If you happen to be in Venice this fall, don’t bother with the Biennale. Go see the ancient mosaics in the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, “on the distant lagoon island of Torcello.” James Panero is your guide.

Louisa May Alcott at the front: “On December 12, 1862, she arrived in Washington, D.C., where she had arranged to work as a nurse, an opportunity only newly available to women. Louisa spent six weeks working at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown, not the assignment she had hoped for. The Union had a reputation for being poorly managed and in ill repair, and Alcott wrote home to her family about the rotting wood floorboards and the swarming rats. Shortly after she arrived, the hospital received scores of wounded soldiers from the bloody battles at Fredericksburg and Antietam: ‘3 or 4 hundred men in all stages of suffering, disease & death’ she later wrote.”

Richard Carwardine reviews David W Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass: “A major challenge is to get behind the self-made public hero of the autobiographies and pin down the private man. Blight handles with great sensitivity the tensions between the two sides of his life.”

The charms of Lake Garda: “Italians really know how to make the most of often small, steep terrain.”

A surprising history of collage: “Japanese artists began to stick paper onto silk as early as the 1100s. In Europe, paper collage is first recorded in Europe in the 1400s. By the following century, the technique was being put to practical use in anatomical ‘flap-books’ – woodcut prints layering skin and sinew over internal organs.”

A defense of the British Empire: “Black does not undertake a comprehensive apologetic for the British Empire. Instead, he offers a more limited defense against the revisionist and condemnatory interpretations that have become standard in both academic and popular discussion. In its early chapters, Imperial Legacies promises to show how disapproval of America today replicates the postcolonial condemnation of Britain. The book does not quite fulfill this line of argument, which vanishes as Black’s focus on the British Empire becomes much more acute. Instead of refining the comparison to America, however, Black accomplishes something much more ambitious: he systematically debunks the ideologies of ‘decolonization’ and postcolonial resentment and shows the harm of dismissing British history as a story of monolithic oppression.”

Essay of the Day:

In the Times Literary Supplement, Alan Jenkins writes about Philip Larkin’s childhood homelife:

“In anything intended for public consumption – poems, interviews, articles – Larkin would refer to his childhood as a ‘forgotten boredom’, to Coventry as ‘only where my childhood was unspent’ and his parents as ‘awkward people with no talent for being happy’. But if that was all, where did he acquire his bad stammer, or his conviction that ‘human beings should not live together and children should be taken from their parents at an early age’? A lot of what has been published by and about him since his death – and Letters Home is no exception – suggests that as well as boredom the legacy of his childhood included rage, fear, embarrassment, guilt, resentment and, perhaps above all, shame.

“As he wrote to his mother in 1962, ‘I remember that if there was “somebody in the drawing room” at Coventry I felt an intense emotion of fear mixed with shyness – a kind of embarrassment lest the door should open … and its awful occupants catch me crossing the hall. It wasn’t so much that I was shy of people as that I hated the idea of them in “our” house’. Twenty years later, when his old schoolfriend Noel Hughes, in a memoir of their schooldays for the festschrift Larkin at Sixty, described Sydney’s authoritarian, ‘mercilessly dismissive’ tendencies and admiration for ‘qualities of decisiveness and vigour’ in Hitler’s Germany, even suggesting some involvement with the pro-Nazi organization The Link (though this was suppressed before publication), Larkin was incensed. As a teenager he had been excruciatingly aware of Sydney’s enthusiastic support for National Socialism, his visits to Nuremberg rallies, the statuette of Hitler and other Nazi souvenirs that adorned his office until the outbreak of war. Now, in distinguished middle age, he didn’t want other people to be aware of them too.

“But he had been merciless himself in a fragment of autobiography written, presumably for private therapeutic purposes, in the 1950s, in which he recalls his ‘intensely shy, inhibited’ father’s barely concealed contempt for his wife and daughter, and the ‘taut ungenerous defeated pattern of life’ he had imposed on the family. His mother, meanwhile, is skewered as an ‘obsessive snivelling pest’.”

Read the rest. 

Photos: The photography of Margaret Bourke-White

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