That’s the title of my new (and free) Issuu photobook about (1) photoshopping the only known photograph of Dickinson to bring out detail, and then (2) thinking about what then makes itself seen. Click here:
Observation on the basis of iconography: American cultural history and American literary history seem to be arguing for new study of the once famous, now forgotten Georgia novelist Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987). See below. The second icon depicts the office of House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi during the Republican insurrection of January 6, 2021, when the United States Capitol was occupied by a paramilitary force of Caldwell grotesques.
Grotesques were a Caldwell specialty; grotesques and lurid sex scenes. A cruel laughter pervades. But Caldwell was also a serious liberal who collaborated in 1937 with the photographer Margaret Bourke-White on a documentary book, You Have Seen Their Faces, which showed its readers some of the things that the South’s chain gangs and sharecropper economics had done to faces and bodies. Soon to become Caldwell’s wife, Bourke-White was one of the foremost photojournalists of the twentieth century, but when You Have Seen Their Faces is read in the twenty-first it’s read only for educational comparison with James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was published in 1941 and went virtually unread at the time. In her history of that exchange of reputations, Janet Holtman suggests a reason why: Caldwell’s attitude toward humanity, which was naturalist tending toward eugenicist. In retrospect, where the literary judgments are made, Caldwell’s characters have turned out not to be fully human. We remember Agee’s three families for their souls, but we recognize Caldwell’s type species only for their pathognomonic signs. And the faces photographed by Bourke-White in the service of Caldwell’s vision were reduced by his captions to the function of medical illustration.
But oh, go ahead and notice the Bible in the pocket in Caldwell’s image 3. The Caldwell way of seeing is still available to you after all — if not photographically, at least verbally. After all, too, the initials N.A.L. stand for New American Library. So go ahead: read. Then, if you can, laugh. Laughing, close thy Agee. While thou art at it, close thy sentimental Steinbeck too. Instead, if only as an experiment, open Caldwell and see if he can be thine. Consider it possible that the maimed humor characters who swarm through his language actually are happy with what it has done with them: summoning up their bodies from the pathology text, making them live and move and hit and tweet and kill. Then, please, try to understand what your disbelieving laughter is teaching thee about our country.
Janet Holtman, “‘White Trash’ in Literary History: The Social Interventions of Erskine Caldwell and James Agee.” American Studies, vol. 53, no. 2, 2014, pp. 31-48.
And it was Diogenes Teufelsdröckh in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus who said, “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe.“
While on the other hand . . .
To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language.
Cavafy’s “Days of 1901” is missing some last words. On the page, this elegy sings the recession into time of something that can return only at longer and longer intervals. On its returns it still looks like love, but what there is to see of that love is now coarsening and blurring under time’s accreting memories. The memories are of youth and purity: qualities that are now less accessible to the touch of sensitivity than they were, hidden farther and farther beneath the darkening eaves of upper limits. Youth goes louche, and the days of 1901 go historical.
Formally, too, the poem’s wit is about the past tense. “I am a reminder that there is nothing new about what you feel,” says Cavafy’s Greek sonnet, and it says that on the authority of being in Greek, and a sonnet. But the little hint of budding life within the past culminates in a line so unhistorical that it hasn’t yet taken recorded form. Classical norms would grant “Days of 1901” one more line to bring to a merciful reconciliation the contradiction between immediate beauty and the poignancy of having lived prior, but here at this poem’s end there is only erasure. There ought to be six lines extending all the way to the end, and the prosodic category-name for that imperative, sestet, implies that at the end there ought to be six because a sonnet has earned the right to say and mean that there always have been six. But this sestet begins (in Daniel Mendelsohn’s translation), “The beauty of his nine-and-twenty years.” In Cavafy’s Alexandria, there can be no always. The days of 1901 are partially in ruins, like all the other days.
Look toward the margins and you’ll notice that off the American coast the days of 1901 arrived with an escort of battleships. Among the squadron, the days’ beauty wasn’t the poignant beauty of an individual, like the beauty of Cavafy’s slowing, thickening 29-year-old; they were as bright and delicate and grateful to the touch as new clean well-printed banknotes. Theirs was a Daisy Buchanan beauty: the beauty whose defining quality is the being prized. Competing for the beauty, rich men raced yachts through those days, and the love of the collective that defines love for us was there to protect them in steel boats with flags that snapped in the wind, and the apparatus of history was at hand to inscribe the rushing waves with records of love’s eager speed in a perennial Roman typeface.
The octave of Cavafy’s sonnet read,
The key word was “Almost,” probably to be read as an ironic indirect aside. But in 1901 America a different flesh found its voice in the straightforward positivity of Whitman’s “As Adam Early in the Morning,”
Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body as I pass.
In its Walt warble it added: “Because I am passing through this watery element as fast as can be, and time is money.”
C. P. Cavafy: Complete Poems, trans. Daniel Mendelsohn. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. The facsimile of the manuscript is online at several sites.
“U.S.R.C. Onondaga“: Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016804970/. Post-processed.
Robin gazed with dismay and astonishment, on the unprecedented physiognomy of the speaker. The forehead with its double prominence, the broad-hooked nose, the shaggy eyebrows, and fiery eyes, were those which he had noticed at the inn, but the man’s complexion had undergone a singular, or, more properly, a two-fold change. One side of the face blazed of an intense red, while the other was black as midnight, the division line being in the broad bridge of the nose; and a mouth, which seemed to extend from ear to ear, was black or red, in contrast to the color of the cheek. The effect was as if two individual devils, a fiend of fire and a fiend of darkness, had united themselves to form this infernal visage.
Source of the illustration: “View of Honolulu. No. 1. From the Harbor.” Sketched by Paul Emmert, lithographed by G. H. Burgess. San Francisco: Britton & Rey, 1854. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003681551/. Photoshopped.
At the Library of Congress’s wonderful National Jukebox site (new last May) I recently discovered this item, “Coming Home from Coney Isle,” by a duo, Ada Jones and Len Spencer, who recorded a whole stack of dialect novelty songs in 1905 and 1906.
When I heard the disdainful “Aw, gee” and the plaintive, “Will I open the window?” I thought, “This sounds just like the dialogue in Maggie, A Girl of the Streets.” Well, it turns out that that was no accident. Your proof:
— a song called “Chimmie and Maggie at the Hippodrome.”
Americanists may want to give this site a listen.