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.
By 1911, 36-year-old Ed Burroughs had reached a dead end.
His early life had more than its share of excitement. A stint in the U.S. Cavalry, chasing Apache “renegades” in the desert Southwest, was followed by a few years cowboy-ing on his brother’s Idaho ranch. After that, he was a gold prospector, then a railroad policeman.
Desiring something better in life, he returned to his native Chicago, where his father, a Civil War hero and successful businessman, helped him find the first of a series of white-collar jobs. Chief among these was a year spent as head of the stenography department of Sears, Roebuck and Company. There he oversaw 150 secretaries who turned out an estimated 4,000 letters a day for the colossal mail-order company.
Wanting to make his own mark, Burroughs quit Sears for a partnership in an ad agency that soon went under. After that came a stint as a salesman for a pencil sharpener company, then years as the low-paid editor of a magazine for small businesses.
Married to his high school sweetheart, with two young children, Burroughs began writing at night. He enjoyed spinning imaginative tales for his kids, and decided to create something for the cheap pulp magazines then gaining in popularity. “I remember thinking,” he told an interviewer years later, “that if other people got money for writing such stuff I might, too, for I was sure I could write stories just as rotten as theirs.”
In about two months he finished a short fantasy novel, Under the Moons of Mars, and sent it to Argosy magazine. He was embarrassed enough by the work to submit it under a pseudonym, Normal Bean. The adventure story of an American soldier magically transported to the Red Planet (much like how Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee traveled to King Arthur’s court) was bought for $400. Check deposited, Ed Burroughs did not look back.
A medieval adventure romance quickly followed. It was turned down by the editor of All-Story magazine, who nevertheless warmly encouraged him to keep at it. His next short novel, 1912’s Tarzan of the Apes, was accepted enthusiastically and published under his full name, Edgar Rice Burroughs, in a single issue of the magazine. It profoundly changed his life, along with popular culture, and the pop culture business, forever.
“Me, Tarzan,” The First Superhero
The orphaned infant child of marooned English aristocrats, Tarzan was adopted and named by a troop of advanced apes in the wilds of Africa, growing into an action hero. The novel was an overnight sensation. Its debut in All-Story led to newspaper serialization and a hardcover book the following year.
Fast-paced, imaginative, and ably told, Tarzan borrows from sources as diverse as Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1892), whose main character Mowgli was a boy raised by wolves; the jungle adventure tales of H. Rider Haggard; and even Joseph Conrad, from whom Burroughs took the As-Told-to-Me narrative frame of the 1906 classic novella, Heart of Darkness.
With his overnight success, Burroughs was able to draw on his hard-earned corporate savvy. Affable and easy-going, he considered himself a storyteller, not a writer, whose job was to steadily produce product that was then sold to the highest bidder.
In 1914, with Tarzan’s success making him the most famous author in America, Burroughs bought a large house in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. This almost certainly made an impression on 15-year-old Ernest Hemingway, who lived just eight blocks away.
Burroughs was the first writer to incorporate as a business – ERB Inc. – that licensed all of his characters and stories. In the early stages of his career, this mainly meant serial publication rights, magazines, newspapers, and hardcover editions of the novels that began to flow from his pen. His foresight, though, created a goldmine in 1918 when the first Tarzan film debuted.
Though the first movie Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, looked more like a weightlifter in a long, furry, off-the-shoulder gown, and not the lithe, nearly nude character of the novel, the film was an immediate smash. With then-groundbreaking special effects, and relatively realistic jungle scenes, it was one of the first films to gross more than $1 million. Burroughs’s share was a cool $45,000 (over $800,000 in 2021 dollars).
Tarzan Kick-Starts Action Hero Movies
Tarzan was the first superhero to appear across a range of consumer products – candy, games, toys, comic strips, comic books, radio shows, and films. Fourteen years after the first movie, Tarzan was back in theaters, now in the shape of Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller, exactly the trim and muscular figure Burroughs envisioned for his famous character.
The first two MGM Tarzan films were particularly notable for Weissmuller’s jungle yell, ever after associated with the character, and the sexy chemistry between him and costar Maureen O’Sullivan, Tarzan’s “mate” Jane.
Made before the Hays production code enforced a nearly Victorian modesty on Hollywood movies, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934) dressed their two gorgeous stars in the skimpiest outfits possible at the time. The second film even included a beautifully shot nude underwater ballet. Cut from the finished film, it was rediscovered in MGM’s archives decades later.
But if the ten next Weissmuller movies earned Burroughs another fortune, they also took Tarzan away from him. The plots for the films were cobbled together by studio writers, and drifted widely from the characters and stories Burroughs continued to produce.
Where Weissmuller’s Tarzan spoke in a pidgin English, and rarely left the jungle home he shared with Jane and their adopted son “Boy,” the Tarzan of the novels (human name: John, Lord Greystoke) had quickly regained the status and estate of his aristocratic parents, learned to fly airplanes, dressed well, could speak French, and lived with Jane (and their biological son Jack) on an enormous African ranch, returning to his jungle ways only as needed by the demands of plot.
Widely considered the best-selling American author of the first half of the 20th century, Burroughs’s dozens of adventure titles are estimated to have sold as many as 60 million copies.
Burroughs admitted that “most of the stories I wrote were the stories I told myself before I went to sleep.” As such, they are particular tales of wish fulfillment of a long-frustrated, white American man who grew up in the late 19th century. Burroughs, according to the novelist and critic Gore Vidal, “consoled himself with an inner world where he was strong and handsome, adored by beautiful women and worshipped by exotic races.” Consequently, his stories can present problems for many contemporary readers.
Though his cavalry experience left Burroughs with a respect for the black soldiers he served with, and an admiration of the Native Americans he encountered on duty, as he aged, and his writing became more formulaic, common racist tropes of savage Africans, and stereotypically comic Afro-American servants, infused his stories.
White supremacy – based explicitly on culture, not genetics – is the now-obvious subtext of the Tarzan and Mars adventures. Burroughs’s worst racial animus, however, was directed at the Japanese. In his last Tarzan novel, Tarzan and the Foreign Legion, written in 1943, Tarzan, helped by a drug giving him eternal youth, shows up to fight for the Allies in the South Pacific.
Tarzan And The Demands Of The Market
Burroughs escaped a financial dead end by writing Tarzan of the Apes, but churning out a stream of pulp novels with the same characters, year in and out, for two decades eventually brought on a creative one.
He was never too fussy about how his stories unfolded. The later works in the Tarzan (24 novels total) and Mars (10 books) series, along with a third series, six titles total, about the Land of Pellucidar, a prehistoric world inside a hollow Earth, rely on stock predicaments, outlandish coincidences, and bad dialogue.
The decline in quality was the direct result of a constant need for new product. For all the money Burroughs made, he spent it on a millionaire’s lifestyle once he moved from Oak Park to Los Angeles in 1918.
In 1918, Burroughs bought the 550-acre San Fernando Valley mansion estate of the late newspaper publisher H.G. Otis, naming his new home for his famous hero. Tight finances forced Burroughs to subdivide and sell the property, for a neat profit, six years later. In doing so he created the Los Angeles neighborhood still called Tarzana.
In California, he settled into a life of steady writing (producing many action novels outside the three fantasy adventure series) and business deals. A divorce and quick remarriage to a woman half his age preceded a move to Honolulu in 1936. There he witnessed the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. A two-year stint as a celebrity war correspondent, without seeing much action, in the Pacific brought a level of thrills missing from his life since his cavalry/cowboy days.
By then, though, Burroughs was suffering from decades of heavy cigarette smoking and vigorous social drinking. Divorced again, and increasingly incapacitated with a failing heart, he died of a coronary in Los Angeles in 1950. ERB Inc., however, continued to run, managed by his son and grandson, and still licenses products to this day.
Why Tarzan Matters
Given the poor quality of Burroughs’ later stories, and the tacit racism of so many of the tales, is his work still worth reading? In spite of those liabilities, Edgar Rice Burroughs did a lot of stuff right. He took great pride in researching details for his African stories, and created maps and languages for his make-believe realms.
He was a genius at what’s now called world-building, hanging his fantasies on a frame of realistic details. He came up with some excellent names, and was peerless at describing action – everything from sword fights to horseback riding. Most of all, he had a rich imagination that makes his best works, none of them very long, fun to read.
What’s more, Burroughs’s immense popularity gave an early drive and distinction to pulp fiction, that very American literary form, and by doing so inspired generations of young writers. And if his prose can’t compare with the work of the best pulp authors, his characters certainly do.
Tarzan, like any mythic being, has survived for more than a century in the popular imagination by representing wide and ongoing cultural concerns. Once standing for a certain kind of European management of wild places and remote people, Tarzan now represents an immersive encounter with nature, a vivid connection between humans and animals that recognizes our shared existence on the planet, and the threat to endangered species and pristine landscapes.
Tarzan as Eco-Warrior? It’s a safe bet that Ed Burroughs, were he alive today, would be happy to tell that story.
Published originally in a pulp magazine called All-Story in 1912, Tarzan of the Apesby Edgar Rice Burroughs was the first novel about a white child who was raised by primates after his parents died. He grew up to usurp the alpha male ape as king of the jungle after learning their ways. He swung from vines, had a trademark call of the wild, was eventually introduced to a bunch of abhorrent humans and the less abhorrent Jane, the love of his life, and finds out he is the heir to a title and a fortune. The series was an immediate massive hit and Burroughs capitalized on that popularity by writing two dozen sequels.
Hollywood came calling
Not counting the adult films, there have been at least 45 movies starting with 1918’s silent Tarzan of the Apes and including a bunch of cheesy adventures in the 1930s and 1940s with Johnny Weissmuller and a softcore romp with Bo Derek in 1981 that featured the characters from Burroughs’ books. There was also a 1966-68 NBC television series starring Ron Ely as the savage swinger and an animated children’s program in the 1970s. The most well-know adaptation is likely the Disney animated movie made in 1999, which like many other Disney films and Disney rides, feature real-life places.
Tarzan’s image, according to the Los Angeles Times, has been used to sell everything from T-shirts to vitamins and chest wigs. In Japan, a fitness magazine was even named after him. The Southern Californian community, Tarzana—where Burroughs built his office in 1926 and was buried—is also named after the lord of the jungle. There is no denying that Tarzan is one of the most beloved and enduring characters in the whole of literature.
The author who originally wrote under a pseudonym because “he thought writing was a lark” and a “silly profession for a big vigorous outdoorsman, as he fancied himself to be,” according to a Los Angeles Timesinterview with Scott Tracy Griffin, who wrote Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration, a scholarly coffee-table book published when the first novel turned 100 in 2012. Griffin says Burroughs was always “canny about his inspirations.” He “was a very well-read man” who “studied Greek and Latin through his school years, did research in the Chicago Public Library” and “had a very firm grounding in the classics.”
Burroughs usually claimed Tarzan was based on classic tales and mythology, often citing the story of Romulus and Remus. According to Britannica.com, they were the twin grandsons of King Numitor, who was deposed by his brother, and fathered by the war god Mars. They were sentenced to death by drowning as infants so as not to leave any rightful claimants to the throne. But they wound up floating down the Tiber River to the site where they would later found Rome, only surviving by being suckled and fed by a she-wolf and a woodpecker.
Many believe Burroughs was so specific and canny about the origins of his idea because he was plagued by accusations of copying Rudyard Kipling, whose Jungle Bookwas published many years earlier in 1894 and featured Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves, befriended by other animals, and eventually faced with both internal and external human dilemmas. (Coincidentally, it was also turned into a Disney cartoon and a live-action film.) Kipling himself once accused Burroughs of jazzing up the Mowgli plot in order to make Tarzan a hit, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Possible real-life Tarzan
But like a good book, the plot thickens. It turns out Kipling might have been wrong, at least partially, and Burroughs might have hidden his actual inspiration for the hero. It wouldn’t be the first incidence of a writer basing an iconic character on a real person.
Enter the 14th Earl of Streatham, William Charles Mildin. According to a 1959 article by journalist Thomas Llewellyn Jones in Man’s Adventuremagazine, Mildin’s shocking tale of survival and primates sounds pretty familiar.
To recap, Tarzan aka John Clayton was the child of aristocrats. The family was marooned in Africa and, after both of his parents perished, he was left to fend for himself in the jungle. He learns survival skills from a family of apes who call him Tarzan, meaning “white of skin.” He eventually tangles with a bunch of other humans including his shady family members and his beloved Jane and learns about his moneyed heritage.
Both came from English nobility
A Telegrapharticle explains that the earl’s story surfaced when family documents were released after his son died in 1937. Lord Mildin left 1,500 handwritten pages of memoirs. Tarzan’s real identity was Lord Greystroke. (Lord Greystroke is, however, a made-up name.)
Both were shipwrecked in Africa
The Earl also spent more than a decade, 15 years to be exact, in the wilds of Africa after a job on a boat went terribly wrong. His papers begin: “I was only 11 when, in a boyish fit of anger and pique, I ran away from home and obtained a berth as cabin boy aboard the four-masted sailing vessel, Antilla, bound for African ports-of-call and the Cape of Good Hope …”
His ship was destroyed during a three-day storm and he claimed he survived by clinging to a “piece of the wreckage.” He washed ashore somewhere between Pointe Noire and Libreville in French Equatorial Africa, according to The Telegraph. The original Man’s Adventure article said official insurance documents proved the Antilla had been totaled in 1868.
Clearly, if he was the prototype for Tarzan, this is where Burroughs took some liberties. Mildin was 11 and had run away from home; Tarzan was a small child who was stranded with his parents.
Both palled around with primates
The papers say he did not seek out natives as he “had always heard they were savages — headhunters and cannibals.” Mildin’s memoirs claim he took up with a group of apes after they provided him with food. According to a fanzine called ERBzine article, which reprinted Llewallan Jones’ 1959 article, the journals stated: “For some strange reason, I was not afraid of these strange creatures. They were hideous to look upon but seemed gentle and harmless.”
He writes that they gave him nuts, grubs, and roots. He was starving so he ate the castoffs, which apparently were rejected by his system at first. “I was terribly ill afterwards and the apes appeared to understand this. One ancient female hunched her way over to me and cradled me in her arms.”
He “gathered branches to make a crude treehouse.” He returned the favor to the family by making fire and stealing weapons from a native settlement: “I found new and easy ways to root under logs for grubs and dig for roots with a sharp-tipped stick. He talks about dressing their wounds with cool moss or wet mud.
Mildin brags that he was “unusually strong and agile for his age” but never claims he became the leader of the animals. “The brutes came to look upon me, not as a leader for I could not match their feats of strength and endurance, but as a mute well-intentioned and helpful counselor,” says an excerpt in the ERBzine piece.
Unlike Tarzan, he did not speak to the apes but did figure out some form of communication. Sounds wild, but scientific experiments and studies like the long-term one with Koko The Gorilla prove apes can be taught sign language. Once Mildin became a teen, he claims he left the beasts and moved in with a native tribe.
Both were swingers
Albeit different kinds, but Mildin was a bit of a player before he re-entered the realm of the white man. He alleges he married five local women and sired four children during his time in the village. His papers allege that the barren wife was speared to death in a ritual as it was the tribe’s custom to punish sterility.
When bad blood began to boil again with rival tribes, according to the ERBzine article, Mildin fought alongside his adopted people and taught them the art of “surprise attacks.” After he tired of war, he went full deadbeat dad, deserted them, and worked his way slowly up the coast until reaching a trading post some 250 miles away. Within months, he had returned to his homeland to claim his title, estate, and white male privilege. Warring tribes in that part of Western Africa at the time is a verifiable fact and according to the ERBzine article, there was an 1884 report from Fort Lamy that confirms Mildin came through there to get home.
According to the Reporter-Herald, the story goes a little differently. They mention that Mildin returned to London 15 years later but it was after being captured by adventurers and returned to civilization. If you remember, Tarzan also spends time in civilization, eventually learns of his nobility, and was often hunted by other humans.
Either way, Mildin made it home to his family fortune and title. He married again and had one son, Edwin George, in 1889. He died in 1919 and his son died in 1937 never having married.
Given that most of the players in this scenario died before this theory could be proven, there’s no way to 100 percent know that Mildin’s story helped in at least part to spark Tarzan’s creation. Mildin’s detailed papers were only released, per his will, when his last legitimate heir had passed away. However, the broad details of his marooning in Africa and his return, a few decades before Burroughs wrote the book, were covered in several articles in The London Times and romanticized in English illustrated papers and magazines, according to ERBzine. We’ve already established that experts believe Burroughs was a very well-read man who did lots of research. And if he did reach out to Mildin, it is entirely possible that Burroughs agreed to keep it a secret because Mildin knew the details of his papers, largely admitting the existence of his illegitimate African-based children, would complicate his will.
Jane of the Jungle
Pretty sure this tale has you wondering about Jane. But sadly for fans of Tarzan’s lady friend who first appeared in Tarzan of the Apes — A Romance of the Jungle in 1912 in All-Story, she does appear to be a pure figment of Burroughs’ imagination. Jane’s introduction was such a hit that it spurred Burroughs to write a bunch of tales about the pair’s life together in the jungle. Perhaps best of all, she inspired one real-life Jane, Jane Goodall, to live among the apes in Africa. “Silly man,” Goodall is reported as saying by the Jane Goodall Institute. “He married the wrong Jane.” We guess we can add Tarzan and Mildin to the list of classic cartoons and their real-life inspirations.
Back in 2012, the Library of America published special facsimile editions of two Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novels: “Tarzan of the Apes,” introduced by Thomas Mallon, and the nearly as famous planetary romance, “A Princess of Mars,” introduced by Junot Diaz. This year, Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. has begun to issue a uniform authorized edition of the entire Tarzan series, each volume featuring action-filled cover art by Joe Jusko. The company has also continued the “Carson of Venus” saga with a newly commissioned exploit by Matt Betts titled “The Edge of All Worlds.” While Burroughs (1875-1950) churned out every kind of pulp adventure, including several books set in the hollow-earth realm of Pellucidar and a fast-moving lost-world trilogy assembled as “The Land That Time Forgot,” the first Tarzan novels, in particular, show how deeply his mythic storytelling can captivate the imagination.
The books do this, moreover, despite Burroughs’s sometimes stilted language, period stereotypes (dotty professor, “humorous” Black maid, cartoon Russian anarchist) and myriad improbabilities in their plotting. Racial attitudes and beliefs are typical of the time yet more nuanced than you might expect: Tarzan judges people, regardless of their skin color or ethnicity, solely by their character. Courage, fortitude and compassion — these are the qualities that matter.
Burroughs opens “Tarzan of the Apes” (1914) with an irresistible hook: “I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.” The pages that follow describe how the infant son of the dead Lord and Lady Greystoke is reared by an anthropoid ape named Kala and learns to survive and flourish in the African jungle. One day, the grown Tarzan swings out of the trees to rescue a party of shipwrecked Westerners, thereby encountering Baltimorean Jane Porter and her suitor, the English aristocrat William Clayton, heir-apparent to the Greystoke title and estates. Many adventures follow but, with a daring that most writers would shrink from, Burroughs brings the novel to a climax in, of all places, Wisconsin.
There, Jane and Tarzan finally acknowledge their love for each other, even though Jane feels honor-bound to keep her promise to wed Clayton. Shortly after a tearful farewell, the brokenhearted ape-man learns that he is, in fact, the rightful Lord Greystoke. Just then, Clayton enters and cheekily asks, “How the devil did you ever get into that bally jungle?” The answer provides the novel’s throat-catching final lines:
“ ‘I was born there,’ said Tarzan, quietly. ‘My mother was an Ape, and of course she couldn’t tell me much about it. I never knew who my father was.’ ”
This act of renunciation drives home one of Burroughs’s main themes: That despite a brutish, not British, upbringing, Kala’s son possesses unassailable nobility and fineness of character. Note that this isn’t because of aristocratic blood, family background or race. Rather the novel presents Tarzan as Rousseau’s unspoiled child of nature, a literally noble savage free from the vices and corruption associated with advanced industrial society. However, the encounter with Jane Porter has seriously shaken his equanimity.
As “The Return of Tarzan” (1915) opens, the ape-man feels psychologically divided between the claims of “civilization” and the call of the wild. (This is a common literary theme of the era — think of Jack London’s sled dog Buck, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.) What should a lord of the jungle do with his life?
First, Monsieur Jean C. Tarzan tries to adapt to Parisian high society — at least until a dastardly Russian named Nikolas Rokoff contrives to make it appear that Tarzan’s friendship with the Countess de Coude masks a full-fledged love affair. To save the lady’s honor, Tarzan again chooses self-sacrifice, resolving to die in a duel with her husband, the finest pistol shot in France. Miraculously, he survives and, for good measure, proves the countess’s innocence.
Next, the ape-man travels to Algeria to expose a traitor in the French Foreign Legion. By freeing a young Arab woman from slavery, he earns the undying gratitude of her father, a powerful desert sheikh. “All that is Kadour ben Saden’s is thine, my friend, even to his life.” Tarzan rapidly comes to admire the sheikh and his stern, dignified warriors, but resists the temptation to settle among them permanently.
After thwarting several murder attempts by Rokoff, our hero finally returns to his beloved African homeland. “Who would go back to the stifling, wicked cities of civilized man when the mighty reaches of the great jungle offered peace and liberty? Not he.” Before long Tarzan, by now a specialist in rescuing people from certain death, saves an African named Busuli, then joins his new friend’s people, the Waziri, among whom he finds contentment — for a while.
Even the most casual reader of “The Return of Tarzan” will notice its neatly orchestrated shifts, as its displaced protagonist “tries out” life among White Europeans, sunburnt Arabs and Black Waziri. But Tarzan’s journey of self-discovery isn’t over yet. While exploring the mysterious, half-ruined city of Opar, he is captured by its savage inhabitants, most of whom are virtually indistinguishable from H.G. Wells’s bestial Morlocks. Only Opar’s high priestess La preserves a fully human beauty and Tarzan the Irresistible naturally catches her eye.
Following a lucky escape from Opar, the weary-hearted lord of the jungle finally decides, in Walt Whitman’s phrase, to “turn and live with the animals. They are so placid and self-contained.” He rejoins the apes he grew up with and gradually begins to forget the heartache and complexity of being human. At which point Jane reappears – along with Clayton and Rokoff.
As this précis indicates, the Tarzan novels repeatedly extol glad animal spirits and natural instinct over western culture’s soul-deadening constraints and artificiality. This is a simplistic dichotomy, albeit useful for highly melodramatic storytelling. In his many, many adventures to come, the ape-man will sometimes appear as the urbane and proper Lord Greystoke, but whenever serious danger threatens, he will, in approved superhero fashion, quickly doff his bespoke suit and take to the trees as Tarzan the untamed, Tarzan the invincible.
Born in New York City to a wealthy and socially connected family, Herman Melville (1819-1891) chose a life as exciting as that of his Moby-Dick narrator Ishmael. He spent years at sea on whaling ships and traveled to far-flung places, but also struggled to make it as a novelist while supporting a large extended family. To celebrate his birthday on August 1, we’re diving into Melville’s adventures and fishing for some surprising facts.
1. Herman Melville’s mother changed the spelling of their last name.
Despite his family’s wealth and pedigree—his mother Maria Gansevoort descended from one of the first Dutch families in New York, and his father Allan Melvill came from old Boston stock—young Herman had an unstable, unhappy childhood. Allan declared bankruptcy in 1830 and died two years later, leaving Maria with eight children under the age of 17 and a pile of debt from loans and Allan’s unsuccessful businesses. Soon afterward, Maria added an «e» to their surname—perhaps to hide from collection agencies, although scholars are not sure exactly why. «It always seemed to me an unlikely way to avoid creditors in the early 19th century,» Will Garrison, executive director of the Berkshire Historical Society, tells Mental Floss.
2. Herman Melville struggled to find employment.
Thanks to a national financial crisis in 1837, Melville had difficulty finding a permanent job, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He served as a bank clerk, teacher, land surveyor, and crew member on a packet ship before signing on, in 1841, to the whaler Acushnet of New Bedford, Massachusetts, then the whaling capital of the world. He served aboard a few different whalers and rose to the role of harpooner. His adventures at sea planted the seeds for Melville’s interrogation of man, morality, and nature in Moby-Dick. In that novel, Melville (in the voice of Ishmael) says, «A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.»
3. Herman Melville jumped ship in the middle of a three-year voyage.
Melville and the Acushnet’s captain didn’t get along, so when the ship reached the Marquesas Islands, Melville and a friend, Richard Tobias Greene, hid in the forests until the ship departed. They spent a month living with the Pacific Islanders. Melville was impressed with their sophistication and peacefulness; most Europeans believed that Polynesians were cannibals. He also found reason to criticize European attempts to «civilize» the islanders by converting them to Christianity. Melville drew on his South Pacific experiences in his first two novels, which became runaway bestsellers: Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).
4. Herman Melville was inspired by a mountain.
Melville moved to Arrowhead, his charming mustard-colored home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with his wife Elizabeth and their son in 1850, after he achieved fame as a popular adventure novelist. In the upstairs study, he set up his writing desk so he could look out the north-facing window, which perfectly framed the summit of Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’s tallest mountain. Gazing at the peak on a sunny day, Melville was struck by how much the horizontal apex looked «like a sperm whale rising in the distance.» He arranged his desk so he would see the summit when he happened to glance up from his work. In that room, in early 1851, Melville completed his manuscript of Moby-Dick.
5. Herman Melville fictionalized an actual whaling disaster.
While on the Acushnet, Melville had learned about an infamous shipwreck from the son of one of its survivors. In November 1820, a massive sperm whale had attacked and sunk the whaleship Essex of Nantucket in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Its crew, stranded in three small boats with little food or water, chose to drift more than 4000 miles to South America instead of 1200 miles to the Marquesas Islands—where Melville had enjoyed his idyll—because they thought they’d be eaten by the natives. Ironically, some of the castaways ended up eating their dead shipmates to survive.
Melville used the disaster to form the climax of Moby-Dick, in which the Pequod of Nantucket is destroyed by the white whale. Melville visited Nantucket for the first time only after the novel was published. He personally interviewed the Essex’s captain, George Pollard, who had survived the terrible ordeal and become the town’s night watchman. Later, Melville wrote, «To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.»
6. Moby-Dick was a flop.
Readers who were expecting another rip-roarin’ adventure like his earlier novels Typee or Redburn were sorely disappointed when Melville’s masterpiece was published in November 1851. The British edition of Moby-Dick, or The Whale received some positive reviews in London newspapers, but American reviewers were shocked at its obscure literary symbolism and complexity. “There is no method in his madness; and we must needs pronounce the chief feature of the volume [the character of Captain Ahab] a perfect failure, and the work itself inartistic,” wrote the New York Albion. The reviewer added that the novel’s style was like «having oil, mustard, vinegar, and pepper served up as a dish, in place of being scientifically administered sauce-wise.»
7. Herman Melville was very fond of his chimney.
Arrowhead became the locus of Melville’s family life and work. Eventually, he and Lizzie, their two sons and two daughters, his mother Maria, and his sisters Augusta, Helen, and Fanny all lived in the cozy farmhouse. For a couple of years, Nathaniel Hawthorne was such a frequent guest that he had his own small bedroom off Melville’s study. After Moby-Dick, Melville wrote the novels Pierre and The Confidence-Man, his collection of works called The Piazza Tales, short stories including “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and many other pieces there. Melville grew very attached to the house, especially to the massive central chimney, which he immortalized in his 1856 short story “I and My Chimney.” Yet his financial struggles after Moby-Dick failed to find an audience led Melville to sell Arrowhead to his brother Allan in 1863. As an homage, Allan painted a few lines from “I and My Chimney” on the chimney’s stonework, which are still visible today.
8. Herman Melville finally got a day job.
Melville’s chronic money woes prompted a return to New York City, into a brick townhouse at 104 East 26th Street in Manhattan, where the family benefited from being back in the bustle of civilization. Melville finally found regular employment as a district inspector for the U.S. Customs Service and maintained an office at 470 West Street. At the same time, he mostly abandoned writing short stories and novels in favor of poetry. In between inspections he wrote Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, based on his visit to the Middle East in 1857. Because of its length—at more than 18,000 lines, it’s the longest poem in American literature—and unconventional approach to its subject, Melville once called it «eminently adapted for unpopularity.»
9. Herman Melville’s last major work was discovered by accident.
The centennial of Melville’s birth renewed interest in his novels and poems, most of which were long out of print by then. Raymond Weaver, a literature professor at Columbia University working on the first major biography of Melville, collaborated with Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville’s granddaughter and literary executor, who gave him access to the author’s papers. In 1919, while poking through letters and notes, Weaver discovered the unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd in a tin breadbox. Melville had started to write the short story about a tragic sailor in 1888 but, by his death in 1891, had not completed it. Weaver edited and published the story in 1924, but initially considered the tale «not distinguished.» Other scholars asserted that Billy Budd was Melville’s final masterpiece.
10. You can see Herman Melville’s personal collection of knick-knacks.
Just a short drive from Arrowhead, the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield holds the world’s largest collection of Melvilliana in its Melville Memorial Room. Along with first editions of Melville’s work and a full library of books about him, there are priceless objects owned by or associated with the author. Fans can geek out over the earliest known portrait of Melville, painted in 1848; carved wooden canoe paddles that he collected in Polynesia; his walking stick; his favorite inkstand, quills, and other desktop tchotchkes; a collection of scrimshaw, maps, and prints; and Elizabeth Melville’s writing desk. There’s a section of the first successful transatlantic cable, which Melville valued as a prized souvenir, and even the actual breadbox in which Billy Budd had been hiding.
In July of 1852, a 32-year-old novelist named Herman Melville had high hopes for his new novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, despite the book’s mixed reviews and tepid sales. That month he took a steamer to Nantucket for his first visit to the Massachusetts island, home port of his novel’s mythic protagonist, Captain Ahab, and his ship, the Pequod. Like a tourist, Melville met local dignitaries, dined out and took in the sights of the village he had previously only imagined.
And on his last day on Nantucket he met the broken-down 60-year-old man who had captained the Essex, the ship that had been attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in an 1820 incident that had inspired Melville’s novel. Captain George Pollard Jr. was just 29 years old when the Essex went down, and he survived and returned to Nantucket to captain a second whaling ship, Two Brothers. But when that ship wrecked on a coral reef two years later, the captain was marked as unlucky at sea—a “Jonah”—and no owner would trust a ship to him again. Pollard lived out his remaining years on land, as the village night watchman.
Melville had written about Pollard briefly in Moby-Dick, and only with regard to the whale sinking his ship. During his visit, Melville later wrote, the two merely “exchanged some words.” But Melville knew Pollard’s ordeal at sea did not end with the sinking of the Essex, and he was not about to evoke the horrific memories that the captain surely carried with him. “To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville wrote, “to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”
Pollard had told the full story to fellow captains over a dinner shortly after his rescue from the Essex ordeal, and to a missionary named George Bennet. To Bennet, the tale was like a confession. Certainly, it was grim: 92 days and sleepless nights at sea in a leaking boat with no food, his surviving crew going mad beneath the unforgiving sun, eventual cannibalism and the harrowing fate of two teenage boys, including Pollard’s first cousin, Owen Coffin. “But I can tell you no more—my head is on fire at the recollection,” Pollard told the missionary. “I hardly know what I say.”
The trouble for Essex began, as Melville knew, on August 14, 1819, just two days after it left Nantucket on a whaling voyage that was supposed to last two and a half years. The 87-foot-long ship was hit by a squall that destroyed its topgallant sail and nearly sank it. Still, Pollard continued, making it to Cape Horn five weeks later. But the 20-man crew found the waters off South America nearly fished out, so they decided to sail for distant whaling grounds in the South Pacific, far from any shores.
To restock, the Essex anchored at Charles Island in the Galapagos, where the crew collected sixty 100-pound tortoises. As a prank, one of the crew set a fire, which, in the dry season, quickly spread. Pollard’s men barely escaped, having to run through flames, and a day after they set sail, they could still see smoke from the burning island. Pollard was furious, and swore vengeance on whoever set the fire. Many years later Charles Island was still a blackened wasteland, and the fire was believed to have caused the extinction of both the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird.
By November of 1820, after months of a prosperous voyage and a thousand miles from the nearest land, whaleboats from the Essex had harpooned whales that dragged them out toward the horizon in what the crew called “Nantucket sleigh rides.” Owen Chase, the 23-year-old first mate, had stayed aboard the Essex to make repairs while Pollard went whaling. It was Chase who spotted a very big whale—85 feet in length, he estimated—lying quietly in the distance, its head facing the ship. Then, after two or three spouts, the giant made straight for the Essex, “coming down for us at great celerity,” Chase would recall—at about three knots. The whale smashed head-on into the ship with “such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces.”
The whale passed underneath the ship and began thrashing in the water. “I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,” Chase recalled. Then the whale disappeared. The crew was addressing the hole in the ship and getting the pumps working when one man cried out, “Here he is—he is making for us again.” Chase spotted the whale, his head half out of water, bearing down at great speed—this time at six knots, Chase thought. This time it hit the bow directly under the cathead and disappeared for good.
The water rushed into the ship so fast, the only thing the crew could do was lower the boats and try fill them with navigational instruments, bread, water and supplies before the Essex turned over on its side.
Pollard saw his ship in distress from a distance, then returned to see the Essex in ruin. Dumbfounded, he asked, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?”
“We have been stove by a whale,” his first mate answered.
Another boat returned, and the men sat in silence, their captain still pale and speechless. Some, Chase observed, “had no idea of the extent of their deplorable situation.”
The men were unwilling to leave the doomed Essex as it slowly foundered, and Pollard tried to come up with a plan. In all, there were three boats and 20 men. They calculated that the closest land was the Marquesas Islands and the Society Islands, and Pollard wanted to set off for them—but in one of the most ironic decisions in nautical history, Chase and the crew convinced him that those islands were peopled with cannibals and that the crew’s best chance for survival would be to sail south. The distance to land would be far greater, but they might catch the trade winds or be spotted by another whaling ship. Only Pollard seemed to understand the implications of steering clear of the islands. (According to Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,although rumors of cannibalism persisted, traders had been visiting the islands without incident.)
Thus they left the Essex aboard their 20-foot boats. They were challenged almost from the start. Saltwater saturated the bread, and the men began to dehydrate as they ate their daily rations. The sun was ravaging. Pollard’s boat was attacked by a killer whale. They spotted land—Henderson Island—two weeks later, but it was barren. After another week the men began to run out of supplies. Still, three of them decided they’d rather take their chances on land than climb back into a boat. No one could blame them. And besides, it would stretch the provisions for the men in the boats.
Herman Melville drew inspiration for Moby-Dick from the 1820 whale attack on the Essex. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
By mid-December, after weeks at sea, the boats began to take on water, more whales menaced the men at night, and by January, the paltry rations began to take their toll. On Chase’s boat, one man went mad, stood up and demanded a dinner napkin and water, then fell into “most horrid and frightful convulsions” before perishing the next morning. “Humanity must shudder at the dreadful recital” of what came next, Chase wrote. The crew “separated limbs from his body, and cut all the flesh from the bones; after which, we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again—sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to the sea.” They then roasted the man’s organs on a flat stone and ate them.
Over the coming week, three more sailors died, and their bodies were cooked and eaten. One boat disappeared, and then Chase’s and Pollard’s boats lost sight of each other. The rations of human flesh did not last long, and the more the survivors ate, the hungrier they felt. On both boats the men became too weak to talk. The four men on Pollard’s boat reasoned that without more food, they would die. On February 6, 1821—nine weeks after they’d bidden farewell to the Essex—Charles Ramsdell, a teenager, proposed they draw lots to determine who would be eaten next. It was the custom of the sea, dating back, at least in recorded instance, to the first half of the 17th century. The men in Pollard’s boat accepted Ramsdell’s suggestion, and the lot fell to young Owen Coffin, the captain’s first cousin.
Pollard had promised the boy’s mother he’d look out for him. “My lad, my lad!” the captain now shouted, “if you don’t like your lot, I’ll shoot the first man that touches you.” Pollard even offered to step in for the boy, but Coffin would have none of it. “I like it as well as any other,” he said.
Ramsdell drew the lot that required him to shoot his friend. He paused a long time. But then Coffin rested his head on the boat’s gunwale and Ramsdell pulled the trigger.
“He was soon dispatched,” Pollard would say, “and nothing of him left.”
By February 18, after 89 days at sea, the last three men on Chase’s boat spotted a sail in the distance. After a frantic chase, they managed to catch the English ship Indian and were rescued.
Three hundred miles away, Pollard’s boat carried only its captain and Charles Ramsdell. They had only the bones of the last crewmen to perish, which they smashed on the bottom of the boat so that they could eat the marrow. As the days passed the two men obsessed over the bones scattered on the boat’s floor. Almost a week after Chase and his men had been rescued, a crewman aboard the American ship Dauphin spotted Pollard’s boat. Wretched and confused, Pollard and Ramsdell did not rejoice at their rescue, but simply turned to the bottom of their boat and stuffed bones into their pockets. Safely aboard the Dauphin, the two delirious men were seen “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.”
The five Essex survivors were reunited in Valparaiso, where they recuperated before sailing back for Nantucket. As Philbrick writes, Pollard had recovered enough to join several captains for dinner, and he told them the entire story of the Essex wreck and his three harrowing months at sea. One of the captains present returned to his room and wrote everything down, calling Pollard’s account “the most distressing narrative that ever came to my knowledge.”
Years later, the third boat was discovered on Ducie Island; three skeletons were aboard. Miraculously, the three men who chose to stay on Henderson Island survived for nearly four months, mostly on shellfish and bird eggs, until an Australian ship rescued them.
Once they arrived in Nantucket, the surviving crewmen of the Essex were welcomed, largely without judgment. Cannibalism in the most dire of circumstances, it was reasoned, was a custom of the sea. (In similar incidents, survivors declined to eat the flesh of the dead but used it as bait for fish. But Philbrick notes that the men of the Essex were in waters largely devoid of marine life at the surface.)
Captain Pollard, however, was not as easily forgiven, because he had eaten his cousin. (One scholar later referred to the act as “gastronomic incest.”) Owen Coffin’s mother could not abide being in the captain’s presence. Once his days at sea were over, Pollard spent the rest of his life in Nantucket. Once a year, on the anniversary of the wreck of the Essex, he was said to have locked himself in his room and fasted in honor of his lost crewmen.
By 1852, Melville and Moby-Dick had begun their own slide into obscurity. Despite the author’s hopes, his book sold but a few thousand copies in his lifetime, and Melville, after a few more failed attempts at novels, settled into a reclusive life and spent 19 years as a customs inspector in New York City. He drank and suffered the death of his two sons. Depressed, he abandoned novels for poetry. But George Pollard’s fate was never far from his mind. In his poem Clarel he writes of
George Orwell was a novelist, journalist, essayist and critic, best known for his novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
What was George Orwell’s real name, and when was he born?
George Orwell was the pseudonym of Eric Arthur Blair. He was born in Motihari, Bengal, India, in 1903, to a family which he described in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) as ‘lower-upper middle class’: ‘upper-middle class without money’. According to his biographer Bernard Crick, Orwell used a pseudonym ‘partly to avoid embarrassing his parents, partly as a hedge against failure, and partly because he disliked the name Eric, which reminded him of a prig in a Victorian boys’ story’.
He worked hard and won a place at Eton but while there dedicated himself more to reading widely than passing exams. Rather than going on to University, he took the Indian Civil Service exams and became a policeman in Burma in 1921 – he was probably the first and only old Etonian to attend the Burmese police training academy. His experiences inspired his first novel, Burmese Days, which was published in New York in 1934 (British publishers feared libel cases).
What did George Orwell write?
Orwell’s first book was the non-fictional Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and was based on his experiences after he left the police. The critic Bernard Crick tells us that during this time, he took to making journeys among tramps, and spent time living amongst the poor and homeless in London and around the hop fields of Kent, writing that he wanted to see if the English poor were treated in their country in the same way as the Burmese were in theirs.
Orwell then moved to Paris in 1928, where in his own words, he lived for about a year and a half in Paris, writing novels and short stories which no one would publish. He described how, ‘After my money came to an end I had several years of fairly severe poverty during which I was, among other things, a dishwasher, a private tutor and a teacher in cheap private schools.’
How did Orwell’s political views inform his writing?
Four years later in his essay ‘Why I write’, he explained that ‘what I have most wanted to do is to make political writing into an art’. His political convictions, which have been described as democratic socialism, inform books such as The Road to Wigan Pier, a documentary account of poverty in Britain. Its second half, critical of Socialist intellectuals who supported Stalin, was enormously controversial, as was his account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia (1938), which criticises leftist infighting in the context of a broader struggle against Fascism.
Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four
His novel Animal Farm(1945) also expresses his hatred of totalitarianism, satirising the developments of the Russian revolution in the style of a fable based on the eponymous farm. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) deals with similar subject matter by describing a dystopian future overseen by the all-powerful Big Brother. Both books have been translated all around the world, and were read differently by conflicting parties during the Cold War.
When did George Orwell die?
Having adopted a son, Orwell died of tuberculosis on 21 January 1950.
Animal Farm (1945) is a novella by George Orwell. Orwell finished writing the draft, originally sub-titled A Fairy Story, in summer 1944. After being rejected by a number of publishers, Animal Farm was finally published in August 1945.
What is Animal Farm about?
Animal Farm is a commentary on the development of Russian communism under Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) delivered in allegorical form. The thoroughgoing allegory compares the inequalities of brutal, socially unequal pre-Revolutionary Russia with a cruelly run farm on which the humans represent the capitalists and aristocrats, and the animals represent the people.
Old Major, Napoleon and Boxer: what do the pigs and horse represent?
The Old Major – a prize boar who dies relatively early in the action – represents the Marxist-Leninist principles behind the Revolution through which the animals take power. In the short term, conditions are improved, but gradually corruption creeps in, and Napoleon – another boar, who represents Stalin – betrays the principles of the Revolution. Notably, he deceitfully sends the horse Boxer, who has been a noble, hardworking servant of the original principles of the Revolution, to the knacker’s yard to fund the increasingly human-like luxuries indulged in by the pigs who have assumed control of the farm.
The final perversion of the original principles of the revolution is expressed in the line ‘all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’, a phrase which has passed into the public consciousness.
Like Nineteen Eighty-Four after it, the book was misread as being critical of all forms of socialism, rather than specifically Stalinist communism, and the American Central Intelligence Agency funded a cartoon version in 1955. Because of its illegality, many in Soviet-controlled territory first read it in pirated, ‘samizdat’ form.
How did George Orwell describe Animal Farm?
In the essay ‘Why I Write’ (1946), Orwell described Animal Farm as ‘the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole’. In the clarity of its story and structure, it reflects Orwell’s commitment – in that essay and elsewhere – to expressing political ideas in what is now celebrated as a ‘plain style’, in particular contrast to what he saw as the worst jargonistic excesses of Marxist philosophy.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one of the best-known examples of animal fable, a symbolic narrative in which animal characters are endowed with human qualities. The best-known beast fables in Western literature are the narratives attributed to Aesop, an ancient Greek story teller who is thought to have lived circa 620–564 BCE. Aesop’s fables were characterised by their brevity and clarity, and by the inclusion of an explicit moral at the end which summarised the lesson illustrated by the story. Showing human values through animal characters allowed readers to examine their behaviour from a distanced perspective.
Orwell’s satirical tale is a more developed version of the beast fable. Rather than stating a moral at the end, the emphasis is placed on the plot of the story, on the narration of different episodes that show the progressive degeneration of the pig-led administration of the farm. However, Orwell’s novella still contains some of the features that made beast fables traditionally popular: it is relatively brief and fast-paced and it is written in a straightforward style.
Most of the elements that form the plot of Animal Farm correspond directly to specific historical events relating to the Stalinist regime, and the pigs Napoleon and Snowball have an allegorical relationship to Stalin and Trotsky. However, Animal Farm can also be read as a broader fable warning against totalitarian regimes and their use of violent repression and propaganda campaigns.
The animals of Animal Farm
Animal stories have traditionally been associated with children’s literature, and Orwell himself gave his novella the subtitle of ‘A Fairy Story’. While the subject matter of Animal Farm is unquestionably political, there is something whimsical and evocative about the use of talking animals as characters. The reader learns about the events on the farm through the perspective of the largely naïve, idealistic animals who witness, astonished, the evolution of the pig-led regime.
While Orwell gives us a grim description of the brutal and corrupt behaviour of the pigs in charge of the farm, the majority of the animals are portrayed sympathetically. Traditional fables were not so much stories about animals as about human qualities expressed symbolically though the figure of the animal. But in Animal Farm Orwell goes one step further. Episodes such as the exploitation of the hens for their eggs are written with true compassion for the mistreatment of animals.
Orwell himself was familiar with barnyard animals, as he kept goats and hens at his house in Wallington. In the preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, he explained to his readers that the idea to write the novel had occurred to him while he watched a boy driving a carthorse and repeatedly whipping it when it tried to turn. Orwell explained how ‘It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat’.
The 1954 animated film version of Animal Farm by John Halas and Joy Batchelor also paid particular attention to the physique of the animals, and how their bodies – the birds’ lack of arms, for instance – would have conditioned their ability to run the farm. From the comedic interpretation of how an animal could do the work of a human farmer, to the portrayal of the physical suffering of Boxer the carthorse, the film makes an effort to understand the story through the perspective of the animal.
A new ending
While Halas and Batchelor’s film was generally faithful to the plot of the book, there were some substantial alterations. Some of the book’s characters were removed from the film version, including the mares Molly and Clover. However, the most significant change was its ending. Orwell’s novel ends pessimistically by describing the pigs as indistinguishable from their human masters. In contrast, the film presents a more uplifting ending in which the animals obtain outside help from other farms to successfully overthrow Napoleon.
Animal Farm and the CIA
During the 1950s, at the beginning of the Cold War, the works of Orwell became very popular – Orwell had famously denounced the Soviet Union as a repressive and totalitarian regime. The 1954 film version of Animal Farm was secretly funded by the American intelligence agency the CIA, who bought the rights from the writer’s widow, Sonia Orwell. The film was commissioned as part of their anti-Stalin and anti-Soviet Union propaganda strategy. Halas and Batchelor, who had previously worked on films for the American Marshall plan and the British Ministry of Information, were chosen for the project, although it is uncertain whether they knew who was funding the film.
The early Sixties. Everything is up in the air, not least love, drugs and sex. A group of talented teenagers from academic backgrounds in Cambridge — Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett, Roger Waters and David Gilmour — are all keen guitarists and among many who move to London, keen to discover more of this new world and express themselves in it. Mainly in further education — studying the arts, architecture, music — they mix with like-minded incomers in the big city.
In 1965, Barrett and Waters meet an experimental percussionist and an extraordinarily gifted keyboards-player — Nick Mason and Rick Wright respectively. The result is Pink Floyd, which more than 40 years later has moved from massive to almost mythic standing.
Through several changes of personnel, through several musical phases, the band has earned a place on the ultimate roll call of rock, along with the Beatles, the Stones and Led Zeppelin. Their album sales have topped 250 million. In 2005, at Live 8 — the biggest global music event in history — the reunion of the four-man line-up that recorded most of the Floyd canon stole the show. And yet, true to their beginnings, there has always been an enigma at their heart.
Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett, for example. This cool and charismatic son of a university don was the original creative force behind the band (which he named after the Delta bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council). His vision was perfect for the times, and vice versa. He would lead the band to its first precarious fame, and damage himself irreparably along the way. And though the Floyd’s Barrett era only lasted three years, it always informed what they became.
These were the summers of love, when LSD was less an hallucinogenic interval than a lifestyle choice for some young people, who found their culture in science fiction, the pastoral tradition, and a certain strain of the Victorian imagination. Drawing on such themes, the elfin Barrett wrote and sang on most of the early Floyd’s material, which made use of new techniques, such as tape-loops, feedback and echo delay.
Live, the Floyd played sonic freak-outs — half-hidden by new-fangled light-shows and projections — with Barrett’s spacey lead guitar swooping over Waters’ trance-like bass, while Wright and Mason created soundscapes above and beneath. On record they were tighter, if still ‘psychedelic’. Either way, they sounded ‘trippy’. And perhaps that was Barrett’s intention. He certainly ingested plenty of LSD and other drugs, which didn’t help his delicate mental balance.
Over the spring of 1966, the young band were regulars at the Spontaneous Underground ‘happenings’ on Sundays at the legendary Marquee Club, where they were spotted by their future managers Peter Jenner and Andrew King. And by the autumn, the Floyd had become the house band of the so-called London Free School in west London.
A semi-residency at the All Saint’s Hall led to bigger bookings — at the UFO and the International Times‘ launch in the Roundhouse — as well as the recording of the instrumental ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ with the UFO’s co-founder, producer Joe Boyd. (This track was later used on hip documentaries of the scene.) A signing to EMI followed in early 1967.
«We want to be pop stars,» said Syd. In March, Boyd recorded Barrett’s oddly commercial ‘Arnold Layne’ as a three-minute single. And with a Top Twenty hit to promote, the band took on a gruelling schedule of gigs and recordings.
They appeared at the coolest event of the summer, The 14-Hour Technicolor Dream in Alexandra Palace. They gave a concert under the banner ‘Games for May’ in a classical venue — the Queen Elizabeth Hall — where they displayed their theatrical ambitions through the use of props, pre-recorded tapes and the world’s first quadraphonic sound system. (They received a lifetime ban for throwing daffodils into the audience.) And in June the Floyd released a single originally written for this event.
‘See Emily Play’, which was produced by EMI’s Norman Smith, charted at Number Six and made it on to primetime TV’s Top of the Pops three times (with Barrett acting increasingly strangely). This was followed in August by Pink Floyd’s first LP, The Piper At The Gates of Dawn, which they recorded at Abbey Road next door to the Beatles, then working on Sergeant Pepper. Again making the Top Ten, the album is mainly Barrett’s and is a precious relic of its time, a wonderful mix of the whimsical and weird.
Talking of which, Barrett’s behaviour and output were threatening to bring the band down with him: refusing to speak, playing one de-tuned string all night, writing material like ‘Scream Thy Last Scream, Old Woman with a Basket’. The band wanted to keep their frontman and hoped he would recover himself, so they asked David Gilmour — now back in London after a sojourn abroad — to take over Syd’s role on stage, and thought Barrett might become their off-stage songwriter. They tried a few gigs as a five-piece. But in the end, they decided they could do without Barrett, and by March 1968 were in their second incarnation and under new management.
Set the Controls
Barrett went his way with Jenner and King, and later recorded two haunting solo albums — on which Waters, Wright and especially Gilmour helped — before retreating to Cambridge for the rest of his life. The other four acquired a new manager — Steve O’Rourke — and in a state of some consternation finished their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets (begun the previous year).
Lyrical duties had now fallen to the bassist Roger Waters. And apart from ‘Jugband Blues’ — a disturbing track by Barrett, who contributed little else — the album’s standout moments included the title track and Waters’ ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’.
This hypnotic epic signposted the style the band would expand on in the Seventies, its vision at first more appreciated by an ‘intellectual’ and European audience. The Floyd played the first free concert in Hyde Park, and laid down the soundtrack for the bizarre Paul Jones movie vehicle, The Committee. They toured continually, developing new material on stage as well as in the studio.
And they worked on the experience, in April 1969 revealing an early form of surround-sound at the Royal Festival Hall — their rebuilt ‘Azimuth Co-Ordinator’. (The prototype, first constructed and used in 1967, had been stolen.) They worked on their concepts, too – at that concert, performing two long pieces fusing old and new material, entitled ‘The Man’ and ‘The Journey’.
So their star continued its inevitable ascent. In July, the Floyd released More, less a soundtrack than an accompaniment to Barbet Schroder’s eponymous film about a group of hippies on the drug trail in Ibiza. The same month, they played live ‘atmospherics’ to the BBC’s live coverage of the first moon landing. In November, they released the double-album Ummagumma, a mixture of live and studio tracks — and that same month reworked its outstanding number, the eerie ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’, for Antonioni’s cult film Zabriskie Point.
With Ummagumma at Number Five in the UK charts, and a growing reputation in both Europe and the US underground, the Floyd played some of the key festivals of their time — Bath, Antibes, Rotterdam, Montreux — and between October 1970 and November 1971, put out two more albums.
Atom Heart Mother, their first Number One, featured the Floyd in their pomp — ‘I like a bit of pomp,’ says Gilmour (who also made his first lyrical contribution with the gentle ‘Fat Old Sun’). And Meddle included two timeless and largely instrumental tracks that showcased their lead guitarist in all his vertiginous, keening glory: ‘Echoes’, which took up the whole of Side One and began with a single ‘ping’ created almost accidentally by Wright, and ‘One of These Days’.
Increasingly successful, in 1972 the band was still pushing the boundaries. They shot the film ‘Live at Pompei’ in a Roman amphitheatre, recorded another movie soundtrack for Schroder — Obscured by Clouds — and performed with the Ballet de Marseille. But more importantly, they began to work on an idea that would become their most popular album and with 45 million sold, the world’s third biggest.
Provisionally entitled ‘Eclipse’ and honed through an extensive world tour, The Dark Side of the Moon was released in March 1973, and defies a potted critique here. Demonstrating Waters’ talents as both lyricist and conceptualist, it was also a musical tour de force by Gilmour. But Waters was becoming de facto leader of the band — which in public at least was becoming less about the individuals than the experience.
That was (as Barrett had always intended) increasingly visual. The intriguing sleeve artwork commissioned from the ex-Cambridge outfit Hipgnosis was complemented by stage shows featuring crashing aeroplanes, circular projection screens and flaming gongs. There were backing singers on-stage and a guest slot for another pal from Cambridge, the saxophonist Dick Parry. In the dawning age of stadium rock, the Floyd were truly its masters.
Or maybe its servants? Even before Dark Side broke Middle America through FM radio — with the single ‘Money’ — alienation, isolation and mental fragility had long been Waters’ themes. As a stadium performer, and a cog in the music business machine, he was becoming more prone to all three. As Barrett’s ex-colleague, he had seen them embodied in his old friend. The results were evident in two of his best lyrics — for ‘Shine On, You Crazy Diamond’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’. These tracks were the high points of the Floyd’s next LP, also called Wish You Were Here, which was begun in January 1975 and released that summer.
Famously, Barrett briefly appeared unannounced at Abbey Road during the recording of ‘Shine On’ and shocked the band by his appearance and demeanour. It was the last time any of them saw him — but they were seeing less of each other, too. Personal and musical differences were starting to tell on the band, though it would be several years until these became unbearable — and two more LPs.
Which One’s Pink?
The first was Animals, released in January 1977 (although work had also begun on it in 1975). When this was toured with lavish special effects, including giant inflatables, Waters was dismayed that the crowds kept calling for old hits. In Montreal his patience snapped and he spat into the audience. It was a cathartic moment that gave birth to the Floyd’s most ambitious project ever: The Wall, a largely autobiographical reflection by Waters on the nature of love, life and art.
The double album charts the progress of a rock star, ‘Pink’, facing the break-up of his marriage while on tour. This leads him to review his life from the death of his father – like Waters’ killed on the battlefield before he was born – to his spiteful teachers, his business, even his audience. He sees each as a brick in a metaphorical wall between him and the rest of the world. This wall intensifies his isolation, until he imagines the only solution is to become a fascist dictator. When he confronts his madness and deals with his issues, his torments cease and the wall crumbles.
The show — in which the band were slowly obscured by a giant wall of cardboard ‘bricks’ — was the most ambitious the rock world had ever seen, and was also turned into an Alan Parker film, starring Bob Geldof (who would return to the Floyd story 25 years later). The album sold 20 million, and spawned the band’s only Number One single, the anti-authoritarian ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2’.
Though the album had its musical highlights — Gilmour’s solo on ‘Comfortably Numb’ being the most memorable — it was largely a lyrical piece. Waters drove the project and the others fitted in. They ceded their vision to his increasingly personal direction, and worked together on no new material for more than two years.
When they did get back in the studio, it was to record The Final Cut. This prophetically titled album, prompted by the Falklands conflict of 1982 and released the next year, explores themes of remembrance and the undelivered post-war dream — for which Waters’ father had given his life. Completely credited to Waters, it was attributed to ‘Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd’ and featured Gilmour’s vocals on one track.
After three years — during which all four band members had pursued solo projects — Waters announced he was leaving the Floyd and disbanding them. Wright had left the legal entity some time before, transferring to the payroll for The Wall tour and playing no part in The Final Cut, but Gilmour and Mason decided to continue Pink Floyd without its erstwhile ‘leader’. A turbulent period followed, but agreement was eventually reached: Waters would continue to perform the songs on which he worked while he was with the band, as well as new solo material. Gilmour — now first among equals — and Mason would continue to record and perform with Wright as Pink Floyd.
In 1987 came their next album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason — which emphatically proved that the Floyd could exist without Waters. The subsequent world tour, which also spawned the live Delicate Sound of Thunder, was the band’s longest and most successful ever. Over four years, 5.5 million people saw 200 shows, including one on a floating stage in Venice (which again earned them a venue-ban) while Thunder became the first rock album to be played in space, by the Soviet-French Soyuz-7 mission.
1994’s album and tour, The Division Bell, broke similar records; but more, it showed Gilmour and the band on a creative roll, with Wright contributing to some of the writing and Gilmour forging a new writing partnership with his wife, the novelist Polly Samson — ‘High Hopes’ being one of their new classics. However, since then, the Floyd has recorded no new material in the studio.
Not that they have been inactive — nor untouched by sorrows. In 2003, the band’s manager Steve O’Rourke died from a stroke and the three-man Floyd played ‘Fat Old Sun’ and Dark Side‘s ‘Great Gig in the Sky’, at his funeral in Chichester Cathedral. In 2006, Syd Barrett died from pancreatic cancer. And in 2008 Rick Wright followed him — but not before he had helped re-write the Pink Floyd story a couple more times.
In 2005, prompted by Bob Geldof, the band decided to perform at Live 8 (on the 20th anniversary of Live Aid) and invited Waters to join them. He accepted and — sharing vocals with Gilmour — they played two numbers from Dark Side, plus ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’. It was an epoch-making moment in rock history, and their final group hug became one of Live 8’s iconic images.
After that, the three-man Floyd performed together on two occasions — once during a solo gig by Gilmour in 2006 (Wright played the whole three-month tour and was ‘in great form’, says Gilmour); and again at an all-star memorial tribute to Barrett in 2007. Waters also appeared at the gig but was unable to join his old colleagues due to a previous appointment. Still, that was not the end of their association.
On 10 July 2010, with some of their favourite musicians, Waters and Gilmour performed a few Floyd songs — plus Phil Spector’s ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’! — at a private charity event in Oxfordshire. And on 12 May 2011, during one of Waters’ Wall concerts at the London O2, Gilmour appeared on top of the wall as of old, to sing and play his parts on ‘Comfortably Numb’. Nick Mason, who was at the gig, then joined them for the final song, ‘Outside the Wall’. Departing the stage, as they had before, Waters played trumpet, Gilmour mandolin and Mason tambourine. The audience was stunned and delighted.
But a handful of concerts was never going to sate the interest of the diehard fans. In 1995, they were rewarded with the double-album P•U•L•S•E, all recorded on the Division Bell tour and containing the first complete live version of Dark Side. A live compilation of The Wall from 1980-1 — called Is There Anybody Out There? — followed in 2000, and then a re-mastered ‘best of’, called Echoes. There have also been collectors’ editions of Dark Side, a complete works box-set — Oh, By the Way — and now (autumn 2011) an extensive reissue campaign by EMI, with new packaging and production values, not to mention some rare and archival recordings that go back to the Barrett days.
Nor, as individuals, have the survivors from those times been strangers to the studio or stage these last dozen or so years (and before). Gilmour put out his third solo album, On an Island, in 2006; Waters has had a prolific and varied career since 1986; Mason and Wright released one or two collaborative albums respectively.
There have been awards and honours along the way: induction into both the US and UK Rock ‘n’ Roll Halls of Fame; Sweden’s Polar Music Prize in 2008 for their ‘monumental contribution over the decades to the fusion of art and music in the development of popular culture’. And in 2010, The Royal Mail used Division Bell visuals on their stamps, also creating a unique sheet using only the Floyd’s imagery.
So is that the end of the Floyd’s road? Do they still exist? Yes, they do.
Animals was a new beginning for Pink Floyd and the beginning of the end. After this, the band, in its most well-known quartet format, would never officially exist again. Animals is the album many diehard fans proudly proclaim as their favorite, that contains none of the “money cuts” (pun intended) you grew up hearing on the radio, back when radio was still a thing. It’s the album that keyboardist/singer Richard Wright hates, for which guitarist/singer David Gilmour often equivocates and bassist/singer/principal-songwriter Roger Waters passionately advocates.
It doesn’t take a psychology degree to see how or why each party (diehards, casuals, individual band members) might arrive at their take. Your feelings on Animals likely depends on your respective stake. For Waters, it was the first time he became the lone songwriter on a Pink Floyd album, save a sole co-writing credit from Gilmour on “Dogs,” springing from an unfinished song originally titled “You’ve Got To Be Crazy” from the Wish You Were Here sessions.
Animals is precisely 41 minutes, 41 seconds long. Yet it’s intense enough to feel like 82 by the time it’s through. Animals is a concept album that lists five animal-titled tracks, but it’s done a disservice if experienced as anything other than one long song. If you start or end anywhere but the two parts of “Pigs On The Wing,” without listening in order to everything in between? You’re doing it wrong.
Pink Floyd had seen leadership and lineup shifts dating back to the acid-aided breakdown of former leading man Syd Barrett. Barrett was the band’s transmission during their early ascent, playing underground rock clubs in swinging London during 1966 before signing their record deal in 1967, with Barrett penning almost all the material on their acclaimed debut, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. However, within months of that initial success, Barrett’s regular LSD use combined with undiagnosed mental illness resulted in him being, according to bandmate Nick Mason, “completely detached from everything going on.”
Within a year, Syd was—save a credit or two on songs he’d previously written used over the next few albums—for all intents and purposes, gone. Each remaining member of the band (Roger Waters, Richard Wright, Nick Mason, and relatively new-in-’67-addition David Gilmour) had in their own fashion expanded their horizons and found ways to step up into the leadership breach, whether it meant singing, songwriting, or playing instrumental lead. But the specter of Barrett’s fate would go on to haunt, bond, and inspire their future proceedings like PTSD.
Animals arrived either directly on the heels, or right smack dab in the middle, of Pink Floyd’s critical and commercial apex. It depends on who you ask. 1975’s Wish You Were Here, replete with its bookending song-suite salute to Barrett “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V and VI-IX),” sold twenty million records worldwide. And even that was still considered a drop-off, critically and commercially, to the work that preceded it: 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, one of the most acclaimed and highest-selling albums of all-time, which to date has sold forty-five.
That level of omnipresence put an experimental, previously underground London band into a mind-flip-fuckery blender while becoming the biggest rock band in the world, bar none. For the younger readers who grew up after rock music was no longer the lingua franca of the cultural zeitgeist, just try imagining whatever it was that Radiohead were moping about in the 1998 documentary-film Meeting People Is Easy, and then turn the knobs up to one-hundred-and-eleven.
Animals arrived in 1977, with Floyd almost an antithesis of musical movements bubbling around the streets of London ten years after they’d signed. Or were they? Perception, at least, said so at the time. The Sex Pistols’ lead singer Johnny Rotten was famously noted as wearing a homemade “I Hate Pink Floyd” shirt in their feature for Rolling Stone later that year. Rotten has since changed his tune. Many others have too. Because although Pink Floyd had by then been embraced by the establishment, Animals was and remains an explicitly clear rejection of it.
Drummer Nick Mason even produced the second album by arguably the UK’s first punk band, The Damned, after failing to nab their reclusive first choice, his former bandmate Syd Barrett. The iconoclastic thematic approach of Animals should resonate within many factions of musical flock, whether old and bored enough to be “dinosaurs,” or young and unsullied enough to be “punk rock” or “hip-hop.”
If you didn’t care, what happens to me…and I didn’t care, for you.
Try that thought exercise in the form of melancholic opening line on for size.
Prescient words many moons ago that eerily foretold a sinkhole of the soul?
Or a seventies prog-rock band whose leader (Waters) read a lot of George Orwell, checked the social-political conditions outside in the late-seventies, then leaned into the dystopian themes that keep a species of sentient beings blessed and cursed enough to witness but unable to prevent history from perpetually repeating?
Someone who tackles big issues that haunt the human condition, but lacks the tools to interact peacefully with four fellow humans who made timeless music, but whom have barely been able to tick away a few minutes together in the same room, even with two of the other four now in a tomb, while the remaining few steadily grow shorter of breath, one day, closer to death.
Wondering which of the buggers to blame…And watching for pigs on the wing.
This album, like literary landmarks Animal Farm and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis before it, utilize animal imagery to conjure up an existential threat. But each author knows the true terror that they futilely attempt to reject is the awareness we have, which makes us a different kind of beast than the other creatures that occupy jungles, and those that become prey or pets.
The two parts of “Pigs On The Wing” that open and close the proceedings are the short (1:25 each), sweetly delivered (think Waters subbing in for the Gilmour lead vocals on “Wish You Were Here”) acoustical breading holding together the contents of an “oh, shit!” sandwich. You need these crucial top-and-bottom slices to maintain structural integrity. The small morsels of optimism contained within them, is necessary to digest the three heaping helpings of mystery meat served up on “Dogs,” “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” and “Sheep,” consecutively. Let’s dig into that meat, shall we? “How can you have any pudding if you can’t eat your-“…sorry, everybody, I couldn’t resist.
Speaking of irresistible, Dogs, Bruh…
Even for the mid-seventies and a psychedelic/prog-album-rock band known for fully committed exercises in musical epic, “Dogs” is a sonic saga of unprecedented scope. So have a good drown, as you go down. When Gilmour remarked later that Animals “…was exciting and noisy and fun. It really had some great bits and stuff of effects on there, but it was not one of our creative high points really,” even if you disagree, it’s easy to imagine at least one of those “great bits” of which he speaks.
For yours truly, “Dogs” is David Gilmour at his performative peak, on guitar and vocally. Gilmour’s baritone has long been, almost by default, this band’s most conventionally accepted voice tonally. But he steps out of his comfort zone for his only lead here with unprecedented urgency. While we mentioned Waters aping Gilmour on “Pigs On the Wing”, the deep bite in Gilmour’s bark on “Dogs” shows Waters that he’s also quite capable of doing his thing.
Then there’s those guitar bits. A sonic lightning storm of string-bending harmonic wails juxtaposed against reverberating echo stabs sounding like the hounds of Hell. Paired with Waters’ lyrical/vocal contributions and Wright’s impossibly funky synths punctuated by Mason’s percussive kick, these seventeen minutes encapsulate everything that seventies Floyd does well.
While that means ascending to heights few bands scaled before or since, they continue to ratchet up the tension as “Dogs” howls right into “Pigs.” Animal noises fed thru vocoders, guitar pyrotechnics, synths, and who-knows-what-else create a captivating cacophony. Are those modulated barks of dogs, or are they snorts from hogs? Does it matter? Well, not really. Naw.
While “Dogs” is this album’s musical zenith, for those needing to delineate, “Pigs” feels like its thematic mission statement. This is Roger Waters doing what he loves to do: tell the truth, shame the devil, and toss in a few righteously indignant “fuck you”-s. The bile unleashed, armed alongside organ creeps and guitar talk-box squeaks, has Waters spitting in the eye of real-world foes viewed as sinister: greed merchants of the ruling class, amoral campaigning moralists, the American President, the British Prime Minister.
The floating pig pictured on the album’s cover, suspended between smokestacks of London’s decommissioned Battersea Power Station, went on to become one of the most iconic stage-props in concert history. From the opening leg of In The Flesh, to the Gilmour-led and Waters-less Pink Floyd stadium shows of the late-80’s/mid-90’s, thru Waters’ solo Dark Side/Wall/In The Flesh revivals that continued into the late-2010s, a floating pig gets dug up like a truffle for any major Floyd-related-tour each take.
I feel blessed to have seen that pig floating above the fray in since-demolished Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia on The Division Bell tour in ’94. When Waters and his band performed on Night One (of three) at Hollywood Bowl in ‘06 Los Angeles, I was in the cheap seats watching a grafitti-d pig (with slogans like “Impeach Bush Now,” “Kafka Rules, OK?” and “Free At Last” on it) moving beyond us after Roger cut the cords, sailing away on the night’s sky into the hillside. It was reportedly found the next morning, laying deflated on the front lawn of a neighboring estate high up in the Hollywood Hills. The jokes write themselves.
When you’re done getting your eyebrows singed by the guitar heat at the end of “Pigs,” in comes the bah-bah sounds and opening bass rumblings of “Sheep.” “Sheep,” like “Dogs” before it, started out as a holdover from 1974, a song previously known as “Raving and Drooling” recorded for the Wish You Were Here sessions, but subsequently lying on the cutting-room floor. Like the docile creatures that inspire its title, and perhaps society at large metaphorically, by this point as a listener over the past thirty-plus minutes, we’ve nearly been pounded into submission. While “Pigs” is clearly intended as a critique of capitalism, “Sheep” adds in an even more popular opiate of the masses: religion. Specifically, in terms of the linguistic imagery, the chosen European tonic of Christianity.
Midway thru this, our now third straight ten-minute-plus opus, momentum starts to sag a bit. Perhaps it’s due to all the darkness we’ve been navigating thru, or the fact that you notice similar note clusters re-used for more ponderous transitions on Animals’ bloated double-length follow-up, The Wall. Whatever the case might be, exhaustion might start setting in somewhere around the church hymn and organ-led 5-6 minute-marker of “Sheep.” How many more miles to go before we sleep?
And just as you’re wondering when it might end, as if this is almost exactly the effect the band had planned, they stomp back into the song’s conclusion signaling alarm to make sure you’re fully awake. Long before “woke” became yet another term misunderstood and bastardized by primarily white folk, Waters was calling on people to shoot up from slumber to resist manipulation in big numbers.
Sentiments that remain as true today as they were back then, and undoubtedly had already been for hundreds and thousands of years before then. Individualistic thought that shows empathy for your fellow Earthly inhabitants. Peace. Love. A few of our favorite promises, repeatedly broken, while existing within the parameters of the human condition. And just as it’s all starting to either make sense, or signify a swan song into a madness-inducing fever dream descent, we hear those liltingly beautiful acoustic-guitar chords that started it all again:
You know that I care what happens to you…And I know that you care for me too
How George Orwell inspired one of Pink Floyd’s greatest albums
Dystopian, cynical, fearful and disillusioned; these are all adjectives one could use to describe the scathing masterpiece of an album, Animals, by Pink Floyd, released in 1977. This would be the year that punk rock exploded and took the world by storm. Punk was classified by a DIY ethos, it was musically simplistic and accessible, homegrown and mean; Pink Floyd was on a totally different wavelength and in their own league. Pink Floyd, having come out of the underground psychedelic scene in Cambridge and London in the late 60s, could certainly appreciate the dirty punks. However, Animals, musically speaking, could not be further away from the punk sound. This does not mean, however, the psychedelic-turned-arena rockers didn’t know how to get overtly political with their expression.
Pink Floyd was, and still remain, one of the most conscious and socially-driven bands around. At times acting as a vehicle for the band’s chief songwriter, Roger Waters’ vehement, and at times, providing their own disillusioned view of the world and more specifically, of the socio-political and economic conditions of Western capitalist society. The songs found on Animals, of which there are only five, are all long-form compositions and all written by Roger Waters, with some songwriting contributions by David Gilmour, predominately on ‘Dogs’, which was originally coined, ‘You’ve gotta be Crazy’. The songs on the album were very much developed while on the road and were all also considered for the Wish You Were Here album.
Prior to the completion of Animals, the songs were a series of loosely based fragmented ideas. A key ingredient that would give the album its political character, would be George Orwell’s satirical and allegorical novel, Animal Farm. By the way of suspension of disbelief, the story is told through the perspective of farm animals; the animals collectivise, organise and rebel against the human farmer. The rebellion is ultimately betrayed and a dictatorship is established underneath a pig named Napoleon. It has been generally determined as a critique of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and more specifically, Stalin’s regime. The collective of animals who make up the basis of the allegory is eventually categorised into a hierarchical society of social classes, based on the type of animal.
This would be the underlying source of inspiration that Roger Waters would adapt to the 1977 album. Within the polarising and politically polemic Animals, the pigs are the rulers, the dogs are the wannabe imperialists but nevertheless, they possess material wealth, and the sheep are on the bottom, the mindless followers.
Roger Waters used Orwell’s premise and allegory to expertly criticise late-stage capitalism. Stalinist dictatorship and life under his regime was underpinned by the kind of poverty and oligarchy rule that, many would argue, exists today in Western countries. It often intersects in their realistic manifestations; whether it is big government or big corporations, they both represent an anti-democratic form of society where a large majority of people do not have any say in their own affairs. In songs like ‘Pigs on the Wing (Part One)’ Roger Waters points out the devastating effects of alienation and dullness that occurs in people’s powerless lives:
“If you didn’t care what happened to me, And I didn’t care for you, We would zig-zag our way through the boredom and pain Occasionally glancing up through the rain. Wondering which of the buggers to blame And watching for pigs on the wing.”
The ‘Pigs on a Wing’ is a striking image that triggers a sort of cognitive dissonance. On one hand, it could be viewed as an image of the leaders up high maintaining their position of elitism. On the other hand, Roger Waters made a comment that would actually suggest otherwise: “The flying pig is a symbol of hope.” ‘Pigs on a Wing’ — both parts — might also be more personal to Roger Waters himself and his marriage. Waters continues his remarks on the opening number, “there was a certain amount of doubt as to whether that one was going to find its way onto the album. But I thought it was very necessary. Otherwise, the album would have just been a kind of scream, you know, of rage.” At the very least, there is a tinge of hope within this song.
To add more confusion to the equation, Waters describes a sort of strange concoction of frustration, cynicism and love, about ‘Pigs (Three Different Ones)’. “’Pigs’ is a kind of fairly compassionate scream of abuse – if you can scream abuse and be compassionate, just by virtue of the last lines of each verse.” Roger Waters also commented on the song’s verse about Mary Whitehouse, who at the time ran an anti-pornography campaign. “I kept throwing that verse away, for about 18 months. But I never managed to write anything else. And I kept coming back to it. I worried a lot about it, because she doesn’t really merit mention, you know? Except in a way, she does.”
Roger described Whitehouse as a “terribly frightened woman. She’s frightened, isn’t she? That we’re all being perverted.” Whitehouse stands out as an archetypal character within Floyd’s Animals concept album; her fear of perversion is the kind of paranoia of the progressing world that modernism tends to sweep over the masses. This paranoia is something we can all relate to, whatever the fear may be. In many ways, Animals, through the prism of the socio-political dystopian lens of Orwell, examines these different aspects of the human experience, whether it be love, fear, paranoia, hierarchies within society, or late-stage capitalism.
Overall, Pink Floyd’s seminal record Animals is a commentary on the sweeping effects of modernism and the alienation that results from technological advances. It took the works of Orwell and updated them through Pink Floyd’s own prog-rock spectrum.
In the album’s three parts, «Dogs», «Pigs» and «Sheep», pigs represent the people whom Roger Waters considers to be at the top of the social ladder, the ones with wealth and power; they also manipulate the rest of society and encourage them to be viciously competitive and cut-throat, so the pigs can remain powerful.
Why is Pink Floyd the pig?
Along with dogs and sheep, pigs are one of 3 animals represented on the album. The pigs represent people, like Whitehouse, who feel they are the moral authorities. The sheep are the people who obey the pigs and believe that it is the «Christian» thing to do and are just your normal, hard working innocent bystanders.
What is the Flying pig A symbolize?
«When pigs fly» is an adynaton, a way of saying that something will never happen. The phrase is often used for humorous effect, to scoff at over-ambition. There are numerous variations on the theme; when an individual with a reputation for failure finally succeeds, onlookers may sarcastically claim to see a flying pig.
Who is the first pig Pink Floyd?
Inflatable flying pigs have been a part of the English rock band’s image for 40 years, ever since the first of the breed – named Algie by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and doing its bit to advertise the 1977 Animals album – broke free from one of the chimneys of Battersea Power Station and flew, unplanned, to a farm in …
What do the Animals represent in Animals Pink Floyd?
Concept. Loosely based on George Orwell’s political fable Animal Farm, the album’s lyrics describe various classes in society as different kinds of animals: the predatory dogs, the despotic ruthless pigs, and the «mindless and unquestioning” herd of sheep.
What do the sheep represent in Animals Pink Floyd?
The sheep represents the mindless people who follow the herd. Pink Floyd started performing this in 1974. It was known as «Raving And Drooling,» but was changed to fit the animal theme of the album.
What is a flying pig called?
The original flying pig was a winged board named Chrysaor, the offspring of the Gorgon Medusa, and the Greek sea god Poseidon, and the brother of the winged horse Pegasus. The creature was conceived while its mother consorted with the sea god in mortal form.
What does charade you are mean?
«Charade you are» means «»you are wrong» for example: person one says: dinosaurs were giant origamis!» and the other person would say «HA! charade you are! they were real animals!»
What does a pig mask mean?
The pig mask is a prop worn by Jigsaw and his accomplices throughout the Saw film series to conceal their identities while abducting their «test subjects.» As the series continues, the purpose of the pig mask is explored in detail; it is explained to be a tribute to the «Year of the Pig,» the year in which Jigsaw …
What is the building on Pink Floyd Animals?
Battersea Power Station, the iconic building on the River Thames featured on Pink Floyd’s 1977 Animals album cover, will be reconstructed later this year and transformed into luxury villas with a roof garden.
Why does Cartman say charade you are?
When Cartman leaves Scott’s house to go to the fictitious Pube Fair, he says «Ha-ha, charade you are, Scott.» This is a reference to the Pink Floyd song «Pigs (Three Different Ones)», from their 1977 album Animals. Scott Tenorman was loosely based on Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story.
What do dogs represent in Pink Floyd?
Waters has said before that pigs were the politicians, dogs were the businessmen that support the politicians (capitalists) and sheep were the masses that followed mindlessly.
Is Pink Floyd Animals based on Animal Farm?
Roger Waters, Pink Floyd’s bassist and primary creative force, took inspiration from George Orwell’s satirical novel “Animal Farm.” However, rather than take aim at the Soviet Union and communism, Waters felt compelled to fire shots at the Cold War-era capitalist society that had taken hold of the UK.
The Message Of Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ Still Resonates 45 Years Later
On January 23rd, 1977, Pink Floyd shocked the world with their politically charged new album, Animals. A musical take on George Orwell‘s novels like 1984 and Animal Farm, the release spoke to the corruption and social injustice that was prevalent in 1970’s Britain, with pigs, dogs, and sheep symbolizing the aristocracy, military, and working classes, respectively.
The album begins with the soft guitar work of “Pigs On The Wing (Part One)”, a short and somber ballad about two apathetic souls lost in a dreary world of “boredom and pain,” fearful of their ruling class—the pigs on the wing. The next song paints a dramatic picture of the “Dogs”, gliding through some soaring guitar work from David Gilmour between vast, spacious segments composed by the album’s principal songwriter, Roger Waters. The lyrics are incendiary, with Gilmour and Waters both taking turns describing the daily outrages and reaction of the “Dogs”. Phrases like “Pick out the easy meat” and “You gotta strike when the moment is right, without thinking” show their immediate call to action. It’s all done in a tongue-in-cheek manner, telling them to “have a good drown.”
As “Dogs” get dragged down by the stone, the listener is introduced to the “Pigs” themselves—three different ones to be precise. “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” has a similarly dreary tone, though it does touch on a more funky rhythm. The song is just as cheeky in Waters’ true sardonic style, calling the pigs a “charade” and even pointing criticism to British politician Mary Whitehouse by dropping her name directly in a lyric—and, perhaps incidentally, confusing American listeners into believing that the lyric was critiquing the White House itself.
Ultimately, the “Sheep” get their revenge in the album’s final lengthy piece. Unlike its predecessors, “Sheep” comes in with a more optimistic tone, leading to the sheep’s rebellion over their ruling classes. After invoking the Lord’s name to say things like, “He converteth me to lamb cutlets,” in an otherworldly echoing prayer, the sheep ultimately rise over their oppressors to conclude this classic album. The concept is summarized in the conclusion, “Pigs On The Wing (Part Two)”, flipping the narrative voice to one of compassion and protection from the rulers.
As we find ourselves in the midst of political turmoil at the onset of a new administration, with many on both sides taking to the streets in order to make their voices heard, it’s hard to not find similarities between Pink Floyd’s message and today’s current events. Though Animals certainly depicts a darker reality, the parallels are almost overwhelming. Let’s hope we can ultimately work together to create a stronger future for everyone.