For the Realists

During the nineteenth century, coal and its no longer latent powers began mattering to art and literature. Having been perceived and depicted, they now demanded equal but different rank with the divine. To realize Anna Karenina’s feelings during her night passage on the Moscow-St. Petersburg express was the same problem for Tolstoy that it would have been for Homer, but it was only Homer’s routes that traversed a universe conceivable as a surface hiding no secrets and revealing all there was to reveal. Against that, the moment at the end of Anna’s emptied book when a disconnected fuel tender came rolling by itself down its track (VIII.5) was a revelation of movement without a discoverable origin in intent or terminus in meaning. It may have been that that extorted the last tears from Vronsky. His voyage of discovery had ended without conclusion, in smoky midair.

See how you yourself now perceive this silhouette of eleven womanless men and a danger sign. Inside their collective image, smoke from a waiting parovoz ascends to darken the cloudscape, and that seems to be all the meaning there is. Certainly no one within the artwork’s dark margins is reading the sign’s words.

“Track elevating at road crossing, Joliet, Ill.,” between 1900 and 1905. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Post-processed for contrast and detail. Replaces a 2014 restoration, which has now been deleted from the blog.

Signed at under such circumstances, lesser realists such as William Dean Howells and Jacob Riis reacted by filling their non-fictions and their fictions alike with brand names and street addresses, recorded with due accuracy. The intent seemed to have been to force signifiers like the railroadmen’s unread X to give up a meaning. In time, James Joyce came to understand that a record’s significance lies in its words, only. The data of its ostensible content are a pre-text, and that is enough. But the image you have just seen in parallel with Tolstoy’s words is a wordlessness. Its primary signifier is not a history like Tolstoy’s or Joyce’s but a chemistry and a meteorology, and its record is only one of the smudges that coal in the nineteenth century left in the air.

Healthy color


In the left half of the image, the receding diagonal ends at a wall of white washing. That left half is where the striding man is tall and upright and wearing white-collar made still more white by contrast with his black wristwatch.

In the right half, the Adams zones have been remapped. There the receding diagonal goes back and back to the end of the image plane and darkens as it goes, and the man with one shoulder higher than the other walks his own darkness into the dark. Except for his tin lunchpail, nothing on his side is not black. Into the middle of a descriptive geography of this black, the United States Farm Security Administration has written a diagnosis: “Coal miner going home with friend after work. Many miners are lame. Omar, West Virginia.”

In color the values are distributed more equally. There, in light, bouquets burst into visibility before an unbroken plane of human raw material moving forward like bright lava from the dark earth. That’s the story that the color tells.

You do want to believe the story, don’t you?

Then take the color cure. Let the steam cars carry you to their colorful mountains of decently covered coal. Then put on the white bustle, drink the white remedy, and be healed of your lameness.


Marion Post Walcott, 1938. “Coal miner going home with friend after work. Many miners are lame. Omar, West Virginia.” Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, Photoshopped.

Wills Robinson, “Risking Their Lives in Stalin’s Rusting Cable Cars,”

“Dr. Kilmer’s Female Remedy,” Boston Public Library, Photoshopped.