Some stories and a dog, 1922

Once upon a time, perhaps in 1922 — the publication date of Ulysses and The Waste Land, and of Sinclair Lewis’s social satire Babbitt, with its phonographic transcripts of the way Americans talked in 1922, and of vol. 1, no. 1 of Babbitt’s real-time control corpus Reader’s Digest —

once upon a time, perhaps in that year when modes of perceiving words changed, someone looked at a photograph captioned with a Connecticut title and asked it the beginning of a question.

Dog aiC

Adjusting the clarity and contrast of this dog bounded between words restores visibility to what he is doing: wagging his tail. But the bounding question, as worded, hasn’t been brought to completion. What we perceive of the dog doesn’t have a context. The question may signify, “At what address in Westbrook, Conn., was Major?” But alternatively it may signify, “What became of Major, forever after?” Whatever the answer may be to either of those sub-questions, it can’t be now what it would have been in 1922, the year C. K. Ogden translated into English the sentences, “The world is everything that is the case” and then “The picture is a model of reality” and “The picture is a fact” (Tractatus 1, 2.12, 2.141). In perhaps 1922 someone writing a graceful nineteenth-century hand molded the words
“Westbrook           Conn.” around a void and shaped it into a model of the fact of permanent self-evidence. The case of the top margin is Westbrook           Conn.; what else can it ever be? But evidence of any kind is missing from the laborious blockprint at the bottom. Down there, there is no connection between the question on the left and the date on the right. More, and terribly: the writing at the bottom may be an old writer’s correction of the erratum she herself created at the top while she was young. The R’s are similarly formed. Now that the writer understands that her mood should have been interrogative rather than indicative, she writes correspondents from the time zone after 1922 an interrogative letter of request. Skipping past the image between its two lines of words, we are to write back with any story we can tell about a dog who slipped the words.

We hold the letter from perhaps 1922 in our hands: a little slip of paper marked with ink in its margins and silver halides at its center. Any answer we make will have to be marginal, skipping from top to bottom past the halides and their caption reading “Connecticut.” Centered in the halides, the wordless part of the story is the dog’s life.

Sculpsit, his mark

The gray blur’s nominal subject is far in the background, but it doesn’t need to be close. It is so big, and in its time it had always been so famous.

George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress,

The largest commercial vessel in the world when it was launched in 1913, the Hamburg-America Line’s Vaterland was at its American pier across the river from New York when the Great War broke out, and it remained there until it was seized by the United States in 1917 and renamed Leviathan. The double name and historic magnitude were what came to E. E. Cummings’s mind that year when he saw the ship on his way back to the United States from his French prison: “Was it yesterday or day before saw the Vaterland,I mean the what deuce is it–that biggest in the world afloat boat.” A century later, Vaterland-memory still exists, institutionalized as a Leviathan collection in the Smithsonian Institution containing a model, a menu, the key to the kennel for passengers’ dogs. . . The ship’s orchestra also made records labeled with the Victor dog, and four of those have now been set to permanent work streaming the Roaring Twenties sound of banjos and saxophones from the Library of Congress.

But downstage from Vaterland on December 11, 1914 was this other craft. Like Vaterland, it bore a human name, but the scale of memorial desire undergirding this name was different. It was evidently conceived to immortalize not a large national metaphor but a single individual named, in flesh and blood, Herbert E. Keller.

Image adjusted for contrast and detail in Photoshop.

And so long as it is italicized, Herbert E. Keller’s name does survive. According to the United States Department of Commerce’s Fifty-First Annual List of Merchant Vessels of the United States [. . .] for the Year Ended June 30, 1919 (Government Printing Office, 1920), italic Herbert E. Keller was an iron towboat of 57 gross tons and 39 net tons, with a length of 63.5 feet, width of 18.8 feet, and depth of 8.0 feet. Her indicated horsepower was 200, she carried a crew of four, she was built in Tottenville, NY, in 1911 and homeported in New York, and she was not equipped with wireless apparatus. For “Herbert E. Keller” in roman, finds nothing approximating a contextually plausible floruit, but I suppose the words may remain readable yet in, say, the records of the Hudson Towboat Company or a history of the port of New York. Three of italic Herbert E. Keller’s crewmen are visible as they ride their boat, too, and two of them show their faces so clearly that modern facial-recognition software might be able to name them from their position in an archive.

But in the photographic record the face of the third crewman is all but indecipherable.

Fingerprint g

Heat from a cloud of steam has imposed Schlieren distortion on what you see of his part of the boat, and then just below and ahead of him a fingerprint has been pressed into the negative itself, physically altering it. At some time after a photographer for the Bain News Service opened his shutter on December 11, 1914, he or a co-conspirator broke down representation’s fourth wall and branded an image he had captured for the record of history with a mark of his anonymous own.

In the eras before photography, published illustrations often bore two small supplementary captions: at lower left, the artist’s name followed by the Latin identifier pinxit; at lower right, the engraver’s name followed by the Latin identifier sculpsit. In this image, the sculpsit is the oeuvre of somebody in a darkroom, fingerpainting. The artisan laid his hand upon the face of his creation, replacing with a nameless biological datum a face which might have testified to a name and a chronicled life. One of the modes through which Vaterland, the fingerprint’s background image, survives in its forcibly adopted fatherland’s national site of memory happens to be a menu item wittily named Epigrammes, but in the foreground the sculpsit of its creator is witless. Its only communicative function is to blot out whatever possible words might once have named a man.

The menu’s epigram is “Adieu.”




E. E. Cummings, The Enormous Room, A Typescript Edition, ed. George James Firmage (1922; W. W. Norton, 1978), p. 241.

Keats to his brother and sister-in-law, September 17-27, 1819: “Severn has got a little Baby–all his own let us hope–He told Brown he had given up painting and had turn’d modeller. I hope sincerely tis not a party concern; that no Mʳ ——— or **** is the real Pinxit and Severn the poor Sculpsit to this work of art.” (Selected Letters, ed. John Bernard [Penguin, 2014], p. 432.)


Observation: as the political atmosphere changes, the sounds of meaning also change

On December 27, 1933, as the Third Reich approached its first anniversary, The Nation published a letter of political protest. The policies being protested weren’t Hitler’s; they were The Nation’s. Wrote the author about the magazine that was publishing him: “Its insinuations that the new leaders [of Germany] are men without conscience — in short, cruel, inhumane, selfish, and even immoral, lacking even one redeeming characteristic — I resent.”

Six and a half years ago, when I discussed that letter on this blog, it seemed obvious that its author’s expression of resentment was meaningless not just factually but ontologically, as if it were a contradiction of its own language. The word “resent” was so totally wrong in its ghastly historical context that it was almost funny. Obviously (it seemed to me in 2013, during the Obama administration), whatever The Nation had opined in 1933 about Hitler must have been provably right — and the proof was in the protest. If a Nazi sympathizer resented someone calling Hitler cruel, the a priori case was that Hitler must have been cruel. But how strange it is to say “cruel” in 2019, when the c-word has changed from a term of disapproval to a term of approval, like “fuck” in the mouth of Lady Chatterley’s lover!

So here, if only for its antique-store curiosity, is my post from 2013.

I reread it yesterday because I’ve learned some new details about its contents, and these are now incorporated in the text. But the text as a whole now seems beyond revision, doesn’t it? I wrote it in the American English that was current in 2013, and as of 2019 that language is becoming incomprehensible. It is a dying language: victim of its writers’ will to cruelty.

Ars longa

The carrying case in the man’s right hand would have held 8-by-10-inch glass plates for the camera in his left hand. The camera would have been a serious professional instrument; its lens is marked with the brand of an important German manufacturer, C. P. Goerz. And the portrait of the man is the work of an artist who understood how much his instrument was capable of. In the foreground, his feet planted on the earth and his massive hands grasping the instruments, is the subject who forms the composition’s human center. Though the equipment he holds is expensive, he is dressed in rags. He is black. In the background, off center and out of focus, ostensibly only a detail, a white man leans with casually crossed legs against a door frame.

That man is out of the sun. He isn’t mentioned in the caption that was composed for the glass negative’s paper jacket some time between the turn of the twentieth century when the image was made and the middle of the century when it was cataloged by the Library of Congress, but for the author of the caption that detail wasn’t necessary. The object before him as he wrote it up for posterity was a work of art, having effect over us who have become posterity only so long as we care to pretend we are bounded within its 8-by-10-inch image frame. There, within, the black man holds his sway under rules of visual composition and a let’s-pretend acceptance of the continuing existence of the historical present. Anywhere else, of course, he is non-existent. He was once a form becoming itself amid a manifold of histories, but at any spatial or temporal point recorded there he has always been imperceptible. The names of the photographer who took the picture and the librarian who may have written the caption appear to be lost to history, but they once had at least the potential of being known to the record in full human detail, as if they were the knowable, lovable characters of a novel. Not so, though, the man in the picture.

The caption tells us that. It reads, “Negro, the photographer’s assistant.”

If it had been written as “The photographer’s Negro assistant,” it would have identified the man by his profession and a personal trait. If it had been written as “Gordon Parks, the photographer’s assistant,” it would have given him a name and the possibility of an imagined life. But “Negro,” just the undifferentiated common noun, has a uniquely zero significance. As Bloomsbury afternoons drew to their end, Virginia Woolf would, we are told, sometimes laugh to Clive, Lytton, Maynard, Vanessa, and E.M., “I must go home and feed the Jew.” That substitution for “Leonard” or “my husband” identifies its subject as a singular member of a class. It scorns to individualize him with a name, but it does identify him by a trait that its speaker considers worth being aware of. But “Negro,” without the definite article, is traitless. It has no definition, and its etymology is only a spectral name: black.

It will do no good for you to look at the black, because you won’t be able to see in. But look anyway. You won’t learn the proper name of what you see on its surface; you won’t even learn to call it, with anything like Virginia Woolf’s native fluency, “the Negro.”

Between 1900 and 1910. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Post-processed to restore contrast and detail.

But what will loom into the image frame is a black face, and that will turn out to be a caption in itself. Communicating the possibility of undying form, it will tell you: “I live because I have become the blackness that is my name. I am Negro, the photograph.”


Published eighty years ago, probably on cheap paper in a mass-circulation magazine (online, it’s unattributed), this page has physically deteriorated in the course of nature.


But we can be helped to see it with refreshed regard. Tear out the page, carry it into a dressing room, read it into a computer, and the light reflecting from the mirror will grow bright again. The film of age will seem to have been windexed away.


Brightened, the pictures (of hat, of corsage) have been repaired and restored to what they seem to have been at the time of their conception: cultural emblems, metonyms of the feminine. Look at me, they say; in myself, as such, I am pretty. That is my primary meaning. But the color pictures bracket a page of words in black, and those have their primary meaning only off the page. They are less a text than a musical score — a score for woman’s voice, solo.

In current performance, this score’s fidelity to register is low. Its reception has been made partially obsolete by advances in recording technology. “Slipper,” the voice was intended to whisper in sibilant soprano. “Meekly obeys,” it was meant to murmur with a smilingly knowing evocation of a vow at a wedding. When it sings, “Put your foot down,” the voice is probably intended to perform a messa di voce, swelling and diminishing between masculine loud and feminine gentle. But after eighty years we hear the shellac rasp and see the whiskers showing through the soloist’s makeup. History is beginning to mime from the aisle that it’s time to cut the performance short and leave. “Treadle” is 1939 sewing-machine nomenclature, but not even a feminine exclamation mark formed with a dainty little circle can make an audience believe now that Buick the Beauty had ruffles around her pedals.


No; despite the page’s restoration in historical space, its time has continued being 1939, decay and all. Photoshop has refreshed the colors of the page’s language console, but the console itself is not a live vocabulary but a Victrola running at 78 rpm. Never to rise away from 1939 and go free, its sound from the time of black and white only fills and refills the yellow-filtered Edward Steichen atmosphere of the stage which Buick traverses. There it enters her open windows. And there in her, treadling as he holds back his tears, slippered gay Jill drags through his errands.

* A treadle, under the unmotorized sewing machine. You rock it with your feet.

Excelsior sewing machine aiB