After we realize we have seen, we sometimes teach ourselves the experience by giving it a name. The publisher George Stacy taught experience to other people for a living, and one day in about 1860 he made it his business to jot down some helpful ideas about an item newly visible then. You might call it American scenery, he suggested, and after that specifically clipper ship with a catalog number and a name, and finally, off in the right margin for any leftovers, miscellaneous.*
When we think we have completed a naming like that, silence may follow. As of 1860, two technologies that seemed to prepare silence for us were the stereopticon and the lexicon of words specialized for the genre of caption, which shortcuts from perception to understanding on the quiet. Shortly after 1860, however, the Orphic moved melodiously back into the modes of knowing. During the Edison era Hart Crane composed in the presence of a Victrola, and something singable now to Stacy’s image might be one of Crane’s Victrola-words from The Bridge: curveship.
Or, within Stacy’s margins, the lyric Miscellaneous. Before that came to mind it existed as silent sensation, but then Stacy cordoned it within yellow and connected it into a directory of names. That’s what happened, for instance, when one sensation resolved itself into the name George W. Green, Sail Maker. Roman-font George W. Green, living man, is no more, but through the agency of perception his yellow-highlighted name has entered the breath-warmed history of your own remembered reading. Simultaneously, in front of a building named Wall Street, another name ripens to significance. If the blur that’s barely distinguishable there happens to be a wheel-shaped grindstone, we may be able to begin naming the person treadling the wheel. What emerges from the blur won’t be capitalizable like George W. Green, but historical probability and the sociology of gender will at least let you call it a man. In a poem named “Sparkles from the Wheel,” Walt Whitman poignantly observed that to know such an incidental detail is only an approximation in parenthesis. The man he describes is a reduction to “(an unminded point set in a vast surrounding).” But he is a point.
And beyond the parenthesis lies Great Republic’s great dark hull. Ever since 1860, George Stacy’s image has filled us who see it with the desire to become one of its cargoes of shadow. Barely noticed at the foot of Wall Street, however, is another darkness, this one an inky deposit of words. Pasted onto a wall half the length of the pier, it amounts to a collection of promissory notes promising meaning.
The promise can’t be kept, however. Rendered delible by loss of optical and historical signal, the posted words now communicate only miscellaneous, and the meaning of that word doesn’t extend from its aged yellow script to the forever new word-bearing wall. At term, all you can use it for is seeing without reading. The words within the double image of Great Republic mean now only to it, not to us. In an artwork intended to be readable with reference to changing time, they have sunk back into their image and gone timeless again. They are no longer in the stereo plane of readable surface. Having returned to the pre-perceived, they no longer bear the meaning of a readable word, even miscellaneous.
But just offshore of that worded silence lies Great Republic, moored to the still land of words but afloat on its river in tiny tidal motions. If we hope to know it we’ll have to get moving, because the knowing will have to be done on moving’s sole term. That term will be a hapax legomenon: a single generatrix of significance, a curveship not in the lexicon of caption. But if you’ve failed at learning the motion and you’re still on the pier with the unreadable words, do at least whisper to yourself in Great Republic’s shadow, Victrola.
* A small mystery about this stereo pair is that the images appear not to have been taken at the same time, even though stereo cameras generally have twin lenses with synchronized shutters. In the right-hand image, one of the ferry terminal’s three gates is open and the funnel of a boat is visible. In the left image there is no boat, all three gates are closed, and something round on a stand is in front of one of them, with the man I identify as possibly a knife-sharpener. (But what would a knife-sharpener be doing in this neighborhood?) Likewise, the ships in the far background seem to have moved, and in the left image but not the right a boat is visible behind the ship astern of Great Republic. Perhaps Stacy’s published stereo card is a composite of the left half of one pair with the right half of another.
Update, August 10, 2020:
Replying to a query, Michelle L. Smiley, Ph.D., assistant curator of photography at the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division, writes:
“Thank you for contacting the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. I have looked at the Clipper Ship stereograph in question and your observations about the changes in scene between stereo images seem accurate. These are fascinating differences between images, but they are also not unusual.
“While you are correct that photographers did employ stereographic cameras containing two lenses, true synchronous shutters didn’t come into common use until the 1880s, so many stereo photographs prior to that time are asynchronous. Some photographers used what was called a flap shutter over their lenses to synchronize their exposures, but most were removing a lens cap or a stop individually from each lens. Additionally, it was also a practice for photographers to use a camera with a single lens to take two pictures in succession with a slight adjustment in the position of the camera between shots. After consulting with my colleague, we believe that, given the seeming match of the offset of these two views, Stacy was using a twin lens camera, but making a unique exposure with each lens. My colleague also pointed out that portrait photographers may have been more likely to use a flap, whereas city/landscape photographers like Stacy may have had less of a concern with people or things moving between exposures. It’s also possible that Stacy composited halves of two separate negatives as you speculate, but with only the visual evidence to go off of, it is difficult to say definitively which of these methods was used.”
The blogpost linked here is six years old, but last night I rephotoshopped the image and did some rewriting while I was at it. And see: thanks to last night’s powerful combination of Nik Dark Contrast with Nik Pro Contrast, the Singer Building is once more visible to history. Wikipedia says that until September 11, 2001, it was the tallest building ever demolished.
This mariner, equipped for his voyage with ivory cigarette holder, weathered lifeboat, and rose, is Otto Kahn, the banker whose patronage helped Hart Crane write The Bridge.
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:
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:
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.
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?” https://io9.gizmodo.com/was-mr-skygack-the-first-alien-character-in-comics-453576089
Selected Mr. Skygack strips, including the one copied above, are at http://www.barnaclepress.com/comic/Mr.%20Skygack%20From%20Mars/.
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.
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, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994005064/PP/. Photoshopped.
New-York Tribune, 6 October 1908, p. 7. Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1908-10-06/ed-1/seq-7/. Photoshopped.
Performance history of Myself — Bettina: Internet Broadway Database, http://ibdb.com/production.php?id=6595