Light falling on face

Undated in its archive at the Library of Congress but obviously taken in old age, this is a portrait of one of the most controversial men in nineteenth-century America, Daniel E. Sickles (1819-1914). On the historical record, Sickles is, among many other things, not just the first American to escape conviction for murder on the grounds of temporary insanity (his victim was his wife’s lover, the son of the lyricist of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) but also the only Union general at Gettysburg lacking a statue on the battlefield — whose preservation as a national historic site, however, is largely due to him. Another work of preservation remains the leg he had amputated during the battle, which is still in the National Museum of Health and Medicine. After the war he used to visit it. Thomas Keneally’s 2002 biography is titled American Scoundrel.


With a head full of Rembrandt, I subject the scoundrel’s portrait to Photoshop.

The little dog doesn’t belong in such an image — not with his upturned snoot and rolling eyes. He (she, Mrs. Woolf?) looks all too knowing, all too civilian. The kid glove, visible in at least one other portrait, may hint at one more military anecdote, but on its own terms in the image it is only an opacity. Under other circumstances the fringey little hem of bangs on the age-spotted scalp might look comically desperate, but in juxtaposition with glassy glint, hooded eyes and mouth pursed in what looks like thought, it communicates pathos in the face of mortality. In the shadows that I have brought up from the Plutonic with a Photoshop slider there is now visible a shade, advancing across the image field. In the original depiction of that shade some surface blemishes were visible as a kind of light-spun fabric in the vicinity of the right eye, so I blotted them out as I blotted out the silky little dog. There is almost nothing left to see now except dark.


But see what remains visible there: an artifact formed from what nineteenth-century studio photographers called Rembrandt lighting. The lighting has not only created what looks like a flesh; it has made it into a carnal lyric. Scored on the dark, the lyric sings lightly when it sings to us:

“I was dead flesh; I became living chiaroscuro. Now and forever, I will be for you who see me a lexicon of shades of meaning. As you read me, let’s be friends. You may call me HMV.”


Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress,

Snowy destiny: Massachusetts, Manchuria

Here on the left of the page is an account of the sledding accident that inspired Edith Wharton to write the plot twist at the end of Ethan Frome. Over on the right, separated by the white width of the page, are a snowy Korean photograph and an article about what was shortly to become the genocidal Japanese occupation of Korea. At the bottom, under “Yesterday’s War News in Brief,” are topographic and economic details. One of the things that historical texts like these do is to fill out the blanknesses between events, as if truth-signifying footprints were being laid down word by word through snow.


But the track rarely follows a straight line. Between the day in 1904 when it passed through a printing press to the later day when it was translated into a digital image, this page has been subjected to corrigendum after corrigendum. Not long after the accident, for example, the page became subject to urgent correction when the sled’s passenger Crissy Henry didn’t follow doctors’ orders and die. In any case, Wharton probably didn’t read any of the newspaper accounts at the time, because she had spent the winter of 1903-04 in Paris. Nor did she write the first version of Ethan Frome until 1907, nor does that eight-page sketch make reference to a sled. What seems to have happened in the history of imagination between a sad snowy death in 1904 and the publication of its icily polished memorial in 1911 was that one of the survivors of the accident, Kate Spencer, grew up to become a librarian in the Lenox library where Wharton worked as a volunteer manager, and the two women became friends. Presumably that was how the novelist learned of the non-fiction and began the process of making it into fiction.

I did my diligence about all this with pages 41-43 of Suzanne Fournier’s Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome: A Reference Guide (Greenwood, 2006), which toward the end of its historical section allows itself a victory lap through the archive and crows that Miss Spencer was marked for the rest of her life with a scarred face and a limp — just (you can sense the triumphant sounds long before they become audible), just (so let’s play them again), just like Ethan.

In non-fiction, just like is an important concept. We learn it as babies and use it for the rest of our lives thereafter to negotiate our way through the world. It is at the heart of Euclid’s first axiom, “Things equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.” But fiction is less about the universe’s just likes than about its yes buts. It doesn’t want to accept the possibility of the usual. The current of the usual may be what carries us to the database called, where we can learn what is learnable to non-fiction about the one girl who did die in the sledding accident, but even there we will find ourselves reading as if there were interesting exceptional details. Reach item number 17673836, for example, and in its cubby you will be able to hear the name Emily Hazel Crosby singing itself through a lyric consisting only of art’s two minimal essentials, a beginning and an end: April 19, 1885 and March 10, 1904. But this lyric will come to us with a harmony in its words, because (carols Findagrave) Hazel had a mother named Alida Edna (1859-1916), a sister named Alice Edna (1881-1884), and a sister named Edna Alida (1891-1912). The names repeat yet disappear, the dates close in on them, the effect is pathos, and the aesthetic locus communis is Gray’s Elegy: another fiction. Under snowy, sleddy circumstances, in a resting place named Church on the Hill Cemetery, it offers itself as a companion text to Ethan Frome.

And between those stony fictions is the blankness where Hazel Crosby’s true story lies deep under its own stone: forever past reading now except for the interesting but now meaningless detail of three girls’ names repeating in echoless diminuendo in snow.


Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge — pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travelers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

— Moby-Dick, chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale”