Pre-footnote in prose: in 1609, when Thomas Thorpe published the first collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the word “adventurer” could mean “investor” (as in the current term “venture capital”) and “setting forth” could mean “publishing.” In 1620, the year of the Mayflower, the investors who financed the voyage referred to themselves in prosaic business English as Plymouth adventurers, and whatever you may find exciting about the title of this 1952 movie is an anachronism.
In business English, the only uncertainty about the meaning of the dedication where Thorpe applies the terms “adventurer” and “setting forth” to himself and his business is in a term for which the text and the library haven’t yet provided glosses. Who is Mr. W. H.? One of these centuries, an archive may open up those initials into full words, and then one of scholarship’s useful prosy tasks will be finished.
But trying to write “The End” at the ends of the open-ended terms “immortality” and “ever-living” will be a different task for meaning. And about the Thorpe text’s syntax and typography there will remain other meanings to think of and say — but what can they be, and how can they be articulated in words?
Look below, for instance. The only words that apply to this being are “eat” and “sleep,” and those words are purely external to him. Because he awakens into a world without meanings that can be expressed in words, he doesn’t think of his awakenings as (for instance) adventures. Because such words originate only with us readers, they can never be intrinsic to him and they can never fully communicate what he is.
Yet as a form seen from without, he evokes a formal meaning. It isn’t expressible in words, but it has a metaphoric typography. To us who can read, it is capable of attaching a literal extension to the figurative term “setting forth.” And at dawn, what is seen without words becomes a black-and-white typography. With the coming of light, a being seen and then played around with and given a name, such as “chiaroscuro,” becomes an only begetter. Realized into words in black and white, it sets forth a text that you begin to know as you begin to see.
A year after the Great War, life was still bringing forth cripples. In the New York Tribune for September 21, 1919, news of the routine event made page 12.
A century later, this article is still generically recognizable as a human-interest feature, but its language hasn’t aged well. In 1919 it tried in its generic way to communicate a sense of warm-heartedness, but as of 2017 the temperature of the heart is to be taken in a different range of the thermal spectrum. “Propaganda in behalf of one-legged boys”? “To hunt up and help all crippled boys and men”? Or
The cripples play every day at noon. Every morning and afternoon they work at bench trades, learning to be draughtsmen, jewellers and typewriter repairmen
? No, we don’t say such things now. They have become obsolete. The noun “cripple” has gone the way of the draftsman and the typewriter repairman and the typewriter. In their Bain News Service photograph the cripples themselves now seem little more than components of an abstract textural study comprising a wall of antique handmade bricks, a cluttered dirt surface, and, off to the side, half of a boy without a face. Two decades later, Walker Evans would redo the same formal presentation with another brick wall and a poster of black dancing girls and a stationary wagon with a team of mules.
That image from Alabama in 1936 is famous now. I don’t need to reproduce it here; you can find it in any history of photography. But this prior image?
Almost incidentally in the center are also a one-legged boy with a baseball catcher’s backward cap but no mask or glove, and another boy, a dwarf in little-boy shorts, playing batter. Citation counts in the history of photography will tell us that these human beings have meant less than Evans’s mules. They have spoken to history only the accidentally ironic words that the Bain News Service wrote on their image for them, with its adjective scratched in by Great War reflex and then scratched back out:
ARMY CRIPPLES AT BASEBALL
Those words and that strikethrough have defined the cripples ever since. It has reduced them to a textbook example of irony. And because their image has been transformed by words into something merely exemplary, it probably can’t accommodate the extra non-verbal value of (for instance) colorization. Their caption has reduced them and their name (“Cripples”) to allegorical abstractions. Speaking the dialect of caption, they now tell us only a moral tale in a dead language, archived only in black and white.
Whereas these words and this image from the lower left corner of the newspaper page . . .
She is an idol of nameless wordless life, the unendingly changing. All of her and her breathlessly capitalized Kitten’s Ear Crepe we can love, forever. Six years from now, she may take on, for a moment, the name of Daisy Buchanan. Trembling with anticipation, we read down the page to where she now waits below the fold, and deck her image with Photoshop gold and pink.
As to the cripples, their pre-Photoshop image has now faded almost to vanishing. It can mean little more to memory now than they now do.
But within the image the unfaded caption is still blackly clear — in fact clearer now than it was in 1919, when it was camouflaged by freshly photographed bricks. One day in 1919 a stylus scratched a caption so far through the picture of the bricks laid down in photosensitive emulsion that it reached the hard all-revealing glass of the emulsion’s backing and left there a passage for light to pass through. Passing through ever since, light has faithfully continued transmitting the cripples’ archaic name (“Cripples”) from its incised archive to us and our time. And the name grows darker year by year as the image of crippled bodies fades to white.
But “at baseball”? What can unfade that phrase?
Under at, the OED explains, in language left unchanged since its first edition a century ago:
In his novel, Jane Austen’s Mr. Palmer, exemplifying what Austen calls his Epicurism, is at billiards; on their glass plate the cripples are at baseball. The at phrases and their grammar ought to be equivalent, but they aren’t. I can easily visualize Mr. Palmer, but even with the cripples’ photograph right before me I can barely see them. Somehow, “at billiards” communicates more from the nineteenth century than “at baseball” communicates from the twentieth.
One reason may be that the photograph imposes physical limits on the scope of the words it contains. The cripples’ at is a word from the universe of 1919, only, as seen in an image representing a moment in 1919, only. As its surrounding photograph has become archaic, it has become archaic. Surrounded on all sides by change, it walls off a corpus of the unchanged. But in the invisible medium of the unillustrated, Mr. Palmer’s at lives on for at least a while longer. Unbounded by the borders that constrain image, the archive of imagination has made room within itself for one more old word, communicating one more new meaning.
During the early 1970s, Marlboro cigarettes, formerly a niche brand, rocketed to the top of the market and became the best selling cigarettes in the world. The reason is well covered in histories of advertising: Marlboro’s manufacturer switched niches. If the cigarettes haven’t killed you yet, you associate Marlboros with masculinity, thanks to the extraordinary success of an advertising campaign whose icons came coughing onto the page beginning in 1954 — first as men with tattoos, then as cowboys. Look to your left, however, and you’ll see that as of 1944 Marlboros were a woman’s cigarette, tipped with red to hide lipstick stains. At http://tobacco.stanford.edu/tobacco_main/images.php you’ll find a richly illustrated history of the gender reassignment. This note is about a language change that seems to have occurred concomitantly, and perhaps a moral change too.
Yes, in this advertisement even the illustration has a moral. Between the woman and her ashtray stands Daniel Chester French’s image of the Minuteman of Concord, steadfastly posted eyes-front at breast height. Almost as an afterthought, the advertisement’s text is duty-bound likewise. “Two luxuries she can conscientiously enjoy,” it explains about the illustration, and it half-conceals its heroine’s lineaments of conscientiously gratified desire behind a turned back and a mirror image guarded by a raised arm.
Nineteen-forty-four, after all, was a year when openly acknowledged desire must have seemed shameful. In the sixth year of the Second World War, all of the unashamed rest of America was austere. In window after window hung a little flag bearing at least one star, each star the symbol of a son in the Armed Forces or (if the star were gold) of a son dead on the field. In magazine after magazine, too, the advertisers who articulated the language of America’s economy somberly explained the necessities of shortage and pleaded for willing submission to the unending sacrifice. Turning her back and refusing to look at anyone but herself, Miss Marlboro counterpleaded, with feminine emphasis and a feminine diminutive, for “mere pennies,” but the 1943 penny itself was a memento mori. Not made of copper that year because copper was desperately needed for shell casings, it was minted instead in galvanized steel: no longer the red of a Marlboro beauty tip but gray, gray. “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life,” Ralph Waldo Emerson had cried with defiant joy as he stood before Harvard’s divinity school in 1838, but 106 years later the threat to joy was no longer a three-quarters-dead regional Puritanism but death itself, fully dressed against the summer in menacing black.
But no, pretty miss in heels and peach-colored panties: even under that dread circumstance, you need not feel ashamed of your bath. It makes you not just clean but clean-feeling, and that harmless benefit comes to you free of any charge, either in money or in currencies of the soul. The world outside has descended fully into 1944, but in this room with the ashtray on the vanity you are about to sink into a bath conscientiously. The original sense of that adverb happens to have been in good conscience.
Postwar, I get the impression that that sense has all but disappeared from American English. The word conscientiously now seems to connote little more than rational but uninspired acceptance of a duty. Yes, yes; I do, conscientiously, try to practice good dental hygiene. But except perhaps as a vestigial technicality in the legal term conscientious objector, any sense of conscience as a motivating joy seems almost to have vanished from English. In 1914, in the first poem of the sonnet sequence he called 1914, Rupert Brooke compared men about to volunteer for the war with “swimmers into cleanness leaping,” but as early as 1918 some of the Englishmen to whom that simile had once seemed to mean something were saying, “Went to war with Rupert Brooke, came home with Siegfried Sassoon.”
So conscience understands that it will be different this time when you take off your panties and leap. But do leap. It seems possible that the calendar will never again advance from 1944, and the leap will at least make you feel clean until you resurface in the smoky air. As a poet who thought himself postwar once sang:
In the course of the Republican primary campaign of 2012, the conservative policy intellectual Rush Limbaugh weighed in on Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown student who had addressed some Democratic members of the House in favor of birth control coverage under government-mandated health insurance. According to David Crary’s article for the Associated Press (Honolulu Star-Advertiser 3 March 2012: A3), Mr. Limbaugh told his radio audience on February 29:
What does it say about the college coed . . . who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.
About that, three language notes.
1. A septuagenarian myself, I remember the term “coed” from the 1950s. I don’t think I’ve heard it since then.
2. The OED traces the term back to 1893. From 1903, it offers an anti-Limbauvian quotation: “Any college where the girls are commonly called ‘co-eds’ is not a truly co-educational institution.”
3. For conservatives who understand that conservatism of thought entails conservatism of language, Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” offers this reassuring statement of faith.
I almost venture to affirm that not one in a hundred amongst us participates in the “triumph” of the Revolution Society. If the king and queen of France and their children were to fall into our hands by the chance of war, in the most acrimonious of all hostilities, (I deprecate such an event, I deprecate such hostility,) they would be treated with another sort of triumphal entry into London. We formerly have had a king of France in that situation: you have read how he was treated by the victor in the field, and in what manner he was afterwards received in England. Four hundred years have gone over us; but I believe we are not materially changed since that period. Thanks to our sullen resistance to innovation, thanks to the cold sluggishness of our national character, we still bear the stamp of our forefathers. We have not (as I conceive) lost the generosity and dignity of thinking of the fourteenth century; nor as yet have we subtilized ourselves into savages. We are not the converts of Rousseau; we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helvetius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers; madmen are not our lawgivers. We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality,— nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity. In England we have not yet been completely embowelled of our natural entrails: we still feel within us, and we cherish and cultivate, those inbred sentiments which are the faithful guardians, the active monitors of our duty, the true supporters of all liberal and manly morals. We have not been drawn and trussed, in order that we may be filled, like stuffed birds in a museum, with chaff and rags, and paltry, blurred shreds of paper about the rights of man. We preserve the whole of our feelings still native and entire, unsophisticated by pedantry and infidelity.