O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen Und freudenvollere
Freude, schöner Götterfunken Tochter aus Elysium Wir betreten feuertrunken Himmlische, dein Heiligtum! Deine Zauber binden wieder Was die Mode streng geteilt Alle Menschen werden Brüder Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt
Wem der große Wurf gelungen Eines Freundes Freund zu sein Wer ein holdes Weib errungen Mische seinen Jubel ein! Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund! Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!
Freude trinken alle Wesen An den Brüsten der Natur Alle Guten, alle Bösen Folgen ihrer Rosenspur Küsse gab sie uns und Reben Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben Und der Cherub steht vor Gott
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen
Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt! Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen? Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt? Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt! Über Sternen muß er wohnen
Oh friends, not these sounds! Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones!
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity, Daughter from Elysium, We enter, burning with fervour, heavenly being, your sanctuary! Your magic brings together what custom has sternly divided. All men shall become brothers, wherever your gentle wings hover.
Whoever has been lucky enough to become a friend to a friend, Whoever has found a beloved wife, let him join our songs of praise! Yes, and anyone who can call one soul his own on this earth! Any who cannot, let them slink away from this gathering in tears!
Every creature drinks in joy at nature’s breast; Good and Evil alike follow her trail of roses. She gives us kisses and wine, a true friend, even in death; Even the worm was given desire, and the cherub stands before God.
Gladly, just as His suns hurtle through the glorious universe, So you, brothers, should run your course, joyfully, like a conquering hero.
Be embraced, you millions! This kiss is for the whole world! Brothers, above the canopy of stars must dwell a loving father.
Do you bow down before Him, you millions? Do you sense your Creator, O world? Seek Him above the canopy of stars! He must dwell beyond the stars.
Is Cast Away by Robert Zemeckis Based On A True Story?
It might be a work of fiction, but real-life events and survival stories inspired the Tom Hanks survival drama Cast Away – so, is Cast Away a true story adaptation? While it may not be inspired by one particular individual, the film is based on many real-life experiences. The movie was written by William Boyles Jr., and directed by Back To The Future‘s Robert Zemeckis. It follows a FedEx executive, Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), after he’s stranded on a deserted island in the middle of the South Pacific by a plane crash. Isolated for four years, Noland struggles to survive and stay sane, with his only company being Wilson, a volleyball that was part of the plane’s cargo that has a face painted using Noland’s own bloody handprint.
Noland braved the elements and managed to survive for years, eventually being able to return home. While researching and writing the script for Cast Away, Broyles consulted professional survival experts before taking the significant step of deliberately isolating himself on an island in the Gulf of California, intending to put himself in the shoes of his main character. Broyles’ experiences on the island informed many of the critical moments portrayed in Cast Away.
Broyles discussed his time in isolation and how it later inspired the screenplay in an interview with The Austin Chronicle. Broyles speared and ate stingrays on the island, drank coconut juice, built a tent out of bamboo and palm leaves, and struggled to make his own fire. Recalling his loneliness during his days on the island, Broyles explained how the experience gave him an understanding of “what it means to be truly alone.” When Broyles found a deserted volleyball on the beach one day, he named it Wilson, which served as inspiration for Noland’s only friend during his four years on the island. While the experiences were forged from reality, is Cast Away a true story in the wider narrative sense?
Is Cast Away Based On A True Story?
Cast Away was initially inspired by Robinson Crusoe, and Elvis actor Tom Hanks had the idea to do a modern-day version of Daniel Defoe’s classic adventure story. Hanks told The Hollywood Reporter that he was inspired by a news article about FedEx. “I realized that 747s filled with packages fly across the Pacific three times a day,” said Hanks. He wondered, “what happens if (the plane) goes down?” This question sparked the idea that would evolve into Cast Away. Like Defoe’s historical fiction, Cast Away was inspired by the lives of real-world explorers. Alexander Selkirk is thought to have been the biggest inspiration behind Defoe’s novel, and he was a Scottish castaway who spent four years on a Pacific island in the early 1700s. After being rescued by an English expedition in 1709, Edward Cooke, who was part of the rescue team, wrote about Selkirk in his book, A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World.
So, technically speaking, is Cast Away a true story? Sort of. A range of other real-life castaways inspired some of literature’s most famous stories, including Spanish sailor Pedro Serrano, who was reportedly shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Nicaragua in the first half of the 16th century. Ada Blackjack was another, sometimes referred to as a «female Crusoe» – she was a seamstress who became stranded on an island near Siberia in 1921 but was only rescued two years later. These explorers and others like them helped to inspire Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland and his experiences in his island location in Cast Away.
Is Cast Away a true story? The real-life tales of survival that inspired the Tom Hanks movie
What is Cast Away about?
Tom Hanks stars in the movie as a FedEx worker Chuck Noland, who washes up on a desert island after his plane crash lands.
As he adapts to life alone in the uninhabited spot, he uses what he has around him to stay alive for the next four years.
Key moments include him turning a volleyball into a “friend” he calls Wilson, which becomes the only thing Hanks’ character can talk to.
While the film is primarily centred on Hanks, whose performance won him a Golden Globe award, other cast members include Helen Hunt, Paul Sanchez and Nick Searcy.
It was directed by Robert Zemeckis.
How did the film’s makers research Cast Away?
In the creation of the film, screenwriter William Broyles Jr spent a few days alone on an isolated beach near Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, to get an idea of what it was like.
According to reports in The Austin Chronicle from 2000, the experience taught Broyles more about what it really means to be lonely.
“I realized it wasn’t just a physical challenge. It was going to be an emotional, spiritual one as well,” he told the publication
While there, he made himself find his own food, water, which included breaking open coconuts and eating speared stingrays, and building shelter made of bamboo and palm leaves.
It was during this time, that he also came up with the idea for Wilson the volleyball companion, as a ball washed up on the beach he was staying on and he began to talk to it. The name was Wilson was simply the brand of the ball.
Is is based on a true story?
While the exact story of Cast Away is not thought to be a true story, there are several real-life accounts of people who spent time on uninhabited lands that may have provided inspiration.
Among the most famous is the story of Alexander Selkirk, who is known by some as a real-life Robinson Crusoe, inspiring the Daniel Defoe novel.
Selkirk travelled around the South Pacific in the early 1700s, taking part in buccaneering pursuits.
He chose to be left on the uninhabited Juan Fernández archipelago near Chile, as he feared the ship he had travelled on was too dangerous to continue the journey.
He took a few items with him from the ship, including a knife, bedding and a Bible, and was left to hunt for his own food which included lobsters and feral goats.
The story goes, that he was forced from the shores of the island further inland after masses of sea lions came to the beaches for mating season.
It was not an easy existence, and his time on the deserted land was full of loneliness and remorse, as well as physical challenges such as attacks from rats – though feral cats proved useful in keeping the rodents at bay.
He built huts out of materials he found on the islands, made his own clothes from animal skins and chased prey.
He was eventually rescued in 1709, four years after his arrival, when a ship came by and took him aboard.
He later spent more time at sea, continuing his privateering voyages and returned to London for some time, where his story became well known.
Accounts of Selkirk’s experiences were later published in newspaper articles of the times and in books by his former shipmate Edward Cooke and the leader of the expedition on the ship that had rescued him, Woodes Rogers.
What other real life castaways were there?
There were several more real life castaways over the years, some of whom had ended up in isolation by force, and others of their own accord.
They include Ada Blackjack who was stranded on Wrangel Island near Siberia in 1921 after a mission aboard a ship where she was a seamstress, went wrong.
Unlike Tom Hanks in the film, she was left trying to survive in cold climates, with just a cat who had been aboard the ship for company.
The animals in the area included seals, arctic foxes and polar bears, which would have been all she had to hunt after rations from the ship ran out.
She was eventually rescued in 1923 and became known in some accounts as the female Robinson Crusoe.
Another castaway was a French woman Marguerite de La Rocque, who in 1542 was made to stay on an island near Quebec, Île des Démons, after her uncle caught her sleeping with a man aboard their ship and left them both on the uninhabited land.
According to The Mirror,their time on the island was not a happy one, as while there, the young woman became pregnant but both her child and her partner died.
She was eventually rescued by a boat and returned to France, after roughly two years.
Other people who experienced life as castaways in various ways and may have provided some inspiration for the film, include Tom Neale, a New Zealand bushcraft and survival enthusiast who spent much of his life in the Cook Islands, and a total of 16 years – in three sessions – living alone on the island of Anchorage in the Suwarrow atoll, which was the basis of his popular autobiography An Island To Oneself; Leendert Hasenbosch who was an employee of the Dutch East India Company marooned on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean as a punishment for sodomy and Narcisse Pelletier, born in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie in the Vendée who was a French sailor. Pelletier was abandoned in 1858 at the age of 14 on the Cape York Peninsula, in Australia, during the dry season.
Golden leaves falling from the trees Covering the streets I’m walking with my restless feet Empty seats, fancy deficiency There’s so much I need
Fucking wish to being overseas Wish your head is lying on my knees Remembering a summer breeze Fucking wish to being overseas Wish your head is lying on my knees Like it used to be
And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And our love will last
Like the storms and the spray of the sea Like the roots of the highest trees Like apologies and it will grow Like the strongest of all the seeds And it will feed our mouth And breath in a summer breeze Our hearts in a steady beat ‘Cause how could I sleep While the storm chops down all the trees Tell me, what are you doing to me? Tell me, what are you doing to me?
And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And our love will last
Like Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last
Message in a Bottle by The Police
Message in a Bottle by The Police
ust a castaway, an island lost at sea, oh Another lonely day, with no one here but me, oh More loneliness than any man could bear Rescue me before I fall into despair, oh
I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my Message in a bottle, yeah
Message in a bottle, yeah
A year has passed since I wrote my note I should have known this right from the start Only hope can keep me together Love can mend your life Or love can break your heart
I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my Message in a bottle, yeah
Message in a bottle, yeah Oh, message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, yeah
Walked out this morning, I don’t believe what I saw Hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore Seems I’m not alone at being alone Hundred billion castaways, looking for a home
I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my Message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, oh Message in a bottle, yeah
Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S
I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S
I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S
Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, creator of the most famous detective in English literature, was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was a chronic alcoholic, while his mother, Mary, passed her gift for storytelling to her son. Arthur recalled his mother’s habit of “sinking her voice to a horror-stricken whisper” as she reached the climax of a tale. Her stories overshadowed the hardships of a home with little money and an erratic father. “In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all,” Arthur said, “the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.”
Any innocence that was salvaged from that childhood ended during Arthur’s early education. Beginning at age nine, wealthier Doyle family members paid his way through the Jesuit boarding school Hodder Place, where he spent seven unhappy years in Stonyhurst, England, plagued by bigotry in academic subjects and the brutal corporal punishment common to such schools of the period. His only relief came in corresponding with his mother and practicing sports, mainly cricket, at which he excelled. He also discovered his own aptitude for storytelling during these years, drawing upon his innate sense of humor to delight younger students, who would crowd around to listen.
After graduating in 1876, Arthur returned to Scotland, determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps. “Perhaps it was good for me that the times were hard, for I was wild, full blooded and a trifle reckless. But the situation called for energy and application so that one was bound to try to meet it. My mother had been so splendid that I could not fail her,” he wrote years later. The first necessary action was to co-sign the committal papers of his father, who was by then seriously demented, to a lunatic asylum.
Aside from Charles, the Doyle family held a prominent position in the world of art, and it would have been natural for Arthur to have immediately carried on in that tradition. But he chose medicine instead, attending the University of Edinburgh to complete his training. At the university he met several fellow students who would later become major British authors, including James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson. But the man with the greatest influence over seventeen-year-old Arthur was a teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell, who ultimately inspired the character of Sherlock Holmes. One can clearly see the qualities Arthur most admired in Dr. Bell in the detective. “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes,” he wrote the doctor. “…[R]ound the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.”
Holmes would not appear for several years, but it was during medical school that Arthur began to write short stories. The first piece, The Mystery of Sasassa Valley, was reminiscent of his favorite authors, Edgar Alan Poe and Bret Harte, and was accepted for publication in Chamber’s Journal, an Edinburgh magazine. The next story, The American Tale, was published the same year in London Society. “It was in this year,” he wrote later, “that I first learned that shillings might be earned in other ways than by filling phials.”
At the age of twenty and in his third year of medical school, Arthur boarded the whaling boat Hope as the ship’s surgeon, traveling to the shores of Greenland for the crew’s seal and whale hunts. “I went on board the whaler a big straggling youth. I came off a powerful well-grown man,” he reflected. The trip had “awakened the soul of a born wanderer.” He returned to school in 1880, and while he struggled with his medical studies after his Arctic adventure, he nevertheless completed his Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degree a year later, officially becoming Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle.
The new doctor opened his first private practice in Portsmouth. Although it is said he only had £10 to his name when he began, by the end of three years he was starting to make a living for himself. In 1885 he married Louisa Hawkins, a “gentle and amiable” young woman. In the midst of his medical practice and new marriage, he also spent time developing his writing career. In 1886 he began A Tangled Skein, a novel featuring characters named Sheridan Hope and Ormond Stacker. When it was published two years later in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, he had changed the title to A Study in Scarlet and now introduced readers to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.
Sherlock Holmes quickly became world famous, and so began a dichotomy in Conan Doyle’s life. He struggled between the commercial success of the Holmes stories and his preference for writing historical novels, poems, and plays, which he believed would bring him recognition as a serious author. Another disparity arose between Conan Doyle’s brilliant use of logic and deduction, on one hand, and his fascination with the paranormal and spiritualism, a practice to which he became devoted later in life, on the other.
By the late 1880s, Conan Doyle was better known in the United States than in England. But in 1889 the publisher of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in Philadelphia came to London to create a British edition of the magazine. He arranged a dinner with Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. The two writers got along famously. (“It was indeed a golden evening for me,” Conan Doyle wrote), and the publisher commissioned a short novel from Conan Doyle, which was published in 1890 in both England and the U.S. This story, The Sign of Four, played a significant role in elevating the profile of Sherlock Holmes and his creator in literary history.
In order to write The Sign of the Four, however, the young author had to put aside an historical novel on which he had been working, The White Company. As this was the type of literature he most enjoyed writing, he felt he would never find as much satisfaction in or accomplishment in the Holmes series. “I was young and full of the first joy of life and action,” he remarked about writing The White Company, “and I think I got some of it into my pages. When I wrote the last line, I remember that I cried: ‘Well, I’ll never beat that’ and threw the inky pen at the opposite wall.”
After a brief move to Austria, Conan Doyle relocated to London, opening an ophthalmology practice in Upper Wimpole Street. Lacking any patients, however, he had plenty of time to contemplate the next step in his career. He decided to write a series of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. It turned out to be the most profitable decision of his life. His agent made a deal with The Strand Magazine to publish the stories, and the visual likeness of Holmes was immortalized by illustrator Sidney Paget, who used his brother Walter as a model. The artistic collaboration between Conan Doyle and Paget would last for many decades, branding both the persona and the image of Sherlock Holmes worldwide.
Conan Doyle’s medical career came to an end after a near-death bout of influenza in 1891, which helped to clarify his priorities. “With a rush of joy” he chose to step away from his medical career. “I remember in my delight taking the handkerchief which lay upon the coverlet in my enfeebled hand, and tossing it up to the ceiling in my exultation,” he recalled. “I should at last be my own master.”
Being his own master, however, involved making artistic choices that did not always meet with public approval. Conan Doyle felt burdened by Sherlock Holmes. In November 1891 he wrote to his mother,
“I think of slaying Holmes…and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.” In December 1893 he did the deed, killing off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem by sending the detective and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, plummeting to their deaths at the Reichenbach Falls. The author was now free of the character that had eclipsed what he considered his better work. But his mother had warned him, “You may do what you deem fit, but the crowds will not take this lightheartedly,” and indeed, twenty thousand readers expressed their disapproval by cancelling their subscriptions to The Strand Magazine.
The Hound of Baskervilles, serialized in The Strand Magazine beginning in 1901, was inspired by a stay on the Devonshire moors in southwest England. The real-life Fox Tor Mires were supposedly the inspiration for the novel’s great Grimpen Mire, the prison at Dartmoor contributed to the idea of an escaped convict – Slasher Seldon – on the loose, and folklore lent the spectral hound to the story. At some point, however, Conan Doyle realized his tale lacked a hero. He’s quoted as having said, “Why should I invent such a character, when I already have him in the form of Sherlock Holmes?” Since he had killed off Sherlock in The Final Problem, he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles as if it was a previously untold Holmes caper. In subsequent Holmes stories Conan Doyle brought the detective back, explaining that he had not actually died along with Professor Moriarty but had arranged to be temporarily “dead” to evade his other dangerous enemies.
In his personal life, Conan Doyle was dealing with weighty issues. Louisa had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in the 1890s. The prognosis was dire, but Conan Doyle was able to nurse her years beyond her doctors’ expectations. He also, however, fell in love with another woman during that time. When Louisa died in his arms in 1906, he had been involved in a clandestine, although platonic, courtship with Jean Elizabeth Leckie for nine years. Conan Doyle fought a deep depression for several months after Louisa’s death, but roused himself by helping to exonerate a young man who had been accused of vicious crimes that the former doctor realized the man wasn’t capable of committing. The next year, Jean Leckie became Lady Conan Doyle.
The young man was the first of several individuals on whose behalf Conan Doyle intervened in the courts. He was deeply committed to justice and public service and used his instincts and training to further those causes. Turned down for military service in both the Boer War and World War I due to his age, he nevertheless volunteered as a medical doctor in South Africa during the Boer War. In 1902 he was knighted by King Edward VII for his service to the Crown. He also twice ran for Parliament as a Liberal Unionist, earning respectable votes but neither time winning the election.
Conan Doyle had five children – a daughter and a son with Louisa and two sons and a daughter with Jean – and lost five men in his family – his first son, brother, two brothers-in-law, and two nephews – in World War I. After his marriage to Jean, the pace of his writing subsided considerably. He did, however, give playwriting further attention. 1912’s The Speckled Band, was based on a well-known Holmes story. It proved both a critical and commercial success on the stage, unlike some of his earlier plays. Before too long, though, Conan Doyle decided to retire from theatrical work, “Not because it doesn’t interest me, but because it interests me too much.”
He may be best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger series, which began with The Lost World in 1912, was also highly successful and made a profound mark on the as-yet-unnamed “science fiction” genre. Increasingly, the celebrated author retreated into this world of science fiction, and also into spiritualism. He and his family traveled to three continents on psychic crusades. He spent over £250,000 on his religious pursuits and wrote primarily about spiritualism for a period, until the financial toll drove him back to writing fiction. First came three more Professor Challenger books, followed by a compilation of Sherlock Holmes adventures in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1927.
Near the end of his life, Conan Doyle was diagnosed with angina pectoris, commonly caused by coronary heart disease. Pushing himself to the end, he took one final psychic tour of northern Europe in late 1929, after which he was bedridden for the rest of his days. He died on July 7, 1930, surrounded by his family, whispering his last words to Jean: “You are wonderful.” The epitaph on his gravestone in the churchyard at Minstead in the New Forest, Hampshire, reads, “Steel True/Blade Straight/Arthur Conan Doyle/Knight/Patriot, Physician & Man of Letters.” A statue honors him in Crowborough, East Sussex, England. And back in Edinburgh, close to the house in which the beloved writer was born, stands a statue of Sherlock Holmes.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes, led a robust life worthy of the pages of his fiction. He embarked on daring journeys to the Arctic and the Alps, investigated crimes and—though his most famous character is the paragon of rational thinking—staunchly believed in fairies and spirits. Here are 11 facts about this fascinating, complicated author.
1. Arthur Conan Doyle grew up in poverty.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1859, Conan Doyle was the second of seven surviving children. His father, the artist Charles Doyle, struggled with alcoholism and even stole from his children’s money boxes to fund his addiction. The family’s finances were chronically strained: “We lived in the hardy and bracing atmosphere of poverty,” Conan Doyle wrote in his autobiography. Charles was ultimately committed to an asylum due to his erratic behavior [PDF].
Throughout this domestic turbulence, the author’s mother, Mary Foley Doyle, was a stabilizing force. Conan Doyle credited her with kindling his imagination and flair for storytelling. «In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories which she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life,” he recalled. “I am sure, looking back, that it was in attempting to emulate these stories of my childhood that I first began weaving dreams myself.»
2. Arthur Conan Doyle trained as a medical doctor.
When he was 17 years old, Conan Doyle began his studies at the University of Edinburgh’s medical school, graduating with Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees in 1881. Four years later, he completed his thesis on tabes dorsalis, a degenerative neurological disease, and earned his M.D. He later traveled to Vienna to study ophthalmology [PDF].
Conan Doyle established a medical practice in the English city of Portsmouth, where he also wrote his first two Sherlock Holmes novels: A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Holmes was based in part on one of his professors at medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell, known for his ability to deduce facts about his patients through close observation.
In 1891, Conan Doyle relocated to London to work as an ophthalmologist. The venture was not a resounding success; he would later joke that his rented offices had two waiting rooms: “I waited in the consulting room, and no one waited in the waiting room.” But that left Conan Doyle with ample time to devote to his budding literary career. He soon gave up medicine in favor of writing—a decision that he called “one of the great moments of exultation” in his life.
3. Arthur Conan Doyle traveled to the Arctic on a whaling expedition.
While in the midst of his medical studies, Conan Doyle accepted a position as a ship’s surgeon on a whaler headed to the Arctic Circle. A hardy young man with an adventurous spirit, he joined his shipmates in hunting seals, not at all deterred by his lack of experience on the ice and frequent tumbles into the freezing waters. Conan Doyle did have some qualms about the slaughter, writing that “those glaring crimson pools upon the dazzling white of the ice fields … did seem a horrible intrusion.” Nevertheless, he found the journey—particularly the whale hunts—exhilarating. “No man who has not experienced it,” Conan Doyle opined, “can imagine the intense excitement of whale fishing.”
4. Arthur Conan Doyle got sick of Sherlock Holmes.
The popularity of Sherlock Holmes skyrocketed after Conan Doyle struck a deal with the Strand Magazine to publish a series of short stories featuring the mastermind detective. Readers would line up at newsagents on the days that new issues dropped, and Conan Doyle eventually became one of the highest-paid writers of his day. But he grew exasperated by the public’s love for Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle also wrote historical novels, plays, and poetry, and he felt that his detective fiction overshadowed these other, more serious works. “I have had such an overdose of [Holmes] that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day,» the author quipped.
In the 1893 story “The Final Problem,” Conan Doyle killed off Holmes, sending him plunging to his death over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Fans were devastated; more than 20,000 of them canceled their subscriptions to the Strand in protest. Conan Doyle did not publish another Holmes story for eight years, ending his strike with The Hound of the Baskervilles, which takes place before Holmes’s death. In 1903, prompted by a tremendous offer from British and American publishers, Conan Doyle decided to resurrect his much-loved sleuth. Over the course of his career, he featured Holmes in 56 stories and four novels—now known to fans as the “Canon.”
5. Arthur Conan Doyle helped popularize Switzerland as a skiing destination.
In 1893, Conan Doyle’s first wife, Louisa, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The couple decided to head to Davos, in the Swiss Alps, hoping that the crisp, clear air would be beneficial to Louisa. Her health did improve, for a time, and Conan Doyle decided to take up skiing, a Norwegian sport that was new to Switzerland and virtually unknown in Britain. He wrote a humorous article in the Strand about his attempts to master skiing and his daring journey over the Furka Pass, which soars 8000 feet above sea level. The article was republished multiple times and drew attention to the Swiss Alps as a skiing destination. Today, a plaque in Davos honors Conan Doyle for “bringing this new sport and the attractions of the Swiss Alps in winter to the world.”
6. Arthur Conan Doyle believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.
Conan Doyle began exploring mystical ideas about spirits and the afterlife as a young doctor. In later life, he became one of the world’s most prominent advocates of Spiritualism, a movement rooted in the belief that the souls of the dead can communicate with the living, usually through a medium. Spiritualism took root in Britain during the Victorian era and continued to flourish in the years after WWI, when many families were eager to connect with lost loved ones. Conan Doyle’s own brother and son died during the influenza pandemic that swept the world in the wake of the Great War, and the author believed that they reached out to him during séances.
He wrote books on Spiritualism, debated the subject with skeptics and traveled the world delivering lectures on the Spiritualist cause, which he described as the “most important thing in the world, and the particular thing which the human race in its present state of development needs more than anything else.”
7. Arthur Conan Doyle also believed in fairies.
In 1920, a pair of startling photographs came to Conan Doyle’s attention. The images appeared to show two schoolgirls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, posing with fairies by a stream in the English village of Cottingley. After conducting what he believed to be a thorough investigation, Conan Doyle became convinced that the photographs were genuine, and wrote two articles and a book on the “Cottingley Fairies.” With a renowned author championing them, the photos became a sensation. Conan Doyle was widely ridiculed by those who believed the images were fake, but he remained steadfast; he hoped that the photographs would propel an incredulous public to “admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life” and, by extension, to accept the “spiritual message” that he worked tirelessly to promote.
In 1983, Wright and Griffiths finally confessed that the photographs were a hoax. The “fairies” were simply paper cutouts, copied from a children’s book, and propped up with hat pins. They had only meant to trick their parents; Wright later said that she and Griffiths were too embarrassed to admit the truth once their story was believed by the famous Conan Doyle.
8. Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle had a fraught friendship.
Conan Doyle met Harry Houdini in 1920, while the famed magician was visiting England. They bonded over Spiritualism; Houdini, though fairly certain that mediums were tricksters and frauds, was at that time willing to be convinced otherwise. For his part, Conan Doyle believed that Houdini possessed psychic powers.
When Conan Doyle traveled to America in 1922, the friends met up in Atlantic City. Houdini agreed to participate in a séance with Conan Doyle and his second wife, Jean, who claimed she could channel the spirits of the dead. But Houdini quickly came to suspect that the séance was a sham. Jean filled multiple pages with automatic writing that she said came from Houdini’s deceased mother—though his mother could barely speak English. Houdini also found it curious that Jean’s automatic writing included the sign of a cross, considering that his mother was Jewish. The episode caused a rift between the friends, and they argued both privately and publicly over the legitimacy of medium cases.
9. Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted for his support of the Boer War.
Fueled by a sense of patriotism after the outbreak of the Second Boer War, Conan Doyle traveled to Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1900 to volunteer as a doctor in a field hospital. There he encountered a grim scene; Bloemfontein was in the grips of a typhoid epidemic, the hospital was overwhelmed with sick and dying patients, and sanitary conditions were abysmal [PDF]. But his conviction in the war did not flag, even as the conflict dragged on, became increasingly brutal, and began to lose support in Britain and beyond. Indignant over reports of British atrocities, Conan Doyle published a pamphlet defending his country’s actions in South Africa. He was knighted by King Edward VII in 1902, largely in honor of this influential work.
10. Arthur Conan Doyle came to the defense of two wrongfully accused men.
In 1903, a solicitor named George Edalji was found guilty of mutilating a horse and writing a series of menacing anonymous letters in a rural parish. The evidence against him was unconvincing—the letters had been sent to his own family, for one thing—and three years later he was released from prison, without a pardon. Edalji wrote to Conan Doyle, hoping the creator of Sherlock Holmes would help clear his name. Conan Doyle visited the scene of the crimes, met with Edalji, and was certain of his innocence.
He noted, among other things, that Edalji was so near-sighted that it would have been impossible for him to sneak across the countryside, attacking livestock in the dead of night. And he recognized that racial prejudice was likely at play; Edalji, whose father was of Parsee origin, “must assuredly have [seemed] a very queer man to the eyes of an English village,” the author wrote in an article arguing that Edalji had been wrongfully accused. Conan Doyle also sent a barrage of letters to the chief constable in charge of the case, proffering new evidence and theories of other suspects. Edalji was ultimately pardoned, but was not given financial compensation for the miscarriage of justice against him.
Conan Doyle also campaigned on behalf of Oscar Slater, a German-Jewish bookmaker who was convicted of murdering a wealthy woman in Glasgow. Though Slater had an alibi, police homed in on him as the culprit, and it would later emerge that key evidence was withheld during the trial. Conan Doyle was a vocal participant in the campaign advocating for Slater’s release from prison; in 1912, he published The Case of Oscar Slater, which highlighted grave flaws in the investigation and prosecution. His plea failed to sway the authorities, but Conan Doyle continued to pressure politicians and even pay for Slater’s legal fees. Slater was set free in 1927, having served more than 18 years in prison.
11. Family members celebrated at Arthur Conan Doyle’s funeral.
Conan Doyle died of a heart attack on July 7, 1930, at the age of 71. Three hundred people attended the funeral at his country home, and the atmosphere was uplifting, rather than somber. The mourners did not wear black and the blinds of the house were not drawn. “We know that it is only the natural body that we are committing to the ground,” his wife Jean told friends. On July 13, thousands of people packed into the Royal Albert Hall in London for a memorial service. During the ceremony, Estelle Roberts, one of Conan Doyle’s favorite mediums, gazed at a chair reserved for the writer and proclaimed: “He is here.”
«The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,» by Alan Sillitoe, was first published in 1959. It is a first-person monologue spoken by a 17-year-old inmate of an English Borstal, or reform school. Smith, the only name this character receives, has received a two-year prison sentence for breaking into a local bakery, but he has discovered a way to improve the conditions of his stay in jail. The warden of the reformatory has his heart set on the winning of the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup for Long-Distance Cross-Country Running (All England), and Smith, the fastest runner in the institution, needs to do nothing but train for the race. He can trade his daily chores for the mitigated freedom of early morning runs in the countryside around the reformatory.
Yet things are not quite as simple as they seem, and the nature of the monologue, crude and colloquial in language and tone, underlines the tremendous class distinction between what the narrator Smith terms the «in-laws» and the «out-laws.» People like the warden and his cronies speak Oxford English and support and perpetuate the system, while the residents of the Borstal are denizens of the working class who have nothing to lose. It might seem that Smith would have little choice or desire not to play along with the powers that be, but during his stay in prison he has developed his own personal and idiosyncratic sense of morality. For him, to win the race would be tacitly to accept the premises of a self-serving establishment, and his own sense of defiance and self-worth can only be maintained by his individual conception of honesty. As he says, «It’s a good life, I’m saying to myself, if you don’t give in to coppers and Borstal-bosses and the rest of them bastard faced in-laws.»
While it might appear that Sillitoe is simply delineating a social and economic struggle between the classes in postwar England, the situation is much more complicated. In Smith’s world of the underclass there is no such thing as solidarity and brotherhood. In a series of flashbacks that illuminate his early life and the robbery that got him into his immediate trouble, we find that he has always been alone. Smith and his pal Mike are clever enough to hide their loot so that the police will not catch on to two teenagers who have suddenly become relatively wealthy, but the boys are even more wary of their own neighbors, who will turn them in out of spite and jealousy. Loyalty is something that simply does not exist in these circumstances, and trust is a silly idea for fools. In the end a person can be true only to himself, a self that can make mistakes but will never let him down. Loneliness becomes a natural condition. As Smith says, «I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world.»
Smith’s experience with his family bears out his conclusions, for his father died a horrible death of stomach cancer after a lifetime of slaving in a factory, while his mother was constantly unfaithful to her husband. The death benefit of 500 pounds is quickly spent on clothes, cream cakes, a television set, and a new mattress for his mother and her «fancyman,» and things are immediately back where they began. Thievery is all the boy knows, and even the army can provide no outlet. As far as Smith is concerned, patriotism is another false idea concocted by the government to protect its own advantage, and life in the army is little different from life in prison. In declaring himself a robber and an outlaw, Smith is at least acknowledging the state of warfare that exists between people like him and the people in power, landowners and the politicians who look like fish gasping for breath when the sound is suddenly turned down in the middle of their speeches on television.
Powerless as he may be in an England that views him as only another cog in the economic machine that grinds out more comfort for the rich, Smith seizes on the moment to shake his fist in the faces of the «in-laws» as he turns toward home in the Borstal race. Though he is far ahead of his nearest competitor, he slows down and then stops before the finish line, allowing his rival enough time to catch up and to win the race. Smith’s gesture is meaningless to everyone but himself: «The governor at Borstal proved me right; he didn’t respect my honesty at all; not that I expected him to, or tried to explain it to him, but if he’s supposed to be educated then he should have more or less twigged it.» But, if nothing else, the long-distance runner has remained true to himself; he has not been duped into believing the false promises that would only enslave him even further. There is virtually no hope of social change in the bleak universe that Sillitoe has created, but there does remain comfort in the affirmation of the individual human spirit that will not be broken. If truth and honesty can exist anywhere, Sillitoe asserts, they survive in the ability to look squarely at oneself in the face of all the odds. Paradoxically, honesty may reside in recognizing and accepting the dishonesty of contemporary existence.
Chariots of Fire is a British film released in 1981. Written by Colin Welland and directed by Hugh Hudson, it is based on the true story of British athletes preparing for and competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture.
The movie is based on the true story of two British athletes competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Englishman Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), who is Jewish, overcomes anti-Semitism and class prejudice in order to compete against the «Flying Scotsman», Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), in the 100-meter race.
In 1919, Abrahams enters Cambridge University. He attempts and succeeds at the Trinity Great Court run, which involves running around the court before the clock finishes striking 12. Meanwhile, Liddell sees running as a way of glorifying God before traveling to China to work as a missionary. He represents Scotland against Ireland, and preaches a sermon on «Life as a race» afterwards.
At their first meeting, Liddell shakes Abrahams’ hand to wish him well, then beats him in a race. Abrahams takes it badly, but Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), a professional trainer that he had approached earlier, offers to take him on to improve his technique. However, this attracts criticism from the college authorities.
Eric’s sister Jenny (Cheryl Campbell) worries he is too busy running to concern himself with their mission, but Eric tells her he feels inspired: «I believe that God made me for a purpose… (the mission), but He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.»
Despite pressure from the Prince of Wales and the British Olympic committee, Liddell refuses to run a heat of the 100 meters at the Olympics because his Christian convictions prevent him from running on Sunday. Liddell is allowed to compete in the 400-meter race instead. Liddell at church on Sunday is seen quoting Isaiah 40, verse 31: ‘But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and be not weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.’
The story compares the similar athletic experiences of Abrahams and Liddell while portraying their vastly different characters and reactions to adversity. High accomplishment comes to those with high aspirations, high energy and the capacity for great effort. But the central motivation and ultimate results of their accomplishment depend on their character and personality. This is a true story about two very different British athletes who accomplish at the highest level in their field, yet are driven to these achievements by very different motives along very different paths.
Englishman Harold Abrahams is the son of a wealthy Jewish financier in London. Highly sensitive to the anti-Semitic sentiments of the British upper class, he is determined to prove his worth and acceptability in everything he does. A runner of remarkable ability, in 1919 he enters Cambridge University and promptly completes a running feat which no one has been able to accomplish for 700 year. Abrahams’ passionate aspiration is to win a gold medal in the 100 meters at the 1924 summer Olympics in Paris.
While at Cambridge, Abrahams meets a lovely young singer Sybil Gordon and they soon fall in love. To her he confesses his heart’s turmoil. He has gone through life with a sense of helplessness, anger and humiliation because of the second-class treatment rendered to him as a Jew. To him running is a means of seeking revenge and conquering the social opposition. “I am going to take them on one by one and run them off their feet.” He strives to fit in and prove himself a loyal and capable Englishman. “So you love running?” Sybil asks him. “I am an addict. It’s more of a weapon. It’s a competition. You win because you are ruthless. … A weapon against being Jewish, I suppose. I’m semi-deprived. They lead me to water but won’t let me drink.”
Eric Liddell is the son of deeply religious Scottish missionaries, born and raised along with his sister Jennie in China and recently returned to Europe. Eric is a born runner with tremendous speed and a natural love of the sport who becomes widely known as the «Flying Scotsman.» Committed to a missionary’s life like his parents, Eric is requested by his church leader to dedicate his remarkable athletic ability to the service of god. “Run in God’s name” and let the whole world know it is God’s inspiration that makes you a champion. He too is destined for the Paris Olympics for the glory for God.
The first time Abrahams sees Liddell run he is bedazzled. Eric collides with another runner, falls down during a 400-meter contest between Scotland and France and appears to be out of the race. Then miraculously he gets up, starts running again, makes up a 20-meter deficit and wins the race. This indicates just how great is the unexpressed human energy which can be released in the right circumstances. It took the accidental fall to bring out the true greatness of Eric’s potential. “I’ve never seen such commitment and drive in a runner,” Abrahams remarks. Even more remarkable is the obvious joy with which Liddell runs. He tells Jennie, “I believe god made me for a purpose – China. He also made me fast. When I’m running I feel his pleasure, not just fun. To win is to honor him.”
The amateur spirit of the Olympics is still respected in Europe and professionalism is shunned. But times are changing. Sam Mussabini, a brilliant professional running coach, is looking for talent to shape. Abrahams approaches Sam and tries to hire him as a personal coach. Sam replies that it is customary for the coach to choose a worthy student, not vice versa. Abrahams is willing to break the rules in order to accomplish. Sam knows that social rules may be broken, but there are rules for accomplishment that cannot. At their first meeting, Liddell shakes Abrahams’ hand to wish him well, then beats him. Abrahams is crushed by the defeat and cries out to Sybil. “I don’t run to take beatings. I run to win. If I can’t win I won’t run. Now what do I stand for?” After the race, Sam contacts Abrahams and offers to train him for the Olympics, assuring Harold that he can improve enough to match Eric. Even though the university authorities frown on his hiring a coach, Abrahams persists.
On the boat sailing across the Channel to France, Liddell is informed that the preliminary heat for the 100 meters is to be run on a Sunday. He informs the British team leader that his religion prevents him from running on that day and he will have to forgo the race. “If I win, I win for God. To win on Sunday would be against God’s law.” Once in Paris, the team leader informs the rest of the British Olympic committee, which includes the crown prince, and they call Liddell and press him to relent. When he adamantly refuses, life responds and unexpectedly presents a solution. Lord Lindsay, another member of team who has just won a silver medal in another event, offers his place in the 400 meters to Liddell. Another member of the Committee explains how fortunate it is that they did not try to force Liddell to violate his conscience. He is “a true man of principle and a true athlete. His speed is a mere extension of his life, its force. We sought to separate his running from himself. For him it is God before King.” Whatever the mind fervently believes in – whether higher ideal or mere superstition – has the power to evoke a response from life. The power of Eric’s belief is equal to the power of all those of his community who share that belief.
Abrahams faces Americans in the 100-meter final who are touted to include the fastest men on earth. He has already lost two races to the same competitors. Before the race he confesses to Sam, “I am 24 and I have never known contentment. I’m ever in pursuit and I don’t know what I’m chasing. I’ve known the fear of losing. Now I’m almost too frightened to win.” Abrahams goes on to win the event and emerge with the title of fastest man on earth. After the race he and Sam celebrate in private their shared personal accomplishment. He lived for another 54 years and was considered the grand icon of British athletics. Eric races in the 400 meter against equally tough competitors and wins his race as well. He mixes with the crowds in jubilant celebration. After the Olympics, he returned to China where he died during World War II.
Who accomplished what and how? Driven by a complex and a fervent aspiration to win a respectable place in English society, Abrahams has achieved the greatest title in amateur athletics. The drive for social acceptability is a very powerful motive. He has leveraged the energy of that drive for achievement. He ran in the name of his country and under the banner of patriotism, but really he ran for himself. For him running was a labor in a life and death struggle for acceptance and respectability. It is doubtful whether even this remarkable accomplishment gave him the peace and fulfillment he was seeking. Liddell ran in the name of God and for the joy of self-giving to his God. His very act of running was a self-fulfilling joy. One believes in his concept of God and service, the other in his own inner potential. Both accomplish on the basis of their beliefs.
«Forrest Gump» famously inserted Tom Hanks into old archival footage, interweaving moments from real U.S. history with the fictional story of his character: A simple yet sincere man, sharing homespun wisdom on a park bench to different strangers while recounting the story of his ever-so-charmed life.
Director Robert Zemeckis and ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) employed digital compositing and other groundbreaking visual effects to give Forrest’s tale a true-to-life veneer. Thanks to the wonders of CGI they were able to rewrite history cinematically, having Forrest intersect with presidents and pivotal moments in American culture across three decades.
The film won six Oscars and is endlessly quotable — but what you might not know is that the character of Forrest Gump was loosely inspired by three real men.
Sammy Lee Davis was the inspiration for Forrest’s war wound
As «Forrest Gump» was celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2019, USA Today spotlighted Sammy Lee Davis, a decorated Vietnam veteran, as one real-life inspiration for the character. Nicknamed «the real Forrest Gump,» Davis was at the film’s anniversary screening on the National Mall in Washington, DC. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Medal of Honor in 1968, and he’s at least famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page.
You can see footage of the Medal of Honor ceremony in «Forrest Gump» — though of course, it’s Hanks who shakes Johnson’s hand. Like Forrest Gump, Davis was shot in the buttocks and elsewhere in his back over thirty times, by friendly fire. The moment where Forrest shows the President his butt wound was invented for the film.
Winston Groom dedicated his novel to two other men
Screenwriter Eric Roth adapted Winston Groom’s novel, «Forrest Gump,» for the big screen. Groom, who passed away in 2020, dedicated the book to Jimbo Meador (pictured above) and George Radcliff, two of his childhood friends. Both men are private individuals, but Distractify notes that their «speech patterns are similar to Forrest’s.» Hanks originally sought to downplay Gump’s Southern accent but Zemeckis coached him to keep it and adhere to the source material.
The Bubba Gump Seafood Company is now a real restaurant chain, but it started out as a fictional business endeavor launched by Forrest and Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise). The idea for that stemmed from conversations that Groom had with Meador — appropriately, at lunch. He explained to Distractify:
«Although he never did any shrimp farming, [Meador] was always interested in it, and we used to talk about it a lot. Jimbo knows everything there is to know about shrimp. We used to have lunch about once a week, and it occurred to me after one of these conversations while I was writing Forrest, ‘What better thing to do than make Forrest a shrimp farmer?’ «
Meador also owned a river delta boat and had a seafood processing job, much like Forrest does in the movie. He reportedly shunned the public spotlight after he started getting copious interview requests from the likes of David Letterman.
The same goes for Radcliff, who only consented to an interview with Mobile Bay Magazine because the writer was someone he had known for a long time beforehand. Radcliff appears to have wholly or partly inspired the felicitous nature of Forrest’s journey through history. He once beat Paul McCartney at arm-wrestling, for instance, without knowing who «that little drunk English guy» was.
What’s interesting about Radcliff is that he was a scrapper, meaning he liked to fight. This might be part of what Groom meant when he told The New York Times that Zemeckis sanded the «rough edges» off his book character. He originally wanted John Goodman to play the role of Forrest Gump. That would have been a very different movie.
At the end of the day, «Forrest Gump» is still cut from a fictional cloth, but art does imitate life. To do a mad-lib bit of paraphrasing with Forrest himself, «[Movies are] like a box of [inspirations].»
1. Her most famous novel, Frankenstein, is widely considered the first science fiction novel. Brian Aldiss certainly thinks so. It’s worth mentioning here that two other leading science (fiction) writers, Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, argued that the honour of ‘first science-fiction novel’ should go to a much earlier book: Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (‘The Dream’), first published in 1634. But Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (Wordsworth Classics) is considered the first work of what we can confidently label modern SF. It was published in 1818, when Shelley (1797-1851) was just 21, and came out of the famous ghost-story competition at Lake Geneva, which involved Shelley and her husband (the poet, Percy), Lord Byron, and Byron’s physician and travelling companion, John Polidori. Polidori’s contribution, The Vampyre (1819), claims the honour of the first vampire novel. One of Mary Shelley’s early influences was one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s poems: on 24 August 1806, Coleridge was visiting Mary’s father, William Godwin, and gave a reading of his poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘. Unbeknownst to the adults, a nine-year-old Mary Shelley had concealed herself behind the parlour sofa, and was transfixed by Coleridge’s poem.
2. The ultimate ‘message’ of her most famous book is often missed. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may be one of the most misread novels in the whole of English literature. What is the book about? The dangers of playing God or the need to be good parents? Shelley herself came from a strong family but also an unconventional one: her mother was influential feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father the radical writer William Godwin. Mary’s mother died a few weeks after her daughter’s birth and Mary had an overly dependent, and sometimes strained, relationship with her father. Then there is her relationship with her husband, Percy Shelley, who is often seen as the model for Victor Frankenstein. (Curiously, Mary’s second novel, Mathilda (1820), would feature a father confessing incestuous desire for his daughter, followed by his death by drowning, thus prefiguring Percy Shelley’s death two years later. Wordsworth Classics recently brought out a cheap reprint of this story along with some other Mary Shelley works: Mathilda and Other Stories (Wordsworth Classics).)
3. As well as inventing modern SF with Frankenstein, Mary Shelley also wrote the first work of modern apocalyptic fiction. Mary Shelley’s favourite among her own books was a later novel, The Last Man (Wordsworth Classics), published in 1826. It tells of a future world where plague has killed off the human population – with, ultimately, one exception. There is, as the title suggests, only one human survivor, Lionel Verney. (There are in fact a number of other characters in the novel: Lionel only becomes the last man right at the end of the narrative.) The book is the progenitor of all later stories in this vein, such as Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
4. Shelley also wrote historical novels later in her career. In 1830, Mary Shelley published The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, about the fifteenth-century pretender to the throne during Henry VII’s reign. Mary was also a prolific writer of biographical and historical non-fiction, and wrote large portions of the Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men, a ten-volume sequence in a much bigger 133-volume encyclopedia, the Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Shelley continued writing until she died in 1851, probably of a brain tumour, aged just 53.
5. Frankenstein was Shelley’s first novel, but not the first book she published. In 1817, a year before her most famous novel appeared, Mary Shelley and her husband Percy published History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland; with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamouni which … well, the title gives a pretty detailed account of its contents. But we’ll add that the volume also included Percy’s celebrated poem ‘Mont Blanc’, and that besides this the book was largely Mary’s work, meaning it should take the mantle as her first book.
Mary Shelley’s teenage years were eventful, to say the least. At age 16, she ran away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Over the next two years, she gave birth to two children. In 1816, the couple traveled to Switzerland and visited Lord Byron at Villa Diodati. While there, 18-year-old Mary started Frankenstein. It was published in 1818, when she was 20 years old.
2. The novel came out of a ghost story competition.
The Shelleys visited Switzerland during the “year without a summer.” The eruption of Mount Tambora in modern Indonesia had caused severe climate abnormalities and a lot of rain. Stuck inside, the group read ghost stories from the book Fantasmagoriana. It was then that Lord Byron proposed that they have a competition to see who could come up with the best ghost story: Byron, Mary, Percy, or the physician John Polidori.
In the end, neither Byron nor Percy finished a ghost story, although Polidori later wrote The Vampyre—which influences vampire stories to this day—based on Byron’s offering.
3. Mary Shelley said she got the idea from a dream.
At first, Mary had writer’s block, unable to come up with a good idea for a ghost story. Then she had a waking dream—“I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think,” she said. In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein [PDF], she described the vision as follows:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life. … He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”
Mary opened her eyes and realized she’d found her story. “What terrified me will terrify others,” she thought. She began working on it the next day.
4. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in the shadow of tragedy.
Before she started Frankenstein, Mary gave birth to a daughter, who died just days later. (In fact, only one of Mary’s four children lived to adulthood.) Soon after the baby died, she wrote in her journal, “Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived—I awake & find no baby—I think about the little thing all day.” This circumstance, as well as the suicide of her half-sister, must have contributed to the novel.
5. Frankenstein was the name of the scientist, not the monster.
In the novel, Victor Frankenstein is the scientist. The monster remains unnamed and is referred to as «monster,» «creature,» «dæmon,» and «it.» But if you’ve made the mistake of calling the monster Frankenstein, you’re not alone. As early as 1890 The Scots Observer complained that Frankenstein “presented the common pressman with one of his most beloved blunders”—confusing the two.
6. The novel shares its name with a castle.
Mary made up the name Frankenstein. However, Frankenstein is a German name that means Stone of the Franks. What’s more, historian Radu Florescu claimed that the Shelleys visited Castle Frankenstein on a journey up the Rhine River. While there, they must have learned about an unbalanced alchemist named Konrad Dippel, who used to live in the castle. He was trying to create an elixir, called Dippel’s Oil, which would make people live for over a hundred years. Like Victor Frankenstein, Dippel was rumored to dig up graves and experiment on the bodies. Not all historians are convinced there’s a link, however, pointing out that there’s no indication Frankenstein had a castle in the novel, and that Shelley never mentioned visiting the castle herself in any of her writing about her trip up the Rhine.
7. Many thought Percy Shelley wrote Frankenstein.
Frankenstein was first published anonymously. It was dedicated to William Godwin, Mary’s father, and Percy Shelley wrote the preface. Because of these connections, many assumed that Percy Shelley was the author. This myth continued even after Frankenstein was reprinted in Mary’s name. In fact, some people are still arguing that Percy authored the book. While he edited the book and encouraged Mary to expand the story into a novel, actual authorship is a stretch.
8. Frankenstein was originally slammed by critics.
When Frankenstein came out in 1818, many critics bashed it. “What a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity this work presents,” John Croker, of the Quarterly Review, wrote. But gothic novels were all the rage, and Frankenstein soon gained readers. In 1823, a play titled «Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein» cemented the story’s popularity. In 1831, a new version of the book was published, this time under Mary’s name.
9. Frankenstein is widely considered the first science fiction novel.
With Frankenstein, Shelley was writing the first major science fiction novel, as well as inventing the concept of the “mad scientist” and helping establish what would become horror fiction. The influence of the book in popular culture is so huge that the term Frankenstein has entered common speech to mean something unnatural and horrendous.
Mary went on to write other science fiction, such as her short story Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman, about a man who has been frozen in ice, and her novel The Last Man, about a survivor in a world destroyed by plague, from the same year.
10. Thomas Edison adapted Frankenstein for film.
In 1910, Thomas Edison’s studio made a one-reel, 15-minute film of Frankenstein, one of the first horror movies ever made. It was thought lost until it was rediscovered in the 1980s.
Frankenstein: how Mary Shelley’s sci-fi classic offers lessons for us today about the dangers of playing God
Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, is an 1818 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Set in the late 18th century, it follows scientist Victor Frankenstein’s creation of life and the terrible events that are precipitated by his abandonment of his creation. It is a Gothic novel in that it combines supernatural elements with horror, death and an exploration of the darker aspects of the psyche.
It also provides a complex critique of Christianity. But most significantly, as one of the first works of science-fiction, it explores the dangers of humans pursuing new technologies and becoming God-like.
The celebrity story
Shelley’s Frankenstein is at the heart of what might be the greatest celebrity story of all time. Shelley was born in 1797. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the landmark A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), was, according to that book’s introduction, “the first major feminist”.
Shelley’s father was William Godwin, political philosopher and founder of “philosophical anarchism” – he was anti-government in the moment that the great democracies of France and the United States were being born. When she was 16, Shelley eloped with radical poet Percy Shelley, whose Ozymandias (1818) is still regularly quoted (“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”).
Their relationship seems to epitomise the Romantic era itself. It was crossed with outside love interests, illegitimate children, suicides, debt, wondering and wandering. And it ultimately came to an early end in 1822 when Percy Shelley drowned, his small boat lost in a storm off the Italian coast. The Shelleys also had a close association with the poet Lord Byron, and it is this association that brings us to Frankenstein.
In 1816 the Shelleys visited Switzerland, staying on the shores of Lake Geneva, where they were Byron’s neighbours. As Mary Shelley tells it, they had all been reading ghost stories, including Coleridge’s Christabel (Coleridge had visited her father at the family house when Shelley was young), when Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story. Thus 18-year-old Shelley began to write Frankenstein.
The myth of the monster
The popular imagination has taken Frankenstein and run with it. The monster “Frankenstein”, originally “Frankenstein’s monster”, is as integral to Western culture as the characters and tropes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
But while reasonable continuity remains between Carroll’s Alice and its subsequent reimaginings, much has been changed and lost in the translation from Shelley’s novel into the many versions that are rooted in the popular imagination.
There have been many varied adaptations, from Edward Scissorhands to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (see here for a top 20 list of Frankenstein films). But despite the variety, it’s hard not to think of the “monster” as a zombie-like implacable menace, as we see in the trailer to the 1931 movie, or a lumbering fool, as seen in the Herman Munster incarnation. Further, when we add the prefix “franken” it’s usually with disdain; consider “frankenfoods”, which refers to genetically modified foods, or “frankenhouses”, which describes contemporary architectural monstrosities or bad renovations.
The story of Victor Frankenstein is nested within the story of scientist-explorer Robert Walton. For both men, the quest for knowledge is mingled with fanatical ambition. The novel begins towards the end of the story, with Walton, who is trying to sail to the North Pole, rescuing Frankenstein from sea ice. Frankenstein is being led northwards by his creation towards a final confrontation.
The central moment in the novel is when Frankenstein brings his creation to life, only to be immediately repulsed by it:
I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
Victor Frankenstein, like others in the novel, is appalled by the appearance of his creation. He flees the creature and it vanishes. After a hiatus of two years, the creature begins to murder people close to Frankenstein. And when Frankenstein reneges on his promise to create a female partner for his creature, it murders his closest friend and then, on Frankenstein’s wedding night, his wife.
More human than human
The real interest of the novel lies not in the murders or the pursuit, but in the creature’s accounts of what drove him to murder. After the creature murders Frankenstein’s little brother, William, Frankenstein seeks solace in the Alps – in sublime nature. There, the creature comes upon Frankenstein and eloquently and poignantly relates his story.
We learn that the creature spent a year secretly living in an outhouse attached to a hut occupied by the recently impoverished De Lacey family. As he became self-aware, the creature reflected that, “To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being.” But when he eventually attempted to reveal himself to the family to gain their companionship, he was brutally driven from them. The creature was filled with rage. He says, “I could … have glutted myself with their shrieks and misery.” More human than human.
After Victor Frankenstein dies aboard Walton’s ship, Walton has a final encounter with the creature, as it looms over Frankenstein’s body. To the corpse, the creature says:
“Oh Frankenstein! Generous and self-devoted being! What does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me? I, who irretrievably destroyed thee by destroying all thou lovedst.”
The creature goes on to make several grand and tragic pronouncements to Walton. “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy; and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change, without torture such as you cannot even imagine.” And shortly after, about the murder of Frankenstein’s wife, the creature says: “I knew that I was preparing for myself a deadly torture; but I was the slave, not the master, of an impulse, which I detested, yet could not disobey.”
These remarks encourage us to ponder some of the weightiest questions we can ask about the human condition:
What is it that drives humans to commit horrible acts? Are human hearts, like the creature’s, fashioned for ‘love and sympathy’, and when such things are withheld or taken from us, do we attempt to salve the wound by hurting others? And if so, what is the psychological mechanism that makes this occur?
And what is the relationship between free will and horrible acts? We cannot help but think that the creature remains innocent – that he is the slave, not the master. But then what about the rest of us?
The rule of law generally blames individuals for their crimes – and perhaps this is necessary for a society to function. Yet I suspect the rule of law misses something vital. Epictetus, the stoic philosopher, considered such questions millennia ago. He asked:
What grounds do we have for being angry with anyone? We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’… but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad.
Victor Frankenstein creates life only to abandon it. An unsympathetic interpretation of Christianity might see something similar in God’s relationship with humanity. Yet the novel itself does not easily support this reading; like much great art, its strength lies in its ambivalence and complexity. At one point, the creature says to Frankenstein: “Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.” These and other remarks complicate any simplistic interpretation.
In fact, the ambivalence of the novel’s religious critique supports its primary concern: the problem of technology allowing humans to become God-like. The subtitle of Frankenstein is “The Modern Prometheus”. In the Greek myth, Prometheus steals fire – a technology – from the gods and gives it to humanity, for which he is punished. In this myth and many other stories, technology and knowledge are double-edged. Adam and Eve eat the apple of knowledge in the Garden of Eden and are ejected from paradise. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, humanity is born when the first tool is used – a tool that augments humanity’s ability to be violent.
The novel’s subtitle is referring to Kant’s 1755 essay, “The Modern Prometheus”. In this, Kant observes that:
There is such a thing as right taste in natural science, which knows how to distinguish the wild extravagances of unbridled curiosity from cautious judgements of reasonable credibility. From the Prometheus of recent times Mr. Franklin, who wanted to disarm the thunder, down to the man who wants to extinguish the fire in the workshop of Vulcanus, all these endeavors result in the humiliating reminder that Man never can be anything more than a man.
Victor Frankenstein, who suffered from an unbridled curiosity, says something similar:
A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind … If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.
And also: “Learn from me … how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
In sum: be careful what knowledge you pursue, and how you pursue it. Beware playing God.
Alas, history reveals the quixotic nature of Shelley and Kant’s warnings. There always seems to be a scientist somewhere whose dubious ambitions are given free rein. And beyond this, there is always the problem of the unintended consequences of our discoveries. Since Shelley’s time, we have created numerous things that we fear or loathe such as the atomic bomb, cigarettes and other drugs, chemicals such as DDT, and so on. And as our powers in the realms of genetics and artificial intelligence grow, we may yet create something that loathes us.
It all reminds me of sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson’s relatively recent (2009) remark that, “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
One night during the strangely cool and wet summer of 1816, a group of friends gathered in the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. “We will each write a ghost story,” Lord Byron announced to the others, who included Byron’s doctor John Polidori, Percy Shelley and the 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.
“I busied myself to think of a story,” Mary wrote. “One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror.” Her tale became a novel, published two years later as ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’, the story of a young natural philosophy student, who, burning with crazed ambition, brings a body to life but rejects his horrifying ‘creature’ in fear and disgust.
Frankenstein is simultaneously the first science-fiction novel, a Gothic horror, a tragic romance and a parable all sewn into one towering body. Its two central tragedies – one of overreaching and the dangers of ‘playing God’, the other of parental abandonment and societal rejection – are as relevant today as ever.
Are there any characters more powerfully cemented in the popular imagination? The two archetypes Mary Shelley brought to life, the ‘creature’ and the overambitious or ‘mad scientist’, lurched and ranted their way off the page and on to stage and screen, electrifying theatre and filmgoers as two of the lynchpins, not just of the horror genre, but of cinema itself.
Frankenstein spawned interpretations and parodies that reach from the very origins of the moving image in Thomas Edison’s horrifying 1910 short film, through Hollywood’s Universal Pictures and Britain’s Hammer series, to The Rocky Horror Picture Show – and it foreshadowed others, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are Italian and Japanese Frankensteins and a Blaxploitation film, Blackenstein; Mel Brooks, Kenneth Branagh and Tim Burton all have their own takes. The characters or themes appear in or have inspired comic books, video games, spin-off novels, TV series and songs by artists as diverse as Ice Cube, Metallica and T’Pau: “It was a flight on the wings of a young girl’s dreams/ That flew too far away/ And we could make the monster live again…”
As a parable, the novel has been used as an argument both for and against slavery and revolution, vivisection and the Empire, and as a dialogue between history and progress, religion and atheism. The prefix ‘Franken-’ thrives in the modern lexicon as a byword for any anxiety about science, scientists and the human body, and has been used to shape worries about the atomic bomb, GM crops, strange foods, stem cell research and both to characterise and assuage fears about AI. In the two centuries since she wrote it, Mary’s tale, in the words of Bobby Pickett’s comedy song, Monster Mash, has truly been “a graveyard smash” that “caught on in a flash”.
‘Mysterious fears of our nature’
“All them scientists – they’re all alike. They say they’re working for us but what they really want is to rule the world!” – Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974).
Why was Mary’s vision of ‘science gone wrong’ so ripe a vessel to carry our fears? She certainly captured the zeitgeist: the early 19th Century teetered on the brink of the modern age, and although the term ‘science’ existed, a ‘scientist’ didn’t. Great change brings fear, as Fiona Sampson, author of a new biography of Mary Shelley tells BBC Culture: “With modernity – with the sense that humans are what there is, comes a sense of anxiety about what humans can do and particularly an anxiety about science and technology.” Frankenstein fused these contemporary concerns about the possibilities of science with fiction for the very first time – with electrifying results. Far from an outrageous fantasy, the novel imagined what could happen if people – and in particular overreaching or unhinged scientists – went too far.
Several points of popular 19th Century intellectual discourse appear in the novel. We know from Mary Shelley’s writings that in that Villa Diodati tableau of 1816, Shelley and Byron discussed the ‘principle of life’. Contemporary debates raged on the nature of humanity and whether it was possible to raise the dead. In the book’s 1831 preface, Mary Shelley noted ‘galvanism’ as an influence, referring to Luigi Galvani’s experiments using electric currents to make frogs’ legs twitch. Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini would go further in 1803, using a newly-dead murderer as his subject. Many of the doctors and thinkers at the heart of these debates – such as the chemist Sir Humphry Davy – were connected to Mary’s father, the pre-eminent intellectual William Godwin, who himself had developed principles warning of the dangers and moral implications of ‘overreaching’.
Despite these nuggets of contemporary thought, though, there’s little in the way of tangible theory, method, or scientific paraphernalia in Frankenstein. The climactic moment of creation is described simply: “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” The ‘science’ of the book is rooted in its time and yet timeless. It is so vague, therefore, as to provide an immediate linguistic and visual reference point for moments of great change and fear.
But surely the reason we turn to Frankenstein when expressing an anxiety about science is down to the impression the ‘monster’ and ‘mad scientist’ have had on our collective brains. How did this happen? Just as the science is vague in the book, so is the description of the creature as he comes to life. The moment is distilled into a single, bloodcurdling image:
“It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
With his ‘yellow skin’, ‘watery eyes’, ‘shrivelled complexion’ and ‘straight black lips’ the creature is far from the beautiful ideal Frankenstein intended. This spare but resonant prose proved irresistible to theatre and later film-makers and their audiences, as Christopher Frayling notes in his book, Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years. The shocking novel became a scandalous play – and of course, a huge hit, first in Britain and then abroad. These early plays, Frayling argues, “set the tone for future dramatisations”. They condensed the story into basic archetypes, adding many of the most memorable elements audiences would recognise today, including the comical lab assistant, the line “It lives!” and a bad-brained monster who doesn’t speak.
It’s a double-edged sword that the monstrous success of Hollywood’s vision (James Whale’s 1931 film for Universal starring Boris Karloff as the creature) in many ways secured the story’s longevity but obscured Shelley’s version of it. “Frankenstein [the film] created the definitive movie image of the mad scientist, and in the process launched a thousand imitations,” Frayling writes. “It fused a domesticated form of Expressionism, overacting, an irreverent adaptation of an acknowledged classic, European actors and visualisers – and the American carnival tradition – to create an American genre. It began to look as though Hollywood had actually invented Frankenstein.”
Making a myth
And so, a movie legend was born. Although Hollywood may have cherry-picked from Mary Shelley to cement its version of the story, it’s clear she also borrowed from historical myths to create her own. The subtitle of Frankenstein, ‘The Modern Prometheus’, namechecks the figure of ancient Greek and Latin mythology who variously steals fire from the gods and gives it to man (or makes a man out of clay) and represents the dangers of overreaching. But the other great myth of the novel is of God and Adam, and a quote from Paradise Lost appears in the epigraph to Frankenstein: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man?”. And it is above all the creature’s tragedy – and his humanity – that in his cinematic transformation into a mute but terrifying monster, has been forgotten.
Shelley gave him a voice and a literary education in order to express his thoughts and desires (he is one of three narrators in the book). Like The Tempest’s Caliban, to whom Shakespeare gives a poetic and poignant speech, the creature’s lament is haunting: “Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”
If we think of the creature as a badly made and unattractive human, his tragedy deepens. His first, catastrophic rejection is by his creator (man, God),which Christopher Frayling calls “that post-partum moment”, and is often identified as a parental abandonment. If you consider that Mary Shelley had lost her mother Mary Wollstonecraft at her own birth, had just buried her baby girl and was looking after her pregnant step-sister as she was writing the book – which took exactly nine months to complete – the relevance of birth (and death) makes even more sense. The baby/creature is alienated further as society recoils from him; he is made good, but it is the rejection that creates his murderous revenge. As an allegory of our responsibility to children, outsiders, or those who don’t conform to conventional ideals of beauty, there isn’t a stronger one.
“The way that we sometimes identify with Frankenstein, as we’ve all taken risks, we’ve all had hubristic moments, and partly with the creature; they are both aspects of ourselves – all our selves” Fiona Sampson says, “they both speak to us about being human. And that’s incredibly powerful.”
Some modern interpretations, such as Nick Dear’s 2011 play (directed by Danny Boyle for the National Theatre), have highlighted the question of who is the monster and who is the victim, with the lead actors Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating roles each night. And in this shapeshifting context, it’s fitting that the creature is widely mistaken as ‘Frankenstein’, rather than his creator.
So could a new, cinematic version of Frankenstein be on the cards? One which brings together the creature’s humanity, the mirroring of man and monster and contemporary anxieties? Just like the Romantics, we edge towards a new modern age, but this time, of AI, which brings its own raft of fears and moral quandaries. A clutch of recent films and TV shows have channelled Frankenstein, exploring what it means to be human in the context of robotics and AI – Blade Runner, Ex Machina, AI, Her, Humans and Westworld among them. But there is one film director (rumoured to have been developing the story for a while) who might be able to recapture the creature’s lament as a parable for our time.
Collecting a Bafta for a different sci-fi monster fable, The Shape of Water, this year, Guillermo del Toro thanked Mary Shelley, because “she picked up the plight of Caliban and she gave weight to the burden of Prometheus, and she gave voice to the voiceless and presence to the invisible, and she showed me that sometimes to talk about monsters, we need to fabricate monsters of our own, and parables do that for us”.
When the then-Mary Godwin thought up her chilling parable that summer of 1816, she couldn’t have imagined how far it would go to shape culture and society, science and fear, well into the 21st Century. “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper,” she wrote in the preface to the 1831 edition. The creator and creature, parent and child, the writer and her story – they went forth, and did they prosper? Two hundred years since its publication, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is no longer just a tale of “thrilling horror” but its own myth, sent out into the world.
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.