Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006005519. Photoshopped.
“The illiterate is as a blind man. Failure and unhappiness await him everywhere.”
Russian Revolutionary Era Propaganda Posters, Harold M. Fleming Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-4051-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Artist: A. A. Radakov. Published 1920. Photoshopped. The big word in the bottom margin translates as “Books,” but I can’t make out the rest of the text.
Two of the soldiers have lost their faces to motion, and the form of a third, passing rapidly behind a shroud, has been reduced all the way to blur. Simplified and diminished, he will never again be anything except a blemish on his own record. If we’re even to imagine visualizing him as a man, we’ll have to work outside the photographic values of his image frame — for instance, at a carrel in an archive.
As it happens, some carrel labor has already been expended because this image is already resident in an archive: the archive of the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, where it has been enrolled in history with a caption (“Empress of Japan leaving for Vladivostock [sic]”) and a tentative metaphysics: “Date(s) [ca. 1919] (Creation).”
The archaeologist who descends to the sub-basement of such an archive and begins to dig there will be able to unearth nothing but history. The artifacts that come to light under the fluorescents of the archive will be visible only in history’s delimiting temporal way: by reference to what lies buried in time before them and what will be interred in time afterward. Immediately, in the present, we are in the act of seeing something in the pit, but it’s the nature of archives to defer the understanding of what they show us. In the archive, everything that once was seen in unarchived immediacy has passed under an opaque patina of memory and explanation. When we try to get closer to the formerly immediate for a second look, that new outer layer will repel us. We won’t be able to understand how the light falls in this image, for instance, unless we can chisel it free from the archive’s scrupulously blurring word “Circa.”
Fortunately, the archive also provides us with a chisel. The moment they passed under archival control, everything in and around this photograph — the military uniforms, the date, the words Empress of Japan and Vladivostok — were organized by archive into an extra-photographic history — in this case, the history of the allied expeditionary force to Siberia that attempted to intervene against the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war. Once we’re equipped with information like that, we’ll find it easy to chisel our way through the stacks to (for instance) a University of Victoria website called “Canada’s Siberian Expedition” at
And there we’ll be able to work on the archive’s replica in words of what it may be that we once saw in an image: a ship on whose deck soldiers sit and stand and vanish into blur. As the archive built its facsimile man by man, it became one more document in the archival literature whose one story always ends, “As if they were still alive.” There in the archive, a caption now carols that the replica ship is, and will be as long as the archive endures, that which history has lovingly named, forever! Empress of Japan. In token thereof, the archive has also bestowed on the ship a choice of instants of namable, rememberable being: either October 11, 1918, or February 12, 1919, the only two times in history when the pre-facsimile Empress of Japan, carrying soldiers, weighed anchor in Victoria and set out for Vladivostok.
Heartened by feeling ourselves closer to something that existed before it could be archived, we may now try to see one of those two instants in detail. We might begin wondering, for instance, what the people in this image said when circumstances brought them together for a shared last moment under the rainy sky of Victoria, British Columbia. Did they talk about, for instance, the weather? As soon as we think that particular trivial thought, we’ll notice that nobody in this picture is bundled up against the cold, and then we’ll be all primed to join the men on the ship in some ice-breaking gossip. From the archive at
we’ll learn that there was no weather station in Victoria in 1918-19, but just across the strait in Vancouver the high temperatures for the two possible sailing dates of the Empress of Japan were 13.9 C (57 F) on October 11, 1918, and 5 C (41 F) on February 12, 1919. Welcomed into the archive and accessioned into the stacks surrounding the replica ship, this sociable little pair of new readings on the thermometer could fill out a whole archival newspaper. The paper’s fashion writer, for instance, could point out that the models shipping out on the replica are dressed for a cool fall day, not a cold winter day. Fine distinctions of couture will have acquired a significance, and that acquisition will reduce the degrees of historical freedom within the image’s range of datability to near-zero. Because the men’s hands are ungloved, their picture was almost certainly taken not in February but in October.
The paper’s feature writer could then check with other dates in the archive and report back that the photograph’s October reality grants it special historiographic status: the unique depiction of the very first departure into history of the Canadian expedition. If that still seems trivial, a future book reviewer suffering from Titanic in the head could hit the keystroke combination for Sentimental and alert us by bulletin to what would happen one month to the day after October 11, 1918: the end of the Great War. Sooner or later, right? we’ll be able to stop talking about the weather and move on to important things.
But somehow I can’t think of any important things. Stuck in the archive, I’m still just killing time by talking about the weather before the ship leaves and we can start getting lurid about the Bolsheviks.
After all, my insensitivity is not unreasonable. While the replica is still pierside in the archive, the archive will cautiously remind us that Canada’s part in the Siberian Intervention of 1918-1922 was only a token contribution which ended after six months without a single Canadian death in combat. On the other hand and not a part of the reminder, Rasputin . . .
Now that was an interesting story. And the smudge of the barely worth remembering that’s now stuck to the top of my blogpost is also tiny.
In the course of time its history has suffered entropic loss, too. With Photoshop I’ve been able to reverse some of the chemical damage. But because the image and its story were never anything but small, I can’t restore them to a life-size that they never possessed. Try to enlarge your understanding of the little you can see and it will immediately vanish beneath pixelation and blur. Out of sight under the blur, the image’s many men and one woman must remain beyond the reach of archive’s power to grant eternal life in replica. The real collective image of their fraction of a second in history will continue being unseen in the dark. It will remain the archive’s secret.
And locked within its tiny casing will remain one more secret, image’s own: a knowable visible enlargeable generalizable meaning permanently sealed against being understood as what it once, for a fraction of a second on October 11, 1918, was.
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.
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: