As Valentine’s Day approaches, love is on our minds, and we wonder whether and how the definitions and manifestations of the notion of love have changed over the past century. Here, we take a look through at The Nation‘s archives to see how our contributors have written about love since our first publication in 1865.
Nation writers have pondered love, lust, and commitment through the lens of politics, history and cultural criticism; we have explored the topic through poetry and literature. Over fourteen decades, The Nation has criticized, supported, debated, satirized and glorified what Valentine’s Day stands for: love, sex and marriage.
Looking back through our archives, we learn one thing for certain: just as we’ll never stop debating the political, whether we are cynics or romantics, or both, love will never cease to fascinate and inspire us.
These are just a handful of excerpts from our extensive, digital archive, which covers just over 144 years. Some archive pieces are available for all viewers, and you can purchase single or multiple restricted-access articles. Archives are fully accessible to all Nation subscribers (for information about subscription, visit us here).
By Miriam Markowitz
January 21, 2010
Miriam Markowitz reviews Cristina Nehring’s latest book, A Vindication of Love, which chronicles love throughout the centuries. Nehring concludes that by comparison today’s conceptions of love have been both watered-down and contaminated, and it is up to contemporary poets and writers to revive it:
“That said, literature remains our best, most comprehensive archive of human love. All that we expect of love, our notions of how it will lift us, reward us, transform us, comes from a long line of books, poems and songs that have detailed what we may hope for from love and what price it will exact in exchange for its pleasures. Yet as Cristina Nehring argues in her recent treatise, A Vindication of Love, given that love has long been an animating force in literature it is surprising that it is so out of favor among novelists, poets and their ilk today. ‘Where once upon a time love poetry was the most abundant poetry written, it is now among the rarest–particularly in high-brow publications. Adolescents are still allowed to write love poems. Famous poets are not…’
“Nehring’s book is an elaborate defense of ferocious, passionate love, a love that ‘at its strongest and wildest and most authentic…is a demon,’ a religious faith and a ‘divine madness.’ In Nehring’s view, this love is endangered after an embattled twentieth century that brought us Freud, feminism, pheromones and friends with benefits. Love in the twenty-first century has never been freer or easier, she writes, and yet, paradoxically, it has been ‘defused and discredited…. Streamlined, safety-checked, and emptied of spiritual consequence.'”
By Donna Minkowitz
June 17, 2004
Donna Minkowitz examines how marriage cements the modern concept of family. The cultural weight accorded to society’s recognition that another person is part of one’s family is why legalization of gay marriage is so critical.
“I want to be married. I want to make a vow. I want to go where someone else goes, to dwell where they dwell, to have my bones buried, finally, where their bones are buried. When Ruth said these words to Naomi 3,000 years ago, they meant essentially the same thing they do today, when Ruth’s utterly unconventional, daring vows are used in many Jewish and Christian wedding ceremonies. Her vows were socially outrageous then not because they were made by one woman to another but because the promise was extended by a person of a relatively privileged ethnicity and nation, who proposed taking on dire poverty and stateless status to be with the other. But in fact, there’s a sense in which all marriages, gay and straight, partake of this radical proposition. Marriage is about making a beloved alien one of mine, flesh of my flesh. Marriage means taking someone unrelated by blood into our family, for good….
“So why do I want to marry? For love. I believe that, in this world where all we have is our own mind, groping toward something good, two minds together–committed to each other’s happiness and passionate about wanting to continue their relation–add up to something holy.”
November 17, 2005
Here, Michael Wood reviews Gabriel García Márquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores, which begins as an autobiography but ends as the passionate story of an old man, mad with love and clinging to life, that weaves Marquez’s other fiction into the tale.
“There was a certain amount of confusion among the fans and celebrity watchers when this new novella by Gabriel García Márquez appeared in Spanish…Like many of García Márquez’s fictions, Memories of My Melancholy Whores tells two stories. One is a simple, sentimental tale about a man who finds true love very late in life. The other is a bitter but still romantic narrative about a man who exchanges one kind of loneliness for another. He likes the second loneliness better and he calls it being in love, but his self-absorption has hardly been touched. The remarkable moments in the book occur when the two stories cross or start talking to each other.”
By Yusef Komunyakaa
January 27, 2005
This poem appeared in the February 14 issue in 2005.
“Tonight, the old hard work of love has given up. I can’t unbutton promises or sing secrets into your left ear tuned to quivering plucked strings.
No, please. I can’t face the reflection of metal on your skin & in your eyes, can’t risk weaving new breath into war fog. The anger of the trees is rooted in the soil.
Let me drink in your newly found river of sighs, your way with incantations. Let me see if I can’t string this guitar
& take down your effigy of moonlight from the cross, the dogwood in bloom printed on memory’s see-through cloth.”
By Susan Stewart
January 2, 2008
Susan Stewart argues that Robert Creeley is “the most important American love poet in living memory,” because his poems, which celebrated the body and its desires, are crafted with “touch as light as a song.”
“The Collected Poems and this new Selected should challenge that view [that Creeley reached his artistic peak with his For Love collection]. The poems show a consistent set of themes and concerns as well as a range of changes in form, yet all the while there is one life and one voice joining the whole. Nearly all of Creeley’s poems take place in the here and now, and his basic form, though there are important variations, is a string of quatrains as square and carefully joined as a piece of Shaker carpentry. There are no dramatic monologues, no elaborately constructed fictions. The metaphors come from everyday experience and therefore sometimes seem all the more surreal: his infamous lines in The Warning–‘For love–I would/split open your head and put/a candle in/behind the eyes’–modulates its own threat, self-consciously insisting on the value of symbolic exchange: ‘Love is dead in us/if we forget/the virtues of an amulet/and quick surprise.’ ”
By Cristina Nehring
September 1, 2005
Cristina Nehring consider the female orgasm and argues that Jonathan Margolis’ O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm mistakes the beguiling elusiveness of the orgasm for a problem to be solved.
“Once it was a secret; then it was a ‘right;’ now it is a duty. So daunting a duty is orgasm that men, as Jonathan Margolis admits in his 400-page paean to sexual climax, go wild with glee when offered an electronic implant that can relieve them of the onerous duty of bringing their girlfriends to ecstasy all by themselves. Women, for their part, fake it rather than risk the traumatization of their mate. Sex in the twenty-first century is a performance sport: We are told we must ‘demand’ orgasms; we are told we must demand lots of orgasms (for we are ‘multi-orgasmic’); we are told we must seize our own orgasms and offered an array of fancifully colored vibrators to stash in our bags lest any toilet break go unexploited. Men know this and they feel intimidated. Women know this and they feel inadequate. The bedroom, too often, has become a site of fear.
“It’s not that the sexual revelations and revolutions of the recent past have not brought considerable good…What’s bad is that now we have books like Margolis’s O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm, which insistently and insipidly fetishize orgasms–adding, thereby, not just to our fears in the erotic realm but also, paradoxically, to our boredoms.”
By Bettina Drew
October 26, 1998
This article reviews the book A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren, a compelling collection of love letters written to Simone de Beauvoir in the 1940s and ’50s.
“From their first meeting, Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir began a correspondence that lasted seventeen years; for the first three or four they wrote each other two or three times a week. Telling half the story, A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren reveals an affectionate, girlish and lighthearted side of Simone rarely glimpsed elsewhere. Often beginning with greetings such as “Dearest,” “my beloved husband,” or “my beloved one,” replete with declarations of the deepest love–“we have not parted and we’ll never part. I am your wife for ever [sic]”–she describes her travels as if she hoped he could see what she saw, at one point creating a long and moving picture of conquered Germany in 1948, struggling to rebuild itself from ruin.”
By Mina Curtiss
February 23, 1957
Nation editors wrote of this story: “Presented here is the short story Love, by Tibor Dery, novelist and short-story writer, who was among the group of Hungarian intellectuals who played a decisive role in preparing the ground for the Hungarian revolt….in the immediate postwar period, he had risen in party influence to the point where he had become a kind of ‘official institution.’ It was a role he neither welcomed nor deserved, for his more important work had always reflected a strong individualism…Dery’s writings displayed an increasing nonconformism; and even his older works began to come under attack of the Zhdanovists. The Twentieth Congress threw him into open opposition to the Stalinist regime in Budapest, and shortly thereafter he was expelled from the party.
“The Nation rarely prints fiction; in this instance, the excellence of the story, its subject matter and the special circumstances surrounding the author justified the exception. Love was penned after Dery’s split with the party.”
By Ellen Ross
April 15, 1996
This article discusses Sharon Thompson’s book Going All the Way: Teenage Girls’ Tales of Sex, Romance and Pregnancy. Thompson spent ten years listening to over 400 teenage girls’ stories about love, sex and pregnancy.
“The sex lives and childbearing of teenage girls have been hot topics with the middle-aged males in U.S. Congress this year, hues they have approached with breathtaking ignorance of social realities…Today’s debates are surprisingly abstracted from the lives of the young women themselves, not only by their attackers but by their defenders…Sharon Thompson, in her fascinating book Going All the Way, lets these girls tell their own stories of romance, sex and pregnancy in their terms, terms in which calculations about the availability of welfare payments barely enter…Definitely not searches for pleasure, adventure or fun, these narratives delineate girls’ strategies for stimulating true love and their decisions to trade sex to achieve it.”
By Mark Mardon
July 5, 1993
Mark Mardon examines homosexuality in America’s armed forces, a taboo topic then far more so than now. Through three memoirs written by military veterans, Mardon reveals some of the circumstances in which homoeroticism surfaces in the military.
“‘War may not be the most intimate human relationship,’ writes philosopher/psychologist Sam Keen in Faces of the Enemy, ‘but nothing except love moves us to take other so seriously, to explore their mind, their motives, give them such intricate attention Warriors and lovers have much in common…’
“Legions of soldiers returning from war have attested to the fact that, as one retired Army colonel in Colorado recently put it, ‘at the height of combat action, men don’t fight for abstract ideals like love of country, apple pie, or motherhood. They fight, and die, for each other.’ The bonds between men serving in the military at wartime may be termed ‘comradeship’ or something else, but chroniclers of war often testify to such unions being the single most profound relationship in their lives.”
By Sarah Stage
April 23, 1990
Sarah Stage reviews In Searching the Heart, a collection of love letters from the Victorian Age, and discovers that Victorian prudery was a public facade that disappeared behind closed doors.
“Historians, who make it their business to read other people’s mail, have largely ignored love letters. In Searching the Heart, Karen Lystra examines the love letters of more than a hundred men and women and finds those letters a rich source for understanding the private/public dichotomy at the heart of middle-class Victorian culture. Lystra’s engaging study adds to the literature that rejects the old stereotype of Victorian sexual repression and moves beyond it to advance the more provocative and more problematic argument that women gained power, standing and status through romantic love. The erotic intensity of the letters may surprise those who still mistake Victorian prudery for lack of passion.”
July 19, 1922
This article presents a discussion on love and hate in the context of World War I, which took place in the French Chamber of Deputies on June 1, 1922. The threat of German nationalism worried some of the French ministers.
“M. Marc Sangnier: When we were fighting there was more love in our hearts than hate; there was love of liberty and of justice, and love is stronger than hate.
M. Poincare: Yes, M. Sangnier, there was love of justice and that love made us hate those who did violence to justice…Every day, in fact, brings us proof of the ill-will of Germany…
M. Sangnier: …I hold it indispensable to discriminate between the two Germany’s and however few you may consider those Germans…who really want peace, we must reach out our hands to them…
M. Rillart de Verneuil: Go meditate upon love in the graveyards of the front; go meditate upon love in our ruins.”