News from the twentieth century: topless is fine as long as you aren’t Allen Ginsberg

It also helps not to be unwhite.


For several days after this story broke, the reading was front-page news in the Star. The Star’s analysis two days later (March 4, pages 1 and 4) explained:

The_Indianapolis_Star_Fri__Mar_4__1966_4 clip

In all that time, the poet’s name never sullied the whiteness of the Star’s newsprint. On March 11, page 21, a reader complained:

The_Indianapolis_Star_Fri__Mar_11__1966_ clip

Ginsberg’s own record of the event is the poem “Auto Poesy: On the Lam from Bloomington,” collected in his 1972 City Lights volume The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965-1971. It mentions the “tower walls” of the Eli Lilly & Co. plant in Greenfield where I read the Star’s coverage in a break room,

and figured out the poet’s name,

and came with a sinking feeling to the realization that I was the only person in the complex who would know or care. About that, a line from Hart Crane’s The Bridge may have the grammatical distinction of being the only factually incorrect imperative ever written:

Come back to Indiana — not too late!

It is not possible to set foot too late in Indiana.



Hart Crane’s Skygak

A strange word in Cape Hatteras, section IV of The Bridge, is Skygak:


I’m not up on the Crane scholarship and I’m sure somebody may have footnoted the word, but if the footnote exists I haven’t come across it, in Langdon Hammer’s annotated Library of America edition or anywhere else. So with apologies for any redundancy:

Mr. Skygack, from Mars (yes, with the C) was a single-panel American comic strip by A. D. Condo which was syndicated between 1907 and 1917. In each episode, the title character observes human beings doing human things and takes notes, writing from a Martian point of view. The comic alienation-effect works much as it does in Craig Raine’s “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home.” Here, for instance, Mr. Skygack encounters Hart himself on July 10, 1916, celebrating his seventeenth birthday three weeks early.




Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters, ed. Langdon Hammer. Library of America, 2006.

Ron Miller, “Was Mr. Skygack the First Alien Character in Comics?”

Selected Mr. Skygack strips, including the one copied above, are at



Gai voyage, Hart Crane

Orizaba aiK

The literary history of this flyer will call special attention to the Orizaba, from whose stern Hart Crane leaped to his death on April 27, 1932. The night before, he had followed a sailor into the crew’s quarters, attempted to seduce him, and been beaten and robbed.

The language history will call attention to that incident in the hors-texte and then, in the text, to the phrases “congenial companions,” “cruise,” and “a gay foreign capitol.” It might also take one more moment to call attention to the apostrophe in the word “’phone.” Always silent, never spoken in its entire history, that almost entirely useless little punctuation mark has been ruthlessly fitted now with an apparatus of connotations and made to signify quaint anachronism. Just as much as the big change in the meaning of “gay,” that little change in editorial convention is the sign of a supervention of historical irony, the little did they know effect.

So we probably ought to try to sense it, for to feel the no longer spoken prefix tele- as a phantom limb of the stumpy new twentieth-century word ’phone will be to approach an understanding of how meanings come to die. The first instant of the symbol’s new silence will be the sequel of a local little tumult where something drowned.


Chronology: I have found this flyer in two locations online, but it isn’t dated in either one. Its termini, however, would be 1925, when the newer of the two ships, Robert E. Lee, entered service, and the end of 1930, when New York’s telephone numbers were changed from word plus four digits, as in the poster, to word plus five digits (advertisement, New York Telephone Company, Daily News, 16 Dec. 1930, p. 19).

I have photoshopped the flyer to correct for browning and fading.

Track; buttress

Framed by his open rear window, the conductor of the Putnam Avenue trolleycar has his eye on the curved track rising behind him. The car is moving on schedule through space and time. It and its track, all the other cars and all their tracks, have become the seen parts of a steel and stone structure rising buttress by buttress toward two piers in the hazy sky, and a wall of towers rising still higher beyond them. This construction in space and time dates from the summer of 1908. Click to enlarge.

Toward the image’s right edge some words offer us a way of reading New York 1908. Our own New York, it turns out, is different. “Try Horsalene Salve today,” counsels a billboard advertising a skin-care product — but then the words spoken in 1908 canter away from us, laughing as they whinny, “if you want to use your horse.” Oh yes: Horsalene as in ha ha Horse! And to the left of the horsewords another billboard informs us that one of Broadway’s biggest stars, Maxine Elliott, will soon — that is, far in the past — be at the Grand in a new play, Myself — Bettina. Read into the past, the billboard’s nouns and pronouns (“Maxine,” “Myself”) become imperatives. They require us to transfer our desired object of vision from a single image we will not be able to see to an archive of images once actually seen by others.

In the archive, closed off from such distractions as the woman actually seeable on the sidewalk far below the Putnam Avenue car, we’ll find that Myself — Bettina happened to arrive on a different schedule from the one published on the billboard. It didn’t open at the Grand in November; it opened at Daly’s in October. In fact, it barely even made it into November. According to the Internet Broadway Database, it ran only 32 performances, from October 5 to November 1. All four of the reviews I’ve read online (in The Forum, The Smart Set, and the New York Times and Tribune) are negative. Twelve years after Harold Frederic’s novel The Damnation of Theron Ware offered reviewers an opportunity to visualize a small American town populated in its religious district by a sophisticated Catholic priest, his atheist friend, a cigarette-smoking aesthetic girl, and a bumbling Methodist minister, the reviewers lined up along Broadway to complain that the small-town religious architecture of Myself — Bettina was visually obsolete.

Imagine reading this review as you rode the Putnam Avenue car onto the bridge. Imagine, then, deciding not to proceed uptown to Daly’s Theatre and see the show. But just below and to the right of the Tribune’s view of Myself — Bettina, another headline announces the scheduled arrival of a play which in the event will stay and stay and stay onstage, and then transit into literary history. It’s a melodrama just as silly as Myself — Bettina, but unlike Myself — Bettina it came to Broadway from London equipped with a title that was useful on the approaches to the Brooklyn Bridge. Under New York’s smoky skies, it suggested: “With Ellis Island busying itself in the harbor, your world is changing. So stop thinking of yourself with that antique conception, ‘Myself.’ Instead, think of yourself as a thing: a thing continually changing into a newer thing — a thing as wonderful as, say, a bridge capable of spanning the world. You can do it! After all, you are in [pause; then, with emphasis] The Melting Pot.”

But here on the buttresses of the approach, melting has not yet occurred. The innocent words of the billboards facing into traffic still speak to us only of using our horses and eating our superior macaroni. Hart Crane has not yet imagined the Brooklyn Bridge as “harp and altar, of the fury fused.” But see the buttresses and read the reviewer’s complaint about a drama unwilling to register that which, on the immediately available evidence of the senses, was then seen to be making the Putnam Avenue trolleycar rise to the towers along a buttress’s curve. As of 1908, Hart was only a nine-year-old in Cleveland, waiting. But the bridge was already open for business.

Sources: “Approach to Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn, N.Y.” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

New-York Tribune, 6 October 1908, p. 7. Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Performance history of Myself — Bettina: Internet Broadway Database,

Dreamform and archetype


(Data for the waking mind:

(On October 19, 1924, the newly constructed zeppelin LZ126 leaves Friedrichshafen, Germany, bound across the Atlantic to Lakehurst, New Jersey, where it will be commissioned in the U.S. Navy as USS Los Angeles and then become the subject of the “Cape Hatteras” section of Hart Crane’s The Bridge. Image postprocessed from a newspaper photograph.)