Observation on the basis of iconography: American cultural history and American literary history seem to be arguing for new study of the once famous, now forgotten Georgia novelist Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987). See below. The second icon depicts the office of House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi during the Republican insurrection of January 6, 2021, when the United States Capitol was occupied by a paramilitary force of Caldwell grotesques.
Grotesques were a Caldwell specialty; grotesques and lurid sex scenes. A cruel laughter pervades. But Caldwell was also a serious liberal who collaborated in 1937 with the photographer Margaret Bourke-White on a documentary book, You Have Seen Their Faces, which showed its readers some of the things that the South’s chain gangs and sharecropper economics had done to faces and bodies. Soon to become Caldwell’s wife, Bourke-White was one of the foremost photojournalists of the twentieth century, but when You Have Seen Their Faces is read in the twenty-first it’s read only for educational comparison with James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was published in 1941 and went virtually unread at the time. In her history of that exchange of reputations, Janet Holtman suggests a reason why: Caldwell’s attitude toward humanity, which was naturalist tending toward eugenicist. In retrospect, where the literary judgments are made, Caldwell’s characters have turned out not to be fully human. We remember Agee’s three families for their souls, but we recognize Caldwell’s type species only for their pathognomonic signs. And the faces photographed by Bourke-White in the service of Caldwell’s vision were reduced by his captions to the function of medical illustration.
But oh, go ahead and notice the Bible in the pocket in Caldwell’s image 3. The Caldwell way of seeing is still available to you after all — if not photographically, at least verbally. After all, too, the initials N.A.L. stand for New American Library. So go ahead: read. Then, if you can, laugh. Laughing, close thy Agee. While thou art at it, close thy sentimental Steinbeck too. Instead, if only as an experiment, open Caldwell and see if he can be thine. Consider it possible that the maimed humor characters who swarm through his language actually are happy with what it has done with them: summoning up their bodies from the pathology text, making them live and move and hit and tweet and kill. Then, please, try to understand what your disbelieving laughter is teaching thee about our country.
Janet Holtman, “‘White Trash’ in Literary History: The Social Interventions of Erskine Caldwell and James Agee.” American Studies, vol. 53, no. 2, 2014, pp. 31-48.
And it was Diogenes Teufelsdröckh in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus who said, “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe.“
Between 1925 and 1958 it went through 36 editions (Veselá 105). Every time the party line changed, the author changed his story, and he kept changing it until death claimed him. Long before then, it had became a canonical paradigm of the Socialist-Realist novel.
And in after years the revisions underwrote rereadings, like this sample snapshot in time.
But passim, when their changeable language tried to change itself from dead to living through metaphors like “stormy blood,” it tended to mean words like “blood” as unchangingly as could be, in words that were themselves always stably dead. Liv Tadge’s translation (the 1981 edition quoted above) omits the word, but in the biology of Cement, cement is always to be mixed with blood. That’s one of the constants of this novel, no matter what the edition. When bodies are imagined as if outside the blood-red band of the spectrum, they are to be tinted a mere livor mortis.
The contrast between red and unred happens to be a little hard to see in Raduga’s Cement typography, because the only color in its presses for that run was extratextual: the green of the page numbers. Everything else about the prose was a uniform gray.
In Gladkov’s time, movies too were generally monochrome. But the cement in this 1933 movie poster is not a single shade of Gladkov gray. It is radiantly spectral.
That’s because Mikhail Dlugach, the designer of the poster, did his work of envisioning under the lights of a different spectrum: one meant to illuminate a studio, not a library. Because they were created under that regime, the stairs that lead the eye upward from words to a smiling unspeaking face are Constructivist, and the shadow of the human that has been left behind by the ascent is Expressionist. The unspeaking face’s cosmetics too come from a silent repository: the cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But the dentistry that constructs its smile is the artifact of an aesthetic dating from long after the time of Tatlin’s tower and Wiene’s asylum. In fact, the poster suggests that the smile isn’t even attributable to dentistry. For that humble domestic science its scale is too vast. On the poster’s lavishly laid down slabs of color it erects itself like a heroic architecture, and as an architecture its relation in scale to the human is not 1920s Expressionist but 1960s Brutalist.
So think now, in the aftermath of the Brutalist era, of how the sound of your stormy pulse might have reechoed from the walls of a Brutalist bedroom where you and Comrade Dasha had shared the concrete mattress. One of the purposes of modern architecture since at least the days of Le Corbusier has been social control, explicitly stated as theory (in, for instance, Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture), and Socialist Realist fiction provided a way to translate the theory’s language of instruction from body to text. Raise your eyelids and grin, the translated schema instructs the body waiting on its postcoital cinderblock. Then look out the window, sight down the barrel of your rifle at that string quartet in the distance, and aim.
The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin), December 24, 1890:
The print doesn’t welcome your presence. But notice that Mr. Joyce himself persisted with the aid of a magnifying glass.
Persist, therefore. Think of yourself as Gabriel at the Christmas feast and afterward, paying attention right to the end.
Clio and Apollo will rest you merry.
There was a small public park on the north side of the square. In one of its linden trees an ear and a finger had been found one day – remnants of a terrorist whose hand had slipped while he was arranging a lethal parcel in his room on the other side of the square. Those same trees (a pattern of silver filigree in a mother-of-pearl mist out of which the bronze dome of St. Isaac’s arose in the background) had also seen children shot down at random from the branches into which they had climbed in a vain attempt to escape the mounted gendarmes who were quelling the First Revolution (1905-06). Quite a few little stories like these were attached to squares and streets in St. Petersburg.
— Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, chapter 9
Every few seconds for the last two days, a cyberentity in Russia has been attempting to break into this blog. According to several bloggers, this represents the activity of something called a brute-force password-guessing attack on WordPress’s XMLRPC function.
It claims to originate from an address in St. Petersburg. Of course that claim may be a mere act of literature – say, something like a May Day hommage to Andrei Bely, author of the great Modernist novel of terror and masquerade, Petersburg. In any case, the cyberentity claims to be headquartered not in St. Petersburg but in Moscow, where it calls itself the Super Professional Servers Network.
But its street address in Moscow is all Bely, all Petersburg. It is:
1st Magistralny Blind Alley, 30
And naturally, as a prudent reverence before literature’s power to blind and erase (the pseudonym Bely means “white”), I configured this blog long ago to reject all attempts at communication from Russia.