Revealed: Sylvia Plath’s Last Desperate Letters

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Going through a breakup with her on-off boyfriend Richard Sassoon in the spring of 1956 Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother that her doubts about Richard stemmed from his physical inadequacy. “I see now through the boyish weakness of his frame, & the delicate health & unathletic nature, to a soul which is kingly and beautiful and strong.” The all-American good looks of a different beau, Gordon Lameyer, created the opposite problem. Plath was looking for a man to be her partner in life and the father of her children who was her equal in both physical and intellectual vigor. She found him, at a party in Cambridge just a month after writing to her mother about Richard. His name was, of course, Ted Hughes.

Plenty has been committed to paper about Hughes’ betrayal of Plath, when he began an affair with Assia Wevill in the summer of 1962—an affair which stretched on through the winter of 1963, when Plath committed suicide. (Assia moved into Court Green, Plath’s home and gave birth to a daughter by Hughes, named Shura. She cared for Plath’s children and Hughes’s household until Hughes was unfaithful to her, and, in 1969, committed suicide by gas oven, also killing Shura, then four. For more on Assia, read Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negev’s excellent biography, Lover of Unreason.)

Plath’s agony over Hughes’s betrayal is on full display in surviving letters to her friends, her mother, and of course, in her final Ariel poems, which were subsequently collected by Hughes after her death. (Hughes claimed to have burned and/or misplaced Plath’s final journals.) But then, at the end of 2016, came a startling discovery: 14 never-before-seen letters from Plath to her psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, detailing Plath’s struggle after Hughes’s infidelity. These gut-wrenching letters are published for the first time in the second volume of Plath’s letters, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. The volume bears a foreword from Plath’s daughter, Freida Hughes, recounting her difficult decision over whether the letters should be published.

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How Edgar Allan Poe Got Kicked Out of the U.S. Army

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In discussions of great American writers who were also military veterans, the name Edgar Allan Poe is unlikely to come up. Yet it should: the iconically doomed poet and inventor of the modern detective story served as a soldier for several of his formative years. Furthermore, in considering a life often marked by painful loss and failure, it might surprise many readers to learn Poe was something of a successful and motivated soldier—that is, until he wasn’t.

After leaving the University of Virginia without a degree (and with significant gambling debts) Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1827 under an assumed name: Edgar A. Perry. It’s unclear why he fudged the official rolls but he may have been reluctant to use his real name for the lingering sake of propriety. “Enlisted soldier” was not a profession typically undertaken by honorable young men in the early 19th century, a time when, paradoxically, Revolutionary War heroes were being venerated by the same dominant culture that looked with scorn upon real-life grunts. Relatively small by today’s standards, the army’s ranks at the time were disproportionately composed of immigrants, many of whom spoke little English: Germans, Irish, and others.

Poe’s exact reasons for wanting to join this motley crew are lost to history. Most likely his motivations were various and complicated, as people’s tend to be. He did not get along well with his foster father, John Allan, who refused to continue supporting him financially. His first book of poems, published the same year as his enlistment, was far from a commercial success. He was a young man in want of a glorious and paying career, and as a boy he would have heard stories of his grandfather David Poe, a major in George Washington’s army. The elder Poe was semi-famous in Baltimore and was remembered and liked by such luminaries as General Lafayette. There is evidence from “Private Perry’s” letters that Poe bragged of this association.  

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The Saintly Sister Who Found Art and God in The Big Easy

Handout from Jason Berry’s collection

In 1957, the state of Louisiana built a four-lane vertical lift bridge on North Main InfoClaiborne Avenue over Industrial Canal, streamlining access from New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a vast semi-rural area of mostly poor people. That year, two African American evangelists moved downriver to the Lower Nine, and Sister Gertrude Morgan became a Bride of Christ. She wrote:

He has taken me out of the black robe and crowned me out in white.

We are now in revelation, he married me, I’m his wife.

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How Basketball’s Fight Over Racial Equality Remade the Game

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Dr. James Naismith’s final student before he retired from the University of Kansas was John McLendon, the pioneer of fast-break basketball, the full-court press, and the four corners offense. Yet McLendon never received the credit he deserved, because the majority of his work was accomplished at historically black colleges and universities when basketball was still segregated in the United States.

Long before civil rights legislation began to rid America of the scourge of segregation, McLendon was utilizing basketball to break down racial barriers. In March 1944, McLendon orchestrated a “secret game” between his team, North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), and a collection of white former college basketball stars from Duke University Medical School, who had handily beaten the Duke varsity team in a scrimmage. McLendon planned the game for a Sunday morning, when most people would be in church. The medical students borrowed cars from friends and drove a circuitous route to the school to avoid being detected, arriving with their jackets pulled over their heads. They hustled into a locked gym, where McLendon’s Eagles trounced them 88–44. There were no spectators.

“Coach Mac” went on to mentor countless African American coaches, among them Southern University coach Ben Jobe, Clarence “Big House” Gaines (who led Winston-Salem State University to a Division II NCAA championship in 1967 on the strength of a young guard named Earl Monroe), and former Georgetown coach John Thompson, who became the first African American coach to win a Division I championship.

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Susan Orlean Dissects the Catastrophic LA Library Fire

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Susan Orlean had recently moved to Los Angeles and was taking a tour of the main branch of that city’s public library when the man guiding her around took a book off a shelf, cracked it open, and smelled it. “You can still smell the smoke in some of them,” he said, to which Orlean responded, “Because the library used to let patrons smoke?”

“No,” he said, “smoke from the fire.”

“The fire?” asked Orlean. “What fire?”

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Meet the Photographer Who Caught Bob Dylan in His Prime

Courtesy Jerry Schatzberg

A creative career that arcs from accomplished photographer to celebrated filmmaker is hardly unique. Robert Frank, Chris Marker, and Stanley Kubrick, to name a few, all began as still photographers and then made the leap to moviemaking. But few artists have left as indelible a mark on both pursuits as Jerry Schatzberg. In the ’60s, he photographed cultural icons—Jimi Hendrix, Edie Sedgwick, Fidel Castro—for magazines like Esquire, Vogue, McCall’s, and LIFE. In the ’70s, his earliest movies—Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970, with Faye Dunaway), The Panic in Needle Park (1971, with Al Pacino and Kitty Winn, who won Best Actress at Cannes), and Scarecrow (1973, with Pacino and Gene Hackman; Palme d’Or at Cannes)—would become touchstones of a fraught era.

But for sheer, sustained excellence, Schatzberg’s portraits of Bob Dylan stand alone. In an 18-month supernova of creative energy, from early 1965 through mid-1966, Dylan recorded and released three of the most influential albums ever made: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Schatzberg met Dylan in the midst of that astonishing run, during the Highway 61 sessions in New York in ’65, and photographed him through ’66. (The famous, out-of-focus portrait gracing the cover of Blonde on Blonde is Schatzberg’s.)

A beautiful new book, Dylan by Schatzberg (ACC Art Books), brims with the best of those pictures. In an interview with The Daily Beast, the 91-year-old Bronx native discusses the rewards and challenges of working with Dylan, the real story behind that Blonde on Blonde picture, and making peace with his own fame—or lack of it. The interview, conducted by phone and at the Upper West Side apartment where Schatzberg has lived for five decades, has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. — BC

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Humor and Horror Go Hand in Hand in These Spooky Stories

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As anyone with a cursory knowledge of Halloween knows—which is to say, anyone from age two and up—the model ghost is a haunt who is skilled at parting you from your ability to remain unafraid.

Whether emerging from beneath your bed, the recesses of your closet, or the family crypt where you drink a pony of liquor each year to toast those who’ve have gone before, the best ghosts are in the terror business.

But what of the ghosts who make us laugh? What of their rich literary history? In even the scariest ghost stories, there tends to be some humor. Something potent often sparks its opposite, so humor works well with terror for the same reason that you see death and life and love and hate riding together.

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Why Is Our Culture So Obsessed With Dead White Girls?

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“Why does Jenny have to die?”

My high school offered a course in film, for one semester. One of the first movies we watched in that class was Forrest Gump. Our teacher raised concerning questions about the way the women in the film were depicted, in particular, the character of Jenny, Forrest’s only childhood friend, a victim of child molestation at the hands of her father, later a drug user, eventually dead by AIDS.

Dumbfounded, I searched my adolescent brain for an answer. Because it manipulates the audience into feeling more for Forrest? It makes her life a tragedy? Jenny sets out to live an independent life and she is punished for it, my teacher offered. Somewhere, in the back of my brain, a door opened. Today, it’s easy to recognize Jenny as a dead girl, the subject of Alice Bolin’s new book: Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession.

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Pussy Riot’s New Book Is Disruption 101

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Nadya Tolokonnikova readily admits that the political protest her group Pussy Riot undertook on February 12, 2012, was a total disaster. On that day, five members of the group entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and launched into a song they called “A Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away.” Arrested almost immediately, three of the members were charged with ‘hooliganism,’ and eventually sentenced to two years in prison.

One of them was Tolokonnikova who, in her new book, Read and Riot: A Pussy Riot Guide to Activism, claims that “the action in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was horrible on the whole. We didn’t accomplish most of what we intended—we didn’t even get to the refrain of the song. We did not have enough footage to make a good music video. Oddly enough, we were sent to prison for the worst Pussy Riot action we’d done.”

And yet the brazenness of that fiasco, combined with the harshness of the response, made Tolonnikova and her cohorts global superstars—the face of the anti-Putin movement.

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Jill Lepore: Politicians Can Dupe Voters but not Posterity

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What’s the point of Jill Lepore writing These Truths: A History of the United States, her new 932-page history of America from Christopher Columbus to Donald Trump?

First, those are quite the bookends for an American epic—from the first Western voyager to sail to America (and give it smallpox) to the president who just called his former mistress “Horseface” on the internet. Lepore populates These Truths with big personalities, eccentric geniuses, and committed activists who work their will in large and small ways, and she does it with a historian’s rigor and a novelist’s eye for details.

Second, Lepore is a Harvard scholar and a New Yorker staff writer—a historian and a journalist—at a time when technology has swept the documentary world into a continuous feed of tweets and pics and podcasts and DMs. Lepore is attuned to how technology has continuously changed how people communicate and what records are left.

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The Haunting Mystery of ‘Edwin Drood’ That Charles Dickens Left Behind

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On June 8, 1870, Charles Dickens spent most of the day working on his latest novel. Normally Dickens would confine his writing to the morning hours, but on this day he met his close friend John Forster for lunch and then returned to his novel in the afternoon.

At 6:10 p.m., shortly after he had joined his family at the dinner table, he had a stroke. Twenty-four hours later, the most celebrated author in Victorian England was dead.

“The loss of no single man during the present generation, if we except Abraham Lincoln alone, has carried mourning into so many families, and been so unaffectedly lamented through all the ranks of society,” Horace Greeley, the founder of the New-York Tribune, said.

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Trump Fired James Comey and Shot Himself in the Foot

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At Jeff Sessions’s urging, Trump nominated Rod Rosenstein to be deputy attorney general in early February. He was confirmed in April, just as the president’s relationship with Comey was turning toxic. The FBI director’s standing deteriorated further on May 3, when Comey vigorously defended his handling of the Clinton email investigation in an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. While Comey was always seen as somewhat sanctimonious, his refusal to accept the possibility that he had made a grievous mistake infuriated Democrats and vexed his new Justice Department bosses, Sessions and Rosenstein. His failure during the hearing to declare that the bureau was not investigating Trump himself, and his statement that it made him “mildly nauseous” to think that his handling of the email probe had possibly cost Clinton the race, incensed the president.

The fallout was swift. A White House official returned from a meeting with Rosenstein to inform McGahn that the deputy attorney general had been troubled by Comey’s performance and wished to discuss how to address his refusal to acknowledge—let alone correct—his errors in judgment. Trump stewed about Comey all weekend during a trip to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and returned to Washington clutching the draft of a letter firing his FBI director—something he had begun composing numerous times only to be talked down by Priebus and others who feared that dismissing Comey would unleash a legal and political maelstrom.

On Monday, May 8, five days after Comey’s testimony, Trump summoned Pence, Priebus, McGahn, Sessions, and Rosenstein to the Oval Office. It was a Comey-bashing session in which nearly everyone—including Rosenstein—participated with enthusiasm. The president declared that he had decided to get rid of the FBI director, and mentioned the letter he’d written. It faulted Comey for his handling of the Clinton email investigation—something Trump had praised in his personal meetings with the FBI chief—and expressed his continued irritation that Comey had failed to tell the public what he had said several times in private, that Trump was not a target of the FBI probe.

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Yuval Noah Harari’s Quick Primer on How to See Into the Future

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One of my favorite one-liners is the joke by economist Paul Samuelson that the stock market has predicted nine of the last five recessions. It highlights the idea that sometimes we’re bad prognosticators because we see “trends” that were really just data points.

So how do you tell the signal from the noise? How do you know when something new is also something big? How much do our primate brains and changing weather patterns tell us about the future of immigration or war or online dating apps?

“I don’t think of history as much about studying the past as about studying change,” says Yuval Noah Harari, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of the New York Times bestseller Sapiens. “And one of the main tools for studying change is looking at past changes in human society and political systems.”

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Kurt Eichenwald: I Was Kicked Out of School for Having Epilepsy

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Convulsions dominated my first two years at Swarthmore College. My first neurologist, Dr. Charles Nicholson, instructed me to tell no one about my epilepsy because otherwise I would be subjected to severe discrimination. I hid out in my dorm room, and begged my roommates to keep my secret. My second neurologist almost killed me with toxic levels of medication. Broken bones, burns, nightmares, and hopelessness led me to plan suicide.

Then, in the summer after my sophomore year, I met Dr. Alan Naarden, a top neurologist. His treatment decreased my number of convulsions dramatically. He instructed me to stop hiding and to seek emotional support from a school psychologist.

For the first time, I began walking the campus alone. Over eight weeks, I experienced two convulsions outside; just a month earlier, before my medication change, that number would have been in the dozens. For the first time since my diagnosis, the school was being exposed to my seizures.

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Baseball’s Greatest Poem Is About a Loser

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For all of the carping these days about the slow pace of baseball, there was a time when our grand, clockless sport fired millions of imaginations.

Said firing was helped along by a 24-year-old Easterner named Ernest Thayer, who had gone west to San Francisco to make his journalistic name. If you knew a Thayer who was a writer, you were probably a classical music aficionado, and had tracked down a copy of Alexander Thayer’s first-ever biography of Beethoven. But our Mr. Thayer was interested in another mighty B, you might say, that being baseball in all of its attendant, grand-sweeping powers, as borne out in poesy.

It was 130 years ago that Thayer published “Casey at the Bat,” a 13-verse poem that he regarded as doggerel. But this was high-level doggerel, if the term ever fit. You may have never sat down to read those 13 verses, you may have nary a clue who Ernest Thayer is, you may not like baseball, you may detest all things “sports ball,” but there is no way you have not come in contact with some aspect of the finest poem about athletics ever penned in this country.

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Your Next Car Will Be Self-Driving—If You Buy a Car at All

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Autonomous cars are not a theoretical, maybe-if proposition that depends on a lot of different pegs falling into place. They’re already driving themselves. You may have seen one beside you in traffic. (I recently saw one next to me at a red light, and it was weird.) There’s already a full-blown trial in Chandler, Arizona.

If you bought a car in the last few years, there’s a decent chance you won’t buy another one. In a decade—maybe less—you may subscribe to a car service the way you subscribe today to Netflix or Blue Apron. When you need to go to Whole Foods, you send for a car on your iPhone or tell Alexa to send you one. Or you’ll order Whole Foods online, and an autonomous car will bring the groceries to you.

The revelation that that comes through like high-beam headlights in Lawrence D. Burns’s Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—and How It Will Reshape Our World is how much of the work is already done. General Motors introduced an autonomous concept car in 2002, and engineers started racing self-driving trucks and SUVs across the Mojave Desert in 2004. In the decade and half since, a long list of companies—Google, Uber, Tesla, Ford, GM, and many others—have spent tens of billions of dollars improving the technology to the point that it’s ready for the world.

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