Apr 152018

Today is the birthday (1707) of Leonhard Euler, a Swiss-born mathematician, physicist, astronomer, logician and engineer, who was unquestionably the most prolific, and one of the most influential, mathematicians in the West of all time. His written works fill around 80 quarto volumes. He, like so many other great mathematicians of the past, is not a household name these days, although you may know what an Euler diagram is, or you may know that the mathematical constant e is also known as Euler’s number, because he was the first to prove that e is irrational (“e” stands for “Euler”). I am going to spare you a diatribe on mathematics, working on the assumption that most people’s eyes glaze over when I stray too far from 2 + 2 = 4. This fact of life is a great pity in my ever-humble opinion. Mathematics and mathematical logic are useful intellectual tools. They are not the only tools in the toolbox, nor necessarily the most useful, but deep thinking is difficult without them. Care to build a shed without a hammer? It can be done, but is easier with one. I’ll delve into Euler’s life and influence mostly, and just give you a taste of what his mathematics can (and cannot) do.

Euler was born in Basel in Switzerland to Paul Euler, a pastor of the Reformed Church, and Marguerite née Brucker, a pastor’s daughter. He had two younger sisters: Anna Maria and Maria Magdalena, and a younger brother Johann Heinrich. Soon after the birth of Leonhard, the Eulers moved from Basel to the town of Riehen, where Euler spent most of his childhood. Paul Euler was a friend of the Bernoulli family. Johann Bernoulli was then regarded as Europe’s foremost mathematician, and would eventually be the most important influence on young Leonhard.

Euler’s formal education started in Basel, where he was sent to live with his maternal grandmother. In 1720, aged 13, he enrolled at the University of Basel, and in 1723 (aged 16), he received a Master of Philosophy with a dissertation that compared the philosophies of Descartes and Newton. During that time, he was receiving Saturday afternoon lessons from Johann Bernoulli, who quickly discovered his pupil’s incredible aptitude for mathematics. At that time Euler’s main studies included theology, Greek, and Hebrew at his father’s urging in order to become a pastor, but Bernoulli convinced his father that Euler was destined to become a great mathematician.

In 1726, Euler completed a dissertation on the propagation of sound, titled De Sono. At that time, he was unsuccessfully attempting to obtain a position at the University of Basel. In 1727, he first entered the Paris Academy Prize Problem competition; the problem that year was to find the best way to place the masts on a ship. Pierre Bouguer, who became known as “the father of naval architecture,” won and Euler took second place. Euler later won this annual prize 12 times.

Around this time Johann Bernoulli’s two sons, Daniel and Nicolaus, were working at the Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg. On 31st July 1726, Nicolaus died of appendicitis after spending less than a year in Russia, and when Daniel assumed his brother’s position in the mathematics/physics division, he recommended that the post in physiology that he had vacated be filled by his friend Euler. In November 1726 Euler accepted the offer, but delayed making the trip to Saint Petersburg while he unsuccessfully applied for a physics professorship at the University of Basel.

Euler arrived in Saint Petersburg on 17th May 1727. He was promoted from his junior post in the medical department of the academy to a position in the mathematics department. He lodged with Daniel Bernoulli with whom he often worked in close collaboration. Euler mastered Russian and settled into life in Saint Petersburg. He also took on an additional job as a medic in the Russian Navy. The Academy at Saint Petersburg, established by Peter the Great, was intended to improve education in Russia and to close the scientific gap with Western Europe. As a result, it was made especially attractive to foreign scholars like Euler. The academy possessed ample financial resources and a comprehensive library drawn from the private libraries of Peter himself and of the nobility. Very few students were enrolled in the academy in order to lessen the faculty’s teaching burden, and the academy emphasized research and offered to its faculty both the time and the freedom to pursue scientific questions.

The Academy’s patron, Catherine I, who had continued the progressive policies of her late husband, died on the day of Euler’s arrival. The Russian nobility then gained power upon the ascension of the 12-year-old Peter II. The nobility was suspicious of the academy’s foreign scientists, and thus cut funding and caused other difficulties for Euler and his colleagues. Conditions improved slightly after the death of Peter II, and Euler swiftly rose through the ranks in the academy and was made a professor of physics in 1731. Two years later, Daniel Bernoulli, who was fed up with the censorship and hostility he faced at Saint Petersburg, left for Basel. Euler succeeded him as the head of the mathematics department.

Concerned about the continuing turmoil in Russia, Euler left St. Petersburg  in June 1741 to take up a post at the Berlin Academy, which he had been offered by Frederick the Great of Prussia. He lived for 25 years in Berlin, where he wrote over 380 articles. In Berlin, he published the two works for which he would become most renowned: the Introductio in analysin infinitorum, a text on functions, published in 1748, and the Institutiones calculi differentialis, on differential calculus, published in 1755.

Euler was asked to tutor Friederike Charlotte of Brandenburg-Schwedt, the Princess of Anhalt-Dessau and Frederick’s niece. Euler wrote over 200 letters to her in the early 1760s, which were later compiled into a best-selling volume: Letters of Euler on different Subjects in Natural Philosophy Addressed to a German Princess. This work contained Euler’s exposition on various subjects pertaining to physics and mathematics, as well as offering valuable insights into Euler’s personality and religious beliefs. This book became more widely read than any of his mathematical works and was published across Europe and in the United States. The popularity of the “Letters” testifies to Euler’s ability to communicate scientific matters effectively to a lay audience.

Despite Euler’s immense contribution to the Academy’s prestige, he eventually incurred the wrath of Frederick and ended up having to leave Berlin. The Prussian king had a large circle of intellectuals in his court, and he found the mathematician unsophisticated and ill-informed on matters beyond numbers and figures. Euler was a simple, devoutly religious man who never questioned the existing social order or conventional beliefs, in many ways the polar opposite of Voltaire, who enjoyed a high place of prestige at Frederick’s court. Euler was not a skilled debater and often made it a point to argue subjects that he knew little about, making him the frequent target of Voltaire’s wit. Frederick also expressed disappointment with Euler’s practical engineering abilities:

I wanted to have a water jet in my garden: Euler calculated the force of the wheels necessary to raise the water to a reservoir, from where it should fall back through channels, finally spurting out in Sanssouci. My mill was carried out geometrically and could not raise a mouthful of water closer than fifty paces to the reservoir. Vanity of vanities! Vanity of geometry!

Euler’s eyesight worsened throughout his mathematical career. In 1738, three years after nearly dying from a fever, he became almost blind in his right eye, but Euler preferred to blame the painstaking work on cartography he performed for the St. Petersburg Academy for his condition. Euler’s vision in that eye worsened throughout his stay in Germany, to the extent that Frederick referred to him as “Cyclops”. Euler later developed a cataract in his left eye, which was discovered in 1766. Just a few weeks after its discovery, he was rendered almost totally blind. However, his condition appeared to have little effect on his productivity, as he compensated for it with his mental calculation skills and exceptional memory. Upon losing the sight in both eyes, Euler remarked, “Now I will have fewer distractions.” Euler could repeat Virgil’s Aeneid from beginning to end without hesitation, and for every page in the edition he could indicate which line was the first and which the last. With the aid of his scribes, Euler’s productivity on many areas of study actually increased. He produced, on average, one mathematical paper every week in the year 1775. The Eulers bore a double name, Euler-Schölpi, the latter of which derives from schelb and schief, signifying squint-eyed, cross-eyed, or crooked. This suggests that the Eulers may have had a genetic disposition to eye problems.

In 1760, with the Seven Years’ War raging, Euler’s farm in Charlottenburg was ransacked by advancing Russian troops. Upon learning of this event, General Ivan Petrovich Saltykov paid compensation for the damage caused to Euler’s estate, later Empress Elizabeth of Russia added a further payment of 4000 rubles – an exorbitant amount at the time. The political situation in Russia stabilized after Catherine the Great’s accession to the throne, so in 1766 Euler accepted an invitation to return to the St. Petersburg Academy. His conditions were steep – a 3000 ruble annual salary, a pension for his wife, and the promise of high-ranking appointments for his sons. All of these requests were granted. He spent the rest of his life in Russia. However, his second stay in the country was marred by tragedy. A fire in St. Petersburg in 1771 cost him his home, and almost his life. In 1773, he lost his wife Katharina after 40 years of marriage. Three years after his wife’s death, Euler married her half-sister, Salome Abigail Gsell (1723–1794). This marriage lasted until his death.

In St. Petersburg on 18 September 1783, after a lunch with his family, Euler was discussing the newly discovered planet Uranus and its orbit with a fellow academician Anders Johan Lexell, when he collapsed from a brain hemorrhage. He died a few hours later. French mathematician and philosopher Marquis de Condorcet, wrote: “il cessa de calculer et de vivre” (he ceased to calculate and to live). Euler was buried next to Katharina at the Smolensk Lutheran Cemetery on Goloday Island. In 1785, the Russian Academy of Sciences put a marble bust of Leonhard Euler on a pedestal next to the Director’s seat and, in 1837, placed a headstone on Euler’s grave. To commemorate the 250th anniversary of Euler’s birth, the headstone was moved in 1956, together with his remains, to the 18th-century necropolis at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

Here I am going to touch on Euler’s contributions to mathematics and related fields, so, if your eyes glaze over at this stuff, skip to the recipe. This section is not really technical (just a tiny bit). Euler worked in almost all areas of mathematics, such as geometry, infinitesimal calculus, trigonometry, algebra, and number theory, as well as continuum physics, lunar theory and other areas of physics. He is the only mathematician to have two numbers named after him: the Euler number, e, approximately equal to 2.71828, and the Euler–Mascheroni constant γ (gamma) sometimes referred to as just “Euler’s constant,” approximately equal to 0.57721.

Euler introduced and popularized several notational conventions, that are now commonplace, through his numerous and widely circulated textbooks. Most notably, he introduced the concept of a function and was the first to write f(x) to denote the function f applied to the argument x. He also introduced the modern notation for the trigonometric functions, the letter e for the base of the natural logarithm (not originally “e” for “Euler’s number”), the Greek letter Σ for summations, and the letter i to denote the square root of -1. The use of the Greek letter π to denote the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter was also popularized by Euler, although it originated with Welsh mathematician William Jones.

The development of infinitesimal calculus was at the forefront of 18th-century mathematical research, and the Bernoullis—family friends of Euler—were responsible for much of the early progress in the field. Because of their influence, studying calculus became a major focus of Euler’s work. Newton and Leibniz got the ball rolling by showing that if you tolerated the concept of infinity (in mathematics) a giant new world opened up that had not been known in the West before. You have to grasp – maybe against your intuition, or common sense – that as you get closer and closer and ever closer to infinity with a series of numbers that are getting smaller and smaller and yet smaller, a simple answer (almost magically) pops out when you get all the way to infinity (known as the limit). Getting the answer is almost a leap of faith although mathematicians won’t admit this. The classic “explanation” is to take the number 1.999999999999999999999999999 with the 9s extending all the way to infinity. As the list of 9s gets longer and longer, the number gets closer and closer to 2. So, at the limit 1 followed by infinite 9s is the same as 2. There’s your leap of faith. It is not just a tiny bit smaller than 2, it is exactly equal to 2.

Brilliant mathematicians like Euler appear to be able, not only to grasp mathematical concepts intuitively, but also to see patterns between seemingly disparate mathematical expressions. The ratio pi, for example, concerning the diameter and circumference of a circle, shows up all over the place in expressions that do not seem to have anything to do with circles. It is almost mystical. Mathematicians like Euler are not worried by this oddity; they see much deeper into the structure of mathematics than ordinary mortals, in ways that seem obvious to them, but are opaque to the rest of us. For example, he derived the formula known as Euler’s identity:

e i π + 1 = 0

Richard Feynman called it the “most remarkable formula in all mathematics” because it pulls together fundamental, but rather quirky, constants of mathematics in one neat bundle combining the operations of addition, multiplication, exponentiation, and equality.

Euler also pioneered the use of analytic methods to solve number theory problems. Euler’s interest in number theory can be traced to the influence of Christian Goldbach, his friend in the St. Petersburg Academy. A lot of Euler’s early work on number theory was based on the works of Pierre de Fermat. Euler developed some of Fermat’s ideas and disproved some of his conjectures. He contributed significantly to the theory of perfect numbers, which had fascinated mathematicians since Euclid. A perfect number is a number that is the sum of all of its positive divisors (excepting itself). So, for example, 6 is a perfect number because its divisors are 1, 2, and 3, and 1 + 2 + 3 = 6.

In 1735, Euler presented a solution to the problem known as the Seven Bridges of Königsberg. The city of Königsberg in Prussia was set on the Pregel River, and included two large islands that were connected to each other and the mainland by seven bridges. The problem is to decide whether it is possible to follow a path that crosses each bridge exactly once and returns to the starting point. Euler proved it is not possible. This solution is considered to be the first theorem of graph theory, specifically of planar graph theory. Euler also discovered the formula V − E + F = 2 relating the number of vertices (V), edges (E) and faces (F) of a convex polyhedron, and hence of a planar graph.

One of Euler’s more unusual interests was the application of mathematical ideas in music. In 1739 he wrote the Tentamen novae theoriae musicae, hoping to eventually incorporate musical theory as part of mathematics. This part of his work, however, did not receive wide attention and was once described as too mathematical for musicians and too musical for mathematicians.

Euler helped develop the Euler–Bernoulli beam equation, which became a cornerstone of engineering. Aside from successfully applying his analytic tools to problems in classical mechanics, Euler also applied these techniques to celestial problems. His work in astronomy was recognized by a number of Paris Academy Prizes over the course of his career. His accomplishments include determining with great accuracy the orbits of comets and other celestial bodies, understanding the nature of comets, and calculating the parallax of the sun. His calculations also contributed to the development of accurate longitude tables.

In addition, Euler made important contributions in optics. He disagreed with Newton’s corpuscular theory of light in the Opticks, which was then the prevailing theory. His 1740s papers on optics helped ensure that the wave theory of light proposed by Christiaan Huygens would become the dominant mode of thought, at least until the development of the quantum theory of light.

Euler is also credited with using closed curves to illustrate syllogistic reasoning (1768). These diagrams have become known as Euler diagrams which are sometimes confused with Venn diagrams. Here is a series of images that might help explain the difference.

An Euler diagram is a diagrammatic means of representing sets and their relationships. Euler diagrams consist of simple closed curves (usually circles) in the plane that depict sets. Each Euler curve divides the plane into two regions or “zones”: the interior, which symbolically represents the elements of the set, and the exterior, which represents all elements that are not members of the set. In Venn diagrams every closed curve must intersect every other curve, but in Euler diagrams they do not.

Much of what is known of Euler’s religious beliefs can be deduced from his Letters to a German Princess and an earlier work, Rettung der Göttlichen Offenbahrung Gegen die Einwürfe der Freygeister (Defense of the Divine Revelation against the Objections of the Freethinkers). These works show that Euler was a devout Christian who believed the Bible to be inspired; the Rettung was primarily an argument for the divine inspiration of scripture.

The dish known as French Meat was developed in St Petersburg in Euler’s time – a time when the Russian aristocracy wanted to appear more cosmopolitan to the outside world. The dish is unknown in France, of course, but it has remained popular in parts of Europe.  Worth a try, I’d say. I like it, and it is simple to make. The order of layers in the dish may vary depending on your preferences. The bottom layer can be onions to create a stratum between the meat and the baking tray, or potatoes, which will result in the dish saturated with pork fat. Some people make French Meat without potatoes. In this case, the pork chunks should be larger. Some don’t use mayonnaise, but the cheese-mayonnaise layer should always be on top, creating an aromatic gratin cheese crust while the dish is in the oven.

French Meat


500 gm/ 1lb moderately fat pork, cut in small chunks
600 gm/ 1 ¼ lb potatoes, peeled and sliced
4 large onions, peeled and sliced
300 gm/ 10 ½ oz melting cheese, grated
200 grams/ 7 oz (approx.) mayonnaise
salt, pepper to taste


Pre-heat the oven to 200˚C/400˚F.

Grease a casserole and spread the pork in a layer on the bottom. Cover the pork evenly with a layer of onion slices. Put a layer of thin slices of potato on top of the onions. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Top with a layer of grated cheese smothered in mayonnaise using a tablespoon or a cooking brush.

Bake the dish  for about 30 minutes. The dish is ready when the top layer of cheese is golden and bubbly. Remove the casserole from the oven and let it cool for 10 minutes before serving in blocks or slices.

Feb 232018

Today is the birthday (1868) of William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois, a U.S. sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina (née Burghardt) Du Bois. His mother’s family was part of the very small free black population of Great Barrington and had long owned land in the state. She was descended from Dutch, African and English ancestors. William Du Bois’ maternal great-great-grandfather was Tom Burghardt, a slave (born in West Africa around 1730) who was held by the Dutch colonist Conraed Burghardt. Tom briefly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, which may have been how he gained his freedom during the 18th century. Du Bois’ paternal great-grandfather was James Du Bois of Poughkeepsie, New York, an ethnic French-American of Huguenot origin who fathered several children with slave women.

Great Barrington had a majority European-American community. He attended the local integrated public school and as an adult wrote about racism partly based on the experience of being a minority in the town. His teachers recognized his ability and encouraged his intellectual pursuits, and his rewarding experience with academic studies led him to believe that he could use his education to empower African-Americans. Du Bois graduated from the town’s Searles High School. When Du Bois decided to attend college, the congregation of his childhood church, the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington, raised the money for his tuition.

Du Bois attended Fisk University, an historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1885 to 1888. His travel to and residency in the South was Du Bois’ first experience with Southern racism, which at the time encompassed Jim Crow laws, bigotry, suppression of black voting, and lynchings. The latter reached a peak in the next decade. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Fisk, he attended Harvard College (which did not accept course credits from Fisk) from 1888 to 1890, where he was strongly influenced by his professor William James, then prominent in American philosophy. Du Bois paid his way through three years at Harvard with money from summer jobs, an inheritance, scholarships, and loans from friends. In 1890, Harvard awarded Du Bois his second bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in history. In 1891, Du Bois received a scholarship to attend the sociology graduate school at Harvard.

In 1892, Du Bois received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin for graduate work. While a student in Berlin, he traveled extensively throughout Europe. He matured intellectually in Berlin while studying with some of that nation’s most prominent social scientists, including Gustav von Schmoller, Adolph Wagner, and Heinrich von Treitschke. After returning from Europe, Du Bois completed his graduate studies; in 1895 he was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

In the summer of 1894, Du Bois received several job offers, including one from the Tuskegee Institute, but he accepted a teaching job at Wilberforce University in Ohio. At Wilberforce, Du Bois was strongly influenced by Alexander Crummell, who believed that ideas are necessary tools to effect social change. While at Wilberforce, Du Bois married Nina Gomer, one of his students, on May 12, 1896. After two years at Wilberforce, Du Bois accepted a one-year research job from the University of Pennsylvania as an “assistant in sociology” in the summer of 1896. He performed sociological field research in Philadelphia’s African-American neighborhoods, which formed the foundation for his landmark study, The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899 while he was teaching at Atlanta University. It was the first case study of a black community in the United States. By the 1890s, Philadelphia’s black neighborhoods had a negative reputation in terms of crime, poverty, and mortality. Du Bois’ book undermined the stereotypes with experimental evidence, and shaped his approach to segregation and its negative impact on black lives and reputations. The results led Du Bois to believe that racial integration was the key to democratic equality in American cities. His later point of view became much more complex.

While taking part in the American Negro Academy (ANA) in 1897, Du Bois presented a paper in which he rejected Frederick Douglass’s plea for black Americans to integrate into white society. He wrote: “we are Negroes, members of a vast historic race that from the very dawn of creation has slept, but half awakening in the dark forests of its African fatherland.” In the August 1897 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Du Bois published “Strivings of the Negro People”, his first work aimed at the general public, in which he enlarged upon his thesis that African Americans should embrace their African heritage while contributing to American society.

By the turn of the 20th century Du Bois became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Du Bois rose to national prominence as the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists who wanted equal rights for blacks. Du Bois and his supporters opposed the Atlanta compromise, an agreement crafted by Booker T. Washington which provided that Southern blacks would work and submit to white political rule, while Southern whites guaranteed that blacks would receive basic educational and economic opportunities. Instead, Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the Talented Tenth and believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop its leadership.

Racism was the main target of Du Bois’s polemics, and he strongly protested against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment. His cause included people of color everywhere, particularly Africans and Asians in colonies. He was a proponent of Pan-Africanism and helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to fight for the independence of African colonies from European powers. Du Bois made several trips to Europe, Africa and Asia. After World War I, he surveyed the experiences of American black soldiers in France and documented widespread prejudice in the United States military.

Du Bois was a prolific author. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, was a seminal work in African-American literature, and his 1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that African-Americans were responsible for the failures of the Reconstruction Era. Borrowing a phrase from Frederick Douglass, he popularized the use of the term color line to represent the injustice of the separate but equal doctrine prevalent in American social and political life. He opens The Souls of Black Folk with the central thesis of much of his life’s work: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.”

He wrote one of the first scientific treatises in the field of American sociology, and he published three autobiographies, each of which contains insightful essays on sociology, politics and history. In his role as editor of the NAACP’s journal The Crisis, he published a number of influential pieces. Du Bois believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism, and he was generally sympathetic to socialist causes throughout his life. He was an ardent peace activist and advocated nuclear disarmament. The United States’ Civil Rights Act, embodying many of the reforms for which Du Bois had campaigned his entire life, was enacted a year after his death.

During the 1950s, the U.S. government’s anti-communist McCarthyism campaign targeted Du Bois because of his socialist leanings. The FBI began to compile a file on Du Bois in 1942, but the most aggressive government attack against Du Bois occurred in the early 1950s, as a consequence of Du Bois’ opposition to nuclear weapons. In 1950 Du Bois became chairman of the newly created Peace Information Center (PIC), which worked to publicize the Stockholm Peace Appeal in the United States. The primary purpose of the appeal was to gather signatures on a petition, asking governments around the world to ban all nuclear weapons. The U.S. Justice department alleged that the PIC was acting as an agent of a foreign state, and thus required the PIC to register with the federal government. Du Bois and other PIC leaders refused, and they were indicted for failure to register. After the indictment, some of Du Bois’ associates distanced themselves from him, and the NAACP refused to issue a statement of support; but many labor figures and leftists – including Langston Hughes – supported Du Bois. He was finally tried in 1951 represented by civil rights attorney Vito Marcantonio. The case was dismissed before the jury rendered a verdict as soon as the defense attorney told the judge that “Dr. Albert Einstein has offered to appear as character witness for Dr. Du Bois. Du Bois’ memoir of the trial is In Battle for Peace. Even though Du Bois was not convicted, the government confiscated his passport and withheld it for eight years.

Ghana invited Du Bois to Africa to participate in their independence celebration in 1957, but he was unable to attend because the U.S. government had confiscated his passport. By 1960 – the “Year of Africa” – Du Bois had recovered his passport, and was able to cross the Atlantic and celebrate the creation of the Republic of Ghana Du Bois returned to Africa in late 1960 to attend the inauguration of Nnamdi Azikiwe as the first African governor of Nigeria.

While visiting Ghana in 1960, Du Bois spoke with its president about the creation of a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana. In early 1961, Ghana notified Du Bois that they had appropriated funds to support the encyclopedia project, and they invited Du Bois to come to Ghana and manage the project there. In October 1961, at the age of 93, Du Bois and his wife traveled to Ghana to take up residence and commence work on the encyclopedia. In early 1963, the United States refused to renew his passport, so he made the symbolic gesture of becoming a citizen of Ghana. While it is sometimes stated that he renounced his U.S. citizenship at that time, and he did state his intention to do so, Du Bois never actually did. His health declined during the two years he was in Ghana, and he died on August 27, 1963, in the capital of Accra at the age of 95.

I could give you a string of quotes from Du Bois, but this one says it all:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: … How does it feel to be a problem? … One ever feels his two-ness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder … He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

In answering a questionnaire Du Bois wrote that his favorite food was bread and milk (and his favorite drink was ginger ale). Bread and milk is something of a surprise because it is not something I would ever think of as comfort food. To make it is simplicity itself. Tear up fresh bread into bite-sized pieces, place them in a bowl, sprinkle them with sugar, and pour in whole milk. Not my thing. I would jazz it up by using the kind of sweet, buttery French bread the bakers make here in Cambodia, probably use cream rather than milk, and sprinkle over some spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg.

Aug 262017

Today is the birthday (1904) of Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood an English whose best-known works, The Berlin Stories (1935-39), two semi-autobiographical novellas inspired by his time in Weimar Republic Germany, were adapted first into the play I Am a Camera (1951), then the 1955 film of the same name, followed by a stage musical Cabaret (1966) which was adapted for film, in rather sanitized version, in 1972. Isherwood’s name is not exactly a household word these days, but Cabaret is well remembered.

Isherwood was born in 1904 on his family’s estate close to the Cheshire-Derbyshire border. He attended Repton School in Derbyshire where met his lifelong friend Edward Upward with whom he wrote the extravagant “Mortmere” stories, of which only one was published during his lifetime. He deliberately failed his tripos and left Corpus Christi College, Cambridge without a degree in 1925. For the next few years he lived with violinist André Mangeot, worked as secretary to Mangeot’s string quartet and studied medicine. During this time he wrote a book of nonsense poems, People One Ought to Know, with illustrations by Mangeot’s eleven-year-old son, Sylvain. It was not published until 1982.

In 1925 A.S.T. Fisher introduced Isherwood to W. H. Auden, and he became Auden’s literary critic, as well as partner in an intermittent, casual liaison. Auden sent his poems to Isherwood for comment and approval, and then through Auden, Isherwood met Stephen Spender, with whom he later spent much time in Germany. His first novel, All the Conspirators, appeared in 1928. It was an anti-heroic story, written in a pastiche of many modernist idioms, about a young man who is overwhelmed by his mother. In 1928–29 Isherwood studied medicine at King’s College London, but gave up his studies after six months to join Auden for a few weeks in Berlin.

Rejecting his upper-class background and fully embracing his attraction to men, he remained in Berlin, the capital of the young Weimar Republic, drawn by its reputation for sexual freedom. Commenting on John Henry Mackay’s Der Puppenjunge (The Pansy), Isherwood wrote: “It gives a picture of the Berlin sexual underworld early in this century which I know, from my own experience, to be authentic.”

In 1931 he met Jean Ross, the inspiration for his fictional character, Sally Bowles. He also met Gerald Hamilton, the inspiration for the fictional Mr Norris. In September 1931 the poet William Plomer introduced him to E. M. Forster. They became close and Forster served as his mentor. Isherwood’s second novel, The Memorial (1932), was another story of conflict between mother and son, based closely on his own family history. During one of his return trips to London he worked with the director Berthold Viertel on the film Little Friend, an experience that became the basis of his novel Prater Violet (1945). He worked as a private tutor in Berlin and elsewhere while writing the novel Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and a short novel called Goodbye to Berlin (1939), often published together in a collection called The Berlin Stories.

Isherwood collaborated on three plays with Auden: The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), and On the Frontier (1939). He wrote a lightly fictionalized autobiographical account of his childhood and youth, Lions and Shadows (1938), using the title of an abandoned novel. Auden and Isherwood traveled to China in 1938 to gather material for their book on the Sino-Japanese War called Journey to a War (1939).

In 1939, Auden and Isherwood left England for the United States on temporary visas, a controversial move, later regarded by some as a flight from danger on the eve of war in Europe. Evelyn Waugh, in his novel Put Out More Flags (1942), included a caricature of Auden and Isherwood as “two despicable poets, Parsnip and Pimpernel”, who flee to America to avoid World War II.

While living in Hollywood, California, Isherwood befriended Truman Capote, who was at the time an up-and-coming young writer who was influenced by Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, especially in the themes of the story “Sally Bowles” that emerge in Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Isherwood also had a close friendship with Aldous Huxley, with whom he sometimes collaborated. Gerald Heard had introduced Huxley to Vedanta (Upanishad-centered philosophy) and meditation. Huxley became a Vedantist in the circle of Hindu Swami Prabhavananda, and introduced Isherwood to the Swami’s Vedanta circle. Isherwood became a convinced Vedantist himself and adopted Prabhavananda as his own guru, visiting the Swami every Wednesday for the next 35 years and collaborating with him on a translation of the Bhagavad Gita. The process of conversion to Vedanta was so all-consuming that Isherwood was unable to write another novel between the years 1939-1945, while he immersed himself in study of the Vedas.

Isherwood considered becoming a US citizen in 1945 but balked at taking an oath that included the statement that he would defend the country. The next year he applied for citizenship and answered questions honestly, saying he would accept non-combatant duties like loading ships with food. The fact that he had volunteered for service with the Medical Corps helped as well. At the naturalization ceremony, he found he was required to swear to defend the nation and decided to take the oath since he had already stated his objections and reservations. He became a US citizen on 8 November 1946. Soon after, he began living with the photographer William “Bill” Caskey and in 1947 the two traveled to South America. Isherwood wrote the prose and Caskey took the photographs for a 1949 book about their journey entitled The Condor and the Cows.

On Valentine’s Day 1953, at the age of 48, he met teenaged Don Bachardy among a group of friends on the beach at Santa Monica. Reports of Bachardy’s age at the time vary, but Bachardy later said, “At the time I was probably 16.” In fact, Bachardy was 18. Despite the age difference, this meeting began a partnership that, though interrupted by affairs and separations, continued until the end of Isherwood’s life.

During the early months of their affair, Isherwood finished—and Bachardy typed—the novel on which he had worked for some years, The World in the Evening (1954). Isherwood also taught a course on modern English literature at Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles) for several years during the 1950s and early 1960s. The 30-year age difference between Isherwood and Bachardy raised eyebrows at the time, with Bachardy, in his own words, “regarded as a sort of child prostitute,” but the two became a well-known and well-established couple in Southern Californian society with many Hollywood friends.

Perhaps Isherwood’s finest achievement, although much less well known than Berlin Stories was his 1964 novel A Single Man, that depicted a day in the life of George, a middle-aged, gay Englishman who is a professor at a Los Angeles university. During 1964 Isherwood collaborated with US writer Terry Southern on the screenplay for the Tony Richardson film adaptation of The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh’s caustic satire on the US funeral industry.

Isherwood and Bachardy lived together in Santa Monica for the rest of Isherwood’s life. Bachardy became a successful artist with an independent reputation, and his portraits of the dying Isherwood became well known after Isherwood’s death. Isherwood died at age 81 in 1986 in Santa Monica, California. His body was donated to science at UCLA, and his ashes were later scattered at sea.

Because for so many people Isherwood’s pre-war Berlin is what he is remembered for, I have chosen a traditional Berlin dish, Hoppel Poppel, as a celebration.  It is one way that Berliners use up Sunday leftovers, and so is not generally to be found on restaurant menus. But it is popular in home cooking.

Berliner Hoppel Poppel


1 lb leftover cooked meat, cut in thin strips
2 onions, peeled and chopped
4 tbsp butter
1½ lb boiled potatoes, chopped
salt, pepper
6 eggs, beaten


Fry the onions in 2 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat until translucent. Add the meat, potatoes, and remaining butter, and fry until the potatoes are golden brown. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over the eggs and stir gently until the eggs are set.

Serve immediately.

Serves 4