By David Skinner
The architect Louis I. Kahn once pretended to ask a brick what it wanted to be. The answer came back, “an arch.” Had the brick been more specific, it might have said, “a vaulted arch: like the ones Guastavino made.” An immigrant from Barcelona, Rafael Guastavino was responsible for many wondrous vaulted ceilings in America. Their beauty was intrinsic, structural, and geometric, as a new exhibition at the Boston Public Library makes clear.
From the common brick to the “Old Commoner ”: One of the great congressmen of his time, Thaddeus Stevens, with his clubfoot and biting wit, started out as a troublemaking youth. He went on to be a successful lawyer, who defended a slaveholder before becoming one of the staunchest abolitionists of his day. He was also a fiscal conservative. He once accused the Jackson administration of wasting taxpayers’ money and ruining the economy. “It makes the soul of the patriot die within him to see the heart’s blood of this great state, sucked by the creeping vampyres” of the federal government, he declared.
Speaking of vampires: Bram Stoker, the Irishman who conjured Count Dracula, is owed not a small debt from Hollywood for the empire of vampire fandom it has recently built. Stoker himself was a big fan—of Walt Whitman, to whom as a young man he wrote a profoundly intimate letter of literary worship. I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s just say there is good reason scholars have noticed a Whitmanian influence on Stoker ’s classic horror story.
Whitman aggressively publicized his own work, and he liked being admired from afar. Other writers of his time felt a deep ambivalence about the literary marketplace. Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville both demurred when asked for daguerreotypes of themselves, foreshadowing the modern narrative of the garret-dwelling artist whose principles make him disdainful of “selling out.” A recent NEH-supported book on the subject brings into focus this tension between privacy and publishing.
Rather private in his own way, Alexander von Humboldt wrote many volumes detailing his explorations of South America as he sought nothing less than “the unity of nature.” Plant life, geology, zoology, languages, politics: Nothing was alien to Humboldt, who spent his inheritance funding his adventures and then publishing his findings.
This issue also contains a special report on Celebrating Freedom, NEH’s recent commemoration of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. A panel of eminent historians discussed the moment of emancipation, what was going on in the war, what was going on in the White House, and especially what role black Americans played in the story of their own liberation. Later in the day, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Congressman John Lewis added his own thoughts, saying, “Freedom, true freedom, will never be free. It will always be a constant struggle.”