The Crimean War of 1853-56 contributed to the history of form the Raglan sleeve, the balaclava, the cardigan, and Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Then, swelling the record, Roger Fenton made it the first photographed war in history.
Having learned that, you realize that form is unchanged under any of its aspects, and undying.
Once upon a time a U.S. Navy radioman named C. W. Allen served on seaplanes based at the Panama Canal Zone and flew with a camera. His photo album is now in the archives of the San Diego Air and Space Museum and viewable online at
It includes this image of the Navy zeppelin Shenandoah traversing the canal in 1924 or 1925 with its mooring ship Patoka. I’ve previously posted some attempts at reconstructing it, but because editing software keeps improving, the merely historical interest of the original,
grows only more attenuated by the year. It’s small, its resolution is low, some of it has been whited out by the corner stickers that Radioman Allen used to glue it into his album, and every time it’s reseen its aesthetic sense becomes harder to experience in the emotional form of memory. Think of the surface noise of its epoch. It was bad then, even before vinyl and then digital. Now . . .
Now, in the workroom of a mortuary, you wouldn’t be able to hear this waltz if it were played over the speakers — not as you would have heard it in its own epoch. Now, instead, you’ll be under obligation to look down at the table where a silent waxwork has been made to appear.
And if something then starts sounding through you, you won’t be able to silence it. The sound coming from your mouth will be an affront to the silence of the past, but it won’t be motivated by any intent, bad or good. It will be a sound that can’t help itself. Think back. Beside the waters of the Zone, a mechanism was wound up with a crank, a needle descended on a spinning shellac surface — right? — and a song welled up automatically.
This business day in the mortuary, you think, “I sound like I’m alive!”
Pre-footnote: after the widely unpredicted Republican victory in the presidential election of 2016, many media organizations in the United States dispatched pundits to rural precincts to learn what they had missed. Soon derided by the pundits themselves as “Cletus-hunting,” these expeditions typically involved respectful interviews with citizens lamenting their loss of economic and cultural status and placing the blame on urban elites. Typically, the pundits then wrote up the color red (as in the citizens’ Donald Trump wear) but not the color black (as in Barack Obama’s unclothed skin).
That coverage was truncated not only spectrally but historically. On the record of American history, the cultural conflict between pastoral and anti-pastoral had begun taking specifically literary form at least as early as Crèvecoeur’s Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, with its fictitious political playlet about the sanctimonious neighbors who in non-fictional actual history forced Crèvecoeur to flee his farm and then stole it. The depiction of helpless fury in the face of cant was to become a distinctive genre trait which reproduced itself throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in such novels as E. W. Howe’s The Story of a Country Town, Sinclair Lewis’s MainStreet, and of course Huckleberry Finn. As a mode of reading, the genre remains vigorous. Three anti-Red texts still culturally resonant post-centenary are Willa Cather’s “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” and H. L. Mencken’s “The Husbandman.” Listen, Fox:
And long before Mencken, St. John Crèvecoeur, an eighteenth-century Physiocrat who believed that wealth originated in a pastoral economics of the soil, redefined those who had moved beyond the frontiers of American society as not only post-pastoral but pre-human. More than a century before Max Nordau popularized the term, Crèvecoeur was calling such life forms degenerate. Said he: the degenerates have reverted to an earlier state, of society and of body. Observe what they metabolize, there among the foxes.
After you’ve read this, the Capitol on January 6, 2021, may come to mind, with the shit smeared on the interior walls, the human space. But because there are schools on your side of the frontier, you also have learned to turn off the TV, turn back the clock, and read this twentieth-century poem.
Less than two years from this date of publication, the Great Depression will arrive to wipe the dimpled smile off Mr. Blige’s face. But it already looks like a forced smile. Mr. Blige can’t be happy in his apron among the orange squeezers. You see that in the drawing, but you can also hear it in the lyric. Back-translated to prose, O. Blige is proud but poor, loud but little, ever going over his inventory, never peacefully asleep. Rhyming itself into being, his poem has sung him so.
So take the poem seriously, at its rhymes’ words. Don’t let it get its metrical feet on an AR-15. If you do, it will communicate its rhythm to you.
Falling astern, the obelisk of the Washington Monument sank back into the rainy horizon. As it passed below, it had momentarily been interpretable as a realized intention toward history. But what had passed above it was innocent of intent. Instant by instant, it was only passage. Eventually the silver-tinted body took on a name (USS Shenandoah), a terminus (crashed 9/3/1925), and thereby a history, but that descent from wordless air into inked words was only the end of the body’s passage, not the passage itself. As long as it remains, a shadow cast along time by passage is not history but memory: never not vanished but nevertheless not yet known not to be.
In 1937 a photographer for the CBS radio network created this silver-halide image of Crockett Ward, a fiddler for the Bog Trotters Band of Galax, Virginia. It is now in the Library of Congress, a part of the collection of folk music amassed by Alan Lomax. Looking at it, I go sentimental. I find comfort in the thought that Mr. Ward could have been among the masses who voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt. The art history of the Depression has taught me that feeling.
The silver-halide image is faint, and even when it was new most of its detail remained latent and invisible. But its material basis has recently been made transferable from chemistry to electronics, and now we can see in it what no one in 1937 could. Almost the only detail missing will be 1937.
But in the absence of 1937 the image becomes the figure of an ancestor. I look at its bib overalls and its hands, I imagine the body they constituted which in 1937 brought forth song from its fiddle, and the feelings within me are furnished for the occasion by The Grapes of Wrath: a historical novel, a sentimental fiction.
But I’m also pretty sure now that that Crockett’s descendants, if they are still singing Crockett’s songs, probably voted for Donald Trump. A record in pressed shellac can’t sound now the way it did in the time of shellac. The instant I recover a sense of the ancestor’s body, I immobilize it with a coat of impenetrable irony. On the record, the final groove only moves the needle back and forth through an eccentric, ever after.
Not just the delicate temporary touching down from the air, unknowingly populated skyline, and fingerprint just inside the barrier that margins you off from the dead,
but even the defacing scratches and spots on the record itself. For a brief intermission between oblivions, the ordinary is perceived. A moment too late after that, it is understood to have been extraordinary.
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 TheBridge: 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 GreatRepublic, 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 Great Eastern — launched in 1858, scrapped in 1889 — was, speaking as strictly as can be, a wonder. Even by the standards of its own nineteenth century, the epoch of the most comprehensive material progress in history, it was superlative: by orders of magnitude the largest ship yet built, and laden to the bulwarks with engineering innovation. In advance of its first arrival in New York, the city’s people received their foretelling in nineteenth-century style as a list of its attributes. But once the vessel actually tied up at its pier, it was understood to be carrying one more attribute, this one ancient: a sobriquet, “the great iron ship.” This wasn’t an engineering feature; it was a feature of being. Its four words were the poem of this preview in prose.
Floating above the words of the legend, Great Eastern’s image is embellished ex voto with hand-painted watercolor, but time has reduced that and its significance to soiled tatters. Conceived and brought to realization half a century ahead of its time, the great iron ship never could fill enough of its passenger berths to make a profit. For a time between 1865 and 1873 its immense capacities found another purpose when they made possible the laying of undersea telegraph cables across thousands of miles, but once the cables could begin carrying code, the carrier that had carried them was beached in memory. Stripped there of the iron idea that had communicated its reason for being, Great Eastern was painted over with servile words and became a floating billboard.
Nevertheless, on the record of one sunny day in about 1864, there still exists this trace of what preceded the words. It is historically bound to an approximate time and a specific place: Manhattan, at the foot of Hammond Street.
This reconstruction of that record is an anaglyph: a colorized composite image of a black-and-white stereo pair, viewable in three dimensions through a two-color viewer. What is seen there is, as those who viewed it in 1864 would have said, lifelike. But before the year 1864 shelved the lifelike for a future to see, it library-bound it with some words. Pasted across both halves of the stereo pair and therefore not readable in stereo, these are a tiny calligraphic text written in about 1864 by someone who must have intended it to inform future memory. Pleading for us to understand, it wrote itself onto a twinned photograph. But that yearning to be read there in the future had to take a form, and that form had to be an 1864 form, perhaps even a form penned with a feather plucked from a bird living then but dead now. As had long been understood by that time, the letter killed.
Unscathed by the words, however, some tiny 1864 people in pierside attendance on Great Eastern continue serving up meanings of the word huge. But as of the twenty-first century, that’s all that’s left for them to do. Even the sounds they made about hugeness in 1864 are different now than they were when they could make contact midair with the sounds of steam engines and paddle wheels. A current glossary of the time dialect named Great Eastern will need to be cross-referred to the Lilliput idyll of Gulliver’s Travels, and Gulliver’s Travels itself has long since been downscaled to the dimensions of a children’s book. When our eyes stray from the 1858 image of Great Eastern to its captioning words “this immense vessel” followed by the Lilliputian “tonnage 22,500 tons,” we will realize that the time has come to relearn outgrow.
But children’s books are picture books, and the picture texts they teach are sometimes lifelike regardless. The time must have come by now for you to have solved, explained and outgrown the magic trick in words called Happily ever after, but somewhere on a page, perhaps still capable of being regarded with the help of the right toy, there may still be viewable a picture that looks like life. So long as you refrain from thinking into the future about that, it may be pragmatically useful to you at bedtime. Think of it as the story your mother never got around to finishing: the one with happily ever after consolingly still to come on the not yet seen last page.