Author Archives

The staff of Longreads.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Christophe Morin / IP3 / Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Matthew Rosenberg, and Jack Nicas; Phil Klay, Harley Rustad, Michael Graff, and Alan Siegel.

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Insomnia: To Pursue Sleep So Hard You Become Invigorated By the Chase

Telling time at night using a nocturnal, 1539. Hulton Archive / Getty

Marina Benjamin | an excerpt adapted from Insomnia | Catapult | November 2018
| 8 minutes (2,134 words)

Sometimes the rattle of a clapper sounds over your bed. Or a ghostly draft lifts the hairs on the back of your neck, cooling your skin; or there’s an upstroke, feather light, along the inside of your forearm. A sudden lurch, maybe just a blink, then a sense of falling upward and it is there. So are you.

If we insist on defining something in terms of what it annuls then how can we grasp the essence of what is lost when it shows itself? And how can we tell if there is anything to be gained by its presence? This is the trouble with insomnia.

When I am up at night the world takes on a different hue. It is quieter and closer and there are textures of the dark I have begun paying attention to. I register the thickening, sense-dulling darkness that hangs velvety as a pall over deep night, and the green-black tincture you get when moisture charges the atmosphere with static. Then there is the gently shifting penumbra that heralds dawn and feels less like the suggestion of light than a fuzziness around the edges of your perception, as if an optician had clamped a diffusing lens over your eyes then quizzed you about the blurred shapes that dance at the peripheries of your vision. In sleeplessness I have come to understand that there is a taxonomy of darkness to uncover, and with it, a nocturnal literacy we can acquire. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Photo courtesy Peter DeMarco

This week, we’re sharing stories from Peter DeMarco, Tiffany Kary and Christopher Cannon, Rebecca Solnit, Will Bostwick, and Rosecrans Baldwin.

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George Washington Lived in an Indian World, But His Biographies Have Erased Native People

Etching of the original silver medal presented by George Washington to Red Jacket. Library of Congress.

Colin G. Calloway | an excerpt adapted from The Indian World of George Washington | Oxford University Press | 23 minutes (6,057 words)

On Monday Afternoon, February 4, 1793, President George Washington sat down to dinner at his official home on Market Street in Philadelphia. Washington’s dinners were often elaborate affairs, with numerous guests, liveried servants, and plenty of food and wine. On this occasion Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, Attorney General Edmund Randolph, Governor of the Northwest Territory Arthur St. Clair, and “the Gentlemen of the President’s family” dined with him because they were hosting an official delegation. Six Indian men, two Indian women (see Author’s Note on use of the word “Indian”), and two interpreters, representing the Kaskaskia, Peoria, Piankashaw, Potawatomi, and Mascouten Nations, had traveled more than eight hundred miles from the Wabash and Illinois country to see the president. Before dining, they made speeches and presented Washington with a calumet pipe of peace and strings of wampum. Thomas Jefferson took notes.

Just one week later, Monday, February 11, Washington’s dinner guests included several chiefs from the Six Nations — the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois — a Christian Mahican named Hendrick Aupaumut, and Akiatonharónkwen or Atiatoharongwen, the son of an Abenaki mother and an African American father, who had been adopted by Mohawks but now lived in Oneida country, and who was usually called “Colonel Louis Cook” after Washington approved his commission for services during the Revolution. Before dinner the president thanked his Indian guests for their diplomatic efforts in carrying messages to tribes in the West.

Indian visits halted when yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia in the summer of 1793. Five thousand people died, and twenty thousand fled the city, including, for a time, Washington, Jefferson, Knox, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who survived a bout of the fever. A Chickasaw delegation on its way to see the president turned back on hearing of the epidemic in the fall. But the visits resumed the next year. On Saturday afternoon, June 14, 1794, Washington welcomed a delegation of thirteen Cherokee chiefs to his Market Street home in Philadelphia. They were in the city to conduct treaty negotiations, and the members of Washington’s cabinet, Jefferson, Hamilton, Knox, and Colonel Timothy Pickering — were also present. In accordance with Native American diplomatic protocol, everyone present smoked and passed around the long-stemmed pipe, in ritual preparation for good talks and in a sacred commitment to speak truth and honor pledges made. The president delivered a speech that had been written in advance. Several of the Cherokee chiefs spoke. Everyone ate and drank “plentifully of Cake & wine,” and the chiefs left “seemingly well pleased.” Four weeks later, Washington met with a delegation of Chickasaws he had invited to Philadelphia. He delivered a short speech, expressing his love for the Chickasaws and his gratitude for their assistance as scouts on American campaigns against the tribes north of the Ohio, and referred them to Henry Knox for other business. As usual, he puffed on the pipe, ate, and drank with them.
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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Oli Scarff / Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jean Guerrero, Lauren Weber, Doug Bock Clark, Dara Horn, and Dan Nosowitz.

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After World War I, Horror Movies Were Invaded By an Army of Reanimated Corpses

"J'accuse!" 1919.

W. Scott Poole | an excerpt adapted from Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror | Counterpoint | October 2018 | 23 minutes (6,219 words)

The murderous folly of the Great War chilled western Europe to the bone, and the new, gruesome entertainment of the horror film became neither escape nor catharsis but rather a repetition of trauma. Telling these stories sometimes had the effect of ripping the scab from the wound so that it never became healthy, or grieving until grief became an end in itself. At times, the stories included social criticism. In all cases, the horror film included a long, angry procession of unquiet corpses.

Not everyone would agree, or at least believe, that horror films carry so much weight. “You are reading too much into the movies” is a fairly common response to such claims. “They’re just entertainment.” This idea of course has its own history and, paradoxically, it begins with a writer who thought that the films made after the Great War did contain coded messages about the era. He saw in them a dangerous message that explained the path from Germany’s defeat in 1918 to its resurgence as a threatening power twenty years later.

Siegfried Kracauer left Germany in 1933, emigrating to Paris the same year that Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor. After the beginning of World War II and the invasion of France, he fled for the Spanish border with the renegade essayist Walter Benjamin in the summer of 1940. Unlike Benjamin, however, Kracauer found a way to make it to the United States, where a Rockefeller Fellowship awaited him in the spring of 1941, thanks to his fellow exile the philosopher Max Horkheimer. New York City’s Museum of Modern Art offered Kracauer a position that involved studying the German films made between 1918 and 1933, a task he hoped might yield some clue as to what had become of his homeland. Read more…

The Masterless People: Pirates, Maroons, and the Struggle to Live Free

Leonard Parkinson, Maroon Leader, Jamaica, 1796 / Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Kelly | an excerpt adapted from Marooned: Jamestown, Shipwreck, and a New History of America’s Origins | Bloomsbury | October 2018 | 16 minutes (4,192 words)

The English word maroon did not yet exist in 1607. The Spanish word from which it derives, cimarrón, was first coined to describe domesticated cattle brought to Hispaniola that escaped into the wild parts of the island. Most scholars today accept some form of this derivation, which dates at least to 1535, just forty years after Columbus landed on Hispaniola. By 1540, cimarrón was applied to Africans who, like the chattel before them, fled to the remote, wild places behind Spanish coastal colonies. Maroon first appeared in English in 1666 when John Davies, translating a history of Barbados, wrote that slaves, like those animals, would “run away and get into the Mountains and Forests, where they live like so many Beasts; then they are call’d Marons, that is to say Savages.” Sometimes, these escapees formed new communities in the wilderness, a phenomenon that anthropologists call grand marronage. Cimarrón and eventually the shortened word, maroon, carried a heavy metaphoric or perhaps even literal sense that these fugitives devolved to an animal ferocity, wildness, and savagery. That is to say, they left civilization to live like Native Americans.

Indians were often midwife to marronage. Siouan tribes or Yuchi Indians living on South Carolina’s coast helped the first maroons on the soil of what is today the United States. In 1526, five hundred Spanish with one hundred African slaves settled near the mouth of the Pee Dee River. The summer “seasoning,” mosquito-borne illnesses like yellow fever, began to carry off the settlers. In the midst of this crisis, several slaves escaped into the hinterland, taking refuge among the Indians, and when in October the 150 surviving Spanish abandoned the settlement and sailed for Hispaniola, they left behind those escapees. Eighty years before Jamestown, the first intercontinental settlers on the East Coast of the United States were maroons: Africans who had escaped Spanish slavery.

Although maroons escaped from slavery, it was no Exodus. No God tendered them a land of milk and honey as reward for keeping faith. They retained no orthodox hegemony. They were heterodox. Typically, they came from various districts in Africa, and although they might share a creole language and common suffering, they shared little else. They entered no promised land. The wildernesses to which they fled were not their natural element, though the Europeans often thought they were. The mountains of Jamaica were just as inhospitable to Africans as they were to Europeans. The jungles of Suriname and the swamps of Carolina posed the same dangers for blacks as for whites. These places terrified the escaped slaves as they would terrify you or me were we suddenly hurled into them with only the resources we could steal and carry. Maroons embraced these dangers in desperation, preferring them to the certain dangers and degradations of slavery. They pledged faith to each other, formed communities according to their own liking, and kept sacred above all else the principal of freedom. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Sonogram of a complete miscarriage
Sonogram of a complete miscarriage. Mikael Häggström / WikiJournal of Medicine

This week, we’re sharing stories from Natalie Kitroeff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Brendan I. Koerner, Eve Peyser, Darius Miles, and Bill Wyman.

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How to Burn a Book

Maciej Toporowicz / Getty

Susan Orlean | The Library Book | October 2018 | 6 minutes (1,525 words)


Burning Books (2006)

By Bosmajian, Haig A. 098.1 B743

Burning Rubber (2015)

By Harlem, Lily E-book

Burning Chrome (1987)

By Gibson, William SF Ed.a

Burning Love: Calendar Men Series, Book 8 (2014)

By Carr, Cassandra E-book

I decided to burn a book, because I wanted to see and feel what Harry would have seen and felt that day if he had been at the library, if he had started the fire. Burning a book was incredibly hard for me to do. Actually, doing it was a breeze, but preparing to do it was challenging. The problem was that I have never been able to do harm to a book. Even books I don’t want, or books that are so worn out and busted that they can’t be read any longer, cling to me like thistles. I pile them up with the intention of throwing them away, and then, every time, when the time comes, I can’t. I am happy if I can give them away or donate them. But I can’t throw a book in the trash, no matter how hard I try. At the last minute, something glues my hands to my sides, and a sensation close to revulsion rises up in me. Many times, I have stood over a trash can, holding a book with a torn cover and a broken binding, and I have hovered there, dangling the book, and finally, I have let the trash can lid snap shut and I have walked away with the goddamn book—a battered, dog-eared, wounded soldier that has been spared to live another day. The only thing that comes close to this feeling is what I experience when I try to throw out a plant, even if it is the baldest, most aphid-ridden, crooked-stemmed plant in the world. The sensation of dropping a living thing into the trash is what makes me queasy. To have that same feeling about a book might seem strange, but this is why I have come to believe that books have souls—why else would I be so reluctant to throw one away? It doesn’t matter that I know I’m throwing away a bound, printed block of paper that is easily reproduced. It doesn’t feel like that. A book feels like a thing alive in this moment, and also alive on a continuum, from the moment the thoughts about it first percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off the printing press—a lifeline that continues as someone sits with it and marvels over it, and it continues on, time after time after time. Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: They take on a kind of human vitality. The poet Milton called this quality in books “the potency of life.” I wasn’t sure I had it in me to be a killer.

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The Hospital Where

The Temptation of St. Anthony the Great. Jacques Callot, 17th century. Corbis Historical.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah | A short story from the collection Friday Black | Mariner | October 2018 | 20 minutes (5,385 words)


“I think I will go to the hospital. My arm is paining me.” My father’s voice. I heard him from some shallow corner of a quiet, hateful sleep. I imagined waking up somewhere different. I opened my eyes and was not somewhere different. I had no command over this place or the people in it. And yet, for the first time in more than three weeks, I felt the mark of the Twelve-tongued God, an X followed by two vertical slashes, burning on my back. My muse, my power, was awake again.

“What?” I asked.

“Can you drive?” my father asked.

“Okay,” I said. I got ready. My father sat on a white plastic chair in the kitchen near the microwave and the hot plate. The only ways we had to cook. Beneath his leather sandals was a thin puddle of water that had leaked, as it did every day, from the shower in the adjacent bathroom. It was a basement. Dark mold had to be attacked with bleach regularly. But it never died. I hated this place we lived in and had for a very long time. My father scooped oatmeal into a bowl.

“Arm pain can be linked to other problems,” he said. I tried very carefully to tie my shoes. “Better for you to drive.” This was all long before we knew of the cancer nesting in his bones.

“You’ll be fine,” I said.

“I know, but just in case,” he finished through a mouthful of oatmeal. While I waited for him to eat, I grabbed the latest issue of a small journal of stories and poems called Rabid Bird and one of my notebooks. The Twelve-tongued God beckoned in the form of the heat I felt on my back, and while I waited for my father to finish his oatmeal, I tried, finally, to write. I scribbled and felt the free feeling of fire in my bones. Transported into a world where I had command and anything was possible. Read more…