Pliny’s Letters

Pliny the Younger

97-109 AD

(A wealthy lawyer reveals his personality and attitudes, and the way of life in Imperial Rome.)

PlinyAndMotherVesuviusCrop of Pliny the Younger and his Mother at Misenum, 79 AD, by Angelica Kauffmann (1785). Here Pliny dictates his most famous letter as he and his mother observe the eruption of Vesuvius. Courtesy of the Princeton Art Museum.

 

Many of us are acquainted with, or at least aware of, a certain species of lawyer, politician, or businessman.  At first we notice the more grating aspects of his personality.  He is near the top of his game, and can barely see beyond his own prosperity.  He knows a whole lot of people, many of whom are famous, and somehow he reminds us of this in nearly every conversation.  He loves to talk of his success stories, his valuable properties, praise he has received, and difficult decisions or tight places from which he has emerged victorious.  He is sensible of the fact that his reputation is what keeps him successful, and he has become entrained on reputation to such an extent that the development of it is unabashedly the single guiding force in his life, the basis upon which he makes all significant choices.  Maybe this is true for all of us to some extent, but what our bold tycoon doesn’t often realize that so ardently exhibiting a concern for reputation can actually harm your reputation.

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The Right Stuff

Tom Wolfe

1979

(Seven pilots scale the ziggurat of manliness on the quest to be America’s space heroes.)

 MercuryRedstone3_ShepardMercury-Redstone 3 rocket launching Alan Shepard in 1961 to become the first American in space. Courtesy of NASA.

 

Tom Wolfe probably awoke one morning and thought to himself, wouldn’t it be great if reading about current events were as fun as reading novels?  And with as simple an idea as that, he kicked off the movement known as New Journalism.  And Wolfe sure is fun to read!

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Passages from the American Notebooks

Nathaniel Hawthorne

1835-1853

(The exercise of a young author’s pen creates images of the New England landscape and its people.) 

BerkshiresInWinterThe Berkshires in winter, near Lenox, Massachusetts.  Courtesy of BerkshireStyle.com.

 

Mrs. Sophia Hawthorne, after the death of her husband in 1864, respected his wish that no biography be written of him.  However, in lieu of this, she released to an eager public three successive volleys of Passages from his journals.  Those written in America were published first, and are perhaps the most interesting in that they focus on his home state of Massachusetts and the early years of his literary career (his thirties).

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Walden

Henry David Thoreau

1854

(A philosopher and naturalist returns from the woods to deliver a message: Wake Up! Think! Live Meaningfully!)

Courtesy of Walden Pond State ReservationWalden Pond (Photo courtesy of Walden Pond State Reservation)
 

The account of Thoreau’s temporary retreat from civilization and the philosophy he developed and tested during that time, is perhaps the greatest single work in American literature.  I say this not so much because he was right, not because he got the nature of the cosmos straighter than this or that thinker.  Rather, this work is great—I say perhaps the greatest our country has produced—primarily because in it we see a man who is awake.  It is not what he gets right that is earthshattering here, but rather the fact that he sees that there is a right to be gotten, so to speak, and that he bursts the strictures of convention to strive for it, and that he so eloquently exhorts us to do the same.  Thoreau here is a Crusader for examining our lives, for living well, for life itself!  In a world of so many petty tensions, so many lures into complexity and distraction which decompose any central vision or purpose in our lives, Thoreau opens his eyes, looks about him, and realizes the great harm we are slipping into unaware.  He sees the “quiet desperation” of people about him, and the empty catalog of assumptions and dry truths they (we!) harbor in place of a real, living, mission statement.  He, as if by a sudden revelation, is horrified at the masses of humans like lemmings who are content to follow the path over the cliff into the sea of meaningless existence simply because the way is worn clean and so is the easiest to tread.

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