“USS Brooklyn engine room,” between 1896 and 1901. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/det.4a14057/. Photoshopped.
On November 16, 1919, someone named George B. Parks notified what was then called The New York Times Review of Books that a book purporting to be a war memoir was so factually inaccurate that it couldn’t be non-fiction.
George B. Parks was undoubtedly correct. The book he was examining is only 84 pages long, and in that tiny intimate volume the facts stand out only because they are so few and so vaguely described. On the other hand, an extratextual fact, this one startling, is that as of November 1919 this book had already been in print for a full year. Just days after the end of the war, the Times had announced its publication this way.
The book was so well received that its author eventually came forward and identified herself as the journalist and writer of children’s books Grace Duffie Boylan.
And the facsimile published by Forgotten Books bears a title page date of 1919, and the digitized copy at Archive.org bears a title page date of 1920.
But why? The book itself is not just vapid but almost totally empty. In heaven, wirelesses the dead soldier to his mother, the souls in khaki do, you know, stuff. They have dogs and cats and horses to keep them company, and the dogs travel busily back and forth between the astral plane and the terrestrial but the cats are looked on with suspicion. No reason for this is given. However, we do specifically learn that everybody spends time discussing the text “They shall be one flesh.” What the doughboys in the clouds wonder is: if a woman has been married more than once, with which one of her husbands will she be reunited in Paradise?
(Grace Duffie Boylan herself was married four times.)
Well, the answer to the question “Why?” is in the history books. It isn’t surprising: in the horrible stillness after the guns of the Great War went silent, millions of readers went gleaning for grains of comfort in bookstores, where businesspeople were waiting to accommodate them.
The same thing had happened after the Civil War, when Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s consoling theological fiction The Gates Ajar provoked Mark Twain into a full-length parody, Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.
But you wouldn’t read The Gates Ajar or Thy Son Liveth the way you’ve read my paragraph of literary history about them. The consolations of Thy Son Liveth were made available in 1918 and 1919 and 1920 by the respectable Boston firm of Little, Brown, and Company for the reasonable price of 75¢, and of course it was a large predicted multiple of 75¢ that motivated the literary labor of Mrs. Boylan, Mr. Little, and Mr. Brown. The old-fashionedness of that symbol ¢ is the kind of topic that literary history is loquacious about. But emptiness in the heart of a grieving mother is mute. Around the wordless emptiness there bustle George B. Parks and the journalists of the New York Times and Sun and assorted Little, Brown businesspeople, but by contrast with their cheerful realism (“Another foot of books for the spiritualism shelf” [laughs]) the emptiness is only darker, more unimaginable, and more mute, if there could be degrees of muteness.
Ten years earlier, a vast excavation was being hollowed out under New York for the new Grand Central Station. As fast as it was created, however, it was filled again. In this hole, life was ongoing. As of 1908, someone looking at it through a fence might have felt exhilarated on behalf of the excavation’s embodiment of life growing up toward the light from deep in the earth. But ten years afterward, Grand Central was complete and its newsstands were selling fictions purporting to speak in a language from beyond the grave. The excavation had been completed by then, and light no longer shone into it.
Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994001893/PP/
Photoshopped. Click to enlarge.
In the foreground of the image is a boat carrying the first class. On its sturdy and cleanly varnished port rail rest the neatly folded arms of a woman decorated with a hat decorated with concentric circles. Under its brim, whatever can be seen of the woman’s identifying face keeps itself to itself. The image records only lowered eyes, directed downward toward whatever once lay below the image frame.
Simultaneously, on the opposite side of the boat, there can be seen a top hat. The facial features beneath the hat have been obscured, but the image records a hat glossily in place forever. In this lower part of the image, the formal in place is all that matters.
But what fills the upper half of the image is an object whose property of in place is different. Pale in the background haze, this massive thing differs from the hats and the faces that define the lower half because it has a name. Up there in its half it is only steel and bronze and coal, but so long as it also subsists as a name that can fill a page of history, it can never, unlike the flesh and blood of the first class, die.
Specialized for a double image like this one which divides along the locus where language makes contact with photography, a definition of history in human terms might be: that which has successfully replaced the sense of a body with the idea of an image. History is what came into being when a shutter opened and then closed again. An image was thereby cut off from the human life cycle, and the transitive verb establish thereby lost contact with its grammatical object. Thenceforth the image became a monument to the act of its having being established. In the achieved photograph, establish became a noun.
In this image, for instance, a lavish handful of first class people (I count 31 of them: thirty men and the woman in the geometrically decorated hat) have been metamorphosed into costume jewels. In their little jewelbox of a boat, they exist now only to accessorize the mass floating above them at the image’s vanishing point. Collectively, they are no longer a noun (“the name of a person, place, or thing”), because we can no longer conceive of them as having names independent of the name-bearing mass at anchor there in the upper half. Once upon a time the thirty men and the woman were in motion themselves, not looking at the hazed form as they passed by. The stretch of water that established their presence in relation to it was only a temporary strait mapped by the opening and closing of a shutter. But the instant when that map was drawn by a flash of light entering a camera has turned out to be forever.
Source: the ocean liner Mauretania, New York, 1908. Detroit Publishing Company collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994012352/PP/. Photoshopped.
To judge from the seasonal clothing, this photograph may have been taken on or shortly after September 23, when the outbound Mauretania was forced by fog to anchor off Brooklyn. “Acrid Fog Grips City,” New-York Daily Tribune 25 September 1908: 4. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1908-09-25/ed-1/seq-4/
At the bargain price of $16.78 from Amazon.com, the shirt comes with an almost superfluous bonus: hanging from a button, a tiny four-page book that attests to the shirt’s pedigree. This shirt, the pedigree book certifies, isn’t just a shirt; it’s a Chestnut Hill. And then it humbly asks us (us! us, the undocumented!) to accept it.
In the United States there are at least two Chestnut Hills: a neighborhood of Philadelphia and a suburb of Boston. Both of those Chestnut Hills are upscale, accessorized with architecture that communicates the patrician values of old houses and old money. The chestnut tree (pictured) also has a sturdy American symbolism, as in Thanksgiving stuffing and the first two stanzas of Longfellow’s once beloved poem “The Village Blacksmith”:
Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.
However, the chestnut tree itself is now almost extinct in the United States, wiped out early in the twentieth century by a parasitic fungus. In the financialized American economy of the twenty-first century, too, the line “He owes not any man” retains little of its primitive truth-value. In the days of Longfellow it connoted virtue, but now it is only a nonsense, with the additional connotation of irresponsible naïveté. And as to combining the best of American style with a sophisticated European sensibility, the shirt itself is made in China.
So the Chestnut Hill where this pedigree has originated can’t meaningfully be thought of as a visitable place in the physical world, with a latitude and a longitude. All it is, as it looks up at us from the page of its little book, is a concept. Here in the pedigree, its name isn’t to be read as the word “Chestnut” followed by the word “Hill,” with each term referable to the atlas. Instead, it’s to be read as a portmanteau form consisting of two inseparable parts, each deriving all of its meaning from the other. On its own, the first part, “Chestnut Hill,” is actually meaningless. It is a term from an atlas without a geography. On its own, the second part, “®,” is meaningless likewise. It is a term signifying the legal status of a word outside any of the laws of meaning. But when the two parts are brought into meaningful juxtaposition by an economic motive, each becomes a lexeme. The combined word-like object that results, “Chestnut Hill®,” has no textual meaning that might be referable to any document except its own pedigree, but there in the pedigree it becomes something that means. It means in an especially luxurious way, too: silently, drawing all of its wordless significance from the body which it has colored by being put on and buttoned up.
But the pedigree also has a verso: this.
The recto, a series of roman constatives demanding to be read as facts, is actually fiction. The verso, an italic simile asking to be read only as a poem, is actually non-fiction. We can’t read the simile as anything but a simile: a closed semantic system with a tenor referring only to its vehicle, which in turn refers back only to its tenor. Into that closed system the lying world cannot enter. Nothing exists there but the system’s own words. Because the words cannot be falsified there, they are either true or meaningless. And Walter Benjamin, Author, comes naming himself onto the page to assure us that he’s still speaking to us, and therefore he’s still alive, and therefore the words on his page are true.
But are the trees in his picture chestnut trees?
I don’t think so, but I’m willing to believe the document that delivers their image to me. In words, they are something warm, to be worn silently on the body.