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.


Verso separates from recto

Because it is now a part of the collection of a great library, this demotic little document wants to be read on the library’s terms. These terms include the bibliographical words “recto” and “verso”: words that weren’t part of the card’s language when it was, so to speak, a card. There were immediacies to those communications which are gone now, and reading the card under library discipline can’t bring them back. There can be no feeling left to revive in the recto’s image of the beneficent Czar or the verso’s words about a dreadful bad cough. But feeling’s literary history can grow from the tomb under the gentle rain of additional information.

Initial information, then: in 1920 the card was written by somebody named Clara Leavitt to an address in Maine, and its phrase “dreadful bad” in the verso text is a Maine idiom. Knowing that much, I can begin assembling data into a shadow biography of the woman who wrote “dreadful bad.” In 1920, say some of the data, a Clara L. Leavitt, aged 24, was living in the village of Waldo, Maine, at two addresses: one on Sheldon Road, the residence of her parents, and the other on Patterson Road, where she worked as a housekeeper for a man named Roy C. Fish. Clara the housekeeper’s spelling is a little shaky, but her handwriting is assured and her language is clear: perhaps a testimonial to New England’s high educational standards, perhaps also a sign of what Clara actually was. And Waldo adjoins the town of Belfast, so now I can guess that the word “Belfast” is what the card’s postmark was trying to say to the historical record at 5:30 PM on February 4, 1920.

In New England in the early twentieth century, villages too small for a post office were the bleak settings of ­Ethan Frome and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poems: something like orphanages for life, where life ended soon. In Waldo in 1920, for instance, Clara’s parents were also sheltering a seven-year-old granddaughter, Avis Leavitt, about whose parents the surviving records seem to retain no memory. She would live to the age of 56. As to Clara, she married Everett G. Payson of Waldo on March 18, 1929. Three years younger than Clara, he had been married previously to Margaret J. Gurney (1900 – ?), the mother of his daughter Anniebell Payson (1920-1923). To the 1930 census, he was a farm laborer who owned a house worth $200. Clara didn’t outlive him; she died in Belfast on April 7, 1967, probably around the time of her seventy-first birthday.

Half a century before then, the serious little Czar on the recto of her card had received his waiter’s salute. The card bearing that image was published in 1914 or 1915, but by the time Clara Leavitt wrote “dreadful bad” on its verso, the Czar had long since come to his own dreadful and well-deserved end. If that long-term change meant anything to Clara, it doesn’t show on her side of the cardboard. There on the verso, the communication seems to be only that the seasons went on – first in Mr. Fish’s home, then in Mr. Payson’s. The verso was only a blank space until Clara filled it, and when it was full she licked a stamp and brought that episode of her life to an end. But the recto wasn’t yet ready to end, because as of 1914 or 1915 it had five or six years of change to undergo. After 1914 or 1915 it never was blank, and then it kept itself busy signifying in new way after new way until the day it stopped signifying forever.

For the card, the five or six years began on the date when a courtier without a visible sense of irony wrote, “As the photo shows.”

Year by year from that moment on, people who looked at such photos actually saw less and less. Eventually they understood that the photos were going blank because they had no more to show, and then the Czar and his family were led down to the basement for their appointment with a firing squad. But what still does show amid the courtier’s now meaningless words is a trace of Clara’s pencil. Clara did some erasing before she mailed her card, but the Clara lines that remain are now going to remain forever, thanks to the immortalizing spirit of the archive. There will also remain a little segment of the card’s postmark: the black cancellation that came whamming down on the verso during the evening of February 4, 1920. That was what finally brought the change to a stop. From that moment, the card’s recto and verso would be divided between a before and an after, and the tailored little czar and the words “dreadful bad” would be separated from each other by a wall of time as opaque as a slip of cardboard.


Winokur-Munblit Collection of the Russian Empire Postcards, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Online sources of information about Clara Leavitt: