Charles Dickens Gave His Cat “Bob” a Second Life as a Letter Opener

dicken's cat letter opener
Image via New York Public Library

Increasingly Facebook seems a virtual pet cemetery, with images of recently departed cats and dogs buttressed with words of heartbreak and consolation. It feels hard-hearted to scroll past without laying a comment at each freshly dug cyber-mound, even when one has no personal relationship with the deceased, or, to large degree, the owner. The lazy man may “like” news of a beloved Airedale’s demise, but acknowledgment cannot always be said to equal respect.

And what, pray tell, is the protocol after? How many minutes should elapse before it is acceptable to post Throwback Thursday shots of one’s younger, big-haired self? What if one accidentally sends a Farmville notification to the bereaved?

If only we had a Victorian we could ask.

Preferably, Charles Dickens.

He went to his reward eleven years before “Poor Cherry,” the first dog planted in Hyde Park’s small pet cemetery, but he was a keen observer of mourning customs.

He was also an animal lover, as his daughter, Mamie noted in My Father as I Recall Him:

On account of our birds, cats were not allowed in the house; but from a friend in London I received a present of a white kitten — Williamina — and she and her numerous offspring had a happy home at “Gad’s Hill.” … As the kittens grow older they became more and more frolicsome, swarming up the curtains, playing about on the writing table and scampering behind the bookshelves. But they were never complained of and lived happily in the study until the time came for finding them other homes. One of these kittens was kept, who, as he was quite deaf, was left unnamed, and became known by servants as “the master’s cat,” because of his devotion to my father. He was always with him, and used to follow him about the garden like a dog, and sit with him while he wrote. One evening we were all, except father, going to a ball, and when we started, left “the master” and his cat in the drawing-room together. “The master” was reading at a small table, on which a lighted candle was placed. Suddenly the candle went out. My father, who was much interested in his book, relighted the candle, stroked the cat, who was looking at him pathetically he noticed, and continued his reading. A few minutes later, as the light became dim, he looked up just in time to see puss deliberately put out the candle with his paw, and then look appealingly towards him. This second and unmistakable hint was not disregarded, and puss was given the petting he craved. Father was full of this anecdote when all met at breakfast the next morning.

One anecdote Mamie chose not to include is that when Dickens’ Bob, the deaf kitten mentioned above, left this earthly plane, the master turned him into a letter opener.

Well, not the whole cat, actually. Just a single paw, which the author had stuffed and attached to an ivory blade. The blade is engraved “C.D. In Memory of Bob 1862″ which is more grave marker than most pussycats can hope for.

Should anyone ever publish a History of Charles Dickens in 100 Objects, count on this object to make the cut.

Still, it’s an oddity most contemporary Westerners would view with distaste. (But not all. The Morbid Anatomy Museum’s frequent small mammal taxidermy workshops draw mightily from the ranks of Brooklyn hipsters.)

I certainly felt the need to hustle my then 12-year-old son past this unusual souvenir when it was displayed as part of the New York Public Library’s cozy exhibit, Charles Dickens: The Key to Character. The kid’s an animal lover who was in Oliver!  at the time. I feared he’d respond with Tale of Two Cities-level peasant rage, which is acceptable, except when there’s a show that must go on.

Preserved!, a British taxidermy blog sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council offers a tender take on Dickens’ motivation. Over the years, he had several animals, including a pet raven, stuffed, but his closeness with Bob called for a special approach. 19th-century literature scholar Jenny Pyke writes that “the taxidermied cat paw stands out in its tactile softness and emotional tenderness. Most often, as popular as it was in the nineteenth century, taxidermy was consumed visually only, displayed in glass cases or crowded cabinets. With Bob’s paw, Dickens created an object meant to be held daily.”

It’s not for the squeamish, but I can see how this cannily orchestrated hand-holding could bring ongoing comfort. More than the fleeting condolences proliferating on Facebook, anyway.

via Slate

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Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Watch the New Trailer for the Upcoming Joan Didion Documentary, We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live

It didn’t take long, only 25 hours, for Griffin Dunne and Susanne Rostock to raise enough money on Kickstarter to complete a documentary on novelist and essayist Joan Didion. Initially hoping to raise $80,000, they’ve already received commitments exceeding $211,000, and they still have four days to go.

We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live will be the first and only documentary about Joan Didion. And it will be made with Joan, using her own words.  The trailer for the documentary just premiered on Vogue. It’s fitting, seeing that Didion landed her first job, at Vogue, after winning an essay contest sponsored by the magazine. She also published her seminal essay, ““On Self Respect” in Vogue in 1961.

You can watch the trailer above. Also don’t miss our roundup from earlier this year: 13 Masterful Essays by Joan Didion Free Online

via @michikokakutani

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Watch Harvard Students Fail the Literacy Test Louisiana Used to Suppress the Black Vote in 1964

This summer, we revisited a literacy test from the Jim Crow South. Given predominantly to African-Americans living in Louisiana in 1964, the test consisted of 30 ambiguous questions to be answered in 10 minutes. One wrong answer, and the test-taker was denied the right to vote. It was all part of the South’s attempt to impede free and fair elections, and ensure that African-Americans had no access to politics or mechanisms of power.

How hard was the test? You can take it yourself below (see an answer key here)  and find out. Just recently, the same literacy test was also administered to Harvard students — students who can, if anything, ace a standardized test — and not one passed. The questions are tricky. But even worse, if push comes to shove, the questions and answers can be interpreted in different ways by officials grading the exam. Carl Miller, a resident tutor at Harvard and a fellow at the law school, told The Daily Mail: “Louisiana’s literacy test was designed to be failed. Just like all the other literacy tests issued in the South at the time, this test was not about testing literacy at all. It was a … devious measure that the State of Louisiana used to disenfranchise people that had the wrong skin tone or belonged to the wrong social class.” (Sometimes the test was also given to poor whites.) Above, you can watch scenes from the Harvard experiment and students’ reactions.

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Download 110 Free Philosophy eBooks: From Aristotle to Nietzsche & Wittgenstein


Nietzsche

Just wanted to give you a quick heads up that we’ve recently spun out a collection of Free Philosophy eBooks (from our larger, more diverse collection of 600 Free eBooks). Right now, you will find 110 classic works on the new list — foundational texts written by Aristotle, Descartes, Hegel and Kant, not to mention Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, too. The list will keep growing at a steady clip. But if you see any crucial texts missing, please let us know, and we will try to get them added ASAP. Of course, we’re looking for works in the public domain.

You can generally download the Free Philosophy eBooks to your Kindle, iPad, iPhone and other devices. (Kindle users can use these instructions to get .mobi files onto their devices.) Or, in most cases, we give you the option to read the books in your web browser. Take your pick.

As a quick last note, you might want to complement the Philosophy eBooks with our big list of Free Online Philosophy Courses. The two collections go hand in hand.

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The Great War: Video Series Will Document How WWI Unfolded, Week-by-Week, for the Next 4 Years

This ambitious project deserves a mention: Mediakraft Networks has launched a video series on Youtube that will document how World War I unfolded, week-by-week, over a four-year period, from 1914 to 1918. A new video will be released every Thursday, and it will reflect on what happened during the same week 100 years prior. Launched in late July, the series has already covered 16 weeks of The Great War, with latest video showing how World War I became a defensive war and trenches began to scar the land. Hosted by Indy Neidell (read an interview with him here), each video features archival footage from British Pathé, the newsreel archive company that put over 85,000 historical films on YouTube earlier this year.

the great war video series

You can watch all 16 episodes above, along with a few helpful primers that explain why the War started in the first place. To view new videos as they get released, keep tabs on this Youtube page. There should eventually be close to 300 episodes. Quite an undertaking!

As a side note, I noticed that a Dutch podcast (in English) will cover “The First World War in 261 weeks.” That’s the title of the podcast itself. Find it here.

via Kottke.org

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Martin Scorsese Names the 11 Scariest Horror Films: Kubrick, Hitchcock, Tourneur & More

“When it comes to ripe old frighteners — or to any other overheated genre — Scorsese is the most ardent of proselytizers,” writes the New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane in a review of that respected director’s ripe-old-frightener-flavored Shutter Island, “so much so that I would prefer to hear him enthuse about Hammer Horror films, say, than to watch a Hammer Horror film.” And though no Hammer productions appear on it, Scorsese, who often seems as much film enthusiast as filmmaker, has put together a solid list of his personal eleven scariest horror movies for The Daily Beast. At its very top we have Robert Wise’s The Haunting, whose trailer you can watch above. Scorsese promisingly describes the story of the film, originally ballyhooed with the tagline “You may not believe in ghosts but you cannot deny terror!,” as “about the investigation of a house plagued by violently assaultive spirits.” His full and frightening list runs as follows:

  • The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
  • Isle of the Dead (Val Lewton, 1945)
  • The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944)
  • The Entity (Frank de Felitta, 1983)
  • Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer, 1945)
  • The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)
  • The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
  • The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
  • Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)
  • The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
  • Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

You can watch clips of all these movies over at The Daily Beast. With only 351 days until next Halloween, this should help you plan your next midcentury-centered, British-inflected horror movie marathon. (And if you simply can’t get enough of the things, see also Time Out London‘s list of the 100 best horror films.) Such tastes make it no surprise to see a Hitchcock film make Scorsese’s list; so much does Scorsese love Hitchcock’s work — “one of my guiding lights,” he calls the maker of Psycho — that he once spoofed his own fanboyism in a commercial for Freixenet sparkling wine. For those who’d prefer a more conventional Scorsese-inspired binge watch, we’ve also featured his list of twelve favorite films overall and his list of 39 Essential Foreign Films. Whatever genre you favor, you could do much worse than taking his recommendations.

via The Daily Beast

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Art of Leo Tolstoy: See His Drawings in the War & Peace Manuscript & Other Literary Texts

War and Peace sketch

Like all great writers, Leo Tolstoy has inspired a great many visual adaptations of his work, of varying degrees of quality. Just this past month, the Volgograd Fine Arts Museum in Russia held an exhibition of “92 graphic works from the collection of the Yasnaya Polyana Estate-Museum,” the author’s country estate and birthplace. Each work of art “recreates immortal images of the characters, reconstructs the historic epoch, and reflects the dynamics” of his masterpieces Anna Karenina and War and Peace, as well as his short stories for children.

ABC sketch

Travel to Moscow, however, to the Leo Tolstoy State Museum, and you’ll find Tolstoy’s own visual art, which he sketched both on the very manuscript pages of those novels and stories and in the notebooks that inspired them. At the top of the post, see a manuscript page of War and Peace with the figures of a boy and a well-dressed woman drawn very faintly into the text. Directly above, see a sketch for his ABC book, a primer he created for his peasant schools at Yasnaya Polyana.

Jules Verne sketch

Tolstoy didn’t only illustrate his own work; he also made some sketches of his contemporary Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days—see one above—which he read in French with his children. These few drawings may seem like little more than doodles, but Tolstoy in fact had a very fine hand, as you can see in the two sketches below from notebooks he kept during his time in the Caucusus. It was then, while serving in the army, that Tolstoy began writing, and the notebooks he kept would eventually inspire his 1863 novel, The Cossacks.

Old Man sketch

These drawings are so well rendered they make me think Tolstoy could have become a visual artist as well as a great writer. But perhaps the exacting novelist was too harsh a critic to allow himself to pursue that course. Over forty years after making these drawings, Tolstoy published his thoughts on art in essay called What is Art?. In it, the great Russian writer creates what Gary R. Jahn in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism admits are some “unreasonably narrow, exclusive” criteria for defining art.

Old Man 2 sketch

Tolstoy also propounds something akin to a meme theory, which he calls a quality of “infectiousness.” Art, he writes, is “a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.” At the crucially formative period when these drawings were made, Tolstoy obviously decided he could best “infect” others through writing. That same year, he published the first part of his autobiographical trilogy, Childhood, under a pseudonym, followed quickly by Boyhood. By the time he retired from the army in 1856 and left the Caucusus for St. Petersburg, he was already a literary celebrity. See more of Tolstoy’s drawings from his Caucusus notebooks here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Entr’Acte: René Clair’s Dadaist Masterpiece (1924)

René Clair’s 1924 avant-garde masterpiece Entr’Acte opens with a cannon firing into the audience and that’s pretty much a statement of purpose for the whole movie. Clair wanted to shake up the audience, throwing it into a disorienting world of visual bravado and narrative absurdity. You can watch it above.

The film was originally designed to be screened between two acts of Francis Picabia’s 1924 opera Relâche. Picabia reportedly wrote the synopsis for the film on a single sheet of paper while dining at the famous Parisian restaurant Maxim’s and sent it to Clair. While that handwritten note was the genesis of what we see on screen, it’s Clair sheer cinematic inventiveness that is why the film is still shown in film schools today.

Clair sought to create a work of “pure cinema,” so he filled the film with just about every camera trick in the book: slow motion, fast motion, split screen and superimpositions among others. The camera is unbound and wildly kinetic. At one point, Clair mounts the camera upside down to the front of a rollercoaster.

In true Dadaist fashion, Clair creates a series of striking images – an upskirt shot of a leaping ballerina; a funeral procession bounding down the street in slow motion; a corpse springing out of a coffin – that seem to cry out for an explanation but remain maddeningly, frequently hilariously obscure.

The movie also serves as a class portrait of the Parisian avant-garde scene of the early ‘20s. Picabia and Erik Satie – who scored the movie – are the ones who fired that cannon. In another scene, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray can be seen playing chess with each other on a Parisian rooftop.

Compared to Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s notorious 1928 short Un Chien Andalou – a movie that is still quite shocking today – Entr’Acte is a much lighter, funnier work, one that looks to thwart bourgeois expectations of narrative logic but doesn’t quite try to shock them into indignant outrage. In fact, to modern eyes, the movie feels at times like a particularly unhinged Monty Python skit. Picabia himself once asserted that Entr’acte “respects nothing except the right to roar with laughter.” So watch, laugh and prepare to be confused.

Entr’Acte will be added to our collection, 700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

‘You Are Done’: The Chilling “Suicide Letter” Sent to Martin Luther King by the F.B.I.

mlk uncovered letter

In November of 1964, Martin Luther King received a chilling letter, purportedly from a disillusioned member of the African-American community. “King, look into your heart,” writes MLK’s critic. “You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes.”

The letter then turns menacing. It gives the civil rights leader a choice. Commit suicide or get killed:

You are done.

King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significance). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.

Straight from the beginning, King knew the real author behind the “suicide letter,” as it’s now called. It was the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, who harbored a deep and abiding hatred for King. For years, the public only had access to redacted copies of the letter. The redactions obscured the methods of the FBI — the way the agency tried to “fracture movements and pit leaders against one another,” writes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the way it used surveillance to invade King’s personal life and then blackmailed him with the information it gathered. That’s what’s happening in the paragraph that begins “No person can overcome the facts, not even a fraud like yourself.”

This summer, while researching at the National Archives, Beverly Gage, a professor of American history at Yale, stumbled upon an unredacted copy. You can read it above. On Tuesday, Gage wrote about the letter and its historical significance in The New York Times. The unredacted letter was also published in the Times.

via BoingBoing/EFF

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