Where Does Inspiration Come From?


Marblehead, Maurice Prendergast, 1914-1915

Sebastian Smee, the witty, erudite, and Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for the Boston Globe, reminded readers in this morning’s paper to “go outside” and look.  Look.  That’s been hard to do this past week because of the almost constant rain.  But he’s right.  What he calls the “shrieking green” of spring has arrived.  He goes on to say that “to contemplate the sheer surface area of green matter that appears out of nowhere in this compressed time is to get a jolt of what the old Romantics called ‘the sublime.’”*

At this time of year, when colleges are finishing up their semesters, I often think of a scene from a book I published in 2012.  In the 1870s, Henry Adams, historian and grandson of presidents, would escape to Boston’s North Shore at the beginning of every summer after his year teaching history to some 200 students at Harvard.  Grading all those final exams made his eyes and hands and back ache.  He and his wife, Clover, would leave their townhouse on Marlborough St. for their summer home in Beverly Farms, with its covered porches and sprawling garden.  Once, in early June, he confessed to a friend:  “I could write a sonnet on the pleasures of picking up stones out of one’s lawn.” In the afternoons, he liked to go tramping through the forests and rocky hills near the shore, with its sweet breezes.  He’d find a sheltered spot, under a canopy of newly green trees to, as he said, “lay down on my back till dinner time,” thinking of nothing at all.  For anyone who’s survived a long teaching year in a cloudy part of the country – well, this scene captures the longing of early spring pretty well.

I’ve been thinking a lot about inspiration – where it comes from, why it’s sometimes abundant, at other times in short supply, and where I’ve found it lately.  The early purple and yellow flowers peeking up in my garden are helping.  Here’s a shortlist of what else has been helping.

Three Favorite Research Resources:

  • If you’re about to launch into your summer research projects, check out ArchiveGrid, a go-to database that allows you to limit your search of archives to those in your city or region.
  • Historical newspapers: My current project requires I scour through historical newspapers, so I was particularly glad when this resource recently became available from the Library of Congress.
  • There was a lot of press when the New York Public Library announced earlier this year that they’d digitized many thousands of items in their special collections and made these available in a beautifully designed and easy-to-use site. As of today, it’s up to 678,988 items!  Best of all, over 180,000 are in the public domain.

Two Favorite Books:

  • The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family Inheritance, by Edmund de Waal.
    I can’t stop thinking about this remarkable book, which I just finished.  It’s a book that gets into your dreams.  The story follows a collection of 264 netsuke, small Japanese carvings made from ivory or chestnut wood, first collected by de Waal’s Jewish banking ancestor in 1870s Paris, then sent to Vienna at the turn-of-century through WWI and Germany’s takeover of Austria at the beginning of WWII, then to postwar Tokyo and finally present-day London, where de Waal is a renowned porcelain ceramicist. Somehow this sweeping story that moves across decades and continents is exquisitely intimate.  The reader is brought very close-up to specific moments, a character’s gesture, a clearing of the throat, not unlike tumbling the tiny netsuke in your hand.
  • A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, by Rachel Cohen. Sometimes, when I’m particularly stuck in my own writing, I dip into Cohen’s book for a chapter or two to get nourished both by the stories she tells of friendship between artists and writers and the way she tells the stories – her cool-eyed compassion, her supple style, how she pays attention to the smallest detail of her subjects’ lives. The chapter on Mark Twain’s friendship with General Grant and the final scene of one writer mourning the death of another – Twain favorably compared Grant’s memoirs to Caesar’s Commentaries – are unforgettable.   I have a few books I always keep on a shelf near my desk; this is one of them.

Spring at last is here, go outside, LOOK, and then enjoy what inspires you – summer is near!

*Sebastian Smee, 5/6/2016,  The Boston Globe.

~Natalie Dykstra, BSS Director

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