Long before I had my daughter, I began collecting the books I thought would be important to our life together: “Goodnight Moon” and “Eloise” and “Frog and Toad” and “Owl at Home” and “Mouse Soup.” I stockpiled picture books by Cynthia Rylant and Patricia Polacco and Ezra Jack Keats. These were the books that I remembered from my own childhood, and from my days as a first-grade teacher, books I’d read aloud, again and again, until I had practically memorized the words.
My daughter Beatrice is now almost three, and I still haven’t collected or read many books about parenting—maybe because I don’t remember my own parents reading such books, or maybe because I suspect such books would fail to match the wisdom of Arnold Lobel, the poetry of Cynthia Rylant, the wit of Kay Thompson. But there is one book on the subject—at least in part—that I discovered after Beatrice’s birth, and which has meant more to me than any other: “The Little Virtues,” by the Italian novelist, essayist, playwright, short-story writer, translator, and political activist Natalia Ginzburg.
Ginzburg, who died in 1991, at the age of seventy-five, was born in Palermo, in Sicily, to a family of prominent scholars and intellectuals. She published her first novella at eighteen, and in her early twenties became the first person to translate “Swann’s Way” into Italian. During the course of her long career she lived in Turin, Rome, and London. “The Little Virtues” is a slim volume of essays, a little more than a hundred pages altogether, which she wrote and first published between 1944 and 1962. Some of the essays chronicle Ginzburg’s time in exile with her family during the Second World War; others compare the life she experienced in Italy with life in England, or the particular differences of preference and temperament between Ginzburg and her second husband. (Her first husband, a writer, professor, and resistance leader, was imprisoned and murdered by Fascist police, in 1944.) The title essay considers what we should teach children—“not the little virtues but the great ones,” according to Ginzburg. “Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.”
I first read “The Little Virtues” on a family beach trip when Beatrice was eight months old, and my attention was divided between vacationing, caring for her, and writing syllabi for the fall semester. I thought I could use some of the book in a class I was planning on the personal essay, but I also began to see the book as piercingly relevant to my own life, to my hopes and uncertainties. I read lines out loud to my husband, my mother, and to Beatrice—lines like this one: “What we must remember above all in the education of our children is that their love of life should never weaken.”
My husband and mother nodded and turned the pages of their own books. Beatrice listened placidly, teething alternately on her fist, her foot. I have read the essays in the collection many times since, and I often teach them or recommend them to my students. In a graduate class that I taught at North Carolina State University, a woman with a wry sense of humor who wrote speculative short fiction gave a presentation on “The Little Virtues.” Near the end of her talk she tried to read the final passage from a tender and heartbreaking essay called “Winter in the Abruzzi,” about Ginzburg’s last winter with her first husband. My student had to stop herself because she was so overcome with emotion.
In another essay, ostensibly about shoes, Ginzburg asks, rather suddenly, about her sons, “What road will they choose to walk down?” She has been thinking about her worn-out shoes and the more comfortable and protective pairs provided to her children at their grandmother’s house. “Will they decide to give up everything that is pleasant but not necessary,” she writes, “or will they affirm that everything is necessary and that men have the right to wear sound, solid shoes on their feet?”
Often in these essays her children are in the background; they are safe with her mother while she lives in Rome with a female friend, or they appear only through their toys, which “covered the floor” beneath the table where her husband wrote at their home in the Abruzzi, in Fascist-imposed exile. Caring for her children is not necessarily a pleasure so much as a duty, one that sometimes interferes with art—but it is nevertheless central to her, necessary. When she is away from her children she anticipates returning to them, and to a life of domestic comforts, becoming a different person than the woman who fastens her clothes with “pins instead of buttons” and writes whenever she pleases. Then, she writes, she “shall take my children in hand and overcome the temptation to let my life go to pieces. I shall become serious and motherly, as always happens when I am with them.”
It’s important business, raising a human being from infancy to adulthood, and one full of anxiety, for most of us, especially when we consider that essential question: Which road will they choose? Surely this is why the parenting shelves at my local library groan with books that detail every possible approach to raising kids: free-range, attachment, logical, positive, “scream-free,” “no-drama,” French. Perhaps that’s why my daughter’s day care, and another day care she might join someday, if she ever reaches the top of the waiting list, regularly e-mail me compendia of parenting advice. We all want our kids to be useful, productive, caring, happy, successful.
But Ginzburg is ambivalent about success, and she does not consider childhood a staging ground for adulthood. Her writing expresses a deep empathy for the child’s mind, the child’s perspective:
“When we are little children we have our eyes fixed above all on the world of adults, which is dark and mysterious to us. It seems absurd to us because we don’t understand any of the words which adults say to one another . . . and we are not interested in them; on the contrary they are infinitely boring to us.”
Adults are particularly boring to kids when they talk about what Ginzburg calls “the problem of money,” a concern that animates a number of parenting books, notably “The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money,” a best-selling 2015 book by Ron Lieber, the personal-finance columnist for the New York Times. At the children’s museum near my home, there is an exhibit called Moneypalooza, with black walls and colorful spotlit play areas, where children are encouraged to work at pretend jobs and to think of the wages they earn as opportunities to “spend, save, and share.” I don’t care for the atmosphere in Moneypalooza; the room is as dim and windowless as an Abercrombie & Fitch. But Beatrice likes to jump on the piles of oversized quarters, which light up when you land on them, and she likes watching the enormous suspended piggy bank fill up with green foam balls until it opens and spills, piñata-like, onto the children waiting below. I don’t like the Bank of America signs in the room (they are one of the exhibit’s sponsors) or the advice near the pizza station about how to earn tips. (“Good service earns you extra money! Be on time, Provide service with a smile, Make your customers happy.”)
Lieber makes the basic assumption that his readers have incomes “above $50,000 or so” (many of the stories concern families with much higher incomes than that), and his book asks not only parents but also fairly young kids to think and talk about the use of money, the responsibility of money, the importance of money. Both Lieber and the designers behind Moneypalooza appear to consider the enormous piggy bank a given, and they convey the idea that money is a good, useful tool—good to have and good to understand.
Ginzburg, who grew up privileged but endured years of privation, calls money “an ignoble thing.” Where she grew up, it wasn’t kept in a clay pig, but in an “innocent-looking moneybox made of earthenware, in the shape of a pear or an apple.” She sees it as almost poisonous, as something that “in the dark and in secret grows like a seed in the womb of the earth.” She posits that when we encourage kids to save for something they really want, a special and expensive toy, for example, they often become disappointed once they buy the toy, which invariably “seems dull and plain and ordinary after so much waiting and so much money.” They don’t blame the money, she says, but the object—they miss the money, and the alluring project of saving: “It is not bad that they have suffered a disappointment; it is bad that they feel lonely without the company of money.”
Better, she says, to raise them with an indifference to money, to let them spend it—and share it—freely and without regret, to teach them to seek work that they love, a vocation, rather than work that pays well. It’s a radically idealistic approach, more in keeping, maybe, with the life choices of Frog and Toad, who sometimes just fall asleep outside, in the swamp, than with the lives of contemporary middle-class parents. The kids of such parents need to be prepared, Lieber writes, for “college costs that we could never have imagined when we were teenagers.” He then lists amounts I can barely conceive: “$100,000 for a flagship state university,” rising to “at least $250,000.”
That’s the main difference, I suppose, between Ginzburg and some of today’s most prominent parenting-advice-givers. Ginzburg, who authored twelve books and two plays; who, because of anti-Semitic laws, sometimes couldn’t publish under her own name; who raised five children and lost her husband to Fascist torture; who was elected to the Italian parliament as an independent in her late sixties—this woman does not take her present conditions as a given. She asks us to fight back against them, to be brave and resolute. She instructs us to ask for better, for ourselves and for our children.
I find her inspiring. I find my daughter inspiring, too—this tiny but fearless being who leaps so confidently from those stacks of giant quarters, sure that however she lands, it will be O.K. It’s my job to keep her feet dry, Ginzburg reminds me, because “perhaps even for learning to walk in worn-out shoes, it is as well to have dry, warm feet when we are children.” What road will she walk down? I can’t know, not yet.
Letter to My Daughter (2009) is the third book of essays by African-American writer and poet Maya Angelou. By the time it was published, Angelou had written two other books of essays, several volumes of poetry, and six autobiographies. She was recognized and highly respected as a spokesperson for women and people of color, and had become "a major autobiographical voice of the time". Angelou had no daughters herself, but was inspired to write Letter as she was going through 20 years of notes and essay ideas, some of which were written for her friend Oprah Winfrey. Angelou wrote the book for the thousands of women who saw her as a mother figure, and to share the wisdom gained throughout her long life.
Letter consists of 28 short essays, which includes a few poems and a commencement address, and is dedicated to "the daughter she never had". Reviews of the book were generally positive; most reviewers recognized that the book was full of Angelou's wisdom and that it read like words of advice from a beloved grandmother or aunt. One reviewer found the book's essays both homespun and "hokey".
Letter to My Daughter is Maya Angelou's third book of essays.[note 1] She had published several volumes of poetry, including Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She had recited her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, making her the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. In 2009, when Letter was published, Angelou had published six out of her seven installments of her series of autobiographies. Her sixth autobiography, A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), was considered her final autobiography until she published her seventh autobiography, Mom & Me & Mom, in 2013, at the age of 85.
I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you.
By the time Letter was published, Angelou had become recognized and highly respected as a spokesperson for Blacks and women. She was, as scholar Joanne Braxton has stated, "without a doubt ... America's most visible black woman autobiographer". She had also become, as reviewer Richard Long stated, "a major autobiographical voice of the time". Angelou was one of the first African-American female writers to publicly discuss her personal life, and one of the first to use herself as a central character in her books. Writer Julian Mayfield, who called her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, "a work of art that eludes description", stated that Angelou's series set a precedent not only for other Black women writers, but for the genre of autobiography as a whole.
Angelou came up with Letter to My Daughter, which became a New York Times bestseller, while going through old boxes of notes and papers full of concepts for future books and poems, which she called "WIP" ("Works in Progress"). She found twenty years worth of notes written to her friend Oprah Winfrey, and realized that she should put the essays they inspired into a book so that others could read them. Although she had no daughters, and gave birth to a son (Guy Johnson), which she called "the best thing that ever happened to me in my life", many women in Angelou's career looked to her as a mother figure. She wrote Letters to speak to those women and to share with them the wisdom she has gained throughout her long life. According to writer Gary Younge of The Guardian, most of the essays "end with the kind of wisdom that, depending on your taste, qualifies as either homespun or hokey". For example, she uses what has been called her most famous statement, when speaking of Cuban artist Celia Cruz: "We are more alike than unalike".[note 2] Although Angelou discounts the idea when he brings it up to her, Younge thinks Letter reads like an extended farewell; in her 500-word introduction she mentions death twice.
Never whine. Whining lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood.
Letter consists of 28 "short epistles", which includes a few poems and a commencement address, and is dedicated to "the daughter she never had". Angelou thanks several women on her dedication page, which is divided into three groups. The first group of five women, which includes her grandmother Annie Henderson and her mother Vivian Baxter, she calls "...some women who mothered me through dark and bright days". The second group has only one name, Dr. Dorothy Height, "...one woman who allows me to be a daughter to her, even today". The final group is the largest, made up of 12 women, whom she calls "women not born to me but who allow me to mother them". The group includes Winfrey, Gayle King, her niece Rosa Johnson Butler, her assistant Lydia Stuckey, and gospel singer Valerie Simpson.
In his review of Letter to My Daughter, Younge states, "At moments in the book she sounds like an elderly relative, distraught at the wayward manners of the young," but also says that Angelou seems to have "outlived the need for social convention".Kirkus Reviews finds "old fashioned wisdom" in the book, and calls it "a slim volume packed with nourishing nuggets of wisdom". Reviewer Karen Algeo Krizman says that "Angelou delivers with her signature passion and fire" and that although the essays are "easy to take in during brief moments of quiet", they have a powerful message. Laura L. Hutchison of The Fredicksburg Free Lance-Star states that Letter is "written in Angelou's beautiful, poetic style" and called the essays "advice from a beloved aunt or grandmother, whose wisdom you know was earned". Hutchinson also stated that the book would gain Angelou new readers, and that her current audience would read and reread it. Psychologists Eranda Jayawickreme and Marie J. C. Forgearda called the essays in Letter to My Daughter "illuminating" and used it as a non-scientific, interdisciplinary text to teach positive psychology.
Victoria Brownworth of The Baltimore Sun, who compares Angelou to populist poets such as Walt Whitman, notes that while reading Letter, "one cannot help but be struck by how much Angelou has overcome and how far she has come". Brownworth states that despite Angelou's harrowing and complex experiences, and the barriers she had to overcome, Angelou was "filled with life and generosity and a deep yearning to pass her story on to other young women". Brownworth calls Angelou's prose "colloquial and from the heart". She also compares Angelou's "fluid narrative" to oral history, and states, "The kernels of insight and, yes, wisdom in this small volume will stay with the reader for a long time".
- ^ abLong, Richard (November 2005). "Maya Angelou". Smithsonian36 (8): 84.
- ^ abcKrizman, Karen Algeo (09 October 2008). "Maya Angelou shares life's lessons in 'Letter to My Daughter'".Archived 2013-12-28 at the Wayback Machine. Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado). Retrieved 27 December 2013.
- ^ abcdefgYounge, Gary (13 November 2009). "Maya Angelou: 'I'm fine as wine in the summertime'". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
- ^ abAls, Hilton (5 August 2002). "Songbird: Maya Angelou Takes Another Look at Herself". The New Yorker. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
- ^Moyer, Homer E. (2003), The R.A.T. Real-World Aptitude Test: Preparing Yourself for Leaving Home. Sterling, Virginia: Capital Books, p. 297. ISBN 1-931868-42-5.
- ^Grenier, Richard (29 November 1993). "Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (Book)". National Review45 (23): 76.
- ^Manegold, Catherine S. (20 January 1993). "An Afternoon with Maya Angelou; A Wordsmith at Her Inaugural Anvil". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
- ^Connolly, Sherryl (14 April 2002). "Angelou Puts Finishing Touches on the Last of Many Memoirs".New York Daily News. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
- ^Gilmor, Susan (7 April 2013). "Angelou: Writing about Mom emotional process". Winston-Salem Journal. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
- ^ abAngelou, p. xii.
- ^"Maya Angelou".Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
- ^Braxton, Joanne M. (1999). "Symbolic Geography and Psychic Landscapes: A Conversation with Maya Angelou". In Joanne M. Braxton. Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: A Casebook. New York: Oxford Press, p. 4. ISBN 0-19-511606-2.
- ^ abWaldron, Clarence (08 December 2008). "Maya Angelou Tells What Inspired Her Latest Book." Jet114 (21): 28.
- ^Lupton, Mary Jane (1998). Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, p. 20. ISBN 978-0-313-30325-8.
- ^Angelou, p. 80.
- ^Letter to my Daughter dedication page.
- ^"Life lessons from the celebrated poet" (01 September 2008). Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
- ^ abHutchison, Laura L. (12 October 2008). "Missive from a Women of Letters".Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
- ^Jayawickreme, Eranda and Marie J.C. Forgearda (November 2011). "Insight or data: Using non-scientific sources to teach positive psychology". The Journal of Positive Psychology6 (6): 499—505.
- ^ abcdBrownworth, Victoria (05 October 2008). "A heartfelt 'Letter'", The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 27 December 2013.