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5 Things You'll Learn from Public Domain Review's New Book

We here at mental_floss are huge fans of the website Public Domain Review. Founded in 2011, the site contains a curated collection of the most interesting things in the public domain; its contributors publish essays on some of the cool things they find, a selection of which have been compiled into a new book.

The Book of Selected Essays, 2011 - 2013 is divided into six sections—animals, bodies, words, worlds, encounters, and networks—and is pretty much a must-have for obscure history junkies. “Most of the subjects addressed in these essays—concerned as they are with the small, the unsung, the nooks and shadows—are not the stuff of what Nietzsche called ‘monumental history,’” Adam Green writes in the introduction. But though they aren’t monumental, you’ll probably find that these unfamiliar moments are more interesting than what you learned in history class. PDR was kind enough to send us an early copy of the book; here are five interesting things we learned.

1. ANIMALS WERE ONCE TRIED FOR HUMAN CRIMES.

In “Bugs and Beasts Before the Law,” theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey examines the exceptionally weird history of medieval animal trials. “The trials were conducted with full ceremony,” he writes. “[E]vidence was heard on both sides, witnesses were called, and in many cases the accused animal was granted a form of legal aid—a lawyer being appointed at the tax-payer’s expense to conduct the animal’s defense.” A 1906 book, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, details 200 cases of animals on trial. In one, which took place in 1494 in Clermont, France, a young pig was accused and, at trial, found guilty of entering a home on Easter morning and “strangl[ing] and defac[ing] a child in its cradle,” killing the infant. The judge declared that “the said porker, now detained as a prisoner and confined in the said abbey, shall be by the master of high works hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood.” The trials didn't always end so terribly for the animals, though; in another trial, which took place in 1587, weevils arrested for destroying a vineyard "were deemed to have been exercising their natural rights to eat—and, in compensation, were granted a vineyard of their own."

2. PRESIDENT CLEVELAND’S WIFE NAMED HER DOG AFTER THE FIRST POPULAR UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE.

In “Trüth, Beauty, and Volapk,” Arika Okrent (Hey! We know her!) writes about Johann Schleyer, a German priest who, in 1879, was told by a divine presence to create a universal language. Volapük, which meant “world speak,” became so popular that there were 200 societies devoted to it by the 1880s, and yes, Frances Cleveland named her dog Volapük. “It was the first invented language to gain widespread success,” Okrent writes. “It was designed to be easy to learn, with a system of simple roots derived from european languages, and regular affixes which attached to the roots to make new words.” It was also laden with umlauts. According to Schleyer, “a language without umlauts sounds monotonous, harsh, and boring.” But Volapük’s popularity wouldn't last; it began to fall out of favor in 1890.

3. A MINISTER CLAIMED THAT EDEN WAS LOCATED AT THE NORTH POLE.

Move over, Santa: Ten years after Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, one minister laid out a theory that the garden of Eden could be found at ... the North Pole. In “The Last Great Explorer: William F. Warren and the Search for Eden,” Brook Wilensky-Lanford writes that Warren, minister and also president of Boston University, “knew science was going to define the future. But he was unwilling to give up his theology to the new discipline.” So he found an unlikely way to combine them: by looking to Eden.

“He set about translating the Bible into science,” Wilensky-Lanford writes. “Eden was ‘the one spot on earth where the biological conditions are the most favorable.’ ... He took note of a newly discovered fact: millions of years ago, the earth had been much warmer. He followed the uncovering of fantastic creatures at once familiar and mythical, like the woolly mammoth, the dinosaur, and the giant sequoia. He knew there was still one blank spot on the world map, a place where nobody had been, and he arrived at the inevitable conclusion: The Garden of Eden is at the North Pole.”

He published his ideas in the 1881 book Paradise Found, the Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole, which was bolstered by 580 sources, including Darwin. The book inspired a number of other “Eden seekers,” as Wilensky-Lanford calls them, whose theories frustrated Warren to no end. Other proposed locations for Eden raised during Warren’s lifetime, included Chautauqua, New York; California’s Santa Clara Valley; and Ohio.

4. BEFORE HE WROTE MADAME BOVARY, GUSTAVE FLAUBERT WROTE AN ADAPTATION OF THE TEMPTATION OF SAINT ANTHONY—AND IT WAS TERRIBLE.

In 1849, Flaubert invited two of his closest friends, Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp, to hear his retelling of the tale of St. Anthony, which “he believed was to be his masterpiece,” Colin Dickey writes in “The Redemption of St. Anthony.” Flaubert, then 30, had been working on the story for four years; he read the entire 541 page manuscript in two uninterrupted four-hour blocks for four days. It was not a pleasant experience: “Bouilhet and du Camp would later remember them as the most painful days in their lives … Bouilhet, with as much tact as he could muster, told Flaubert simply, ‘we think you should throw it into the fire and never speak of it again.’” They challenged him to write something “minutely detailed, objectively reported, as in the vein of Balzac.” The result was Madame Bovary.  

Still, Flaubert couldn’t let St. Anthony go; he rewrote it three times before publishing it in 1874. But as Dickey argues, the work didn’t truly come alive until artist Odilon Redon created plates based on the book, “which finally unlocked the strangeness and decadent symbolism that Flaubert had dreamt of but which he could never quite evoke on the page. ... Redon’s work, which caused a sensation in its day but has too often been neglected (particularly outside France), represents perhaps the true potential, and use, of Flaubert’s Temptation.”

5. JOHN ADAMS' GREAT-GRANDSON WROTE THE FIRST HISTORY OF TAHITI.

In 1890, historian Henry Adams—grandson of John Quincy Adams and great grandson of John Adams—left America with his friend, painter John la Farge, for a tour of the Pacific. Depressed after the suicide of his wife five years earlier, Adams purportedly wrote a list of goals that included “tracking down and sampling the legendary durian fruit, following his friend Clarence King’s example and falling madly in lust with exotic native girls, and attaining enlightenment,” Ray Davis writes in “Tales from Tahiti.”

Instead, Adams became close friends with the last two Queens of Tahiti: Arii Taimai and her daughter, Marau Taaroa. In 1891, he wrote in a letter that “By way of excitement or something to talk about, I some time ago told old Marau that she ought to write memoirs, and if she would narrate her life to me, I would take notes and write it out, chapter by chapter. To our surprise, she took up the idea seriously, and we are to begin work today, assisted by the old chiefess mother, who will have to start us from Captain Cook’s time.”

The result was Tahiti, Memoirs of Marau Taaroa (also called Memoirs of Arii Taimai), which Adams self-published in 1901. Davis writes that “as the first history of Tahiti, written with the full support of the family at the center of the island’s annexation as a French colony, and as an attempt to give full attention to both sides of the confrontation between ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ cultures, it deserves wider access than it’s attained to date.”

Buy The Book of Selected Essays before November 26 for a discount!

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12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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