Rescue: steam-powered, obsolete

Once, at a moment in history when ships’ bridges were so new to language that they literally and non-metaphorically were bridges, light broke through clouds above a bridge and people were saved. For that we have the testimony of a picture with words.

http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.05892
Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003665050/. Post-processed to restore color and detail.

From left to right, the fine-print captions under the image read Lockwoods, Pensylvania [sic], Life Boat, St. Andrew, Victoria, and Day & Haghe, Lithrs. to the Queen. Then, larger, comes this confident explication.

Caption

The barely legible words at the end appear to be “The Publishers,” perhaps originally in a different color.

But it’s the caption’s other words that are the hard ones to read. The reason is that their key verb, “rescuing,” belongs to a genre that is now extinct: the genre of religious adoration of the present time. In the moment of that genre, the Transcendentalist painter and poet Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892) could write a text called “The Spirit of the Age” which ended:

The mute machine is moved by a law
That knows no accident or flaw,
And the iron thrills to a different chime
Than that which rang in the dead old time.
For Heaven is taking the matter in hand,
And baffling the tricks of the tyrant band.
[. . .]
And some who from their windows mark
The unwonted lights that flood the dark,
Little by little, in slow surprise,
Lift into space their sleepy eyes;
Little by little are made aware
That a spirit of power is passing there,–
That a spirit is passing, strong and free,–
The soul of the nineteenth century.

But because one of your first emotional reactions to the lithograph probably included a distancing term like “museum piece,” you have a historiographic problem with seeing. A century and a half before your time, the soul of the nineteenth century passed into the scene of rescue, but then it continued on through and out, taking with it much of the word rescue’s emotional context. Now this image of rescue is just an item in a museum, but in its own time it was readable in the home as an allegory of salvation. Some happiness then followed. But the picture isn’t making you happy now. Its caption no longer teaches you to adore.

Because (for one reason among many) in the twentieth century, Cranch’s grandnephew T. S. Eliot was to turn the soul away from his ancestor’s poem’s olfactory regime of coal smoke in favor of French cigarettes and then of Anglo-Catholic incense. Before Eliot’s disdainful gaze the unwonted coal-gas light ebbed as well. Under redarkened heavens there no longer remained enough energy to read hope by.

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.

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https://gerda-kay.tumblr.com/image/614168863004835840

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.

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George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014703606/

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.

https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/object-groups/the-ocean-liner-leviathan

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/9810

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.

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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, Findagrave.com 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.

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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.”

Menu

 

Notes

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.)

 

Against the bridal day, which was not long

With a conductor’s gesture, a man poised at a brink once brought together two curves.

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Angular flesh and rounded iron approached each other, light and shadow moved over them, and a moment was consummated and became past.

Borne above the shapes like a banner, the word Trimble meant nothing. It only said, as if say were an intransitive verb. It was an order of service: a separately published hymnal to be sung from while the two bodies approached, touched, and then fell away. During that limit instant, the word and the two bodies were united in a single imaged meaning, fully understood but not articulable. Thereafter, in separation, all that could be said in words took the form of a caption (“Davis lock, St, Mary’s Falls canal”) that sang of the watery bed but not of the coming together in light and shadow that had once filled it.

 

Source: Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016800144/. The complete, pre-Photoshopped image is

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The Library dates the image between 1913 and 1920. However, the mustached man with the pipe appears to be wearing a wristwatch — an accessory which didn’t come into wide use until after World War I.

Battery

In New York on April 30, 1921, as the liner Aquitania sailed up the bay from quarantine, the tenor John McCormack, one of the most celebrated singers of the time, showed himself before the recording instruments of the media. The role he was performing approximated what his fellow Irishman William Butler Yeats was to call (in “Among School Children”) “a smiling public man.” A space of foggy air and wooden decking separated him from the battery of cameras.

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Then, though, the cameras moved in closer and the singer began to speak.

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The reporters took down his words. They turned out to be Irish words.

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New York Tribune, 1 May 1921, page 12

Along with the celebrated singer, a celebrated newspaper publisher was on board the ship, and so was a celebrated Hollywood producer. We’re willing to believe they were because the story tells us so in indirect discourse. We don’t need the publisher’s or the producer’s actual words to bear witness. And as to the singer, in 1921 all the cameras had to be silent.

But perhaps we can see words forming on his face.

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Sources: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014712442/ and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014712445/. Post-processed to restore detail and contrast.

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/

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/