He looks out the archive window. On the other side of the glass are warmth and noise and life.

In the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain Collection,

https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014683960/

this picture of embarkation on a pilgrimage from New York is dated May 1909. That’s the date of filing in the collection, not the date when the photograph was taken.

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But if we assume that the pilgrims are Roman Catholic, a plausible motivation for their excited setting forth in 1909 might be the impending beatification of Joan of Arc in Rome on April 18. A month after that, Blessed Joan’s elevation was to be remembered to American history through a page in the New York Times’s Sunday rotogravure section, but here, even before the beginning, the ecclesiology of the event manifests itself to New York as a procession up a plank to a swirl of happy bodies congregating itself beautifully in the sun.

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May 23, 1909. Page number in this section, 11. Cumulative page number, 51.

But the pilgrims’ happy expressions and stripped-down garb don’t originate just in ecclesiology; they also express a physiology and a meteorology. According to the databases available online from the National Centers for Environmental Information,

https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/

during the first half of April 1909, New York experienced one warm, sunny surprise of a day: April 7, when no precipitation fell and the temperature ascended to 73. After New York’s long winter, the men and women treading Cunard Lines’ gangway in spring’s new measure must have felt themselves to be in a state perennial but always fearfully despaired of until the happy beginning:

perced to the roote.

Now take that date from one part of the archive, carry it over to another carrel, and yes! see:

The_Sun_Wed__Apr_7__1909A
The Sun, 7 April 1909, page 10

It isn’t a definite confirmation, but in this image of Lucania you can see, alongside the bulwark just forward of the mainmast, a tall skinny white ventilation funnel very much like the one that stands stockstill amid the image of pilgrims in confined motion.

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As soon we’ve noticed that, the archive will finish writing the historical text for us. The process will be automatic; we won’t even have to leave the building for a breath of air. Lucania’s voyage of April 7, 1909, Wikipedia informs us, would have been one of her last. Built in 1893 and obsolete by 1909, she was laid up in July of that year, then was damaged by fire in August and scrapped.

Which is to say that we and the archive seem to have achieved a tiny historiography. Starting only with an image bearing a cryptic inscription, we have established what may be a date and a physical context. We could proceed from there to (for one possible instance among many) a history of Cunard Lines’ shipboard class structure, which (it will turn out) has something to do in the image with those beautifully shined shoes on the men and those beautifully ironed dresses on the women. If you could take weeks off for God’s sake in 1909, you had servants.

But the invisible servants’ visible masters and mistresses, as depicted? They remain wholly apart from us on their own side of the archive’s windowpane: smiling on their deck, speaking to one another in a language whose words are now not just indecipherable within their necessarily incomplete historical context (because the servants who help them live are invisible) but incomprehensible on their far side of mortality. A woman like a pillar with a dust ruffle, a man with a pencil mustache like a scar: we lack a language to ask of those traces of being how they can ever have been what they now forever are.

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And off in a corner a young woman leaning close to see and hear and perhaps sympathize with an old woman whose veil hides her face and whose glittering glasses deflect our own light back to us:

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But the old woman’s mouth is closed. The tale she is seen not to be telling is a poem in a book closed to us. We’re in an archive full of other books, openable ones, but they aren’t helping. We seem not to have learned to read after all.

Sources:

“Departure of pilgrims to Rome, crowd at boat docks, New York,” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014683960/

“S.S. Lucania, July 28, 1894,” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016805775/

All images post-processed in Photoshop.