Cameo

A daguerreotype dating from about 1855, this is object no. 84.XT.1582.3 in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum,

http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/49685/unknown-maker-american-fireman-in-uniform-holding-a-brass-musical-instrument-american-1855-1856/?artview=dor240842

Daguerreotypes can be erased from their metal backings as easily as the marks on a chalkboard, so the ones that have survived the era of their making are framed behind glass, like this one. Not shown here is the other half of the frame: a hinged cover, velvet-lined. It swings into place over the glass, doubling the protection of the image. .

[Fireman in Uniform Holding a Brass Musical Instrument]
Post-processed for contrast and detail.
By 1855, American daguerreotypes were marketed in standard sizes — the bigger, the more expensive — and this one is the size called ninth-plate: the second-cheapest, at 2 by 2½ inches (https://cwfp.biz/platesizes.php). With its mercury surface enriched by tinting and set off in velvet with gold, the glittery little thing has been made into a gem. Whatever it was in 1855, it now asks to be understood as precious.

The museum has given the gem a provisional title, in brackets: “[Fireman in Uniform Holding a Brass Musical Instrument].” In the absence of more specific information, the museum adds that the fireman’s name is lost, and so is the history of the act of heroism commemorated here by his medal and, presumably, his photograph. All that now remains of his value is a transmutation of his person. It is now purchasable as a work of lapidary art, as in his lifetime it was purchasable as flesh.

On October 1, 1851, at 5 PM, Henry David Thoreau noted in his journal:

Just put a fugitive slave, who has taken the name of Henry Williams, into the cars for Canada. He escaped from Stafford County, Virginia, to Boston last October; has been in Shadrach’s place at the Cornhill Coffee-House; had been corresponding through an agent with his master, who is his father, about buying himself, his master asking $600, but he having been able to raise only $500. [. . .] Intended to dispatch him at noon through to Burlington, but when I went to buy his ticket, saw one at the depot who looked and behaved so much like a Boston policeman that I did not venture that time. An intelligent and very well-behaved man, a mulatto.

We have to put the name “[Henry Williams]” in brackets too; the text makes that clear with its relative clause beginning “who has taken the name of.” Likewise subordinated to the status of a relative clause are the words “His master, who is his father.” Everywhere else, Thoreau’s paragraph is overflowing with Thoreau’s beloved details: the name of a county in Virginia, the name of the place where [Henry] slept, the insurmountable $100 difference for [Henry] between being free of his father and being his father’s possession. We owe this information exclusively to Henry Thoreau’s record. Aside from that, all we will ever be able to know of intelligent, well behaved [Henry] is what was once assessed in the market by his body’s raw material value as an alloy of white and black.

The fireman in his uniform is a civil servant like the Boston policeman. His service entails that he is to be known of by his externally visible attributes, not his name. If we’re accustomed to thinking of firemen as white, seeing this black fireman may make us stop seeing, for a moment, and start looking. But only for a moment. In his jewelbox, the fireman plays a cameo role.

Light falling on face

Undated in its archive at the Library of Congress but obviously taken in old age, this is a portrait of one of the most controversial men in nineteenth-century America, Daniel E. Sickles (1819-1914). On the historical record, Sickles is, among many other things, not just the first American to escape conviction for murder on the grounds of temporary insanity (his victim was his wife’s lover, the son of the lyricist of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) but also the only Union general at Gettysburg lacking a statue on the battlefield — whose preservation as a national historic site, however, is largely due to him. Another work of preservation remains the leg he had amputated during the battle, which is still in the National Museum of Health and Medicine. After the war he used to visit it. Thomas Keneally’s 2002 biography is titled American Scoundrel.

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With a head full of Rembrandt, I subject the scoundrel’s portrait to Photoshop.

The little dog doesn’t belong in such an image — not with his upturned snoot and rolling eyes. He (she, Mrs. Woolf?) looks all too knowing, all too civilian. The kid glove, visible in at least one other portrait, may hint at one more military anecdote, but on its own terms in the image it is only an opacity. Under other circumstances the fringey little hem of bangs on the age-spotted scalp might look comically desperate, but in juxtaposition with glassy glint, hooded eyes and mouth pursed in what looks like thought, it communicates pathos in the face of mortality. In the shadows that I have brought up from the Plutonic with a Photoshop slider there is now visible a shade, advancing across the image field. In the original depiction of that shade some surface blemishes were visible as a kind of light-spun fabric in the vicinity of the right eye, so I blotted them out as I blotted out the silky little dog. There is almost nothing left to see now except dark.

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But see what remains visible there: an artifact formed from what nineteenth-century studio photographers called Rembrandt lighting. The lighting has not only created what looks like a flesh; it has made it into a carnal lyric. Scored on the dark, the lyric sings lightly when it sings to us:

“I was dead flesh; I became living chiaroscuro. Now and forever, I will be for you who see me a lexicon of shades of meaning. As you read me, let’s be friends. You may call me HMV.”

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Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014684979/

Snowy destiny: Massachusetts, Manchuria

Here on the left of the page is an account of the sledding accident that inspired Edith Wharton to write the plot twist at the end of Ethan Frome. Over on the right, separated by the white width of the page, are a snowy Korean photograph and an article about what was shortly to become the genocidal Japanese occupation of Korea. At the bottom, under “Yesterday’s War News in Brief,” are topographic and economic details. One of the things that historical texts like these do is to fill out the blanknesses between events, as if truth-signifying footprints were being laid down word by word through snow.

The_Boston_Globe_Sat__Mar_12__1904_

But the track rarely follows a straight line. Between the day in 1904 when it passed through a printing press to the later day when it was translated into a digital image, this page has been subjected to corrigendum after corrigendum. Not long after the accident, for example, the page became subject to urgent correction when the sled’s passenger Crissy Henry didn’t follow doctors’ orders and die. In any case, Wharton probably didn’t read any of the newspaper accounts at the time, because she had spent the winter of 1903-04 in Paris. Nor did she write the first version of Ethan Frome until 1907, nor does that eight-page sketch make reference to a sled. What seems to have happened in the history of imagination between a sad snowy death in 1904 and the publication of its icily polished memorial in 1911 was that one of the survivors of the accident, Kate Spencer, grew up to become a librarian in the Lenox library where Wharton worked as a volunteer manager, and the two women became friends. Presumably that was how the novelist learned of the non-fiction and began the process of making it into fiction.

I did my diligence about all this with pages 41-43 of Suzanne Fournier’s Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome: A Reference Guide (Greenwood, 2006), which toward the end of its historical section allows itself a victory lap through the archive and crows that Miss Spencer was marked for the rest of her life with a scarred face and a limp — just (you can sense the triumphant sounds long before they become audible), just (so let’s play them again), just like Ethan.

In non-fiction, just like is an important concept. We learn it as babies and use it for the rest of our lives thereafter to negotiate our way through the world. It is at the heart of Euclid’s first axiom, “Things equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.” But fiction is less about the universe’s just likes than about its yes buts. It doesn’t want to accept the possibility of the usual. The current of the usual may be what carries us to the database called findagrave.com, where we can learn what is learnable to non-fiction about the one girl who did die in the sledding accident, but even there we will find ourselves reading as if there were interesting exceptional details. Reach item number 17673836, for example, and in its cubby you will be able to hear the name Emily Hazel Crosby singing itself through a lyric consisting only of art’s two minimal essentials, a beginning and an end: April 19, 1885 and March 10, 1904. But this lyric will come to us with a harmony in its words, because (carols Findagrave) Hazel had a mother named Alida Edna (1859-1916), a sister named Alice Edna (1881-1884), and a sister named Edna Alida (1891-1912). The names repeat yet disappear, the dates close in on them, the effect is pathos, and the aesthetic locus communis is Gray’s Elegy: another fiction. Under snowy, sleddy circumstances, in a resting place named Church on the Hill Cemetery, it offers itself as a companion text to Ethan Frome.

And between those stony fictions is the blankness where Hazel Crosby’s true story lies deep under its own stone: forever past reading now except for the interesting but now meaningless detail of three girls’ names repeating in echoless diminuendo in snow.

 

Apparatus for transport to the unchanged

Le Bourget aiH

Source: Walter Thompson Company, “Le Bourget. Leather coat and beret by Lanvin. 1927.” Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection, New York Public Library, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-b223-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Photoshopped.

The registry designations G-EBCZ and G-EBQZ don’t match this aircraft. G-EBOZ is Imperial Airways’ City of Wellington, an Armstrong Whitworth Argosy in service from July 1926 to June 1934.

A crateload of metonyms

Transliterated into German, the caption within this image reads, Er versorgt sie mit allem — “He provides them with everything.” The verb versorgt communicates connotations of cares and cares for, and the recipients of the gifts and the care, they, would be Jews fighting for America in the Great War. But the key transactional word in the sentence is alles. Within the image frame alles defines visual allness metonymically, piling example upon example. When you began wearing a uniform like mine, say the provider’s Jewish body language and Yiddish words, you lost some memory of what you are. But your words are still understood, have been understood all along. And now I bring you a cargo of word-things that will make your memory whole again.

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Rolled up in its mantle and held tight and alone under the provider’s left arm is the primary thing: a Sefer Torah, the unabridged text of the definition of Jew. But just below it, dangling from the provider’s left hand, is a string-wrapped bundle of other texts cheerfully inviting untying. These are books to be read on the six other days of the Jewish week. Their language is not Hebrew, the language of the synagogue, but Yiddish, the language of the home, and the authors’ names on their spines — Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch, I. L. Peretz — are contemporaneous with the clean-shaven, secular young Jew who is cheerfully hefting their supplementary weight. One more of the authors on the spines, a reminder that as of the date of this composition Yiddish was the living language of heym for the great majority of American Jews, is the now all but forgotten Avrom Reisen, who wrote a short story a week, year after year, for the Forverts. Then here before your eyes, say imaged names like Reisen’s, is what we mean when we say alles. To be comprehended, the words of All’s language require only to be read once again as they were read in your home the day you put on your uniform and left. They are still there, waiting only for you to return and speak them once more. Through the coming years of silence, they will not change. They will always be there to be understood and to understand you. The moment you reopen their books, they will rise from their pages and meet you. You will not have been forgotten.

And carried into the image frame on the welfare man’s right shoulder comes still more. For Jews to read there is a newspaper, presumably a Yiddish one. There are some round orange things which I’d guess may be dried fruit — comforting to have on hand when the meat in the mess hall is tref, and carrying connotations as well of Jewish tenderheartedness and Jewish mother love. And there is — oi, yes! — a violin.

Well, fund appeals during America’s participation in the Great War were coordinated across many cultural dialects. The blog cited below includes reproductions of posters in Polish and Chinese, not to mention one in English that demands, “Are you 100% American? Prove it!” The poster we’ve been looking at is a product of that coordinated effort: not a work of art but a work of war art. It is intended to evoke only clear and unmixed feelings. The emotional provisions that it delivers have been massed in the image frame only for the straightforward purpose of increasing military efficiency by strengthening morale. So it isn’t necessary to play that Jewish violin in a high theoretical register with a word like metonymy. Stereotype will work just as well.

But we want the Jew to play his violin, don’t we?

If we do, since we do, let’s thank our brown-booted provider for his welfare. Whatever the military intent of the Jewish Welfare Board may have been, a violin can at least remind us that the they in their image won’t always be in uniform. And the date preprinted on the poster happens to be Armistice Day.

Source: I first saw this poster by Josef Foshko on X-Ray Delta One, James Vaughan’s Flickr blog of old commercial images. But for the image that I photoshopped I went back to Vaughan’s source in the Museum of the City of New York, as reproduced in the exhibition blog “Posters and Patriotism: Selling World War I in New York,” https://blog.mcny.org/2017/04/04/posters-and-patriotism-selling-world-war-i-in-new-york/