In recent weeks I often feel as though I am drowning in news from all sources—breathless voices from radio, TV and newspapers both print and online insist on telling me the latest tweet or thoughtless comment about what is going on. In self-defense I’ve resolved not to pay attention to any news that pops up after the PBS Newshour ends in the evening . Everything else can wait for morning.
This resolution leaves me more time to watch some of the riches I can stream on my TV, watching performances that I never had a chance to see in person. My favorites are ballets, pure art without the intervention of words or arguments. It is a tremendous relief to switch on Amazon Prime and watch dances that were performed at the Mariinsky theater and other famous locations. It is another world right in my own living room.
All of this reminds me of how long it took for ballet to make its way to America and what it meant when it finally arrived. And one of my favorite American heroes, Margaret Fuller, played a part in welcoming the European art. There is a well-known story that when Margaret and her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson went to see Fanny Elssler, one of the first ballerinas to tour the country, Emerson turned to Margaret and said: “This is not dancing, it is poetry ; ” to which she replied, ” No, Waldo, it is religion!”
Those comments make a good story, but unfortunately they are most likely untrue. Charles Capper, Fuller’s most respected biographer, tell us that Fuller and Emerson did not attend a ballet performance together, so the story must be regarded as just casual gossip. What it does reveal, however, is that the leading American writers and intellectuals were fascinated when they had a chance to view ballet. And who was the woman who introduced this art? Fanny Elssler, an Austrian dancer who came to America in 1840 and traveled across the country giving performances for a year and a half.
Fanny had been born into a musical family in Austria. Her father was a copyist and valet to Hayden and two of her brothers were musicians. Her sister Therese was also trained as a dancer and the two young girls frequently performed together. Therese grew to a height considered to be abnormal in those days—5 feet, 6 inches—so she could dance male parts when accompanying Fanny.
As frequently happened, the attractive young dancers attracted powerful older men as supporters and lovers. Fanny eventually had two children, a boy and a girl, who were boarded with friendly families until they were old enough to join their mother. I have to wonder sometimes what staid Americans like Emerson and his circle would have thought if they had known one of their admired artists had unacknowledged children. And I sometimes wonder what female artists would have done in that long-ago time before the Me-too movement had started if they had had the freedom to reject the attentions of wealthy patrons who assumed all female dancers would welcome their attentions.
But that did not happen. The dancers kept on dancing until they retired, as Fanny Elssler did in 1845, leaving behind a number of American and European fans who continued to support ballet as well as the other arts. During the late 19th century Americans, who had learned of many of these arts through performers who visited from Europe, developed their own artists and the inspiration began to flow in a two-way direction between this country and the rest of the world. Now, thanks to technology, we can watch performances from all over the world whenever we need a break from the endless chatter of today’s life. I highly recommend it.
Who would have thought that airports with their tedious lines and endless corridors could become so exciting? This week a new presidential order denying entry to people from several Middle Eastern countries caused consternation as immigration officers denied entry to some people with valid visas or green cards as well as all refugees. Fortunately for the country, several states protested and the courts have resisted the move and put a temporary halt on the order.
Prejudice against newcomers isn’t a new sentiment in the United States. Neither is prejudice against a particular religion that is seen as a threat to the country. From Colonial times on, many Americans have suspected that Roman Catholics with their “foreign” religion were a threat to the country.
The Irish immigrants who poured into the country from the 1840s on, were often the targets of discrimination by the press and clergy. Lyman Beecher, for instance, wrote that “The Catholic system is adverse to liberty, and the clergy to a great extent are dependent on foreigners opposed to the principles of our government, for patronage and support.”
One of the few writers who believed that the despised immigrants brought value to the country was Margaret Fuller. She praised the Irish immigrants for their generosity and family feeling and told her readers that they would be of great value to America. Fuller valued the contributions of other immigrants of the time too, including the Germans and Italians who could offer much to the country. My admiration for Margaret Fuller was what led me to write a biography of this brave woman.
Over the years, Americans learned that Catholics did not pose a threat to American values. They became a part of mainstream American life. But fearful people continue to fear. Today we are hearing echoes of Lyman Beecher as politicians talk about the threat of Muslims and of Islamic thought. As of 2014, seven states had passed laws or ballot measures that banned Sharia law from influencing the courts. These states include Alabama, North Carolina, Arizona, Kansas, South Dakota and Tennessee. Currently the Montana legislature is arguing about the need for such a law.
President Trump appears to view the world as a threatening place and to fear that people professing a religion different from what he is used to must be dangerous. As any historian could tell him, people who are not descended from the handful of English settlers, have made this country great. Fear of anyone different from ourselves leads to stagnation, not greatness. Perhaps the president should listen to a brave woman like Marie Curie who said it well: Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.
And if President Trump wants to gain wisdom from the presidents who preceded him, he might pay attention to the words of one of our greatest leaders, Franklin Delano Roosevelt who famously announced that The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
How long does it take us to recognize a good idea? When Margaret Fuller, the well-known feminist and writer, visited Europe in 1845-46 she recognized the needs of working women. She endorsed the idea of the government providing crèches which could be supervised and where children would receive adequate food and care. More than 150 years later, American society has still not managed to accept that idea although almost every country in Europe provides public crèches or nurseries for preschool children.
The news during this Women’s History month has several stories that echo the concerns of nineteenth and twentieth century women that are still unfulfilled. Some women with children at home (as well as many men and women without children) have seized upon the idea of working at home, telecommuting to their offices. This month the CEO of Yahoo has decreed that employees will no longer be allowed to work from home, but must come into their workplaces every day. Mingling with other employees is thought by many people to stimulate innovation and creativity. Certainly being with other workers engaged in tasks similar to yours can be stimulating and inspiring, but why must it always be talked about in sweeping generalizations? Doesn’t it seem to you that there is a natural rhythm to work? Talking with other, exchanging ideas and listening to suggestions can get you started on a task, developing a project or writing a report, but once started it is often better to have a quiet location to work in isolation. Pulling ideas together and shaping them is a solitary occupation. Many kinds of work should offer some flexibility. Employees who have the freedom to choose the location in which they work often make stronger contributions to an organization than those who are rigidly forced to conform to the rules designed to suit the majority but not the individual.
This discussion about employee flexibility, of course, only applies to a subset of women who work outside the home. Teachers usually have to stay in the location where their students are (although that is changing in online teaching), clerks in stores have to be available at check-out stations, mechanics usually have to be where the cars are, and crossing guards had better be at their crossings. These women need flexibility not so much in where they are but in where their children are.
This leads to the second big news story for Women’s History month—the call for universal preschool education. President Obama talked about the need to start educating children while they are young. Once again America loiters behind the rest of the developed world in offering education to young children. What are we afraid of? Scientists and educators agree that children who start pre-reading activities while they are young and who learn the habits and social skills important in their future success, do far better than those who spend their preschool years in front of a TV. Let’s all push to finally achieve this goal. Women’s History month is a time not just for looking back but for looking ahead to new achievements. The theme of the 2013 celebration is Women Inspiring Innovation through Imagination. What better way is there to achieve this goal than by helping all children start young on the path toward learning and fulfillment?
An article in the NY Times today tells a worrying tale about how some high school students in high-achieving schools are using so-called “study pills” to increase their performance on exams. The drugs are legally prescribed to many teenagers who complain about an inability to concentrate or a tendency “to stare out the window” during classes. Well, most of us who have finished school can remember long periods of staring out of windows (if we were lucky enough to have classrooms with windows) during classes that seemed long and boring. I remember staring longingly out of an open window from which I could hear the thump of the school baseball team practicing every afternoon during my history class. History was one of my favorite subjects, but when spring came and the sun was shining on bright new grass outside, even stories of Henry VIII and his many wives couldn’t compete. When did staring out of a window become a symptom needing treatment instead of a natural response for young people? Being distracted by new sensations isn’t necessarily a bad thing and surely it would be better for parents and teachers to help kids learn how to cope instead of sending them to a doctor for medication. But trying to produce outstanding children motivates lots of parents.
The urge to push children into ever-higher achievement isn’t new; the Victorians did the same. John Stuart Mill is an example of a child whose parents wanted him to excel. His father, a famous philosopher, decided his son would follow in his footsteps, and he started early. According to a Wikipedia article, John Stuart was taught Greek when he was three years old. “By the age of eight he had read Aesop’s Fables, Xenophon’s Anabasis and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic.” The lessons came thick and fast all through his teenage years and he studied dutifully until at the age of twenty he suffered a nervous breakdown, which he later thought was caused by the heavy emphasis on early intellectual achievement. Fortunately for Mill, he pulled out of his depression and went on to have a distinguished career.
Margaret Fuller is another example of an individual whose early life was dominated by a father’s insistence on intellectual distinction. Her position was unusual for a woman, because most fathers in the early 19th century would not have bothered educating a daughter. While I was writing my biography of Margaret Fuller, I found ample evidence that Margaret had very mixed feelings about her precocious education and how it affected her life. Before Margaret was four years old, her father started teaching her to read. She learned easily and within a few months she was reading stories and enjoying them. Almost as soon as she had mastered reading in English, she started on Latin. By the time she was six years old, Margaret was spending her days bent over a book instead of playing with other children. Although she too grew up to have a distinguished career, she sometimes wondered whether her father’s early pushing made her life less happy than it might have been.
It seems as though we haven’t learned much over the years about letting children find their own paths in life. I guess it’s just something every generation has to learn all over again. Meanwhile we can only hope that pharmaceuticals won’t become a regular part of high school life.