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

Don’t read. Look in the mirror.

The historic photograph seems to display no published provenance, and its online caption is obviously a late addition. “German fraternity mirror selfie, 1912,” say the caption’s words. There are only five of them, and they offer no more reward for reading than that. No other names inhabit the caption: names of the boys, names of their corps or their university, locations of their future battlefield graves. At that, three words of the caption’s five aren’t even interesting. Online — for instance, at

http://www.reddit.com/r/HistoryPorn/comments/3bqiwg/german_fraternity_mirror_selfie_1912_1024x683/ ,

where I encountered the image on July 3, 2015 — the comment stream spawns dutiful ironies about the proximity of the phrase “German fraternity” to the date “1912,” and those you don’t have to read because you already know. Oh yes: just two years after 1912 will come 1914, and little do they know, these tragic boys in their lead-soldier uniforms. The commenters in their stream find this thought exciting, but perhaps it has previously occurred.

And whether you were among the excited or the unexcited, the idea’s bedazzling undergraduate words might almost convince you not to bother looking at the image they refer to. Nevertheless, the image still does cling to the caption’s border. Pathetically, it even tries to reach a little mirror up from the page and tempt us to look in, as if it had something to show us about ourselves. Look, it pleads; look with my help at the caption’s word no. 3 of 5, the one you’re skimmed past. In the mirror, look for an idea of mirror.

If you humor the request and do look, you’ll discover that during the instant when it made itself seen between two surfaces of a mirrored space, the camera in the picture began showing you an image and then didn’t stop. What the mirrored camera began bringing to light in 1912 is an image not only of the dead fraternity boys but of you who look at them now, you who are said to be alive.

I’ve photoshopped the faded original of this image for contrast, but I haven’t reversed its mirror property. Having been made a part of the image’s settings by the boy with the camera, that wasn’t in my prerogative to change. So the boys with their historical apparatus dated 1912 — the rifle, the bugle, the drinking horn, the scar-inflicting sword — continue looking now the way Alice looked at the moment she exited from our world. The world she entered then has grown more familiar by the day since its discovery by Lewis Carroll, but the world of this photograph is now unfamiliar henceforth. Somewhere in Germany, one day in 1912, a boy with a camera sealed himself and four of his friends behind glass and pumped out the time.

Out of time behind his glass, the boy is now holding the camera’s cable release clear of the imaging apparatus. It’s a long one; he has passed its plunger button all the way behind his back from his left hand to his right, which one day in 1912 held it up to the mirror while a last instant of pre-image history was changed with a click to something else. Something else has been among us ever since. It is the other half of our mirror image: the half that does not change and will not die.

And within its glass, bounded at the front by our world and at the back by the surface that reflects us back to ourselves, is the reaction zone where the two halves of the image, the mortal and the immortal, face each other. Looking at images every day, we cross the zone hour by hour in both directions. We’re as blasé about the daily trip as commuters, and maybe that’s why we turn away from the windows and look around our transport for something to read. If we’re beyond being moved to a sense of the real by a silent image, we may still be movable to excitement by a caption shouting at us like a CNN talker with time to kill. But perhaps there is a route across the zone that lets the traveler disembark for a moment, look around, and become alive to the zone’s interesting dangers. After all, Alice once took the route, and told us how. The secret of her itinerary seems to be a simple one, at least in principle. It may be this: just stop when the signs change to transparent.

Estampe XIX: mooring

And fast by hanging in a golden Chain
This pendant world, in bigness as a Star
Of smallest Magnitude close by the Moon.

Sources:

“Docking a Big Liner, S.S. Oceanic,” 1903. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994011034/PP/. Photoshopped.

Paradise Lost II.1051-53.