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Dana Snitzky
Dana lives in Brooklyn.

This Month in Books: ‘What Used To Be Me Before the World Buried It’

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Dear Reader,

Ottessa Moshfegh, in an interview with Hope Reese, says the through line between her first novel, Eileen, and her new one, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, is isolation:

The book was challenging because of the essence of it being a woman in an apartment. You know, it’s like writing about someone being in jail, which is my first book…. I needed to write that book [My Year of Rest and Relaxation] to give myself a chance to look at the things that are difficult about being a person alone.

One of those difficult things, as the former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine writes in her new memoir To Throw Away Unopened, is how what’s “worse than… being alone forever is the thought that I’ll grow to love a person very much and won’t have them for very long. Finding another person to love is finding another person to lose.” Isolation can become self-perpetuating; it can be easy to convince yourself, once you are experiencing it, that it is inevitable.

Being forced to be alone is a form of torture, and (as I remember from the anthology Hell Is a Very Small Place, a book which I excerpted on Longreads a few years ago) it has always been recognized as such. In their 1833 report on the new practice of solitary confinement in U.S. “penitentiaries,” Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont wrote:

This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills…. The unfortunates on whom this experiment was made fell into a state of depression so manifest that their keepers were struck with it; their lives seemed in danger if they remained longer in this situation…

In a world in which a form of torture like solitary confinement exists and is so widespread, it can seem callous to talk about loneliness. But there are other kinds of forced loneliness, even if they don’t result in total solitude. A prison, for example, also causes loneliness on the outside. In his interview with Tori Telfer, Issac Bailey talks about how his beloved oldest brother’s incarceration scarred his childhood psyche. His brother’s absence was an open wound which still hasn’t healed:

I was a nine-year-old boy when this happened. I had nothing to do with it but have been punished, in a very real way, nonetheless. It’s one of the reasons I’m convinced I still speak with a stutter all these years later.

And there are other kinds of prisons. Your own body, for instance. In his memoir Inward Empire, Christian Donlan grapples with the effects of MS. He describes the quotidian robbing of his selfhood and the disconcerting isolation he experiences inside the vast emptiness of his failing synapses:

Day to day, I sometimes feel I am chasing a little pool of nothingness around inside me, the way I might tilt an air bubble up and down through a spirit level. Sometimes this nothingness seems to gather in the fingers, a lack of sensation that feels implausibly, paradoxically, raw. Sometimes it pools in the brain, a wordlessness, a theft of language…

In the face of this horror, Donlan jokes: “I have never really liked the fact that I have a brain,” a sentiment with which, incidentally, Moshfegh wholeheartedly agrees:

I am acutely aware of how much I do not like my own mind. When I’m not distracted by my imagination or by something external, time passing feels like I’m just waiting for the time to pass until I die.


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Luckily, there are a few voices in this month’s books newsletter who point out the upsides of being alone. In her book dedicated to the subject of solitude, Alone Time, travel writer Stephanie Rosenbloom mentions writers and artists who have been both for and against the practice of eating alone. Nathaniel Hawthorne once called it “the dismallest part of my present experience,” whereas Fran Liebowitz said, “My idea of a great literary dinner party is Fran, eating alone, reading a book.” Rosenbloom comes down heavily in favor of the practice, somehow managing to make being alone sound simple, pleasurable, and not at all terrifying: “When you’re not sitting across from someone,” she says, “you’re sitting across from the world.”

In her interview with Ryan Chapman, Chelsea Hodson says she finds it intriguing, rather than, say, disturbing, to be acutely aware of inhabiting a specific, lone self — because it gives her the ability to just make it up, to pick and choose her “self,” and to let a version of herself walk away from her:

There’s something about that difficulty — curating the “I,” deciding what to include, deciding what that eye “sees” — that’s really interesting to me. [The “I” in the book] feels very distant actually. It’s this weird thing that’s happened… Somehow, when it’s on my computer it’s still accessible to me. And now that I can’t touch it, it feels far away from me.

Of course, it’s the act of writing that gives her this ability to create a separate self — a revelation shared by Pearl Curran, who, in the early twentieth century, was possessed by the prolific and critically acclaimed novelist, poet, playwright — and, notably, ghost — Patience Worth. In Joy Lanzendorfer’s profile of Curran and Worth, she writes that:

When confined to writing from her own experiences and thoughts, Curran found herself bored by the “conscious effort of the ordinary manner of writing,” adding, “My own writing fatigues me, while the other (Patience Worth’s) exhilarates me. That’s a queer mess of a statement, but quite true.”

The “other” self doesn’t feel like a prison. The “other” is a treasure, a friend who keeps her company, maybe even the truer version of her. Lanzendorfer goes on to tell us that:

In [Curran’s] short story, “Rosa Alvaro, Entrante,” the character Mayme, like Curran, had a drab life until she discovered a beautiful spirit, who, for a time at least, brings her excitement, money, and a sense of purpose. Or, as Mayme says of Rosa: “Oh Gwen, I love her! She’s everything I want to be. Didn’t I find her? It ain’t me. It’s what used to be me before the world buried it.”

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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This Month in Books: ‘We Have Nothing to Weigh Our Hearts Against’

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Dear Reader,

When I look at this month’s Books Newsletter, all I can think about are borders, crossings, the terrible distances between people who have been separated….

Of course, that’s almost certainly because those things are already on my mind. To read the news now is to be made aware of the perils and punishments reserved for people who have their heart set on something remote, who have faith in the faraway.

Qiu Miaojin, the first openly gay woman in Chinese literature, migrated halfway around the world, from Taiwan to Paris. In her second novel she writes of a character who has done the same, in a bid for self-actualization which ultimately fails. The character invents a non-binary imaginary friend to live out an idealized version of her life after she ceases to exist. As our reviewer Ankita Chakraborty says of this narrator, “She is willing to cross boundaries that define reality from imagination, woman from man, landscape from landscape, and life from death.” A profound sense of alienation, brought on by stigmatization, lies as the heart of Qiu’s queer classics — a breach that opens up between the self and others. The narrator crosses borders in order to become her true self, but ends up feeling like nothing more than a foreigner in a foreign land.

Of course, there’s feeling like a foreigner in a foreign land, and then there’s feeling like one in your homeland. Our reviewer Brittany Allen writes about two new short story collections that explore the inner lives of black Americans. The characters in these stories, “who tremble on the faultlines, and struggle to inhabit comfortably their impossible bodies,” suffer from the lived experience of “Otherhood,” which compels them to wage endless war inside their own heads, with their own selves.

In his interview with Hope Reese, Michael Pollan advocates for ditching the self altogether. He describes the healthy and grounding experience of seeing his own self “spread over the landscape like a coat of paint.” In his experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, he discovered that:

I wasn’t necessarily identical to my ego, which I had always assumed was the case. And that, you know, your ego is this interesting character. I mean, it really is a character. It’s a projection of someone who sort of stands for you and looks out for you and patrols the borders between you and others, and the border between you and your subconscious.

In his interview with Tobias Carroll, Sergio De La Pava expresses the opposite sentiment, a niggling fear that he might ever be mistaken for someone else, even the person most nearly identical to him who could possibly exist — a “Sergio De La Pava” in another dimension:

If there’s something in another universe that looks like me, has my name, that other people call Sergio De La Pava and is doing something, that’s great, but whatever that thing is, it’s not me… Whatever you want to say my physical body or whatever you want to call it — a mind, you want to call it, a soul, whatever you want to call it — it feels indivisible.

I suppose I’ve drifted from the subject of borders and crossings to the subject of selves and others. Maybe that’s because when I think about borders, I don’t think about the gaps between places, I think about the spaces between people. Nowadays, a border isn’t a division between two pieces of land, it’s a border between two people, repeated and repeated until every small trauma of division becomes a national one. It’s a way of dictating who gets to visit whom, who gets to live with their family and who gets their family taken away. It’s a global parole system, the prisonification of the planet….. The border is everywhere. The border is between you and the pizza delivery guy, you and your high school classmate, you and your child….

Like any border — the ones between nations, the ones between ourselves and others, ourselves and the landscape — even the boundary between our bodies is not a natural phenomenon, but an imagined one. Our bodies are porous. In novelist Christie Watson’s memoir of her nearly 20 years as a nurse, she remembers her awe at the special privilege of surgeons, who can reach a hand into another person’s body and touch that person’s heart. When caring for a boy who has received a heart transplant, whose beating heart she watched be removed and replaced with another child’s, the boy tells her that now he loves a new flavor of ice cream, strawberry, because he believes the previous owner of his heart had loved it. It seems to me like he was welcoming the stranger inside of him, by trying to love with the stranger’s heart — something we all fail to do at our own peril. In the next life, we may find ourselves wanderers on the wrong side of another type of border. As Watson goes on to say:

Ancient Egyptians believed that the heart symbolized truth; after death, they would weigh the heart against a feather of truth, to be eaten by a demon if the scales did not balance, leaving the person’s soul restless for eternity. In this post-truth world, I wonder what will happen to our souls. We have nothing to weigh our hearts against.

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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This Month in Books: ‘How Do We Stay the Right Distance Apart?’

Ladder on library bookcase
Julien McRoberts / Getty Images

Dear Reader,

At first glance, there’s a pretty stark divide in this month’s books newsletter.

In one corner, we have the isolationists. In her book The Art of the Wasted Day, Patricia Hampl writes about the Ladies of Llangollen, who became famous in the late 18th century for their intense desire to live a life of quiet “retirement” and “delicious seclusion.” They eschewed marriage, ran away from home, and, once they settled down, rarely traveled. They just wanted to be left alone. So too do the Patriot Movement-esque insurrectionists in Maxim Loskutoff’s new short story collection Come West and See, who rail against the federal government’s incursions.

In the other corner, we have the systematic thinkers, the big picture people, who are making impassioned calls for us to work — together — to change the system before the system’s collapse engulfs us all. Although, to be fair, William Vollmann, in an interview about his new book No Immediate Danger, tells us he’s pretty sure it’s already too late to stop climate change. The afrofuturist and activist adrienne maree brown, in an interview about her planet/self-help book Emergent Strategy, feels slightly more hopeful; she thinks it’s possible that we are on the cusp of a radical reckoning in self- and collective awareness. Through changes in perception and practice, her thinking goes, we will redirect our collective fate.

This same juxtaposition becomes the centerpiece of Rachel King’s review of two new books about the workplace: David Graeber, in his new book Bullshit Jobs, begs us to change the system, while Alison Green, in Ask a Manager, gives us sound advice about how to survive it.


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I think, though, that the two sides of this coin have a lot to offer one another. “I try not to have a schedule,” Vollmann tells us — useful advice for a polymath, but not so much for a regular person hoping to avert climate change, which, as adrienne maree brown rightly points out, likely requires us to engage in a new kind of “intentional” living. Meanwhile, the Ladies of Llangollen — oh, the Ladies! — lived by what they called “Our System,” managed down to the minute, exquisitely engineered to foster a productive life of the mind, healthful eating, and light exercise. For all their bourgeois moralizing (they were aghast at the French Revolution), their System was, unbeknownst to them, radically environmentalist, and, fully known to them, radically emotionally fulfilling.

And it turns out that Come West and See’s insurrectionists — or not the insurrectionists themselves, not the true believers, but rather those sympathetic to their protest — might be less interested in being left alone by the system than being recognized by it. Tori Telfer notices this in her review, pointing to the mother of one of the Cliven Bundy-like protesters, who insists, “We’re real people,” and to an angry young man envious of college athletes whom he thinks are destined to be become not only “bosses,” but “the boss’s bosses.” This is not a desire for freedom from a system, but a desire for inclusion within it.

Perhaps what I’m noticing is this: we can’t survive alone, not really. (Even the Ladies had a constant stream of visitors and volumes of correspondence. They also read books — which are, after all, just another way of talking to people.) But we won’t survive at all if we don’t each — individually — change how we live; if we don’t each become, in practice, survivalists. “This is what [we] learn from flocking,” adrienne maree brown says. “How do we stay the right distance apart and the right distance in touch with each other in order to actually move together as a unit and stay alive and make it as far as we can?”

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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Get With the Modern Age, Sign Up for the Longreads Books Newsletter

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Dear Reader,

Over coffee a few weeks ago, our audience development editor Catherine Cusick told me something remarkable: someone, somewhere is always reading “A Sociology of the Smartphone,” an excerpt from Adam Greenfield’s book Radical Technologies (Verso, 2017) which we published in June of last year. This astute social scientific rumination on our new and profound interconnectedness via the “ubiquitous… slabs of polycarbonate” in our pockets is Longreads’ most-read book feature of all time.

Meanwhile, in “The Death Row Book Club,” our recent excerpt from The Sun Does Shine (St. Martin’s Press, 2018), Anthony Ray Hinton remembers that “the books were a big deal. Nobody had books on death row. They had never been allowed, and it was like someone had brought in contraband.” It is the book, sometimes just a single copytossed from reader to reader across the prison library with a little prayer that it never land too far out of anyone’s reach, since rising from your seat during death row book club is strictly forbidden — which provides a new and profound interconnectedness for the prisoners.


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In another of our recent book excerpts, from Agnès Poirier’s Left Bank (Henry Holt & Co., 2018), we read that when Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir founded their literary magazine Les Temps modernes in the rubble of Paris in 1945, they had to request an allocation of paper from the government. They had to bring their own rations to the literary parties. Nevertheless, the magazine was an instant, global success — Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s books became bestsellers, rumors spread that women would swoon when they heard Sartre lecture, even the State Department got Existentialist fever, and Richard Wright bought his entire family steamer tickets to France and wrote in his diary that he “felt relief as he saw the Statue of Liberty” drifting away. He came to Paris to advise Les Temps modernes on their upcoming “America” issue — in which they excerpted books like The Black Metropolis, a groundbreaking sociology of redlining and poverty on Chicago’s South Side.

Of course, in this post-Rex world, the State Department surely no longer has the wherewithal to bother reading such a minor cultural artifact as the first ever Longreads Books Newsletter. Indeed, the founding of Les Temps modernes differs from the first ever Longreads Books Newsletter in, ah, a number of ways — probably the most important of which is that I have not written a 1,000-page philosophical novel to co-promote with this newsletter. But I find myself dwelling on it anyway, comparing our efforts to the past and its apparent perfection. (Or near perfection. According to David Remnick, who is certainly an authority on such things, it was the first issue of The New York Review of Books — also founded, incidentally, at a moment of paper shortage, during the 1963 printer’s strike — which was “surely the best first issue of any magazine ever.”) After all, it’s becoming more and more difficult to stand on the shaky notion that there is some strong dividing line between “the modern times” and “history.” And difficult to think that we should not be making comparisons.

So in the future (no matter how alarmingly it starts to resemble the past), look to this newsletter to encounter new works that hopefully, as Sartre bragged in his introduction to the first issue of Les Temps modernes, “do not… miss a beat on the times we live in,” that “inten[d] to influence the society we live in,” that “take sides.” You’ll read excerpts from new books like Noliwe Rooks’ groundbreaking study of inequality in public education, Cutting School (The New Press 2017); interviews with authors who’ve written remarkable new books that we’re eager to hear more about, like Elizabeth Flock’s study of love, The Heart Is a Shifting Sea (Harper, 2018); essays and discussions about the writer’s craft; and book reviews. Yes, book reviews. This, despite the fact that, in her interview with Longreads, the cultural critic Michelle Dean notes the hysterics to which Norman Mailer was driven by Mary McCarthy’s The Group when he reviewed it in 1963 (in those same venerable pages of the New York Review of Books, although not in the first issue — I checked — but rather the fourth one). Dean tells us that, reading Mailer’s review and others like it, she “starte[d] to have a sense of humor about the value of a review that comes out when a book is initially released.” She continues:

You start to realize how wildly out of sync [contemporary reviewers tend to be] with whatever later opinion of the book developed after people had the chance to digest it and think about it…. The reception adds an element of absurdity to the whole thing.

So there you have it. The modern times are wildly out of sync (more so than ever?) and absurdly wrong about new books; these days books are as ubiquitous as air and as precious as contraband; and we at Longreads have decided it’s the perfect time to start a books newsletter. Welcome and enjoy!

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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The Ban, the Wall: Bearing Witness

Rose Marie Ascencio-Escobar's husband was detained when he went to check in with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Feb 22. Her husband has been in the United States since 2001 when he came from San Salvador without documents. (Marie D. De Jesus /Houston Chronicle via AP)

Reports say there is going to be another travel ban soon, perhaps even today. And so, standing on the precipice of our next great catastrophe, I have decided to take stock, as far as I can, of this thing we have wrought, which I can only describe as the new American carnage. Moreover (sorry about this) I would like to put forth my own obnoxious “all else is a distraction” theory:

In my opinion, this is the greatest story of the moment, and all else is a distraction. Think-piece-ologists have recently argued that the “real story” is the dismantling of our administrative state, or the lock-out of the free press from the halls of power, or the Russian oligarchy’s new influence on the Republican party, or so on. But, when the people of the future look back at us now, it seems to me that they will “little note, nor long remember” the exact form of our bureaucracy, or whether we took seriously our own promises to ourselves about freedom of the press, or whether Michael Flynn was actually colluding with the Russian ambassador rather than just wishing him a very very merry Christmas. These things will all be seen as incidental: goings-on as curious and inconsequential as Rudolf Hess in a biplane or Marat in a bathtub. I submit that, for the people of the future, all these stories will be incidental to the story of why we allowed our neighbors to be terrorized and rounded up.

So, I am making a small attempt to bear witness.

I am asking six questions.

Who has been detained?
Who has been denied entry?
Who has been rounded up?
Who has been deported?
Who has fled as a refugee from my country?
Who has been killed here? Read more…

You’re Fired! The Unemployable Trump Administration

Wikimedia Commona

UPDATE: There are firings, and then there are firings, and former FBI Director James Comey was informed of his by Donald Trump’s favorite messenger: television. Comey saw the news flash on screen as he as giving a speech to FBI employees in Los Angeles, and he thought it was a prank, at first. But a letter was hand-delivered by Trump’s personal bodyguard to FBI headquarters informing Comey that he was indeed out. It was a classic Trump firing, and also a deeply disconcerting one, as a third offense should be added to our list: investigating Russian connections to Donald Trump. 

At the one-month mark, we now have a working theory of what makes an employee fireable (or not even hireable) in the Trump administration. There are two main types.

Fireable Offense Type #1: Be Drop Dead Scandalous

1. In December, Jason Miller, who was tapped to be the White House communications director, quit after another transition official, A.J. Delgado, tweeted her jilted love at him. Miller and his wife were expecting a new baby, so, via Twitter, “Delgado congratulated ‘the baby-daddy’ on his promotion,” ominously adding: “The 2016 version of John Edwards.”

“When people need to resign graciously and refuse to, it’s a bit … spooky,” Delgado then wrote. When an old law school friend asked on Twitter to whom she was referring, Delgado replied: “Jason Miller. Who needed to resign … yesterday.”

Delgado then deleted her Twitter account and, after Politico reported on the rumored affair, privately disclosed the details of the relationship to the transition team.

If you reach back into the deep part of yourself where you catalog other people’s misbehavior, you may even recall that Page Six reported back in October that, the night before the last presidential debate, Delgado and Miller, along with several journalists, were spotted together at the world’s largest strip club. Read more…

Exxon, Rex, and Russia: A Deep Drilling

Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil and recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship, has become our new Secretary of State. I took a deep dive into the archives, and, like all the amateur Kremlinologists and power-hungry oilmen who’ve tread this ground before me, I’ve learned that the deeper you drill, the bigger the risk. Stop somewhere around point #10 if you start to feel like you’re on shaky ground, or like you’re one nesting matryoshka doll short of a shell company. Read more…

The Month That Killed the Sixties

Clara Bingham Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul | Random House | May 2016 | 30 minutes (8,161 words)

 
Below is an excerpt from Witness to the Revolution, an oral history of the political and cultural movements of the 1960s and early ’70s. In this excerpt, witnesses recall the month when everything seemed to fall apart. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

 

You can jail the revolutionaries, but you can’t jail the revolution.

—FRED HAMPTON, SPEECH, 1969

*

December 1969 was plagued by violence and despair. As bloodshed in Vietnam escalated, so did violence at home. The ranks of Americans who considered themselves “revolutionaries” swelled to as many as a million, and militant resistance threatened nearly all government institutions related to the war effort. Nonviolent civil disobedience of just months earlier, with the October and November Moratoriums, had evolved into violent clashes with police, rioting, arson, and bombings. In the fifteen-month period between January 1969 and April 1970, an average of fifty politically motivated bombings occurred each day.

At the vanguard of this domestic rebellion was the Black Panther Party, which, in reaction to police brutality and FBI harassment, publicly declared war against the police. Two dozen Black Panther chapters had opened across the country, and in 1969 the police killed 27 Panthers and arrested or jailed 749. J. Edgar Hoover announced that the Black Panther Party was “the greatest threat to [the] internal security of the country,” and he assigned two thousand full-time FBI agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize” the Panthers and other New Left organizations. In a 1969 speech to Congress, Hoover declared that the New Left was a “firmly established subversive force dedicated to the complete destruction of our traditional democratic values and the principles of free government.”

Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged on. From 1961 until 1971, the U.S. military dropped more than 19 million gallons of toxic chemicals— defoliants or herbicides, including Agent Orange—on 4.8 million Vietnamese. In 1969, 11,780 American troops were killed, bringing the death toll to 48,736. It was not a festive Christmas for those in the peace movement. John Lennon and Yoko Ono displayed huge billboards in Los Angeles, London, and other cities that read: “War is over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.” On New York City’s Fifth Avenue during the holiday shopping rush, a woman blocked the street with a sign that read, “How Many Shopping Days Until Peace?” Read more…

How the Brontës Came Out As Women

The Brontë Sisters, by their brother Branwell. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Claire Harman | Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart | Knopf | March 2016 | 32 minutes (7,925 words)

 

The excerpt below is adapted from Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. It tells the story of how the Brontës burst onto the literary scene using male pseudonyms. The sisters slowly came out to a select few, beginning with their father. But Charlotte retained her male identity even in correspondence with her publishers and fellow authors, until tragedy compelled her to reveal the truth. This story comes recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

When the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.

Six sets of Jane Eyre arrived at the Parsonage on publication day, 19 October 1847, presumably much to the interest of the postmaster, Mr. Harftley. Reviews began flooding in immediately, from the daily papers, religious journals, provincial gazettes, trade magazines, as well as from the expected literary organs such as the Athenaeum, Critic and Literary Gazette. Charlotte had been anxious about the critical recep­tion of “a mere domestic novel,” hoping it would at least sell enough copies to justify her publisher’s investment—in the event, it triumphed on both fronts. The response was powerful and immediate. Reviewers praised the unusual force of the writing: “One of the freshest and most genuine books which we have read for a long time,” “far beyond the average,” “very clever and striking,” with images “like the Cartoons of Raphael . . . true, bold, well-defined.” “This is not merely a work of great promise,” the Atlas said, “it is one of absolute performance”; while the influential critic George Henry Lewes seemed spellbound by the book’s “psychological intuition”: “It reads like a page out of one’s own life.” It sold in thousands and was reprinted within ten weeks; eventu­ally, even Queen Victoria was arrested by “that intensely interesting novel.” Only four days after publication, William Makepeace Thackeray, whose masterpiece Vanity Fair was unfolding before the public in serial form at exactly the same time, wrote to thank Williams for his complimentary copy of Jane Eyre. He had “lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it”; in fact it had engrossed him so much that his own printers were kept waiting for the next instalment of Becky Sharp’s adventures, and when the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.

Who was Currer Bell? A man, obviously. This forthright tale of attempted bigamy and an unmarried woman’s passion could have been written only by a man, thought Albany Fonblanque, the reviewer in John Forster’s influential Examiner, who praised the book’s thought and morals as “true, sound, and original” and believed that “Whatever faults may be urged against the book, no one can assert that it is weak or vapid. It is anything but a fashionable novel . . . as an analysis of a single mind . . . it may claim comparison with any work of the same species.”

Charlotte could hardly keep up with responding to the cuttings that her publisher was sending on by every post, and even received a letter from George Henry Lewes while he was writing his review for Fraser’s Magazine, wanting to engage in a detailed analysis of the book. “There are moments when I can hardly credit that anything I have done should be found worthy to give even transitory pleasure to such men as Mr. Thackeray, Sir John Herschel, Mr. Fonblanque, Leigh Hunt and Mr. Lewes,” Currer Bell told his publisher; “that my humble efforts should have had such a result is a noble reward.” It must have been difficult for Emily and Anne to be wholly delighted for their sister, with their own books apparently forgotten, though when Newby saw the success of Currer Bell he suddenly moved back into action with the production of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, hoping to cash in on the excitement. Read more…

The Secret Nazi Attempt to Breed the Perfect Horse

Commemorative stamp for the Olympic summer games in Berlin. Via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Letts | The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis | Ballantine Books | August 2016 | 19 minutes (4,567 words)

 

The excerpt below is adapted from The Perfect Horse, by Elizabeth Letts. The book describes an American colonel’s quixotic mission in the waning days of World War II: to rescue Europe’s purebred horses from a secret Nazi stud farm mere hours before the starving Soviet army arrived and likely slaughtered the animals for food. In this excerpt, Letts explains the origins of the Nazis’ secret horse breeding project. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

Like Hitler himself, the horses, once quintessentially Austrian, would be given a distinctly German stamp.

A herd of mares left Austria in October 1942. The herd made the 350-mile trip northwest from Piber to Hostau, Czechoslovakia, without incident, and were settled into the Third Reich’s most sheltered stud farm, located in Bohemia, just a few miles from the Bavarian border. Beyond the farm’s serene green pastures, golden valleys stretched toward distant mountains crested by dark waves of evergreens. The Böhmerwald, or Bohemian Forest, served as more than a beautiful backdrop for the farm; it formed a natural barrier between Germany to the west and Austria to the south and had withstood invasion and attack for centuries. During the Nazi era, this locale was known as “the Bohemian bastion.” Among Germans, it was thought to be the safest place to ride out the war, least likely to be invaded from east or west. It was here that Gustav Rau had secreted the Lipizzaner, as well as the finest Arabians from Janów, including Witez. Even in the middle of a war, here, all was deceptively tranquil.

Quiet villages dotted this part of Bohemia, each graced by a Catholic church with an onion-domed spire. Flanking each cluster of tidy whitewashed houses were well-kept farms growing crops that thrived in the region’s rich agricultural soil. But in the wake of Hitler’s annexation of the area following the Munich Agreement of 1938, its bucolic appearance was deceiving. Once a multicultural region where Czechs, Germans, and Jews lived side by side in peace, Bohemia, now called the Sudetenland, had turned into a firm cornerstone of Hitler’s Third Reich. When the Nazis annexed the area in September 1939, the local German-speaking population had lined the streets cheering to welcome Hitler’s forces. Local Czechs and Jews had either fled or been forcibly evicted. Those who remained had been transported to concentration camps. By 1942, when the first Lipizzaner arrived in Hostau, the local Nazi apparatus held a firm grip on the region, but Czech partisans also operated in the area, finding refuge in the hideaways offered by the Bohemian Forest. Though the border with Bavaria, Germany, was less than fifteen miles to the west, the mountainous barrier made it seem much more remote.

The stud farm at Hostau, located next to the village of the same name, had been known for breeding cavalry horses long before Hitler’s time. The most prominent local landowners, the Trauttsmansdorff family, had historically served as imperial equerries for the Habsburg Crown. In addition to the main complex of stables adjacent to the village, there were pastures in three neighboring villages—the entire establishment covered fifteen hundred acres and could accommodate more than a thousand stallions, mares, and foals. All in all, it was more than twice as big as Alfred Vanderbilt’s showplace, Sagamore Farms, which Rau had visited in 1938.

Rau had selected this expansive facility to put into motion the most exalted part of his grand plan. Throughout 1942, he had systematically transported all of the purebred Lipizzaner from the stud farms of Italy, Austria, and Yugoslavia to this sheltered location for safekeeping. He had also sent a personal emissary on a mission to purchase purebred Lipizzaner from wealthy noblemen who raised smaller strings of purebreds for private use. By the end of 1942, Rau had gathered almost every Lipizzaner in the world into a single location.

Austrian-born Hitler’s goal, expressed in Mein Kampf, was to bring all of the German-speaking peoples of Central Europe, including Austria, into the fold of the Third Reich. Just as Hitler aimed to eliminate “impure strains” and combine the different Germanic groups into a single “Aryan race” of people, so Rau planned to use the science of selective breeding to erase the individual differences characterizing the several strains of purebred Lipizzaner that had emerged since the end of World War I and replace them with a single mold: pure white, imperial, identical, and ideally suited for military use. Like Hitler himself, the horses, once quintessentially Austrian, would be given a distinctly German stamp. Read more…