How to Tell a True Tale: Neil Gaiman on What Makes a Great Personal Story


Neil Gaiman (Photograph: Amanda Palmer)
Neil Gaiman (Photograph: Amanda Palmer)

“The gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin color, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories.”

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion memorably wrote. And perhaps we live in order to tell our stories — or, as Gabriel García Márquez put it in reflecting on his own story, “life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” To tell a story, Susan Sontag observed in her timeless advice to writers, “is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.”

And yet our means of making a clearing through the chaos of events matter as much as, if not more than, the events themselves. The best of our stories are those that transform and redeem us, ones that both ground us in ourselves by reminding us what it means to be human and elevate us by furnishing an instrument of self-transcendence.

What it takes to make such a clearing is what Neil Gaiman, a writer who knows a thing or two about what makes stories last and how storytelling enlarges our humanity, examines in his foreword to All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown (public library), celebrating a quarter century of storytelling powerhouse The Moth.

The sequel to the volume that gave us what I continue to consider the greatest Moth story ever told, this wondrous collection contains forty-five stories about courage in the face of uncertainty by tellers as varied as a cognitive scientist and an Ultra-Orthodox Jew.

Reflecting on his own improbable path into the Moth community, where storytellers tell true stories in front of a live audience and end up feeling like they have “walked through fire and been embraced and loved,” Gaiman considers what makes a great Moth story — which is ultimately a question of what it is in a human story that anneals us to one another through the act of its telling:

The strange thing about Moth stories is that none of the tricks we use to make ourselves loved or respected by others work in the ways you would imagine they ought to. The tales of how clever we were, how wise, how we won, they mostly fail. The practiced jokes and the witty one-liners all crash and burn up on a Moth stage.

Honesty matters. Vulnerability matters. Being open about who you were at a moment in time when you were in a difficult or an impossible place matters more than anything.

Having a place the story starts and a place it’s going: that’s important.

Telling your story, as honestly as you can, and leaving out the things you don’t need, that’s vital.

The Moth connects us, as humans. Because we all have stories. Or perhaps, because we are, as humans, already an assemblage of stories. And the gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin color, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories. And once we hear each other’s stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods: that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery.

All These Wonders is replete with wondrous true stories of loves, losses, rerouted dreams, and existential crises of nearly every unsugarcoated flavor. Complement the theme of this new anthology with Anaïs Nin on how inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, Rebecca Solnit on how we find ourselves by getting lost, and Wisława Szymborska’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the generative power of not-knowing, then revisit Gaiman on why we read, the power of cautionary questions, and his eight rules of writing.

For a supreme taste of The Moth’s magic, see astrophysicist Janna Levin’s unparalleled story about the Möbius paths that lead us back to ourselves.


How an episode of The Simpsons is made

In 1996, The Simpsons passed The Flintstones as the longest running prime-time animated show. In the 30-year interim, the tenor of adult cartoons had shifted dramatically: The Simpsons was more caustic and puerile than The Flintstones, a shameless Stone Age remake of hit 1950s sitcom The Honeymooners. What had hardly changed was the creative process.

Like The Flintstones, The Simpsons relied on a large Los Angeles-based writer’s room, a coterie of directors, a squad of storyboard and design artists, and dozens of animators. The biggest change in production over three decades was simply geography; by 1996, The Simpsons had begun outsourcing the final stage of animation to a studio in South Korea.

A year after The Simpsons passed The Flintstones, South Park premiered on Comedy Central. If The Simpsons was a middle finger to the establishment, the animation of Trey Parker and Matt Stone was a burning bag of shit. It was cheap and fast to animate with paper cutouts and computer animation, which allowed the show to comment on recent events. Cartoons at the time, requiring months of costly animation, needed to be comparably timeless in their story and humor, but South Park targeted the present.

Thanks to computer animation and the internet, South Park, the shows of Adult Swim, and countless online-only animated shorts, like Homestar Runner, have made animation faster, rougher, and looser. But The Simpsons, to this day, embraces the formula of the past. While an episode of South Park can now be created in a single week by a lean team, The Simpsons has actually added roles and failsafes to its lengthy process. In the world of animated TV, The Simpsons may be the last of its kind, an expensive, high-touch, slow-paced production built on formulas dating back to Walt Disney and Hanna-Barbera.

The Simpsons
is now in its 27th season. This is how an episode of the program is made, a detailed, meticulous look at a process that has its bedrock but builds upon it with the tools and lessons of the future.

It begins with a pitch….

A few weeks before the warm Christmas of Southern California, the writers of The Simpsons — the longest-running sitcom in the US, starring everybody’s favorite family: Homer, Marge, Lisa, Baby Maggie, and their son Bart — take a retreat. The rest of the season, the team breaks scripts in the sterile writers’ rooms of the Fox studio lot, but the creative process always began in a home or the big conference space of a nearby hotel.

Each writer brings a fleshed-out minute or so episode pitch, which they deliver with gusto to a room full of funny people. They laugh, take notes, then co-creator Matt Groening, executive producer James L. Brooks, and showrunner Al Jean — a portion of the braintrust from the earliest days — provide feedback.

In an essay on Splitsider about the writing process of seasons three through eight, former Simpsons writer and producer Bill Oakley described the pleasure of the retreats:

“It was always a huge treat to see. You had no idea what George Meyer (for instance) was going to say, and suddenly it was like this fantastic Simpsons episode pouring out of his mouth that you never dreamed of. And it was like, wow, this is where this stuff comes from.

A lot of times people worked collaboratively, too. We would work with Conan, back and forth, and we’d exchange ideas and help polish them up. And so everybody would usually come with two, sometimes three ideas. You’d take fifteen minutes and you’d say your idea in front of everybody — all the writers, Jim Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon when he was still there, and also the writers assistants who would be there taking notes on all this stuff.”

Writing a draft

After receiving notes and some creative direction, an episode’s writer takes two weeks to pen a first draft. “Almost all of the writing is done here at the Fox [lot] in one of two rewrite rooms,” says Al Jean, who at the time of the interview is deep into production of the show’s upcoming 27th season. “The two rooms was a change that came about around season nine. We split because we had enough writers, and we could get more done.”

Getting more done with more tools and more hands is the throughline of the modern Simpsons production process. There are more people doing more jobs with more failsafes at a higher cost on The Simpsons than the majority of — if not all — animated television shows.

A writer has four to six weeks to complete rewrites. “We’ll continue to rework [the script] six or seven times before the table read,” says Al Jean. “Jim and I will give notes. We rewrite it.”

In those late night television commercials that promise to make everyone a screenwriter, the script is often called the blueprint of our favorite television shows and films, a term that implies an exacting, blessed, top level instruction which the rest of the dozens if not hundreds if not thousands of artists involved obey. That notion — as anyone who has seen a summer blockbuster or network sitcom can tell — is false. The script is vulnerable, malleable, and subject to constant scrutiny. There’s a blueprint for animated shows, but it comes later. The completed draft is like a guide through the woods, ready to be supplemented, revised, or outright redrawn if need be.

(An excerpt from Judd Apatow’s The Simpsons script, The Daily Beast)

The table read

Each Thursday of production, the cast, producers, and writers meet for a table read of the latest script. Some of the cast attends the table read, others phone into the room. Occasionally, voice actor Chris Edgerly, who has handled “additional voices” for the show since 2011, will fill in for one of the leads. “It’s very unusual that they’re all at the table at the same time now,” says Jean. “People’s schedules got busier, people actually moved out of Los Angeles. It’s the normal sort of entropy of life, you know.”

Despite being to hundreds of table reads, Al Jean still can’t get comfortable. He describes a critical setting in which the script is judged on its creative value, but also under the duress of external forces. A cell phone might go off or an actor might be fighting a cold, and the read’s vibe shifts. “Last week,” says Jean, “there was a truck backing up, that came in the middle, and that was distracting people. The table read is my number one unpleasant experience.”

Voice recording

On the Monday following a table read, the cast performs the voice recording, typically at the studio in LA. The actors and actresses record on separate tracks, rather than together — a common method for capturing voice-over. “It’s funny,” says Jean. “I read a review in The AV Club where they said about a certain show there was great interaction between two people, and they never met. They didn’t record in the same place. I’m glad it worked, but there was no physical connection.”


As work transitions from script to animation, the episode is offered to a director, who, if they accept, is given ownership of production and animation responsibilities. “[The role is] sort of akin to a TV director who takes the script of a show and turns it into an episode,” says Jean. “Except our director has to create everything. [… The director] takes the audio track, supervises the design, the motions, and what we call the acting of the animation, and [supervises] the whole visual aspect of [the episode].”

Both Jean, who serves as story liaison throughout production of the series as a whole, and each episode’s director work in tandem to shepherd the script through the animation process…



Paul Gauguin’s Advice on Overcoming Rejection, Breaking Free of Public Opinion, and Staying True to One’s Creative Vision

Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les misérables), Paul Gauguin, 1888 (via Van Gogh Museum)

“One day, you will feel a joy in having resisted the temptation to hate, and there is truly intoxicating poetry in the goodness of him who has suffered.”

The French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (June 7, 1848–May 8, 1903) left an indelible mark on creative culture as a major influence of Picasso and Matisse, and the person whom Van Gogh considered his greatest kindred spirit. He arrived at art via a bittersweet path — after the early trauma of his father’s death, the young Gauguin turned to painting as a way of transmuting sorrow into beauty, but the specter of suffering never left him.

This, perhaps, is why he was able to meet with remarkable sympathy the suffering of other artists, particularly those whom he saw as courageous innovators breaking with the status quo and paying the price — the same disposition of daring for which E.E. Cummings would be so hideously condemned by traditionalists a generation later before becoming one of the most beloved artists in his own field of poetry.

Among those young mavericks was the French painter, poet, essayist, and playwright Émile Bernard.

In 1888, at the age of twenty, Bernard walked more than 500 kilometers from Paris to Pont-Aven to see Gauguin, his artistic hero. The elder painter, twenty years his senior, quickly came to admire Bernard’s creative bravery and innovative technique. The two formed a warm friendship, which would later unravel into artistic rivalry, but the alchemy of their relationship forever altered both of their aesthetics and the course of modern art itself, planting the seed of Symbolism.

Self-Portrait with Portrait of Gauguin, Émile Bernard, 1888 (via Van Gogh Museum)

In the autumn of 1889, 41-year-old Gauguin received a distraught letter from his young friend after a particularly harsh critical reception of Bernard’s paintings. In a reply found in Paul Gauguin: Letters to His Wife and Friends (public library), the painter writes to his 21-year-old friend:

Your disconsolate letter reaches a countryside as sorrowful. I understand the bitterness which sweeps over you at the foolish reception of you and your works… What would you rather have? a mediocrity which pleases everybody or a talent which breaks new ground. We must choose if we have free will. Would you have the power of choice if choosing leads to suffering — a Nessus shirt which sticks to you and cannot be stripped off? Attacks on originality are to be expected from those who lack the power to create and shrug their shoulders.

In a sentiment that calls to mind young Beethoven’s joy of suffering overcome, Gauguin adds:

As for me, I own myself beaten — by events, by men, by the family, but not by public opinion. I scorn it and I can do without admirers. I won’t say that at your age I was like this, but by the exertion of sheer will power, that is what I am like to-day. Let them study carefully my last pictures and, if they have any feelings at all, they will see what resigned suffering is in them — a cry wrung from the heart… But you, why do you suffer, too? You are young, and too early you begin to carry the cross. Do not rebel; one day, you will feel a joy in having resisted the temptation to hate, and there is truly intoxicating poetry in the goodness of him who has suffered.

Complement with the illustrated story of Gauguin’s childhood, then revisit Janis Joplin on creativity and rejection, Ben Shahn on nonconformity, Henri Rousseau’s heartening tale of success after a lifetime of rejection, and Van Gogh — who was also an ardent champion of the young Bernard — on taking risks and how inspired mistakes propel us forward.


Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on How Our Certitudes Keep Us Small and the Generative Power of Not-Knowing

Art by Salvador Dalí from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

“Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion,” the great painter Richard Diebenkorn counseled in his ten rules for beginning creative projects. “One doesn’t arrive — in words or in art — by necessarily knowing where one is going,” the artist Ann Hamilton wrote a generation later in her magnificent meditation on the generative power of not-knowing. “In every work of art something appears that does not previously exist, and so, by default, you work from what you know to what you don’t know.”

What is true of art is even truer of life, for a human life is the greatest work of art there is. (In my own life, looking back on my ten most important learnings from the first ten years of Brain Pickings, I placed the practice of the small, mighty phrase “I don’t know” at the very top.) But to live with the untrammeled openendedness of such fertile not-knowing is no easy task in a world where certitudes are hoarded as the bargaining chips for status and achievement — a world bedeviled, as Rebecca Solnit memorably put it, by “a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate.”

That difficult feat of insurgency is what the great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) explored in 1996 when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for capturing the transcendent fragility of the human experience in masterpieces like “Life-While-You-Wait” and “Possibilities.”

In her acceptance speech, later included in Nobel Lectures: From the Literature Laureates, 1986 to 2006 (public library) — which also gave us the spectacular speech on the power of language Toni Morrison delivered after becoming the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize — Szymborska considers why artists are so reluctant to answer questions about what inspiration is and where it comes from:

It’s not that they’ve never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It’s just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don’t understand yourself.

Noting that she, too, tends to be rattled by the question, she offers her wieldiest answer:

Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners — and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”

In a sentiment of chilling prescience today, as we witness tyrants drunk on certainty drain the world of its essential inspiration, Szymborska considers the destructive counterpoint to this generative not-knowing:

All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they “know.” They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments’ force. And any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.

This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize…



American Gothic: a state visit to Britain for the first couple

‘The most famous painting in American art’: Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) .

‘The most famous painting in American art’: Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) . Photograph: The Art Institute of Chicago, friends of American Art Collection

The US’s most famous, and most parodied painting is about to visit London for the first time. We examine the many interpretations of Grant Wood’s masterpiece


American Gothic – the long-faced couple standing sentry before their wooden house in apron and overalls, pitchfork in hand – is the most famous painting in American art. It is instantly recognisable to millions of people from Oregon to Osaka who hardly know its name, still less that of the painter.

In its comparatively short life (it was made in 1930), Grant Wood’s masterpiecehas become one of those rare paintings that are constantly quoted in spoofs, advertisements, movies and cartoons, so familiar they can be readily invoked in a quick sketch or even just by one detail, such as the arched window. Even if we do not know its title, American Gothic is by now as proverbial as the Mona Lisa, The Starry Night and The Scream, a point not lost on parodists who have Photoshopped Van Gogh’s stars into the Iowan skies above that pointed roof, introduced Leonardo’s Lisa into the family romance and even married Grant Wood with Edvard Munch. A Gothic Scream flipbook is available – two for the price of one – that morphs the stern midwestern farmer into the Norwegian screecher.

But is he in fact a farmer, this man from whose powerful hand the pitchfork grows like a tree? It would be an understatement to say that opinions have differed over the years. For this stupendous image – apparently as plain and direct as the small-town Iowans it portrays, apparently as simple as the summer setting – turns out to be uniquely controversial and mysterious. Is it a celebration of these hardworking folk, upright in their moral values, steadfast against the terrible deprivations of the Great Depression, as so many Americans have believed; or is it slyly satirical? Is Wood painting a hymn of praise to his neighbours in Cedar Rapids, or sending up their strict narrow-mindedness? When the painting flies into this country, centrepiece of America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s at the Royal Academy, many British viewers will have their first chance to decide. For American Gothic lives mainly in reproduction, intensely memorable even to those who have never seen it in person. Its staying power is exceptional in every respect, for the painting has never before left the United States.

It is the clarity of the image that strikes first: neat as a pin, well made as the wooden house, pristine as the woman’s ironed pinny. Everything fits and everything is in perfect order. Flat, graphic, meticulously detailed, as rigidly frontal as a Renaissance portrait, each part so crisp and distinct, it is no wonder Wood’s painting lends itself so well to reproduction (and jigsaw).

Here is an American Eden of blue skies and plump trees, peopled by a pinched Eve and a work-hardened Adam, their labours rewarded by sheer survival, their virtue enshrined in the church-like facade behind them. It appears to be almost a primer of rural life. But some see the man as a hellfire preacher rather than a farmer, his pitchfork the prop for some pitiless sermon; others view him as a small-town clerk, home from work and out in his denims to hay the cows in the barn.

The woman is his supportive wife, stiff as her pioneer husband; or perhaps she is his maiden daughter, whose honour he is defending with that pitchfork (Robert Hughes’s goatish opinion). Perhaps, with her antique brooch and outmoded braid, she really believes in old-fashioned values; or maybe she is about to bolt from this prison, the telltale curl of hair escaping like a sign of the future.

From a Time magazine cover to a backdrop for Walter and Skyler White of TV’s Breaking Bad, American Gothic has inspired hundreds of parodies.
From a Time magazine cover to a backdrop for Walter and Skyler White of TV’s Breaking Bad, American Gothic has inspired hundreds of parodies.

They are a sanctimonious pair, probably unforgiving Republicans, straitlaced as their clothes, with no music in their life; or they are the opposite: American heroes, prairie puritans carrying on the spirit of the founding fathers, living the hard life but never giving up – even during the disastrous drought of 1930, when there was practically no hay to pitch.

Every opposing interpretation has spawned a spoof, and even the spoofs have their imitations. American Gothic has become arguably the most parodied painting in history. Lyndon and Lady Bird, Ronald and Nancy, Bill and Hill, Barack and Michelle, Barbie and Ken, Homer and Marge, Kermit and Miss Piggy (the cameo brooch now showing a porker) have all stood in front of that facade, as Donald and Melania surely will if they haven’t already. The building is almost as famous as that other White House; the painting cannot resist partisan politics. And every time these spoofs appear, proposing the dour duo as representative Americans of one stripe or another, they communicate the beautiful lucidity of the painting, with its dovetailed composition, and yet the mystery of it too.

About its origins, and the painter, a great deal is known. Grant Wood was born in Anamosa, Iowa, in 1891. He was only 10 when his father died and his mother moved her small family to Cedar Rapids. Here he went to boarding school, laboured for dimes in a metal shop, and eventually managed to get himself into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1913. His early paintings of the rolling Iowan landscape are appealing, if anonymous, but in the 1920s he made four trips to Europe and was stunned by the northern European painters he saw there, particularly in Munich. He admired Dürer, Van Eyck and Hans Memling; his paintings learn from their stark frontality, intense precision and simplicity of form. He was even dubbed the Iowa Memling by the New York art writer Lincoln Kirstein…



Walt Whitman on Donald Trump, How Literature Bolsters Democracy, and Why a Robust Society Is a Feminist Society


“America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without… Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.”

In 1855, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) made his debut as a poet and self-published Leaves of Grass. Amid the disheartening initial reception of pervasive indifference pierced by a few shrieks of criticism, the young poet received an extraordinary letter of praise and encouragement from his idol — Ralph Waldo Emerson, the era’s most powerful literary tastemaker. This gesture of tremendous generosity was a creative life-straw for the dispirited artist, who soon became one of the nation’s most celebrated writers and went on to be remembered as America’s greatest poet.

In the late 1860, working as a federal clerk and approaching his fiftieth birthday, Whitman grew increasingly concerned that America’s then-young democracy had grown in danger of belying the existential essentials of the human spirit. He voiced his preoccupations in a masterful and lengthy essay titled Democratic Vistas, later included in the indispensable Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (free ebook | public library).

Both Whitman’s spirited critique of American democracy and his proposed solution — which calls for an original and ennobling national body of literature as the means to cultivating the people’s mentality, character, and ideals — ring remarkably true today, perhaps even truer amid our modern disenchantment and dearth of idealism, accentuated by the spectacle of an election season.

Literature, Whitman argues, constructs the scaffolding of society’s values and “has become the only general means of morally influencing the world” — its archetypal characters shape the moral character and political ideals of a culture. Long after the political structures of the ancient world have crumbled, he reminds us, what remains of Ancient Greece and Rome and the other great civilizations is their literature. He writes:

At all times, perhaps, the central point in any nation, and that whence it is itself really sway’d the most, and whence it sways others, is its national literature, especially its archetypal poems. Above all previous lands, a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance, (in some respects the sole reliance,) of American democracy. Few are aware how the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will.


In the civilization of to-day it is undeniable that, over all the arts, literature dominates, serves beyond all — shapes the character of church and school — or, at any rate, is capable of doing so. Including the literature of science, its scope is indeed unparallel’d.

Illustration by Allen Crawford from Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

Lamenting the vacant materialism of consumer society, Whitman writes:

We had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in.


Our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly-deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and esthetic results… In vain have we annex’d Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north for Canada and south for Cuba. It is as if we were somehow being endow’d with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.


To take expression, to incarnate, to endow a literature with grand and archetypal models — to fill with pride and love the utmost capacity, and to achieve spiritual meanings, and suggest the future — these, and these only, satisfy the soul. We must not say one word against real materials; but the wise know that they do not become real till touched by emotions, the mind.

The savior of the nation’s soul, Whitman insists, is not the politician but the artist:

Should some two or three really original American poets, (perhaps artists or lecturers,) arise, mounting the horizon like planets, stars of the first magnitude, that, from their eminence, fusing contributions, races, far localities, &c., together they would give more compaction and more moral identity, (the quality to-day most needed,) to these States, than all its Constitutions, legislative and judicial ties, and all its hitherto political, warlike, or materialistic experiences.

Art by Maurice Sendak from his 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, his darkest yet most hopeful book

In a sentiment that makes one shudder imagining what the poet would’ve made of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, Whitman writes:

I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election.


America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brain’d nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers. It is the dilettantes, and all who shirk their duty, who are not doing well… America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without…



The Camera Technology That Turned Films Into Stories

John Wayne dressed as a cowboy directs the filming of "The Alamo" in 1960.

John Wayne directs during the filming of “The Alamo” in 1960

A modest invention that prevented celluloid from tearing helped make modern cinema. An Object Lesson.


In the late 19th century, filmmakers had a problem they couldn’t have anticipated: how to make a film that lasted more than a few seconds without tearing. In film’s earliest days, this had hardly been an issue. Film was a novelty, and brevity was part of the appeal. It offered spectacle, like glimpses of Annie Oakley shooting or prizefighters competing in the ring—sights people would never be able to see in person.

But after the initial shock wore off, the public wanted something more. They began to understand what it was film had to offer: The seeds of fiction were planted in these short, performed events.

Before film was art, it was machinery. It took years for film to get the kind of legal protection that the other, more prestigious arts enjoyed. In the early days, it was technology, protectable only by patent. As a result, film, as a product, was strange and vulnerable, subject to duping, sabotage, and all kinds of strange patent traps set by Thomas Edison to keep independent filmmakers from gaining power.

Edison hadn’t invented the technology behind the moving picture. In the 1880s, the photographer Edward Muybridge created a sequence of images that, if viewed together in rapid succession, simulated movement. The first functioning camera and projector likewise didn’t come from Edison, but the Lumière Brothers. Edison refined and commercialized their invention, turning film’s focus toward storytelling and away from documentary. He also thought globally. By the mid-1900s anyone with a camera could produce—or just copy—films. Distributing them was another matter. That, Edison knew, was where the money was.

* * *

Enter the Lathams—a father, Major Woodville (a Confederate) and his hard-living sons Otway and Gray. In their quest to film a boxing match and screen it for a paying audience, they invented the Latham Loop, a way of pulling film through the threading device of the camera gently enough not to tear the sprockets—and more importantly, a device that enabled the film to gently spool over from back to front, allowing for longer films. Their projector was called the Eidoloscope, and it had the instant advantage over Edison’s competing product.

From 1891 onward, Edison had tried to corner the new, lucrative market for films. By 1894, he turned to the Lathams, who had asked for financial help in creating a device allowing for longer pictures, with the aim of projecting filmed boxing matches for admission. In 1895, they were successful. In May of that year, as Dan Streible documents in his book Fight Pictures: Boxing and Early Cinema, the Lathams screened a fight between “Young Griffo” and Charles Barnett in New York City in a widescreen format.

The Lathams continued to screen spectacles for the public, until the money ran out. Edison’s protégé, W.K.L. Dickson, distanced himself from both the Lathams and Edison in 1895, just in time to form his own company. He’d call it Mutoscope, soon to be known as Biograph, the studio that would produce some of the most influential narrative films of the early century, among them Birth of a Nation in 1913.

Edison didn’t like competition. His nickelodeons, or “peep shows,” were all the rage in the early aughts, before the problems of screening films for large audiences had been fixed to anyone’s satisfaction. But when the competition started heating up, Edison turned to his patents to squeeze the market. He’d intimidated filmmakers out of competing against him in previous years, so much so that there were more French films on American screens from 1906 to 1909 than American ones.

Edison went further in 1908, by creating the Motion Picture Patents Company, or Film Trust. By joining forces with the other big studios of the day (Dickson’s Biograph excluded) he’d hoped to exert his power against burgeoning independent filmmakers by patenting every part of the film camera down to the sprocket holes. Independent filmmakers didn’t have much in the way of legal recourse against the Edison machine. The Sherman Antitrust Act had passed in 1890, before the earliest films had an audience. Copyright laws wouldn’t take motion pictures under protection until 1912.

But Edison had forgotten something: Dickson’s long-held grudge. Dickson side-swiped Edison, coming up against him with his ownership of the Latham Loop, which Edison, in his rush to power, had somehow forgotten about.

By 1908, the Loop was integral to any film projector and camera—as it remains today. It had been patented by 1902 by Woodville Latham, only to be then sold on the cheap to Ansco (Anthony and Scoville Co.) when the Lathams were running low on money. In 1908, Dickson and Biograph bought up the patent and used it to beat Edison and the MPPC at its own game.