That H

The bookstore’s display card calls attention to a novel of moral crisis published in 1901 and typical of its era: a serious-indeed romance about a young man having to decide between a bad girl and a good one. Imagine Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers without the cliff. It seems not to have made much impression. Online in 2017, I’ve found only two things that resemble reviews: in The Salt Lake Tribune for November 11, 1901, page 2, a single quotation (“Your face is not your fortune”) in a filler graf headed “Wit and Wisdom from New Books”; and in advance in The New York Times, this.

Tonally, that précis is accurate; in Reginald Wright Kauffman’s Harvard, dorm-room conversations are held about the mystical influence of Harvard. But in terms of page count, most of the Bildung in this Bildungsroman is football. Our hero’s moral crisis occurs after the game is lost to Yale, 28-0.

The genre formalism isn’t interesting either. At the end the bad girl plays Wagner on her piano in the background, good sport! for the kiss with the good girl.

But on the card there’s this.

That H isn’t just a team identifier; it’s a Peircian symbol. A black rectilinear hardness swirled around by crimson brushstrokes, it imposes control on their flow and gives it a form. In form, forcibly concentrated to a meaning, the connotations of the initial H burst forth into a sentence-long idea: H (yes! at last I realize it, in the dazzling, newly discovered full sense of the word!) is for Harvard. Understood on the body, the sentence in crimson oil teaches its boy wearer to think of his body as a newly understood allegory of its institutional self. The boy has learned at last to think of his body as H.

The bodily letter takes dominion everywhere. In the portion of the image that hasn’t yet been changed, the boy’s epicene face has started going tiny as the body below swells to manly form and presses against the yielding boundaries of what it is about to cease being.

“It is true,” says the boy’s friend. Burgeoning and then contracting, truth concentrates itself down to a single word. Then, in red and black oils, it leaves behind the word’s last vestige of mere referential meaning and dwindles to an abstract shape which has shed all reference to anything beyond itself. It has now fully become an idol, and its name forever after will be H. From every mouth in the stands, forever after, it will sigh the breathy hymn of itself.


Jarvis of Harvard is online at The quotation above comes from page 353.

The display card is in the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Photoshopped.

Eighty-two words and an untranslated song

From a portrait painted by her father in 1872, Jeanne-Rachel Pissarro (1865-1874) looks out at us sidelong, lips pursed and mouth off center. The mouth is in the light, but the big staring eyes have been cast into shadow. Only they have been painted with a fine brush to show detail. They are the center of the image’s illuminating force. They show us a glimpse of a life on the verge. In this image, everything else — the layered clothes, the shadow-casting hat, the bouquet of colored shadows — is subordinate to the eyes. The layers of thick cloth in which the child is wrapped serve as an integument. It will ward off, but (its muted, fading colors warn and promise) only for now. Only for the time being, while the body is still warm-clad and the flowers are still alive.


The two figures in my subject line sum up the entire corpus of an extinct language, Crimean Gothic. It has been on record ever since it was compiled in the mid-sixteenth century by Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592), a Flemish diplomat stationed in Constantinople. His Turkish Letters remain a valuable historical resource, and from the Levant he introduced the lilac and the tulip to Europe. They bloom now outside the library, but of the history of Crimean Gothic the words are no longer spoken and the song is no longer sung.


When the invention of the glass negative in 1854 made it easy to create photographs in multiple copies, a new kind of history book entered the corpus: the photo album, rapidly filling with mass-produced carte de visite images like this one.

It can be read as a document in the history of nineteenth-century sentimentality — a silent little counterpart of, say, a Schubert lied or a Dickens novella. The little girl’s poignant expression mimes the poignancy of her plea, which is poignant in its turn because it is in words that can’t be heard. On her behalf, because she is mute, it asks you to give her an image to keep her company in the dark when her book closes.