Gai voyage, Hart Crane

Orizaba aiJ

The literary history of this poster 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 hear it, for to feel the new silence of the prefix tele- as a phantom limb of the stumpy new twentieth-century word ’phone will be to come as close as we ever can to sensing the arrival of a death. In the instant of its coming there will be a local little tumult where, as Yeats says in the immer schon of the historical present tense, the ceremony of innocence is drowned.

Chronology: I have found this poster 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 poster 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 an era lasting one particular fraction of a second in the summer of 1908. Click to enlarge.

Toward the image’s right edge some words provide it with a cultural context. Extending the image beyond the visual boundaries of its frame, they refer our acts of seeing to a delimited history: the archive, a specialized history, written in dead language, of that which is no longer available to lived experience. “Try Norsalene Salve today,” counsels a billboard advertising a skin-care product — but then the words once spoken to the now dead canter away from us, laughing as they whinny, “if you want to use your horse.” And to their left another billboard informs us that one of Broadway’s biggest stars, Maxine Elliott, will be at the Grand in a new play, Myself — Bettina, some time after you will have read its words in this photograph of a summer now gone.

Because there no longer exists the possibility that we can anticipate a Maxine in the visual field between the billboard and us, the billboard and its words (“Maxine,” “Myself”) are all that remain in our seen space. In that lexicon of the once seen, even nouns and pronouns (“Maxine,” “Myself”) become imperatives. They induce us to open a new screen and transfer our desired object of vision from a single image we will not be able to see to an archive of images once seen by others. In the archive, closed off from the distraction of the woman actually seeable on the sidewalk far below the Putnam Avenue car, we’ll find that Myself — Bettina actually arrived 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. Just below and to the right of the Tribune’s view of Myself — Bettina, however, another headline announces the scheduled arrival of a play whose title will offer the New York of the Ellis Island era a more immediately obvious metaphor for itself: The Melting Pot.

Here on the buttresses, however, 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: 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.)