The History of Love: A Novel

The History of Love is an ambitious title. It sounds like it should be on the cover a textbook, perhaps a cultural analysis of love over the ages. It suggests the enclosed pages will offer a comprehensive account of love, an all-encompassing, authoritative expose of love’s general nature. Rather, Nicole Krauss answers the questions raised by her novel’s title with a complex story of three people unwittingly connected by one man’s love. To describe love, to live up to her title, Krauss shows the crippling, lifelong romance that Leo Gursky has with Alma Mereminski, the lives affected by it, and how they all connect.

If you haven’t read the book, here are the plot points you need to know: Leo wrote a book called The History of Love for the love of his life, Alma Mereminksi, who left him in Poland when she escaped for America in 1942. Alma Singer, a fourteen year old girl who takes turns narrating the novel with Leo and others, was named after the Alma Mereminski in Leo’s book. After barely surviving the war, Leo follows his Alma to New York, where he finds that after giving birth to Leo’s son, Isaac, she assumed Leo had died and remarried, never telling Isaac about his true father. Leo lives alone in New York for the rest of his life, and is around eighty in the novel’s present.

With such a bold title, it is no surprise that Krauss disappointed some readers. The London Review says that the novel’s “important questions are soiled by the book’s inability to be primarily truthful about human conduct and motive, about life…. The centre of the book – its rendition of life, its ability to make one believe in it – is empty” (29). Wood blames the novel’s failure on Krauss’s forced attempts to please readers. But there’s another obstacle to achieving the primarily truthful understanding of love the title seems to promise, an obstacle Wood leaves out: The novel is polyglot – It is narrated by several distinct voices. Some readers see the competing voices as supporting each other. Jessica Lang writes in the Journal of Modern Literature that “The History of Love is the history of the self — “I” —  a single story. It is not so much about a Leo, or a soldier, or an Alma or a Bird; rather, the narration delivers a sense of meshed identity, a result of the various interactions accumulated over the course of a lifetime” (52-53). Although the novel’s different but connected characters may reinforce a broader, humanizing notion of togetherness, they have such different understandings of love that no coherently meshed characterization of love is delivered. If Leo’s perspective stood alone, we could take his conception of love as archetypal. However, the unique views presented by each narrator leave readers puzzled with a complex and internally conflicted picture of love. The History of Love shows that love means different things to everyone. To see this, we only need to look at Leo and his strongest foil, Alma Singer.

Leo Gursky

We see Leo’s voice in two contexts: We first catch glimpses of his voice in The History of Love, the book he wrote as a young adult for Alma Mereminski. As a young romantic, Leo is expressive, emotional, and invested in the world. He writes about Alma, “Her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering” (11). Leo’s passionate, aphoristic writing demonstrates how deeply he feels love’s beauty and power. His book details an imaginative history of love, describing angels’ love lives, the “Birth of Feeling”, the “Age of Glass” (106, 72). Leo’s writing is spirited, wrapped up in the joy of feeling. He falls deeply in love with Alma after his first interaction with her, begs her to marry him at age eleven, and promises never to love another girl. Leo’s young love is strong and joyful, the type found in Hollywood and readers’ dreams. However, Alma consumes his identity, which at first seems touching but quickly becomes dangerous. He later describes Alma’s love as the “only thing I knew,” and writes of his time hiding during the war, “I wanted to live very badly. And there was only one reason: her” (8, 226). Leo falls in love so strongly that it becomes his life’s purpose. But young Leo is satisfied, happy with love as his driving force.

Leo is a heartbroken old man when he narrates the novel, and the difference in his voice shows how losing Alma affected him. First, in contrast to the other narrators, Leo narrates dialogue in italics. Since italics are conventionally used for a character’s thoughts, when used for dialogue they emphasize Leo’s isolation and erect a boundary between the inside of Leo’s mind and the outside world. Communication with other people does not seem quite real – Leo travels in a haze, never really connecting with those around him. He spends his whole life yearning for the love he had as a teenager and recovering from its absence – he makes little effort to move on or pursue other interests. Second, Leo writes in short, frank sentences and often interjects with “And yet” or “But.” For example, he says of his occupation, “It’s not what I would have imagined for myself. And yet” before dropping the subject (5). Leo’s short sentences show his tiredness, and his brief self-contradictions express the irony he sees in the world and his frustration that every positive in his life has come with reservations. He appears tired of fighting back – he now takes injustice and incongruence for granted, hardly worth expanding upon. After losing Alma, and later Isaac, nothing energizes him. Third, Leo loves to joke about his own mortality. The first lines of the novel are Leo’s: “When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT” (3). Hopeless about love, Leo has no reason to live. After losing Alma, Leo transfers his love to Isaac, Leo’s son who does not know he exists. Leo fantasizes about talking to his son for decades, but Isaac dies right as Leo begins to summon the courage. Leo writes, “Only now that my son was gone did I realize how much I’d been living for him. When I woke up in the morning it was because he existed” (80). Just as for Alma, Leo lived because he loved Isaac. Leo’s narration shows readers that love is so wonderful that it is the highest purpose of life – without loved ones, life appears meaningless.

In the context of Leo’s extreme loss, valuing love so highly is unfortunate. But Leo finds no way around it. Leo writes in the third person, “If the man who once upon a time had been a boy who promised he’d never fall in love with another girl as long as he lived kept his promise, it wasn’t because he was stubborn or even loyal. He couldn’t help it” (13). Leo’s theory of love holds us slave to love whether we like it or not, fantastically happy when in love and helplessly lost, purposeless when out. This distinct understanding of love is powerful in Krauss’s novel, but Leo is opposed by the other narrators.

Alma Singer

Alma’s voice is very different from Leo’s, as is her conception of love. She writes in numbered sections that try but fail to organize her scattered narration. She never gets too invested in one train of thought, never too attached to one mindset. Her sentences are long, and often contain playful figurative language. For example, Alma writes of her mother, “Sometimes she would get stuck on a certain sentence for hours and go around like a dog with a bone until she’d shriek out, ‘I’VE GOT IT!’ and scurry off to her desk to dig a hole and bury it” (48). Alma’s youthful energy saturates her narration. Krauss constantly reminds us of Alma’s age – and her naivety. For example, after telling a powerful story about a blind photographer, Alma writes, “I know there is a moral to this story, but I don’t know what it is” (39). This innocence may be absolved with age, but note that young Leo at this age was spouting wisdom about the depths of his love. Alma is a much more typical teenager, and the conception of love that her scatter-brained, youthful simplicity reveals is quite different from Leo’s.

Alma’s mother is similar to Leo – her life has been overtaken by love. After Alma’s father died, her mother “turned life away” to keep holding on to him (45). Witnessing her mother’s loss colored Alma’s perception of love. She writes, “When I was little my mother used to get a certain look in her eyes and say, ‘One day you’re going to fall in love.’ I wanted to say, but never said: Not in a million years” (54). Alma views love as undesirable, something to be avoided, something that will ruin her life. Further, Alma is annoyed by her mother’s love for her. Alma says, “She’d call after me, ‘What can I do for you I love you so much,’ and I always wanted to say, but never said: Love me less” (43). While Leo views love as central to his identity, Alma does not want it to be a dominant part of her life. She views the depths of love as a dangerous place. With the pain that love has caused her mother and Leo in mind, readers may empathize with this idea. And Alma offers a way out, a way to free herself from love: Even when she does fall in love – She slowly develops feelings for her friend Misha – it never becomes inextricably tied to her purpose in life. Alma is also concerned with her hobbies, her brother’s sanity, her dream of becoming a wilderness explorer, helping her mother move on from her father, and the puzzle of determining the author of The History of Love. She is never slave to love like Leo. And unlike young Leo’s sudden, passionate romance, Alma’s is awkward and uncomfortable. She doesn’t know how to describe her feelings, and the resistance culminates when Misha kisses her for the first time. Alma tells him to stop. “And then I said: ‘I like someone else.’ As soon as I said it I regretted it” (142). Even as she feels the pull of love and wishes she could say the right thing, her confliction shows she is skeptical of love. Being in love is not bliss for Alma as it was for Leo, and she does not need it to find purpose in life. Alma opposes Leo’s perspective with well-founded skepticism about love’s virtue and by showing that there is more to life than love.

The novel contains many other speakers and unique interpretations of love. The third primary narrator shows a love between Zvi and Rosa that is desperate and built on deceit, Uncle Julian is driven to cheat on his wife by her distaste with painting, Alma’s brother’s love for his dead father causes him to think he is the Messiah, Herman Cooper bullies girls in an effort to earn their love – each of these complicates the novel’s definition of love and blocks the novel from revealing a unified theory. Since love in reality is more diverse than one man’s conception, the multi-faceted nature of love that The History of Love’s polyglossia reveals is valuable and demonstrates the power that a single novel can have to simultaneously represent many contradictory world views. Critics searching for a one-track theory should turn elsewhere – I’d recommend another genre entirely.


This essay was written in the style of Jake Romm and received preliminary feedback from Paul Griffith.


Works Cited

Krauss, Nicole. 2005. The History of Love. W.W. Norton & Company. Print.

Lang, Jessica. 2009. The History of Love, the Contemporary Reader, and the Transmission of    Holocaust Memory. Journal of Modern Literature, Vol 33, No. 1. Indiana University      Press. Web.

Wood, James. 2005. “Tides of Treacle.” The London Review, Vol 27. No. 12. Web.

The Dark Side of Darwinism

Charles Darwin, nineteenth century English naturalist, is known as one of the most brilliant minds in history. He was a curious intellectual and a brave adventurer, well-liked by those who knew him personally and greatly revered in the scientific community. His 1859 and 1871 books, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, enlightened the world with a transformative understanding of life that became the foundation of modern biological thought. But there’s a darker side of Darwin, a side that perhaps calls into question his prized intellect and cherished legacy. Darwin’s writing was racist, and discriminatory beliefs and practices follow directly from his theories. If you’re a lover of evolution or biology major like I am, you may be tempted to reject that claim. But hear me out: Support for the idea that Darwin’s theories are racist may come from where you least expect it.

I’d only heard of Darwin’s dark side in passing, and I’d always assumed that Darwin’s critics were driven by ignorance or ulterior motives. But as I scrolled by debates online about Darwin’s theories, I noticed something peculiar: Darwin’s defenders most often cited his abolitionist identity, notes from his diaries, or quotes from people who knew Darwin. His accusers, on the other hand, often directly cited text from The Descent of Man. Conclusions drawn from the authorial approach to the question, in which defenders focused on proving that Darwin himself was not a racist, starkly contradicted conclusions drawn from the approach of consulting Darwin’s text itself. I’m familiar with Darwin’s theories, but I had never actually read his books; I suspect the same is true for most of you. However, I found that to determine whether or not Darwin’s theories are racist, the text of his books is revealing and conclusive. Information outside the text of The Descent of Man can help us understand the man behind the pen, but it does nothing to soften the brutal racism and white supremacism found in the text of his theory.

Although best known for On the Origin of Species, Darwin does not address human evolution and race until his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, in which Darwin applies his theories of natural selection to humans and introduces the idea of sexual selection. Here his white supremacism is revealed. Over the course of the book, Darwin describes Australians, Mongolians, Africans, Indians, South Americans, Polynesians, and even Eskimos as “savages:” It becomes clear that he considers every population that is not white and European to be savage. The word savage is disdainful, and Darwin constantly elevates white Europeans above the savages. Darwin explains that the “highest races and the lowest savages” differ in “moral disposition … and in intellect” (36). The idea that white people are more intelligent and moral persists throughout. At one point, Darwin says that savages have “low morality,” “insufficient powers of reasoning,” and “weak power of self-command” (97). Darwin’s specific consideration of intellectual capacities is especially alarming. He begins with animals: “No one supposes that one of the lower animals reflects whence he comes or whither he goes,—what is death or what is life, and so forth” (62). His remarks soon expand to humans. “How little can the hard-worked wife of a degraded Australian savage, who uses hardly any abstract words and cannot count above four, exert her self-consciousness, or reflect on the nature of her own existence” (62). Darwin writes that Australians are incapable of complex thought, and insinuates that they are akin to lower animals: His perspective on non-European races is incredibly prejudiced and absurd. Modern evolutionary scholars and teachers tend to ignore or omit that component of Darwin’s theory, but it hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. For example, Rutledge Dennis examined Darwin’s role in scientific racism for The Journal of Negro Education and found that in Darwin’s world view, “talent and virtue were features to be identified solely with Europeans” (243). White supremacy is clearly embedded in The Descent of Man, regardless of Darwin’s brilliance or the accuracy of the rest of his theory.

Darwin makes a disturbing link between his belief in white supremacy and his theory of natural selection. He justifies violent imperialism. “From the remotest times successful tribes have supplanted other tribes. … At the present day civilised nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations” (160). Darwin’s theory applies survival of the fittest to human races, suggesting that extermination of non-white races is a natural consequence of white Europeans being a superior and more successful race. Further, Darwin justifies violently overtaking other cultures because it has happened regularly throughout natural history. The arc of Darwin’s evolutionary universe evidently does not bend toward justice: He has no problem with continuing the vicious behavior of past generations. Claims such as those made evident in the title of a 2004 book, “From Darwin to Hitler,” may not be as alarmist as they seem.

Not only does Darwin believe in white supremacy, he offers a biological explanation for it, namely that white people are further evolved. He writes that the “western nations of Europe … now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors and stand at the summit of civilization” (178). Darwin imagines that Europeans are more advanced versions of the rest of the world. As previously mentioned, this purported superiority justified to Darwin the domination of inferior races by Europeans. As white Europeans “exterminate and replace” the world’s “savage races,” and as great apes go extinct, Darwin says that the gap between civilized man and his closest evolutionary ancestor will widen. The gap will eventually be between civilized man “and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla” (201). Read that last line again if you missed it: Darwin’s theory claims that Africans and Australians are more closely related to apes than Europeans are. The spectrum of organisms is a hierarchy here, with white Europeans at the top and apes at the bottom. In Darwin’s theory, colored people fall somewhere in between. Modern human is essentially restricted only to white Europeans, with all other races viewed as somehow sub-human.

The text of The Descent of Man clearly contains a racist and white supremacist ideology, but not everyone who reads Darwin’s theory believes that the text tells the entire story. Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue against the idea that Darwin’s theories are racist in their 2009 book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution. As the title suggests, Desmond and Moore claim that Darwin’s intent in studying evolution was actually to bolster the abolitionist cause. “Darwin’s starting point was the abolitionist belief in blood kinship, a ‘common descent’” (xvii). In response to Darwin’s defectors, they say that “the real problem is that no one understands Darwin’s core project. … No one has appreciated the source of that moral fire that fueled his strange, out-of-character obsession with human origins” (xix). How can Desmond and Moore claim to know Darwin’s intent? They reached their conclusions after an exhaustive search through “a wealth of unpublished family letters and a massive amount of manuscript material,” and use “Darwin’s notes, cryptic marginalia (where key clues lie) and even ships’ logs and lists of books read by Darwin. His published notebooks and correspondence (some 15,000 letters are now known) are an invaluable source” (xx). Using these sources, Desmond and Moore attempt to make a substantial case against the idea that Darwin was racist, citing evidence such as the diary that Darwin kept during his Beagle voyage. Darwin writes of slavery, “It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty” (quoted in Desmond and Moore, 183). Darwin often wrote thoughts that don’t quite align with the ideas in The Descent of Man. In his theory, Darwin suggests that it is natural for more successful races to dominate over others, and speaks comfortably of white Europeans exterminating other races. However, he wrote in his diary that “the white Man … has debased his Nature & violates every best instinctive feeling by making slave of his fellow black” (quoted in Desmond and Moore, 115). Desmond and Moore view Darwin’s later contradictions of his racist ideas in The Descent of Man as reason to interpret the text of Darwin’s theory cautiously.

Desmond and Moore also offer details of Darwin’s life that they claim are incongruent with his purported racism. Darwin came from a family that fought to emancipate Britain’s slaves, and many of his friends and readers were abolitionists as well. As a young man, Darwin took lessons in bird-stuffing from a local African American servant. Desmond and Moore write, “Evidently the sixteen-going-on-seventeen year old saw nothing untoward in paying money to apprentice himself to a Negro, and the forty or so hour-long sessions which he had with the ‘blackamoor’ through that frosty winter clearly made an impact” (18). Desmond and Moore see Darwin’s willingness to associate with African Americans as evidence that he was not prejudiced. Finally, the authors bring up a story that is actually mentioned in The Descent of Man. When Darwin writes of similarities he has noticed between savages and himself, he mentions “a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate” (232). Again, Desmond and Moore see Darwin’s personal experiences with colored people as evidence that he is not biased against them; further, they believe this information should influence our interpretation of The Descent of Man.

A final argument made in favor of Darwin blames the time period in which he wrote. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education writes that “Darwin, like [Abraham] Lincoln, believed in white supremacy, but he was far more enlightened and sympathetic to blacks than most white men of his time” (39). In this view, The Descent of Man must be considered within the context of its conception, namely a period and location in which white supremacy was the norm.

The external information supplied by Darwin’s personal notes, experiences, context, etc. adds to our understanding of Darwin himself, but it cannot change our understanding of his theories. The question of whether Darwin was a racist man is separate from the question of whether his theory was racist, and the answer to the former question has no bearing on the latter. The text of The Descent of Man is undeniably racist, and readers only engage with the presented text: They don’t know what Darwin wrote in his diary, whether his family supported abolition, or how much he interacted with African Americans, nor should a reader have to know these things in order to correctly interpret the text. The Descent of Man exists separate from its author and context. Claims that readers should not take the racism in Darwin’s theory literally in light of external information reject the nature of literature. As Roland Barthes says, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted” (148). Barthes’ argument is especially salient in this case because The Descent of Man was written so long ago, and Charles Darwin is long dead. Darwin and the context in which he wrote his theory have long passed, but the text lives on and will continue to exist as an independent entity that deserves to be interpreted as such.

Thus, the value of considering contextual details depends on which question we are asking. When wondering about Darwin himself, a full range of sources is applicable. However, when determining whether Darwin’s theories contain dangerous racial ideology, the alarming text of his theories cannot be at all softened or explained away with outside information. Now I understand why I’ve never been asked in a biology class to read the original text of Darwin’s theories: Our contemporary reverence for Darwin’s gentlemanliness and the pure scientific brilliance of his theories is an overly optimistic illusion that shatters upon a closer look at his publications.




Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” In Image-Music-Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. Hill and Wang, 1978.

“Blacks Less Likely to Accept Charles Darwin’s Dethronement of Mankind.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, vol 21. CH II Publishers, Autumn 1998. USA.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. John Murray, 1871. Albemarle Street, London.

Dennis, Rutledge M. “Social Darwinism, scientific racism, and the metaphysics of race.” The Journal of Negro Education, 64:3. Howard University Press, 1995. USA.

Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James. Darwin’s Sacred Cause. Penguin Group, 2009. London.

The Magic Word

Plato is not often wrong. As perhaps the most well-known and respected philosopher of all time, Plato knew what he was talking about (the man died 2400 years ago and is still a household name – he certainly did something right). To claim that Plato is mistaken is to challenge a well-thought-out view held by one of the greatest thinkers in history, a view that was passed down over more than two millennia, each generation agreeing that it was interesting and valuable enough to be read by the next. To claim as a 19 year old undergraduate that Plato is wrong – Now that’s really daunting. Fortunately, I have support from another of history’s great thinkers in Martin Luther King, Jr. In his Gorgias, Plato claims that you only need to be a skilled writer if you don’t have truth and justice on your side. I don’t think that’s right, and King flat out rejects it. If you bear with me for a few pages, I’ll flesh out this flaw in Plato’s philosophizing about rhetoric, a flaw that has implications even today for how people communicate about the world’s most important issues.

We’ll start in 1963. On April 12th of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested after demonstrating against racial violence in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the nation’s most segregated cities. On that same day, eight white religious leaders published a letter criticizing King with the sort of faux-moderate ideas most corrosive to the civil rights movement: Those that claim to agree with racial justice on the whole but resist disruption of the status quo. In this case, the demonstrations in Birmingham were “unwise and untimely” (quoted in King, 1).  King spent his time in jail drafting a response, writing in longhand on scraps of paper and the margins of a newspaper. Completed in just four days and published under a modest title, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the response garnered national attention over the following months.

You already know how high the stakes of King’s movement were: The abhorrent institutions of segregation and racial oppression abused millions of Americans every day. As King sat in Birmingham Jail with pencil in hand, he sat with the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders. You know the significance of the challenge he faced: King had to overturn the very foundation of society, to make one of the most important arguments ever made in the 20th century. You know, even if his audience in 1963 did not, that King stood on the side of truth and justice: Racial equality is unambiguously right, just, and good. So, when King began to write his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” when he began to write on behalf of millions of oppressed Americans at a pivotal point for truth and justice, what did he write? And, perhaps more important for our disagreement with Plato, how did he write?

Before we answer that question, let’s see how Plato would expect King to write in this context, namely a situation in which one writes on the side of truth and justice. Plato’s expectations are explicit in Gorgias. Speaking through Socrates, Plato calls skilled writing “rhetoric,” which he defines as “persuasion which produces conviction” through “producing pleasure” (18, 27). Pleasure in Plato’s sense is unclean and harmful; a focus on pleasure distracts from the essential goodness and truth in an argument, waters down or sours justice with superficial appeal. Plato’s distaste for pleasure ruins all rhetoric for him: He says that rhetoric “boils down to sycophancy, sucking up to people,” and that it has “no concern for what is best” (28, 30). Pleasurable writing amounts to either regrettable entertainment or a tainted tool of the malicious. Plato argues that “for the person who is not planning to act unjustly I don’t think [rhetoric]’s use is very great – if indeed it is any use at all, which it hasn’t been shown to be” (55). Plato does, however, offer a way out, a way to argue on the side of justice without contaminating truth with rhetoric’s impurity. Plato imagines two kinds of writing: One would be “sycophancy, the worst kind of appeal to the public; the other would be admirable, … battling to say what is best, regardless of whether this makes it more pleasing or unpleasing to those listening” (84). The distinction here is solely the focus on pleasure. Sycophancy aims to please, and according to Plato is of no use to someone speaking on the side of truth and justice. Admirable writing absolutely disregards pleasure. It is this second, pragmatic style of writing unencumbered by attempts to please which Plato would implore King and others advocating truth and justice to use.

But, Plato continues, this second kind of writing, writing that spreads justice with no regard for pleasure, “is a rhetoric which you have never yet seen” (84). Although writing on the side of justice without regard for pleasure is an option, not a single skilled writer does it. Plato takes this lack of a perfectly just rhetorician to discount rhetoric as a whole. Here’s his logic: Appeals to pleasure sour truth and justice, and all skilled writing aims to please, so all skilled writing strays from truth and justice. This is where I think Plato is wrong: He takes the fact that nobody writes without regard for pleasure to mean that writers don’t have society’s best interests in mind. I think skilled writers aim to please only because they must in order to communicate effectively with their audience. Disregarding pleasure simply does not work. Even if you argue on the side of truth and justice, you still need to write pleasurably.

King understood this. But before we get to him, let’s first define what exactly it means to write pleasurably. In other words, what does Plato think King should avoid? One key characteristic of pleasurable writing, and the most troubling for Plato, is that it caters to the beliefs of its audience: It has an impulse towards “giving the citizens what they want” (83). Beyond conforming to its audience, pleasurable writing aims to produce enjoyment. Plato repeatedly uses the difference between cooking and medicine to illustrate his point. Pleasurable writing feeds you what feels good, what will keep you reading, even if, like a tasty but fatty desert, its value is only superficial. Plato believes writing should act like medicine, giving you only what is best and truly valuable regardless of how it feels. We can see that Plato condemns writing that includes any and all stylistic flare, that goes out of its way to demonstrate graceful command of language, that shapes concepts with sharp but perhaps extraneous literary devices. In short, Plato distrusts writing that detours even slightly from plain truth for the sake of eloquence. If arguing for truth and justice, King must not aim to please.

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., does just what Plato abhors: He is clearly on the side of truth and justice, yet he focuses intensely on writing pleasurably. The claim that King aimed to please in the letter may seem counterintuitive and even troubling when considering the gravity of his situation. As previously explained, the consequences of failure were grim. But that is precisely the point: That even when truth and justice are most direly threatened, pleasure must be a focus of writers standing in opposition.

King invokes pleasure in several ways. First, King handles his audience carefully. Explicitly, the audience is the eight white clergy who publicly criticized the Birmingham demonstrations. However, King never actually sent his letter to those clergy and instead had it published for a wider audience of religious white moderates resistant to the civil rights movement. King establishes a friendly, respectful relationship from the start by mentioning that his detractors “are men of genuine good will and [their] criticisms are sincerely set forth” (1). This respectfulness, which Plato might deem sucking up, is continued throughout the piece. King refers to his audience as “my friends” and “my Christian and Jewish brothers,” and is eager to point out when they are correct (2, 3). For example, he says, “You are exactly right in your call for negotiation,” and agrees that their apprehension regarding lawlessness “is certainly a legitimate concern” (2, 3).

Further, King conforms to his audience’s beliefs in both religiosity and patriotism. King is clearly conscious of his Christian audience and appeals to religion incessantly. Two quick examples: At the start, King explains his presence in Birmingham in Biblical terms. “Just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ, … I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown” (1). Later, in response to accusations of being an extremist, King remarks, “Was not Jesus an extremist in Love? … Was not Amos an extremist for justice? … Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ?” (4). King also connects his movement to American values. He says his goal of freedom will be reached “because the goal of America is freedom,” and that his movement’s “destiny is tied up with the destiny of America” (5). King calls upon the Pilgrims, Thomas Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence for inspiration. At the close of his letter, King writes that his movement stands “for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage” (6). Christian values and the American dream: What more could the southern religious white moderate ask for? Plato rolls in his grave at every mention of God-given rights, every Biblical allusion, every time King deviates from his argument to remind the audience that he shares their Christianity and love for America. But there’s a reason King spends so much time comforting his audience: He has to. Without gaining the trust of the religious white moderate and demonstrating shared interests, King could not gain their support in his campaign for truth and justice.

A more conspicuous point of conformity is King’s attention to grammar, which is especially clear in how he frames a quote from Rosa Parks. King writes that Parks responded to an inquiry “about her tiredness with ungrammatical profundity, ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is rested’” (6). King’s audience is educated. By conditioning Parks’ statement with such a highbrow phrase as “ungrammatical profundity,” King makes clear that he is aware, as his audience surely will be, of Parks’ grammatical mistake. This is small but important. If King were writing for a less educated audience, he would not need to exalt his own grammatical knowledge above Parks’. King goes out of his way to demonstrate sophistication to his educated audience. Plato would deem this unnecessary, but King knows he must gain the intellectual respect of his audience if they are to believe his message about truth and justice.

Beyond flexing his command of language to demonstrate shared sophistication, King writes eloquently to make his work pleasurable to read. He polishes his letter with spectacular aphorisms and lofty metaphors such as in these lines: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” (1). King beautifies his ideas with sharp images such as “stinging darts of segregation,” “shattered dreams of the past,” and a “dark shadow of deep disappointment” (2, 5, 1). Although the subjects he speaks of are gloomy, the language used in describing them is extravagant. Stylish language is not at all pragmatically necessary, but it adds an element of pleasure that attracts and embraces readers.

By studying King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” we can see that pleasure is not incongruous with arguing for truth and justice; in fact, pleasure advances King’s just argument by making it effective in reaching its target audience. If King had followed Plato’s commandment to write incognizant of pleasure, his letter would have been ineffectual in the campaign for civil rights. You need to be a skilled writer to stand purposefully on the side of truth and justice.




Works Cited

King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The Atlantic Monthly; Volume 212, No. 2; pages 78 – 88. 1963. Print.

Plato. Gorgias, Menexenus, Protagoras. Translated by Tom Griffith, edited by Malcolm Schofield, Cambridge University Press. 2010. Print.