high-ranking officer’s life in World War I and, after a plane accident and years of recovery in the hospital, wakes up to the seeds of World War II being sewn in his country.
The Great Dictator is a classic for a reason. It’s startling in its depictions of violence, which stand out less for their outright brutality than for how memorably they depict the Nazis’ betrayal of everyday humanity. And it’s renowned as well as for its resourceful and original humor, which combines Chaplin at his most incisive and balletic with raucous displays of verbal wit. This was Chaplin’s first sound film; his previous feature, the 1936 masterpiece Modern Times, was by the time of its release considered almost anachronistic for being a silent film in a sound era. Dictator avails itself of this technological progress, making perhaps its most successful bit out of the way Hitler speaks, the melange of rough sounds and brutish insinuations that have long made footage from his rallies as fascinating as they are frightening.
The Great Dictator understands Hitler as a performer, as an orator wielding language like the unifying, galvanizing power that it is. But it also understands him as a psyche. This of course means it’s full of what feel like sophomoric jokes, gags in which Hitler’s insecurities, his thirst for influence, his ideological inconsistencies (an Aryan revolution led by a brunette?) and zealous dependency on loyalty come under fire. It isn’t a psychological portrait, but nor is it so simple as a funhouse treatment of the coming war, all punchline and distortion.
It’s all a bit richer than that, which might be why The Great Dictator is on my mind this week, as we greet the release of Taiki Waititi’sJojo Rabbit, a movie in which Waititi himself plays Adolf Hitler, not quite in the flesh, but rather as imagined by a little Nazi boy who’s fashioned him into an imaginary friend. I’m not crazy about Waititi’s movie, which is less a satire than a vehicle for unchallenged moral goodness in the face of only barely-confronted evil. But it does, like Chaplin’s film, nosedive into the same problems of representation and comedy that have plagued movies since early in Hitler’s reign. Should we satirize genocidal maniacs? Can we laugh at that? And if so, can the line we usually toe between comedic pleasure and moral outrage—a mix that comes easily to comedy, in the best of cases—withstand something so inconceivable a mass atrocity?
That Chaplin’s movie succeeds where Waititi’s fails is a fair enough point, but comparing most comedians’ work to Chaplin’s more often than not results in an unfair fight. What matters are the things we can all still learn from Chaplin’s work, down to the fact that it so completely and unabashedly honors and toys with the public’s sense of who he is. This wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a movie if the Jewish barber hadn’t so readily recalled the Little Tramp. But because of this familiarity, The Great Dictator feels much the way movies like Modern Times did: like a story about the travails of an every-man who’s suddenly, with no preparation, launched headlong into machinery too great, too complex, too utterly beyond him, for it not to result in comic hi-jinks.
That’s the how barber’s first scenes out of the hospital, as beautifully staged and timed by Chaplin, feel: like watching the Little Tramp turn a corner and walk, completely unaware, into a world war. He sees «Jew» written on his barbershop, for example, but because he’s an amnesiac just released from the hospital, he has no idea why it’s there, and starts to wash it away. This is illegal, of course, and when the Nazis try to tell them so, he, thinking they’re run-of-the-mill brutish anti-Semites, douses them with paint and runs away. Much of the humor, at least in the clearly-marked «Ghetto,» where the Barber lives, plays out this way: a terrifying game of comic irony in which what the Barber doesn’t know both empowers and threatens to kill him.
The Hitler scenes, by contrast, are a ballet—at times almost literally—of alliances and petty tasks. The highlight must of course be a scene of Hitler alone, having just renewed his faith in his plan to take over the world, dancing with an inflated globe of the planet, bouncing it off his bum, posing like a pin-up on his desk as the globe floats airlessly skyward. You can’t help but laugh. But that laughter doesn’t mute the brooding danger of it. You see the globe, the ease with which he lifts it up, manipulates it, makes a game of it, and realize that this is precisely what a dictator wants. It’s a guileless and child-like vision, from his perspective, of his own power.
The Great Dictator’s famous climax finds these two men merging, somewhat, into one. It’s a rousing speech ostensibly delivered by the Jewish barber, who (for reasons best left to the movie to explain) has been confused for Hynkel by the Nazis and is called upon to speak to the masses. And then he opens his mouth—and the man that emerges is Chaplin himself, creeping beyond the boundaries of character, satire, or even the artificial construct of a «movie,» as such.
The speech makes a case for humanity in the face of grave evil. «We think too much and feel too little,» Chaplin says. «More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.» You’ll recognize this theme—»more than machinery we need humanity»—throughout Chaplin’s work, and it rings especially true here. Chaplin emerges, fully human, as himself, breaking free of the film’s satirical trappings, to deliver one from the heart.
It’s a scene that plays well on its own, as a standalone speech. For a long while, it was hard to find a version online that hadn’t been modified with dramatic «movie speech» music by way of Hans Zimmer. Youtube comments imply a recent upswing in activity, of people finding the speech anew in the Trump era, and that makes sense. But the scene plays even more strangely, more powerfully, in context, where it’s less easily lent to meme-able political messaging, where it has to brush up against everything else in the movie that’s come before.
It’s startling, frankly. The Great Dictator’s tone to this point never feels so earnest. How could it, what with its balletic Hitler and its foreign dictatorships with names like Bacteria. From the vantage of 1940, Chaplin couldn’t quite see where the war would take us, and it remains the case that some of the film plays oddly—but all the more insightfully for it—today. What’s clear from its final moments, to say nothing of much of the rest, is the power in this tension. Insofar as it can sense but not see the future, you could say that The Great Dictator is a film made in a cloud of relative ignorance. Yet look at how much it says, how far it goes. It makes it hard to make excuses for films made since, which often have the benefit of hindsight yet little of substance to say about what they see in the rear view. We know more, much more, about Hitler today than we did in 1940. Why should we let anyone get away with saying less?
I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.
To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish…
Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!
Genial y sencilla, Joseíto Fernandez concibió su canción, catalogada por los expertos como guajira-son. El autor simplemente quería que su obra hablara de cualquier cubano y que todos la cantaran. Tal como lo quiso, pudo disfrutarlo en vida, así lo reconoció en unas declaraciones a la prensa de su época: “Es una melodía que admite versos de cualquier tipo; compuestos en cuartetas o décimas, y lo mismo felicitábamos a la muchacha de Villa Clara, que pedíamos clemencia para un trabajador cesante, por la CMCO”.
No obstante las múltiples polémicas sobre el origen de este canto y su melodía, sin dudas nacido del folclor cubano, lo cierto es que “La Guantanamera” se transformó en diferentes momentos históricos para ser conocida en el mundo entero, sin perder su simbolismo, inequívoco referente de cubanía.
En las décadas del 30, el 40 y el 50 del siglo pasado, difundida en la radio y la televisión comerciales de entonces, esta canción marcó en Cuba un suceso musical, publicitario y hasta de propaganda política en la denuncia de los asesinatos cometidos por las fuerzas policiales y el ejército de la República en esos años.
El norteamericano Pete Seeger incorporó “La Guantanamera” al repertorio de su grupo, The Weavers ,y el 8 de junio de 1963, durante un concierto en el Carnegie Hall de Nueva York, quedó grabado el tema en un disco de larga duración. Desde ese momento comenzó la popularidad internacional de la obra, que a lo largo del tiempo ha florecido en más de 150 versiones realizadas por reconocidos intérpretes e instrumentistas como el Trío The Sandpipers, Richard Clayderman, Libertad Lamarque, José Feliciano, Tito Puente, Julio Iglesias, Marco Antonio Muñíz, Joan Baez, Los 5 Latinos, Celia Cruz, Compay Segundo, entre otros.
Y como el buen arte trasciende fronteras y diferencias idiomáticas y culturales, también esta canción ha sido versionada como “You only sing when you’re winning” (Sólo cantas cuando estás ganando), uno de los cantos más populares de fútbol entre los aficionados británicos.
A Julián Orbón, músico hispano-cubano, se le atribuye un aporte vital a la composición, el reajuste de la melodía para incorporar los versos sencillos de José Martí, un sello sin igual del contenido patriótico de la canción, a partir de que es Martí el Héroe Nacional Cubano. Tal vez inspirados por el espíritu de fundar la República con Todos y para el bien de Todos, 75 artistas cubanos grabaron “La Guantanamera” en una producción musical que abarcó varias ciudades del mundo.
Esta iniciativa impulsada por la fundación Playing for Change, reunió en Cuba las grabaciones de Carlos Varela, X Alfonso, Síntesis, los pianistas Hernán López Nussa y Michelle Fragoso, Luis Conte en la percusión, Gastón Joya en el bajo y la cantautora Diana Fuentes, además de otros músicos y cantantes; mientras que en Miami grabaron Alexander “Pupi” Carriera, el tresero Joel Peña, la cantante Aymeé Nubiola, Carlos Puig y Luis Bofill. Como resultado se estrenó un videoclip en 2014 homenajeando “La Guantanamera”.
Dentro y fuera de la Isla, esta canción representa a los cubanos y su riquísimo folclor, así como rinde homenaje a la obra poética del más universal de todos los nacidos en la Mayor de las Antillas, quien aseguró que la música es la más bella forma de lo bello.
Lo vimos muchas veces por el barrio de Los Sitios, en Centro Habana. Caminaba con elegancia y ritmo aquel hombre alto y huesudo que, vestido invariablemente de guayabera y pantalón blanco y tocado con un jipijapa auténtico, parecía un Quijote tropical. Era Joseíto Fernández, El Rey de la Melodía, el creador de la famosísima Guajira guantanamera, la pieza musical cubana, junto con El manisero, de Simons, y La comparsa, de Lecuona, más difundida en el mundo.
Esa melodía no es guajira ni tampoco guantanamera. Quiere decir esto que no es oriunda de la provincia cubana de Guantánamo ni pertenece al género musical conocido como guajira. Joseíto Fernández la creó en 1928, en tiempos en que se iniciaba como cantante de sones, y la estrenó en la radio en 1935. Fue, a partir de 1940, el tema que identificó a su orquesta hasta que tres años después el cantante era contratado en exclusiva por una firma jabonera para que la interpretara en el programa radial El suceso del día, que escenificaba hechos de la crónica roja. Un poeta repentista componía la décimas o espinelas que recreaban el suceso criminal, y Joseíto las cantaba incorporándole el conocido estribillo de “Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera”. Aquello llegó a ser tan popular que, aunque el programa desapareció en 1957, todavía se oye decir en Cuba que a alguien le cantaron la Guantanamera cuando ha llevado la peor parte en un incidente desafortunado.
No es esa la Guantanamera que hoy recorre el mundo ni la que se repite en la Isla. Sino la que lleva versos de José Martí. En los años 50 Julián Orbón, compositor español avecindado en La Habana, la versionó con los Versos sencillos del Apóstol de la Independencia de Cuba, cuya métrica se ajustaba a las coplas de ocho compases que interpretaba Joseíto. En 1962, el músico Héctor Ángulo, becado en EE UU por el Gobierno Revolucionario, cantó esa versión en un campamento de verano de ese país. Así la escuchó Pete Seeger y la grabó poco después con el título de La guantanamera.
Sería a partir de esa grabación que algunos musicólogos se aventuraron a decir que Guajira guantanamera era una tonada hecha por el pueblo, un aire folclórico del que Joseíto se había apropiado. No hubo tal cosa. No se trata de un género anónimo, como el guaguancó o el son, sino de una guajira-son escrita en compases de dos por cuatro, a diferencia de las guajiras de Anckermann, que tomó elementos del punto y de la clave de raíces españolas y están escritas en compases de seis por ocho. El hecho de que ningún testimonio literario pruebe su similitud con otra tonada, confirma su originalidad, aunque tenga giros y cadencias parecidos al punto, la guajira y el son.
Hay algo más importante y definitivo. La versión cantada por Seeger tiene los elementos melódicos que se aprecian en la versión de la Guantanamera que para la disquera Víctor hizo Joseíto Fernández con su Orquesta Típica en 1941. En ese mismo año, su autor la registraba con el título de Mi biografía y el subtítulo de Guajira guantanamera.
Para Joseíto fue siempre un honor que versos de Martí se incorporaran a su melodía. Él mismo llegó a cantarla en esa versión y lo hizo como habitualmente se hace en la Isla: incorporando casuísticamente nuevas estrofas martianas y suprimiendo otras, a diferencia de la versión de Seeger, que incluye siempre los mismos versos. Afirmó en una ocasión que la Guantanamera fue siempre una canción protesta, de denuncia, porque recogía la tristeza y la desgracia de un pueblo y que, al pedir bienestar y justicia para ese pueblo, los reclamaba también para sí.
Porque aquel hombre íntegro, complaciente y amable, habanero hasta la muerte, tuvo un origen muy humilde que nunca olvidó. A los doce años había comenzado como aprendiz de zapatero, pero en la Compañía Nacional de Calzado, donde laboraba, solo percibía un peso diario cuando había trabajo, que era durante tres o cuatro meses al año. Vendía periódicos cuando quedaba parado y las serenatas que ofrecía con otros músicos de su edad le ayudaban a acopiar algunos pesos.
Así se convirtió en el cantante del sexteto Juventud Habanera. Trabajó después con otras agrupaciones musicales hasta que alcanzó popularidad con la orquesta de Raymundo Pía. Con ella recorrió la Isla y se presentó en bailes y emisoras radiales. Logró al fin conformar su propia orquesta y fue ahí que empezó a usar como tema la Guajira guantanamera. Con ella, en sus presentaciones en vivo o por radio, lo mismo felicitaba a una muchacha de Cabaiguán por su cumpleaños que pedía clemencia para un chofer de ómnibus involucrado en un accidente de tránsito.
Joseíto Fernández nació el 5 de septiembre de 1908 y murió el 11 de octubre de 1979.
Con los pobres de la tierra Quiero yo mi suerte echar Con los pobres de la tierra Quiero yo mi suerte echar El arroyo de la sierra Me complace mas que el mar El arroyo de la sierra Me complace más que el mar
Emerson was the son of the Reverend William Emerson, a Unitarian clergyman and friend of the arts. The son inherited the profession of divinity, which had attracted all his ancestors in direct line from Puritan days. The family of his mother, Ruth Haskins, was strongly Anglican, and among influences on Emerson were such Anglican writers and thinkers as Ralph Cudworth, Robert Leighton, Jeremy Taylor, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
On May 12, 1811, Emerson’s father died, leaving the son largely to the intellectual care of Mary Moody Emerson, his aunt, who took her duties seriously. In 1812 Emerson entered the Boston Public Latin School, where his juvenile verses were encouraged and his literary gifts recognized. In 1817 he entered Harvard College (later Harvard University), where he began his journals, which may be the most remarkable record of the “march of Mind” to appear in the United States. He graduated in 1821 and taught school while preparing for part-time study in the Harvard Divinity School.
Though Emerson was licensed to preach in the Unitarian community in 1826, illness slowed the progress of his career, and he was not ordained to the Unitarian ministry at the Second Church, Boston, until 1829. There he began to win fame as a preacher, and his position seemed secure. In 1829 he also married Ellen Louisa Tucker. When she died of tuberculosis in 1831, his grief drove him to question his beliefs and his profession. But in the previous few years Emerson had already begun to question Christian doctrines. His older brother William, who had gone to Germany, had acquainted him with the new biblical criticism and the doubts that had been cast on the historicity of miracles. Emerson’s own sermons, from the first, had been unusually free of traditional doctrine and were instead a personal exploration of the uses of spirit, showing an idealistic tendency and announcing his personal doctrine of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Indeed, his sermons had divested Christianity of all external or historical supports and made its basis one’s private intuition of the universal moral law and its test a life of virtuous accomplishment. Unitarianism had little appeal to him by now, and in 1832 he resigned from the ministry.
Mature life and works
When Emerson left the church, he was in search of a more certain conviction of God than that granted by the historical evidences of miracles. He wanted his own revelation—i.e., a direct and immediate experience of God. When he left his pulpit he journeyed to Europe. In Paris he saw Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu’s collection of natural specimens arranged in a developmental order that confirmed his belief in man’s spiritual relation to nature. In England he paid memorable visits to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Carlyle. At home once more in 1833, he began to write Nature and established himself as a popular and influential lecturer. By 1834 he had found a permanent dwelling place in Concord, Massachusetts, and in the following year he married Lydia Jackson and settled into the kind of quiet domestic life that was essential to his work.
The 1830s saw Emerson become an independent literary man. During this decade his own personal doubts and difficulties were increasingly shared by other intellectuals. Before the decade was over his personal manifestos—Nature, “The American Scholar,” and the divinity school Address—had rallied together a group that came to be called the Transcendentalists, of which he was popularly acknowledged the spokesman. Emerson helped initiate Transcendentalism by publishing anonymously in Boston in 1836 a little book of 95 pages entitled Nature. Having found the answers to his spiritual doubts, he formulated his essential philosophy, and almost everything he ever wrote afterward was an extension, amplification, or amendment of the ideas he first affirmed in Nature.
Emerson’s religious doubts had lain deeper than his objection to the Unitarians’ retention of belief in the historicity of miracles. He was also deeply unsettled by Newtonian physics’ mechanistic conception of the universe and by the Lockean psychology of sensation that he had learned at Harvard. Emerson felt that there was no place for free will in the chains of mechanical cause and effect that rationalist philosophers conceived the world as being made up of. This world could be known only through the senses rather than through thought and intuition; it determined men physically and psychologically; and yet it made them victims of circumstance, beings whose superfluous mental powers were incapable of truly ascertaining reality.
Emerson reclaimed an idealistic philosophy from this dead end of 18th-century rationalism by once again asserting the human ability to transcend the materialistic world of sense experience and facts and become conscious of the all-pervading spirit of the universe and the potentialities of human freedom. God could best be found by looking inward into one’s own self, one’s own soul, and from such an enlightened self-awareness would in turn come freedom of action and the ability to change one’s world according to the dictates of one’s ideals and conscience. Human spiritual renewal thus proceeds from the individual’s intimate personal experience of his own portion of the divine “oversoul,” which is present in and permeates the entire creation and all living things, and which is accessible if only a person takes the trouble to look for it. Emerson enunciates how “reason,” which to him denotes the intuitive awareness of eternal truth, can be relied upon in ways quite different from one’s reliance on “understanding”—i.e., the ordinary gathering of sense-data and the logical comprehension of the material world. Emerson’s doctrine of self-sufficiency and self-reliance naturally springs from his view that the individual need only look into his own heart for the spiritual guidance that has hitherto been the province of the established churches. The individual must then have the courage to be himself and to trust the inner force within him as he lives his life according to his intuitively derived precepts.
Obviously these ideas are far from original, and it is clear that Emerson was influenced in his formulation of them by his previous readings of Neoplatonist philosophy, the works of Coleridge and other European Romantics, the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, Hindu philosophy, and other sources. What set Emerson apart from others who were expressing similar Transcendentalist notions were his abilities as a polished literary stylist able to express his thought with vividness and breadth of vision. His philosophical exposition has a peculiar power and an organic unity whose cumulative effect was highly suggestive and stimulating to his contemporary readers’ imaginations.
In a lecture entitled “The American Scholar” (August 31, 1837), Emerson described the resources and duties of the new liberated intellectual that he himself had become. This address was in effect a challenge to the Harvard intelligentsia, warning against pedantry, imitation of others, traditionalism, and scholarship unrelated to life. Emerson’s “Address at Divinity College,” Harvard University, in 1838 was another challenge, this time directed against a lifeless Christian tradition, especially Unitarianism as he had known it. He dismissed religious institutions and the divinity of Jesus as failures in man’s attempt to encounter deity directly through the moral principle or through an intuited sentiment of virtue. This address alienated many, left him with few opportunities to preach, and resulted in his being ostracized by Harvard for many years. Young disciples, however, joined the informal Transcendental Club (founded in 1836) and encouraged him in his activities.
In 1840 he helped launch The Dial, first edited by Margaret Fuller and later by himself, thus providing an outlet for the new ideas Transcendentalists were trying to present to America. Though short-lived, the magazine provided a rallying point for the younger members of the school. From his continuing lecture series, he gathered his Essays into two volumes (1841, 1844), which made him internationally famous. In his first volume of Essays Emerson consolidated his thoughts on moral individualism and preached the ethics of self-reliance, the duty of self-cultivation, and the need for the expression of self. The second volume of Essays shows Emerson accommodating his earlier idealism to the limitations of real life; his later works show an increasing acquiescence to the state of things, less reliance on self, greater respect for society, and an awareness of the ambiguities and incompleteness of genius.
His Representative Men (1849) contained biographies of Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. In English Traits he gave a character analysis of a people from which he himself stemmed. The Conduct of Life (1860), Emerson’s most mature work, reveals a developed humanism together with a full awareness of human limitations. It may be considered as partly confession. Emerson’s collected Poems (1846) were supplemented by others in May-Day (1867), and the two volumes established his reputation as a major American poet.
By the 1860s Emerson’s reputation in America was secure, for time was wearing down the novelty of his rebellion as he slowly accommodated himself to society. He continued to give frequent lectures, but the writing he did after 1860 shows a waning of his intellectual powers. A new generation knew only the old Emerson and had absorbed his teaching without recalling the acrimony it had occasioned. Upon his death in 1882 Emerson was transformed into the Sage of Concord, shorn of his power as a liberator and enrolled among the worthies of the very tradition he had set out to destroy.
Emerson’s voice and rhetoric sustained the faith of thousands in the American lecture circuits between 1834 and the American Civil War. He served as a cultural middleman through whom the aesthetic and philosophical currents of Europe passed to America, and he led his countrymen during the burst of literary glory known as the American renaissance (1835–65). As a principal spokesman for Transcendentalism, the American tributary of European Romanticism, Emerson gave direction to a religious, philosophical, and ethical movement that above all stressed belief in the spiritual potential of every person.
Born in Boston in 1803, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a writer, lecturer, poet, and Transcendentalist thinker. Dubbed the «Sage of Concord,» Emerson discussed his views on individualism and the divine in essays such as «Self-Reliance» and «Nature,» and he emerged as one of the preeminent voices of his generation, both in his lifetime and in the annals of history.
1. HE LOST HIS FATHER AT AN EARLY AGE.
Emerson’s father, Reverend William Emerson, was a prominent Boston resident who worked as a Unitarian minister. But he didn’t focus solely on matters of God and religion. William Emerson also organized meetings of intellectuals, bringing together open-minded people from a variety of backgrounds to discuss philosophy, science, and books. Unfortunately, Emerson’s father died of either stomach cancer or tuberculosis in 1811, when Emerson was just 7 years old. Emerson’s mother, Ruth, and his aunts raised him and his five remaining siblings (a brother and sister had previously died young).
2. HE WAS HARVARD’S CLASS POET.
After studying at the Boston Latin School (which is now the oldest school in the U.S.), Emerson began college at 14, a common occurrence at the time. At Harvard College, he learned Latin, Greek, geometry, physics, history, and philosophy. In 1821, after four years of studying there, Emerson agreed to write and deliver a poem for Harvard’s Class Day (then called Valedictorian Day), a pre-graduation event. Was he the best poet in the class? Not exactly. The faculty asked a few other students to be Class Poet, but they turned down the post, so Emerson got the gig.
3. HE RAN A SCHOOL FOR GIRLS.
After graduating from Harvard, Emerson went home to teach young women. His older brother, William, ran a school for girls in their mother’s Boston home, and Emerson helped him teach students. Later, when William left to study in Germany, Emerson ran the school himself. He reportedly disliked teaching, though, so he moved on to plan B: grad school.
4. THEN HE SWITCHED GEARS AND BECAME A MINISTER.
In 1825, Emerson enrolled at Harvard Divinity School. He decided to become a minister, following in his father’s (and grandfather’s) footsteps. Despite struggling with vision problems and failing to graduate from his program, Emerson became licensed to preach in 1826. He then worked at a Unitarian church in Boston.
5. HE WAS FRIENDS WITH NAPOLEON BONAPARTE’S NEPHEW.
In late 1826, Emerson wasn’t feeling well. He suffered from tuberculosis, joint pain, and vision problems, so he followed medical advice and went south for a warmer climate near the ocean. After spending time in Charleston, South Carolina, Emerson headed to St. Augustine, Florida, where he preached and wrote poetry. He also met and befriended Prince Achille Murat, the nephew of the former French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who had renounced his European titles (though his father had already been overthrown) and immigrated to the United States. Murat was also a writer, and the two young men reportedly discussed religion, politics, and philosophy.
6. HIS YOUNG WIFE DIED OF TUBERCULOSIS.
When Emerson was 26, he married 18-year-old Ellen Louisa Tucker. The newlyweds lived happily in Boston, but Tucker was suffering from tuberculosis. Emerson’s mother helped take care of her son’s ailing wife, but in 1831, less than two years after getting married, Ellen passed away. Emerson dealt with his grief by writing in his journals («Will the eye that was closed on Tuesday ever beam again in the fullness of love on me? Shall I ever be able to connect the face of outward nature, the mists of the morn, the star of eve, the flowers and all poetry with the heart and life of an enchanting friend? No. There is one birth and baptism and one first love and the affections cannot keep their youth any more than men.»), traveling, and visiting her grave. The next year, after an extended period of soul-searching, he decided to leave the ministry to become a secular thinker.
7. HE GAVE MORE THAN 1500 LECTURES, WHICH MADE HIM RICH.
In 1833, Emerson turned his love of writing into a career as a frequent lecturer. He traveled around New England reading his essays and speaking to audiences about his views on nature, the role of religion, and his travels. In 1838, Emerson gave one of his most famous talks, a commencement speech to graduating students of the Harvard Divinity School. His «Divinity School Address» was radical and controversial at the time, since he expressed his Transcendentalist views of individual power over religious doctrine. He also argued that Jesus Christ was not God, a heretical idea at the time. In cities such as Boston, he paid his own money to rent a hall and advertise his speaking event. Emerson packaged some of his lectures into a series, speaking on a certain theme for several events. Ticket sales were high, and the «Sage of Concord» was able to support his family and buy land thanks to his lectures.
8. HE CRITICIZED JANE AUSTEN’S WRITING.
Although many readers love Jane Austen’s novels, Emerson was not a fan. In his notebooks (published posthumously), he criticized her characters’ single-minded focus on marriage in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. He also called Austen’s writing vulgar in tone and sterile in creativity. «I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate,» he wrote. «Never was life so pinched and so narrow … Suicide is more respectable.»
9. HE NAMED HIS DAUGHTER AFTER HIS FIRST WIFE.
In 1835, Emerson married Lydia Jackson (nickname: Lidian), an abolitionist and animal rights activist. The couple had four children—Waldo, Ellen, Edith, and Edward—and they named their first daughter Ellen Tucker to honor Emerson’s first wife. Besides naming his daughter after her, Emerson also kept his first wife’s rocking chair to remind himself of his love for her.
10. HE GREATLY INFLUENCED HENRY DAVID THOREAU.
No biography of writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau would be complete without mentioning Emerson’s impact on the «Civil Disobedience» essayist. Emerson gave Thoreau housing and money, encouraged him to keep a journal, and let him have land to build a cabin on Walden Pond. The two friends often discussed Transcendentalism, and Thoreau thought of Emerson’s wife Lidian as a sister. Although they had some intellectual disagreements, Emerson gave the eulogy at Thoreau’s 1862 funeral.
11. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT HAD A CRUSH ON HIM.
Emerson was friends and neighbors with Amos Bronson Alcott, the father of the Little Women author. Louisa May Alcott grew up surrounded by Emerson, Thoreau, and other Transcendentalist thinkers, and their works greatly influenced her. Emerson lent her books from his library and taught her about the joys of nature. She apparently wrote about her crushes on the much-older Emerson and Thoreau in one of her earliest works, a novel called Moods, and she was known to leave wildflowers near the front door of Emerson’s house.
12. MEETING ABRAHAM LINCOLN CHANGED HIS MIND ABOUT THE PRESIDENT.
Emerson wrote and lectured about the evils of slavery, and he frequently criticized President Lincoln for not doing enough to end it. In 1862, Emerson gave an anti-slavery lecture in Washington, D.C., and was invited to the White House to meet Lincoln. After the meeting, Emerson praised Lincoln’s charisma and storytelling ability («When he has made his remark, he looks up at you with a great satisfaction, and shows all his white teeth, and laughs»), saying that the president «impressed me more favorably than I had hoped.» Emerson also called Lincoln a sincere, well-meaning man with a boyish cheerfulness and clarity in speech.
13. HE PRAISED WALT WHITMAN WHEN FEW OTHERS WOULD, BUT FELT BURNED WHEN WHITMAN PUBLISHED HIS PRIVATE LETTERS.
After reading one of Emerson’s poems, Walt Whitman felt inspired. In 1855, he self-published Leaves of Grass and sent a copy to Emerson. The controversial collection of poems by the unknown poet got horrible reviews—it was routinely called obscene and profane, and one critic called it «a mass of stupid filth.» Sales were dismal. But Emerson read the book and wrote a laudatory letter to Whitman, calling the work a «wonderful gift» and «the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.»
Thanks to Emerson’s encouragement, Whitman published a second edition of Leaves of Grass. However, Whitman printed Emerson’s words on the book’s spine and in a newspaper article. Emerson was reportedly surprised and annoyed that his private letter was made public without his permission, and he remained silent on his thoughts regarding Whitman from then on.
14. HE SUFFERED FROM MEMORY PROBLEMS LATE IN LIFE.
In the early 1870s, Emerson began forgetting things. Given his symptoms, most historians think Emerson suffered from Alzheimer’s, aphasia, or dementia. Although he had difficulty recalling certain words, he continued to lecture until a few years before his death. Despite forgetting his own name and the names of his friends, Emerson reportedly kept a positive attitude towards his declining mental faculties (much as his first wife did while she was dying of tuberculosis).
15. HE HELPED DESIGN THE CEMETERY HE’S BURIED IN.
When Emerson died of pneumonia in 1882, he was buried on «Author’s Ridge» in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (not the same Sleepy Hollow as in the famed Washington Irving story)—a cemetery that was designed with Emerson’s Transcendentalist, nature-loving aesthetics in mind. In 1855, as a member of the Concord Cemetery Committee, Emerson gave the dedication at the opening of the cemetery, calling it a «garden of the living» that would be a peaceful place for both visitors and permanent residents. «Author’s Ridge» became a burial ground for many of the most famous American authors who called Concord home—Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and, of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Within living memory of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, the authentic cultural voice of America had spoken, outlining the future of American science, philosophy, scholarship, poetry and even landscape design. Today, many people do not know Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many of those who do, consider him at best a 19th-century transcendentalist or, at worst, the Dale Carnegie of belles lettres. But Emerson, who was born 200 years ago this month, prophetically mastered a wisdom that could have saved us all a lot of trouble by clarifying our place in nature.
A gift seems to have been granted to certain people in the moments in history we call renaissance. One can hear the gift in the voice of that time—a confident exuberance, accepting the tragic aspect of life, but also full of hope and belief; capable of a genial irony but devoid of cynicism and academic intellectual vanity. It is a voice that more cynical or exhausted ages find annoying.
Emerson is a renaissance voice. Living in the afterglow of the New England Puritan age of faith, and in the dawn of America’s political, artistic and exploring power, Emerson combined a boisterous energy with a rational and judicious piety. Too intellectually adventurous to remain a Unitarian minister (he became fascinated by Hindu theology), he did not abandon his religious tradition altogether. At the center of his insights was a vision of nature’s intimate relationship with the human and the divine.
In 1836, Emerson caused a stir when he published a long essay, «Nature.» At 33, he had finally broken with his church, moved from Boston, where he was born and grew up, to Concord, Massachusetts, and set out to create his own theology. «Nature,» which Emerson revised and later published in a collection with the same title, would influence European thinkers such as Thomas Carlyle and Friedrich Nietzsche and would become an almost sacred text for Emerson’s American disciples, including Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott (the educator and abolitionist) and Margaret Fuller (the feminist), who went to sit at the feet of the prophet.
The ideas Emerson put forth in a second, more prophetic essay also entitled «Nature,» published in 1844, boil down to two concepts: first, that a purely scientific understanding of our physical being does not preclude a spiritual existence; second, that nature embodies a divine intelligence. Reconciling those views, he argued that we need fear neither scientific progress nor the grand claims of religion.
In one of his most striking prophecies, the Sage of Concord seems to have anticipated the theory of evolution by natural selection as it would be developed by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species, published in 1859. Like Darwin, Emerson emphasizes the importance of the newly discovered antiquity of our planet: «Now we learn what patient periods must round themselves before the rock is formed, then before the rock is broken, and the first lichen race has disintegrated the thinnest external plate into soil, and opened the door for the remote Flora, Fauna, Ceres, and Pomona, to come in. How far off yet is the trilobite! how far the quadruped! how inconceivably remote is man!»
Emerson combines this idea with the observation by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) that organisms tend to multiply beyond their resources, giving us a capsule version of natural selection. «The vegetable life,» Emerson says, again prefiguring Darwin, «does not content itself with casting from the flower or the tree a single seed, but it fills the air and earth with a prodigality of seeds, that, if thousands perish, thousands may plant themselves, that hundreds may come up, that tens may live to maturity; that, at least one may replace the parent.» Certainly, with the parable of the sower, Jesus beat Emerson to the punch; but as Emerson himself might have said, there is a kinship among prophets, and they speak to each other across the millennia.
Emerson also seems to have anticipated by about 80 years Erwin Schrödinger’s and Albert Einstein’s discovery that matter is made of energy. «Compound it how she will, star, sand, fire, water, tree, man, it is still one stuff, and betrays the same properties,» Emerson writes, adding: «Without electricity the air would rot.»
Recognizing the mathematical basis of physical reality, he seems aware that the apparent solidity of matter is the illusion that physicists would later show it to be: «moon, plant, gas, crystal, are concrete geometry and numbers.» (I imagine Emerson would have been pleased by the discovery of quarks, which are bits of math spinning in a mathematical space-time field.) He already seems to intuit the Big Bang, the theory of the universe’s birth that would not appear for another hundred years. «That famous aboriginal push,» as he calls it, anticipating today’s scientific understanding of the universe, is a continuing process that «propagates itself through all the balls of the system; through every atom of every ball; through all the races of creatures, and through the history and performances of every individual.»
But Emerson is skeptical about the then-fashionable idea that nature was like a clockwork, a deterministic machine whose future—including our thoughts, feelings and actions—could be predicted if we knew everything that was happening at a prior moment. He, too, felt the «uneasiness which the thought of our helplessness in the chain of causes occasions us.» But instead of accepting our fate as parts of a machine, he exalts nature’s wonderful waywardness, which defies science’s attempts at perfect prediction.
Emerson is no less perceptive of human matters. He anticipates Abraham Maslow, the 20th-century psychologist, recognizing that we will pursue our higher, freer, more spiritual goals only after sating our lower ones. «Hunger and thirst lead us on to eat and to drink,» he says, «but bread and wine…leave us hungry and thirsty, after the stomach is full.» Before Freud, before the sociobiologists, Emerson realized the psychological implications of our animal descent. «The smoothest curled courtier in the boudoirs of a palace has an animal nature,» he says, «rude and aboriginal as a white bear.» But he draws conclusions that even now we have difficulty accepting—for example, that there is no meaningful distinction between the natural and artificial (or man-made). «Nature who made the mason, made the house,» he says. There is no point trying to go back to nature; we are already there.
America largely ignored Emerson’s insights about what is «natural» for a century and a half. Instead, we divided the world into the populated urban wasteland and the «empty» untouched wilderness. Thus we felt justified in uglifying our cities while attempting to eradicate all change and human agency from our national parks. If we feel alienated from nature, it is because we are suffering a hangover from a certain vanity of thought that would raise us above and out of nature. But Emerson sees nature as potentially improved by human beings and human beings as the epitome of nature. Such a view would lead, as it has begun to do recently, to an environmental ethic in which human activity can enrich nature, rather than just lay waste to it or fence it off. «Only as far as the masters of the world have called in nature to their aid, can they reach the height of magnificence,» he writes. «This is the meaning of their hanging-gardens, villas, garden-houses, islands, parks, and preserves.»
If we had heeded Emerson, we might also have avoided the huge and costly mistake of dividing academic life into two fire-walled regimes, the humanities and the sciences. The consequence was not only that we have had generations of ill-educated young—scientists who know no poetry, poets who know no science—but something even graver. Free will, if isolated from the controlling gentleness and complexity of nature, readily becomes the will to power, which can serve (and has) as a rationale for genocide. We are only now beginning to see the madness of where Western philosophy has led us. Emerson’s genial sanity can perhaps provide an antidote. As he says in «Politics,» published in 1844, «the wise know that foolish legislation is a rope of sand, which perishes in the twisting; the State must follow and not lead the character and progress of the citizen….»
Perhaps Emerson’s most exciting prophetic insights are ones that have not yet been fully realized. Consider David Bohm’s idea of the «implicate order,» still only a gleam in the eye of physics, that all of physical reality might be thought of as a holographic projection. Emerson, intuiting that concept a century and a half ago, says that, «from any one object the parts and properties of any other may be predicted.» Like Stephen Wolfram, whose 2002 book A New Kind of Science advances a view of cosmology as the playing-out of a simple algorithm, Emerson suggested that the world is the result of a simple computational process repeated over and over. Emerson, like Wolfram, cites the seashell, saying of the «whole code of [nature’s] laws» that «Every shell on the beach is a key to it. A little water made to rotate in a cup explains the formation of the simpler shells; the addition of matter from year to year, arrives at last at the most complex forms….»
Emerson’s greatest challenge to contemporary thought may be his view of evolution as a purposeful natural process—an idea vehemently rejected today. He argues that evolution harbors its own divine spirit and, therefore, that the universe is bursting with meaning. In his own time, Emerson was accused of being a pantheist, or a believer in the idea that nature is God, but that accusation misses its mark. For Emerson, nature is not God but the body of God’s soul—»nature,» he writes, is «mind precipitated.» Emerson feels that to fully realize one’s role in this respect is to be in paradise. He ends «Nature» with these words: «Every moment instructs, and every object; for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence until after a long time.»
Certainly, Emerson’s prophecy did not encompass cell phones, nuclear radiation and molecular genetics. But the American renaissance, of which he could fairly be called the founder, deserves to be revisited if we ever gather our culture together again for another bout of supreme creativity.
Best known for his 1932 novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley later wrote about his experimentation with psychedelic drugs. But there’s a lot more to Huxley’s life than dystopian novels. Here are 10 things you might not know about the author.
1. Aldous Huxley was almost completely blind as a teenager.
Born in Surrey, England in 1894, Huxley had a challenging early life. During his teenage years, his mother died of cancer, his brother died by suicide, and he began having problems with his vision. Following an infection, his corneas became inflamed (a condition called keratitis), and thus he couldn’t see well. In an interview with The Paris Review, Huxley explained that he was almost completely blind for a few years in his late teens: “I started writing when I was 17, during a period when I was almost totally blind and could hardly do anything else. I typed out a novel by the touch system; I couldn’t even read it,” he said.
2. Aldous Huxley struggled with eyesight for most of his life.
Historians debate the extent and duration of Huxley’s vision problems. In 1942, Huxley wrote The Art Of Seeing, a book in which he described how he regained his sight. He used the Bates Method, a series of suggestions—get natural sunlight, do eye exercises, and don’t wear glasses—for improving eyesight. The Art of Seeing was immediately attacked after its release by medical professionals for supporting pseudoscience, and questions remain about how much Huxley’s vision actually improved.
3. Aldous Huxley’s grandfather was a vocal proponent of evolution.
Huxley’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was a biologist who advocated for the theory of evolution. Nicknamed “Darwin’s bulldog,” he wrote, spoke, and participated in debates about the merits of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking theory. He also coined the word agnostic in 1869, describing it as the opposite of the gnostic of the Church, who said that they conclusively knew about how we came to exist.
4. Aldous Huxley taught George Orwell.
In 1917, Huxley briefly worked as a teacher at Eton, the esteemed boarding school in England. One of his students was Eric Blair, who later wrote 1984 and Animal Farm under the pen name George Orwell. Decades later, Orwell wrote in a 1946 magazine review that Huxley partially plagiarizedBrave New World by using themes that appear in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1923 dystopian novel We. (Huxley’s classic was released in 1932.)
Despite Orwell’s accusation, Huxley sent a letter to Orwell in October 1949, praising his work in 1984 but also getting in a slight dig at his former pupil. Huxley wrote that his own bleak view of the future was a more accurate prediction than Orwell’s: “I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.”
5. Aldous Huxley wrote for Vanity Fair and Vogue.
In the early 1920s, Huxley contributed articles to a few magazines, including Vogue, Vanity Fair, and House and Garden. The future author of Brave New World wrote on a broad range of topics and later reflected on this time as a positive learning experience: As he recalled, «I used to turn out articles on everything from decorative plaster to Persian rugs … I did dramatic criticism for the Westminster Gazette. Why—would you believe it?—I even did music criticism. I heartily recommend this sort of journalism as an apprenticeship. It forces you to write on everything under the sun, it develops your facility, it teaches you to master your material quickly, and it makes you look at things.»
6. Aldous Huxley worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
In the 1930s, Huxley moved California. In the 1940s and early 1950s, he worked as a screenwriter, collaborating on films such as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Madame Curie. In 1945, Disney paid Huxley $7500 to write a treatment based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland that also incorporated Carroll’s biography. That December, Huxley had a meeting with Walt Disney and his staff about the project. Disney eventually decided not to proceed with Huxley’s script partly because it was, according to Disney, too literary.
7. Aldous Huxley’s commitment to pacifism precluded him from becoming an American citizen.
Huxley frequently wrote about Hindu and Buddhist spiritual ideas, pacifism, and mysticism. He renounced all war, and his pacifist views ultimately prevented him from becoming a U.S. citizen. After living in California for 14 years, Huxley and his wife applied for citizenship. However, he refused to say that he would, if necessary, defend the U.S. in wartime. Because his refusal to fight was based on philosophical rather than religious reasons, he realized the government would most likely deny his application, so he withdrew it before they had a chance to turn him down.
8. The Doors named their band after Aldous Huxley’s book about mescaline.
Jim Morrison’s band The Doors is named after Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception, though Huxley himself took the phrase the doors of perception from English poet William Blake. Although Huxley depicted the pernicious effects of the fictional drug soma in Brave New World, he volunteered for mescaline experiments and praised mescaline as physically harmless, potentially therapeutic, and spiritually enlightening in The Doors of Perception.
9. Aldous Huxley spoke of the potential dangers of overpopulation.
In a May 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, Huxley shared his beliefs about the dangers of overpopulation. Describing how overpopulation means that people will have less food to eat and fewer goods to use per capita, Huxley warned that a precarious economy leads to a more powerful central government and social unrest. “I think that one sees here a pattern which seems to be pushing very strongly towards a totalitarian regime,” Huxley said.
10. Aldous Huxley’s death wasn’t highly publicized due to JFK’s assassination.
On November 22, 1963, Huxley died of cancer of the larynx, three years after he was diagnosed with the illness. His death received little notice because he died on the same day that then-President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas. British author C.S. Lewis also died that day, and his death similarly got little immediate attention.
Before he assumed the pen name George Orwell, Eric Arthur Blair (June 25, 1903-January 21, 1950) had a relatively normal upbringing for an upper-middle-class English boy of his time. Looking back now, his life proved to be anything but ordinary. He’s best known for penning the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four—regarded as one of the greatest classics of all time—but writing novels was only one small facet of his life and career. Here are 13 facts about Orwell’s life that may surprise you.
1. George Orwell attended prep school as a child—and hated it.
Eric Blair spent five years at the St. Cyprian School for boys in Eastbourne, England, which later inspired his melodramatic essay Such, Such Were the Joys. In this account, he called the school’s proprietors “terrible, all-powerful monsters” and labeled the institution itself «an expensive and snobbish school which was in process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive.» While Blair’s misery is now considered to be somewhat exaggerated, the essay was deemed too libelous to print at the time. It was finally published in 1968 after his death.
2. He was a prankster.
Blair was expelled from his «crammer» school (an institution designed to help students «cram» for specific exams) for sending a birthday message attached to a dead rat to the town surveyor, according to Sir Bernard Crick’s George Orwell: A Life, the first complete biography of Orwell. And while studying at Eton College, Orwell made up a song about John Crace, his school’s housemaster, in which he made fun of Crace’s appearance and penchant for Italian art:
«Then up waddled Wog and he squeaked in Greek: ‘I’ve grown another hair on my cheek.’ Crace replied in Latin with his toadlike smile: ‘And I hope you’ve grown a lovely new pile. With a loud deep fart from the bottom of my heart! How d’you like Venetian art?'»
Later, in a newspaper column, he recalled his boyhood hobby of replying to advertisements and stringing the salesmen along as a joke. “You can have a lot of fun by answering the advertisements and then, when you have drawn them out and made them waste a lot of stamps in sending successive wads of testimonials, suddenly leaving them cold,” he wrote.
3. Orwell worked a number of odd jobs for most of his career.
Everyone’s got to pay the bills, and Blair was no exception. He spent most of his career juggling part-time jobs while authoring books on the side. Over the years, he worked as a police officer for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (present-day Myanmar), a high school teacher, a bookstore clerk, a propagandist for the BBC during World War II, a literary editor, and a war correspondent. He also had stints as a dishwasher in Paris and as a hop-picker (for breweries) in Kent, England, but those jobs were for research purposes while “living as a tramp” and writing his first book about his experiences, Down and Out in Paris and London. (He chose to publish the book under a pseudonym, George Orwell, and the name stuck.)
4. He once got himself arrested—on purpose.
In 1931, while investigating poverty for his aforementioned memoir, Orwell intentionally got himself arrested for being “drunk and incapable.” This was done “in order to get a taste of prison and to bring himself closer to the tramps and small-time villains with whom he mingled,” biographer Gordon Bowker told The Guardian. At the time, he had been using the pseudonym Edward Burton and posing as a poor fish porter. After drinking several pints and almost a whole bottle of whisky and ostensibly making a scene (it’s uncertain what exactly was said or done), Orwell was arrested. His crime didn’t warrant prison time like he had hoped, and he was released after spending 48 hours in custody. He wrote about the experience in an unpublished essay titled Clink.
5. Orwell had knuckle tattoos.
While working as a police officer in Burma, Orwell got his knuckles tattooed. Adrian Fierz, who knew Orwell, told biographer Gordon Bowker that the tattoos were small blue spots, “the shape of small grapefruits,” and Orwell had one on each knuckle. Orwell noted that some Burmese tribes believed tattoos would protect them from bullets. He may have gotten inked for similarly superstitious reasons, Bowker suggested, but it’s more likely that he wanted to set himself apart from the British establishment in Burma. «He was never a properly ‘correct’ member of the Imperial class—hobnobbing with Buddhist priests, Rangoon prostitutes, and British drop-outs,» Bowker wrote.
6. He knew seven foreign languages, to varying degrees.
Orwell wrote in a 1944 newspaper column, “In my life I have learned seven foreign languages, including two dead ones, and out of those seven I retain only one, and that not brilliantly.” In his youth, he learned French from Aldous Huxley, who briefly taught at Orwell’s boarding school and later went on to write Brave New World. Orwell ultimately became fluent in French, and at different points in his life, he studied Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Burmese, to name a few.
7. He voluntarily fought in the Spanish Civil War.
Like fellow writer Ernest Hemingway and others with leftist leanings, Orwell got tangled up in the Spanish Civil War. At the age of 33, Orwell arrived in Spain, shortly after fighting had broken out in 1936, hoping to write some newspaper articles. Instead, he ended up joining the Republican militia to “fight fascism” because “it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” The following year, he was shot in the neck by a sniper, but survived. He described the moment of being shot as “a tremendous shock—no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing.” He wrote about his war experiences in the book Homage to Catalonia.
8. Orwell’s manuscript for Animal Farm was nearly destroyed by a bomb.
In 1944, Orwell’s home at 10 Mortimer Crescent in London was struck by a “doodlebug” (a German V-1 flying bomb). Orwell, his wife Eileen, and their son Richard Horatio were away at the time, but their home was demolished. During his lunch break at the British newspaper Tribune, Orwell would return to the foundation where his home once stood and sift through the rubble in search of his books and papers—most importantly, the manuscript for Animal Farm. “He spent hours and hours rifling through rubbish. Fortunately, he found it,” Richard recalled in a 2012 interview with Ham & High. Orwell then piled everything into a wheelbarrow and carted it back to his office.
9. He had a goat named Muriel.
He and his wife Eileen tended to several farm animals at their home in Wallington, England, including Muriel the goat. A goat by the same name in Orwell’s book Animal Farm is described as being one of the few intelligent and morally sound animals on the farm, making her one of the more likable characters in this dark work of dystopian fiction.
10. George Orwell coined the term Cold War.
The first recorded usage of the phrase cold war in reference to relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union can be traced back to Orwell’s 1945 essayYou and the Atom Bomb, which was written two months after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the essay, he described “a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.” He continued:
“Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly centralized police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace.’”
11. He ratted out Charlie Chaplin and other artists for allegedly being communists.
Orwell self-identified as a democratic socialist, but his sympathy didn’t extend to communists. In 1949, he compiled a list of artists he suspected of having communist leanings and passed it along to his friend, Celia Paget, who worked for the UK’s Information Research Department. After the war ended, the branch was tasked with distributing anti-communist propaganda throughout Europe. Orwell’s list included Charlie Chaplin and a few dozen other actors, writers, academics, and politicians. Other notable names that were written down in his notebook but weren’t turned over to the IRD included Katharine Hepburn, John Steinbeck, George Bernard Shaw, Orson Welles, and Cecil Day-Lewis (the father of Daniel Day-Lewis).
Orwell’s intention was to blacklist those individuals, whom he considered untrustworthy, from IRD employment. While journalist Alexander Cockburn labeled Orwell a “snitch,” biographer Bernard Crick wrote, “He wasn’t denouncing these people as subversives. He was denouncing them as unsuitable for counter-intelligence operation.”
12. He really hated American fashion magazines.
For a period of about a year and a half, Orwell penned a regular column called As I Please for the newspaper Tribune, in which he shared his thoughts on everything from war to objective truth to literary criticism. One such column from 1946 featured a brutal takedown of American fashion magazines. Of the models appearing on their pages, he wrote, “A thin-boned, ancient-Egyptian type of face seems to predominate: narrow hips are general, and slender, non-prehensile hands like those of a lizard are quite universal.”
As for the inane copy that accompanied advertisements, he complained:
«Words like suave-mannered, custom-finished, contour-conforming, mitt-back, inner-sole, backdip, midriff, swoosh, swash, curvaceous, slenderize, and pet-smooth are flung about with evident full expectation that the reader will understand them at a glance. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random: ‘A new Shimmer Sheen color that sets your hands and his head in a whirl.’ ‘Bared and beautifully bosomy.’ ‘Feathery-light Milliken Fleece to keep her kitten-snug!’ ‘Others see you through a veil of sheer beauty, and they wonder why!'»
In the rest of the column, he went on to discuss traffic fatalities.
13. He nearly drowned while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.
One day in 1947 while taking a break from writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell took his son, niece, and nephew on a boating trip across the Gulf of Corryvreckan in western Scotland, which happens to be the site of the world’s third-largest whirlpool. Unsurprisingly, their dinghy capsized when it was sucked into the whirlpool, hurling them all overboard. Fortunately, all four survived, and the book that later came to be called Nineteen Eighty-Four (originally named The Last Man in Europe) was finally published in 1949, just seven months before Orwell’s death from tuberculosis.