Citizens*

1. “Mr. Greenwood in the office of the Knox Woolen Company, August 1900”

Mr. Greenwood is at his work in a little museum of calendars — by my approximate count, six of them. On the wall behind him is the public one, the calendar that’s to be read by us. It tells us its story in its official capacity: day by numbered day, only. But what Mr. Greenwood will see when he raises his head from his work is his private gallery, and what that gallery holds for him is images. The images exist in museum mode, the mode of capital that is enumerable in the phrase “a wealth of”: calendar after calendar made splendid by illustration, plus flags, plus pictures in independent textless splendor. Tied off beside Mr. Greenwood’s head is a light bulb, but the sun of a long New England summer day seems to be what illuminates his pleasure chamber. See how the sun throws his shadow onto the wall below the glassily reflecting lithograph of an Inman Line steamer.* See how the light carves his left shoe with its heel counter and its lace into bas-relief.

But in the weak sun of New England the photograph required a long exposure. Mr. Greenwood was alive and breathing during that summer interval, and as his breath warmed the air in his room and made it thermally turbulent, it blurred the image of his face. His life had been ongoing through the turbulence during the instant of time when a shutter was opened to it, but for us museumgoers it is no longer on display.

 

2. “Margaret & Augusta Talbot, March 1899 in back of the Congregational Church”

Photographs of Camden area taken by Theresa Parker Babb between 1898-1900. Theresa was the wife of Knox Mill superintendent C.W. Babb (1863-1956), and she was the grandmother of the donor, Janan Babb Vaughn. Theresa Babb was born in 1868 and died in 194

The named coordinates (“in back of the Congregational Church”) alter what we see of Margaret & Augusta. Without those data, we could see only their image and their names. They existed as a picture of Margaret & Augusta: two bodies loosely linked by a rope in white space. But add the church’s name to the names of Margaret & Augusta and their picture becomes a picture about Margaret & Augusta. Their zone of space has become populated. Margaret & Augusta and their snow now constitute a society.

In that society, Margaret & Augusta are the foreground. Photographed there, captioned in black on white with names that can be recalled from an archive in a library, they have acquired the traits of characters acting a tale through time. In that tale, the unseen congregation is still singing because it will always sing. In Margaret & Augusta’s white space there is no death.**

Sources:

Photographs by Theresa Parker Babb in the Camden (Maine) Public Library, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cplmaine/24633201459/in/photostream/ and https://www.flickr.com/photos/cplmaine/25415271492/in/photostream/. Contrast and detail restored.

*

Royal Museums, Greenwich, https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/140344.html

** Outside the image, in text, Margaret & Augusta’s society had a name, and it happened to be not Camden, Maine, but Milton, Massachusetts. Anonymously supplied to us by the social force of archive, that is the place name that appears on an envelope in the Theresa Parker Babb collection at https://www.flickr.com/photos/cplmaine/28337649171/in/photostream/ and in the Boston Globe article “Talbot-McElwain” (October 1, 1916, page 19) about the wedding where Augusta was a bridesmaid and the groom was her brother.

And then the genius of the archive adds that the church in Margaret & Augusta’s image doesn’t resemble the Congregational church in Camden,

but does resemble the one in Milton:

https://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMEFDF_First_Congregational_Church_of_Milton_Milton_MA

Snowplowing through the archive this way, its genius can abundantly create a comparative history of the words Milton and Camden. That can be enclosed in the dark between covers, where it will be — has been, hereby — printed in black and white. You have just finished reading it under those black-and-white conditions. But the traces in the snow that remain of Margaret & Augusta are not black and white but white on white. They are not a history written in text but a map of Margaret & Augusta’s passage across a tract of time. In the main body of this text, above this footnote, that daylighted tract is where you were when you saw them.

Verso separates from recto

Because it is now a part of the collection of a great library, this demotic little document wants to be read on the library’s terms. These terms include the bibliographical words “recto” and “verso”: words that weren’t part of the card’s language when it was, so to speak, a card. There were immediacies to those communications which are gone now, and reading the card under library discipline can’t bring them back. There can be no feeling left to revive in the recto’s image of the beneficent Czar or the verso’s words about a dreadful bad cough. But feeling’s literary history can grow from the tomb under the gentle rain of additional information.

Initial information, then: in 1920 the card was written by somebody named Clara Leavitt to an address in Maine, and its phrase “dreadful bad” in the verso text is a Maine idiom. Knowing that much, I can begin assembling data into a shadow biography of the woman who wrote “dreadful bad.” In 1920, say some of the data, a Clara L. Leavitt, aged 24, was living in the village of Waldo, Maine, at two addresses: one on Sheldon Road, the residence of her parents, and the other on Patterson Road, where she worked as a housekeeper for a man named Roy C. Fish. Clara the housekeeper’s spelling is a little shaky, but her handwriting is assured and her language is clear: perhaps a testimonial to New England’s high educational standards, perhaps also a sign of what Clara actually was. And Waldo adjoins the town of Belfast, so now I can guess that the word “Belfast” is what the card’s postmark was trying to say to the historical record at 5:30 PM on February 4, 1920.

In New England in the early twentieth century, villages too small for a post office were the bleak settings of ­Ethan Frome and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poems: something like orphanages for life, where life ended soon. In Waldo in 1920, for instance, Clara’s parents were also sheltering a seven-year-old granddaughter, Avis Leavitt, about whose parents the surviving records seem to retain no memory. She would live to the age of 56. As to Clara, she married Everett G. Payson of Waldo on March 18, 1929. Three years younger than Clara, he had been married previously to Margaret J. Gurney (1900 – ?), the mother of his daughter Anniebell Payson (1920-1923). To the 1930 census, he was a farm laborer who owned a house worth $200. Clara didn’t outlive him; she died in Belfast on April 7, 1967, probably around the time of her seventy-first birthday.

Half a century before then, the serious little Czar on the recto of her card had received his waiter’s salute. The card bearing that image was published in 1914 or 1915, but by the time Clara Leavitt wrote “dreadful bad” on its verso, the Czar had long since come to his own dreadful and well-deserved end. If that long-term change meant anything to Clara, it doesn’t show on her side of the cardboard. There on the verso, the communication seems to be only that the seasons went on – first in Mr. Fish’s home, then in Mr. Payson’s. The verso was only a blank space until Clara filled it, and when it was full she licked a stamp and brought that episode of her life to an end. But the recto wasn’t yet ready to end, because as of 1914 or 1915 it had five or six years of change to undergo. After 1914 or 1915 it never was blank, and then it kept itself busy signifying in new way after new way until the day it stopped signifying forever.

For the card, the five or six years began on the date when a courtier without a visible sense of irony wrote, “As the photo shows.”

Year by year from that moment on, people who looked at such photos actually saw less and less. Eventually they understood that the photos were going blank because they had no more to show, and then the Czar and his family were led down to the basement for their appointment with a firing squad. But what still does show amid the courtier’s now meaningless words is a trace of Clara’s pencil. Clara did some erasing before she mailed her card, but the Clara lines that remain are now going to remain forever, thanks to the immortalizing spirit of the archive. There will also remain a little segment of the card’s postmark: the black cancellation that came whamming down on the verso during the evening of February 4, 1920. That was what finally brought the change to a stop. From that moment, the card’s recto and verso would be divided between a before and an after, and the tailored little czar and the words “dreadful bad” would be separated from each other by a wall of time as opaque as a slip of cardboard.

Sources:

Winokur-Munblit Collection of the Russian Empire Postcards, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012648262/. Photoshopped.

Online sources of information about Clara Leavitt:

http://www.mocavo.com/Clara-L-Leavitt-B1896-Waldo-Maine-1920-United-States-Census/09356065416247432197

http://www.mocavo.com/Clara-L-Leavitt-B1896-Waldo-Maine-1920-United-States-Census/00829956448961505575

http://marriage-divorce-records.mooseroots.com/l/76908968/Clara-L-Leavitt#

http://www.mocavo.com/1930-United-States-Census/126213/004950958/422#row-0

http://www.geni.com/people/Clara-PAYSON/6000000022524627808